Radical simplicity in times of crisis

| 11th March 2019
Embracing a ‘simpler way’ is necessary for a transition to a just, sustainable, and flourishing world. 

It is not easy to be hopeful about the future. Every day it seems a new publication is released about ongoing ecological violence, worrying economic instability, growing geopolitical tensions, and deepening cultural malaise.

While we may still have the capacity avert ‘worst case’ scenarios, it is becoming increasingly plausible that deepening crises lie ahead. This raises questions about how we might best manage crisis situations, if or when they emerge or intensify. 

How, for example, would an ordinary middleclass consumer – you or me, perhaps – cope in crisis conditions that radically reduced material living standards and enforced a ‘simpler way’ of living? 

Reduced consumption 

I want to explore the possibility that radically reduced but sufficient consumption could be both manageable and consistent with a high quality of life, provided we are prepared for such circumstances, both as households and communities.

For those who find deepening crisis a plausible future, I contend that embracing a simpler life in material terms should be strategy to take seriously as a means of increasing resilience in turbulent times.

To be clear, I am certainly not seeking to romanticise genuine material destitution, which everyone recognises as inconsistent with human flourishing. Even in affluent nations like Australia many people still struggle to make ends meet, so counselling such households to ‘simplify’ is neither fair nor useful.   

Furthermore, if radical simplicity were to be imposed upon people suddenly and without anticipation and preparation, most people would doubtless find such dramatic change existentially confronting and distressing – and understandably so. Life satisfaction would likely decline, perhaps significantly.  

But what if, in advance of collapse conditions, households and communities began voluntarily downshifting their material living standards, increasing home-based production and self-sufficiency,sharing more, cutting out superfluous consumption and waste, and preparing for far more austere material futures? 

Affluent culture

In order to thrive in these more austere futures – whether voluntarily embraced or externally imposed – it seems clear that a deep re-evaluation of affluent material culture is required.

High-consumption nations, including Australia, throw out disturbing amounts of food, casually jump on planes as the climate heats up, get deeper into debt buying our favourite consumer gadgets and some of the world’s largest homes, only to store our superfluous stuff in over-crowded garages or support the growing storage industry.  

In a crisis or collapse situation, this form of life could be taken from us in a flash. To increase resilience in the face of this plausible future, we would do well to reimagine the good life beyond consumer culture and explore ways to live well on less – much less.  

Imagine, for example, a life with little discretionary income beyond basic needs, only buying second-hand clothes, never wasting food, and having significant financial pressure to maximise frugality and self-sufficiency in the household. Imagine, that is, having to apply the Depression era slogan: ‘use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.’ Would this necessarily be so bad? 

Or perhaps we have to put a woolen jumper on rather than turning on the heater, or resist the temptation to turn on the air-conditioner in the summer. Perhaps we might find ourselves having to bike to work or take public transport as the price of petrol becomes unaffordable, or to dig up the lawn and maximise food production because the two-income household becomes a one-income household as economic times worsen.

Frugal hedonists 

The interesting thing is that a growing subculture of ‘voluntary simplifiers’ and ‘frugal hedonists’ are choosing these material practices not because they have to, but because they want to.

In other words, they are exchanging superfluous stuff for more time to do things other than consume… and they are finding that it is a good trade. 

Could these people have something necessary to teach broader culture about managing or even thriving in conditions of reduced material abundance? 

It seems a low but sufficient material standard is enough to live a good life, but this requires post-consumerist attitudes to material culture that recognise the limited role of material things in producing human wellbeing. 

As the pioneering environmentalist Henry David Thoreau once wrote: ‘Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.’ He is one amongst many throughout history who have advocated enlightened material restraint as the pathway to genuine happiness and freedom. 

A prosperous descent? 

The same material living standard can be experienced very differently depending on the ideas and values one brings to experience. Mindfulness matters. Getting those ideas and values right is therefore of critical importance, especially in an age when crisis and collapse are plausible futures.

There are, of course, even more fundamental reasons to embrace the values of frugality and material sufficiency – justice and sustainability. According to the ‘ecological footprint’ analysis, the world would need more than four planets worth of biocapacity if the global population had the same material demands and impacts per capita as Australians. 

This means that moving toward a fair share ‘one planet’ way of life implies significant degrowth in rich nations – that is, planned economic contraction. Embracing a ‘simpler way’, therefore, seems part of any transition to a just, sustainable, and flourishing world. 

From various angles – social, ecological, personal – embracing more frugal ways in advance of recession or collapse seems to be very coherent strategy for building resilience and ensuring that any descent ahead is prosperous.

This Author 

Dr Samuel Alexander is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is also co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a research fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.

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