Live Better by Consuming Less

The paradox of well-being begs the question, Why do people continue to consume? Why not earn less, spend less, and have more time for families and friends? Couldn't people live better—and more equitably—this way and at the same time reduce humanity's impact on the environment?

This idea has provided the motivation for numerous initiatives aimed at living more simply. "Voluntary simplicity" is at one level an entire philosophy for life. It draws extensively on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, who encouraged people to "live simply, that others might simply live." In 1936, a student of Gandhi's described voluntary simplicity in terms of an "avoidance of exterior clutter" and the "deliberate organisation of life for a purpose." Former Stanford scientist Duane Elgin picked up this theme of a way of life that is "outwardly simple, yet inwardly rich" as the basis for revisioning human progress. More recently, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmi-

halyi has offered a scientific basis for the hypothesis that people's lives can be more satisfying when they are engaged in activities that are both purposive and materially light.27

Sociologist Amitai Etzioni has identified three kinds of people pursue simplicity. "Downshifters" are those who, having achieved a given level of wealth, make a conscious choice to reduce their income; they then moderate their lifestyle so they can spend more time with family or pursuing community or personal interests. "Strong simplifiers" are those who give up highly paid, high-status jobs altogether and accept radically simpler lifestyles. The most radical contingent are the "dedicated, holistic simplifiers," who embrace radical change and adjust their entire lives around an ethical vision of simplicity, sometimes motivated by spiritual or religious ideals.28

Some of these initiatives, such as the Findhorn community in northern Scotland, emerged initially as spiritual communities, attempting to create space in which to reclaim the contemplative dimension of living that used to be captured by religious institutions. Findhorn's character as an eco-village developed more recently, building on principles of justice and respect for nature. Another modern example is Plum Village, the "mindful-ness" community established by an exiled Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, in the Dordogne area of France, which now provides a retreat for at least 2,000 people. At one level these initiatives are modern equivalents of more traditional religious communities like those of the Amish in North America or Buddhist monasteries in Thailand, which every young male is expected to spend some time in before going out into professional life.29

Not all networks have this explicit spiritual character, however. The Simplicity Forum, for example, launched in North America in 2001 is a loose secular network of "simplicity leaders" who are committed to "achieving and honoring simple, just and sustainable ways of life." Downshifting Downunder is an even more recent initiative, started following an international conference on downshifting in Sydney in 2005; its aim is to "catalyze and coordinate a downshifting movement in Australia that will significantly impact sustainability and social capital."30

The downshifting movement now has a surprising allegiance across a number of industrial economies. A recent survey in Australia found that 23 percent of respondents had engaged in some form of downshifting in the preceding five years. A staggering 83 percent felt that Australians are too materialistic. An earlier study in the United States found that 28 percent of those surveyed had taken some steps to simplify and 62 percent expressed a willingness to do so. Very similar results have been found in Europe.31

Research on the success of these initiatives is quite limited, but existing studies show that simplifiers really have less materialistic values and show greater respect for the environment and for others. More important, simplifiers appear to show a small but significant increase in subjective well-being. Consuming less, voluntarily, can improve well-being—completely contrary to the conventional model.32

The backlash against consumerism bears witness to an emerging counterculture that recognizes the limits of the consumer society and is looking for something beyond it. Buy Nothing Day every November—dedicated to persuading people to resist consumerism— is now an international phenomenon. In 2006 there were initiatives on the streets in almost 30 countries and in scores of cities, including, for the first time, a demonstration on the streets of Mumbai.33

Equally striking is the rise of the Transition Towns concept—towns and cities that have declared unilateral action against the twin

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles threats of peak oil and climate change. Launched in September 2006 in the small town of Totnes in southwest England, the U.K. network expanded to over 20 towns and cities in only a year. In the United States, 400 cities have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which pledges to meet the Kyoto Protocol targets on reducing CO2 emissions, in spite of the federal government's refusal to ratify the protocol.34

It is important not to get too carried away with this evidence. Simple living communities remain marginal. The religious basis for them does not appeal to everyone, and the secular versions seem less resistant to the incursions of consumerism. Downshifting Downunder generated a flurry of activity in Australia for six months or so, for instance, but barely functions as a working network only two years later. Some of these initiatives depend heavily on individuals having sufficient personal assets to provide the economic security needed to pursue a simpler lifestyle. Finally, it is clear that forced or involuntary simplicity is quite another story. Subjective well-being plummeted in the "transition economies" (former Soviet states) during the 1990s.35

As the evidence on global consumerism makes abundantly clear, mainstream consumer values show little sign of slowing down the pace of material and environmental profligacy. Existing attempts to live better by consuming less remain marginal at best. So the question remains, Why do people continue to consume, knowing the social and environmental consequences, even beyond the point at which it adds to their satisfaction?

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