Book Review: Voluntary Simplicity

For years, one of my goals has been to achieve a “pastoral lifestyle“. This amuses my friends, but it’s true. By “pastoral lifestyle” I mean that I want to create for myself a life that flows at a slower pace, a life removed from the concerns of the day-to-day world. What I hope to achieve is often called “voluntary simplicity”, and there’s a whole movement devoted to the concept.

Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity is a cornerstone book to this movement, and I expected great things from it. I was sorely disappointed. Elgin begins with a nice explanation of voluntary simplicity:

We each know where our lives are unnecessarily complicated. We are all painfully aware of the clutter and pretense that weigh upon us and make our passage through the world more cumbersome and awkward. To live more simply is to unburden ourselves — to live more lightly, cleanly, aerodynamically. […] The objective is not dogmatically to live with less, but is a more demanding intention of living with a balance in order to find a life of greater purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

I found this inspiring, and was anticipating a library of practical tips that might lead me to my desired destination. But on the very next page, without transition or definition, Elgin begins to write about “ecological living”. Huh? How did we jump from voluntary simplicity to ecological living? And why is the rest of the book devoted to the latter?

Ultimately, Elgin writes more about one philosophy of voluntary simplicity than any practical application. In fact, the book might have been more aptly titled Ecological Living than Voluntary Simplicity. Even so, there are some occasional gems here. For example:

The hallmark of a balanced simplicity is that our lives become clearer, more direct, less pretentious, and less complicated. We are then empowered by our material circumstances rather than enfeebled or distracted. Excess in either direction — too much or too little — is complicating. If we are totally absorbed in the struggle for subsistence or, conversely, if we are totally absorbed in the struggle to accumulate, then our capacity to participate wholeheartedly and enthusiastically in life is diminished.

Four consumption criteria, developed by a group in San Francisco while exploring a life of conscious simplicity, go to the very heart of the issue of balanced consumption:

  • Does what I own or buy promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, or does it induce passivity and dependence?
  • Are my consumption patterns basically satisfying, or do I buy much that serves no real need?
  • How tied are my present job and lifestyle to installment payments, maintenance and repair costs, and the expectations of others?
  • Do I consider the impact of my consumption patterns on other people and on the earth?

This compassionate approach to consumption stands in stark contrast to the industrial-era view, which assumes that if we increase our consumption, we will increase our happiness. However, when we equate our identity with what we consume — when we engage in “identity consumption” — we become possessed by our possessions. We are consumed by what we consume.

The idea of “identity consumption” is interesting and worth exploring, but Elgin doesn’t explore it. Instead he spends the next several pages talking about “an ecologically oriented economy”. I’m not opposed to a discussion of mankind’s impact on the environment, but when I purchase a book on voluntary simplicity, I expect for it to be about voluntary simplicity and not about ecological living.

Other problems I had with this book:

  • One 55-page chapter is devoted to responses from a survey on simple living. These might be fine as blog comments, but they’re out of place (and, in my opinion, worthless) in the context of this book.
  • Another 32-page chapter called “Civilizations in Transition” that has nothing to do with simplicity of any kind, and everything to do with the author’s view (in 1993) that the United States is in a state of decay. That’s an interesting viewpoint, and worth discussing, but I bought a book about voluntary simplicity, and that’s the topic I wanted to read about.
  • There are no (I mean zero) practical suggestions as to how one can practice simplicity, just platitudes about living lightly on the earth and consuming less.

I believe it’s important to read personal finance books even when the author’s viewpoint differs from your own. Smart people can draw lessons from books of all sorts. But more than any other book, Voluntary Simplicty loses me with its New Age mumbo-jumbo. Here is one Elgin’s tenets:

The universe is a living organism that is infused with a subtle life-force; it is important to act in ways that honor the preciousness and dignity of all life.

The book is filled with this sort of thing. Elgin makes an assumption that I don’t buy — that ecological awareness is a necessary component of voluntary simplicity. I’m no anti-environmentalist — the opposite is closer to the truth — but it frustrates me when philosophies with which I want to agree proceed from what I believe are false premises.

If you want practical information to help work toward a simple lifestyle, you won’t find it here. If you want a philosophical underpinning for a single branch of the voluntary simplicity movement (the ecological/New Age branch), then this is the book for you. Really, though, I think you can find better information for free on the internet:

Despite my complaints, while looking through the book again to prepare this review, I realized that it was instrumental for getting me to think and write about the Stuff in my life. Maybe Voluntary Simplicity isn’t a bad book, but it is a bad personal finance book. Maybe I’m trying to make it into something it was never intended to be. I wanted another Your Money or Your Life, but I got something completely different.

Postscript: While researching this post, I found an article entitled “Why the simplicity movement isn’t so simple.” Great stuff.

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