Voluntary Simplicity

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This column features a guest writer, Scott Durkee:

There have been many environmental movements in America’s past.  From Amos Alcott’s Fruitlands community in the 1840’s to the Back-to-the-Land movement in the 1960’s, Americans have been searching for ways to escape our modern, mechanized, consumer-oriented society.  With differing philosophies and methodologies, adherents have pursued the elusive goal of  changing our society’s direction and of slowing progress toward a dubious future.

A little over 100 years after the Fruitlands experiment, a contingent of idealistic American youth decided to eschew the materialistic values of their society and to move back to the land, to grow their own food, to take responsibility for their own existence and to create a new paradigm for the future; a utopian society.

Little did they know how hard it is to grow and process vegetables—never mind wheat!  A few diehards stuck with it and raised their children with the values and lifestyle they believed in, but most moved back into the city and picked up where they left off, humbled but wiser for the experience.

Another movement arose the early 1980’s, sparked by a book written by Duane Elgin titled “Voluntary Simplicity.”  The forward, written by Ram Dass, describes more than just the fundamental tenets of Voluntary Simplicity.  Dass writes:

“The exploration of new ways of living that support new ways of being is a movement that arises from the awakening of compassion — the dawning realization that the fate of the individual is intimately connected with the fate of the whole.”

Though Dass is correct and has an insight that many do not, the more basic philosophy of this movement is that, by simplifying our lives, by consuming less and relying more on our own skills and local community, we will not only be happier and less stressed, but will also have a smaller impact on our local environment and on  the planet.

I graduated from a small college in Maine that was focused on how humans relate to and effect our local environment and also the Earth.  It was at the College of the Atlantic that I first took a course called “Voluntary Simplicity.”

Since that time (I graduated in 1984) I have been practicing some level of simplicity in my own life.  I guess I would say that it’s voluntary, but honestly, I couldn’t imagine living a different kind of lifestyle.  Since I was a child, I’ve fantasied about being “self-sufficient,” of not needing anyone or anything to survive and thrive (I loved the book ‘My side of the mountain’).  Of course, those were the dreams of a child and were far from realistic.  But living a simple life with simple needs and few wants is not only realistic, but both compelling and rewarding.

Since I graduated, I’ve been acquiring skills that have helped me to satisfy many of my basic needs.  After I bought my land on Maury, I designed my house and built it with the help of a few friends.  I used many recycled and upcycled materials which satisfied two of my requirements:  keep costs low and reduce the environmental impact of my project.
I’ve also voluntarily chosen to drive an old, ‘beat up’ VW Jetta.  I can afford to buy a nicer car, an SUV or an electric car; it’s within my budget.  But I choose to drive an older car that I can repair myself with inexpensive parts (duct tape and bailing wire), that I don’t have to stress about scratching or denting, and that I can run on renewable, carbon neutral waste vegetable oil from island restaurant fryers.

Another reason that I can drive such an ugly old car is that I’m not overly concerned about what people think of me or my car.  I don’t have the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ syndrome; I have more important priorities that concern me other than the image of my status or wealth.

I also feel strongly about getting the most out of a product rather than throwing it away and buying a new one—whether its a car or a toaster.  (Quick reminder:  the next fix-it cafe is coming up on March 30.). These products required energy and resources to manufacture, so we might as well get the most out of them before tossing them into a junkyard or landfill.
As evidence of climate change pervades our lives, from droughts in Australia causing massive fires to historic rains and floods in Africa, its ever more apparent that we are spiraling down in a positive feedback loop that can only result in a planet so altered by our activities that it will be unrecognizable.

It’s for this and many other reasons that I’ve chosen to live a life of voluntary simplicity.  I would encourage you to check out Elgin’s book at the library and share its insights with your friends and family.  As our world gets ever more complicated and complex, I think that we could all do with a little more simplicity.

Thanks, Scott!

Comments?  terry@vashonloop.com (I’ll forward to Scott)