Visionaries: Duane Elgin

Duane Elgin is a self-described ‘evolutionary activist’ who, since the 1960s, has explored the practical and philosophical meaning of simplicity.
Simplicity cuts through the needless busyness, clutter and complexity. It enhances living with balance.

The publication of his 1981 book Voluntary Simplicity launched a movement of the same name. The idea for it came to him during protests against the Vietnam War, when people were looking for alternatives to military and industrial power and the lifestyles that led to war, and has been reinforced in the 1980s and 1990s as people universally came to be considered ‘consumers’.

‘Voluntary simplicity’ is the answer to a challenge facing humanity after 200 years of material growth: ‘If the material consumption of a fraction of humanity is already harming the planet, is there an alternative path ahead that enables all of humanity to live more lightly upon the Earth while, at the same time, experiencing a higher quality of life?’

In the rush to shop our way to a better life, he suggests that ‘what was once viewed as a turn away from progress, voluntary simplicity – consciously chosen, deliberate and intentional – supports a higher quality of life’.

In part, his writing and advocacy is a simple but essential reframing of the commonly held perception that living simply is sacrifice. Instead, he writes, ‘Sacrifice is the modern-day consumer lifestyle, overstressed, overbusy and overworked… is hiding nature’s beauty behind a jumble of billboard advertisements… is carrying more than 200 toxic chemicals in our bodies with consequences that will cascade for generations ahead.’ Simplicity, on the other hand, ‘cuts through needless busyness, clutter and complexity… reveals the beauty and intelligence of nature’s designs… enhances living with balance – inner and outer, work and family, family and community’.

‘There is a deep simplicity and there is a cosmetic simplicity. In the deep sense, it explains what we are doing here; it is a rational response to living in a living universe,’ he says. His new book, Living Universe, is published on Earth Day (22 April) and has been 27 years in the making. A key theme is that ‘consumerism is a rational response to living in a dead universe, whereas simplicity is a rational response to living in a living universe. As science and spiritual traditions converge around a paradigm of aliveness, it “organically” transforms our approach to consumption and living’.

Part of the beauty of ‘voluntary simplicity’ is that its specifics are not dogma. ‘People tend to start from a place of guilt, and another extreme is to get rid of it all,’ Elgin says. ‘We just need to get into balance. It is very individual – there is no “cookbook” with easy recipes for the simple life. Simplicity helps you find aliveness in relationships, in the meaningful work you do and in the community… whereas consumerism says “how big is my pile of stuff?”’

Awakening Earth

To read more about the other nine visionaries click on their link below:

Introduction (Society), Ann Pettifor (Finance),

Derek Gow (Conservation),Carolyn Steel (Urban design),

William McDonough (Waste), Peter Lipman (Transport),

Polly Higgins (Law), Jimmie Hepburn (Agriculture),

Bill Drayton (Business), George Marshall (Energy).

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