Tonight we’ll be talking with Duane Elgin, author of a new edition of Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. We’ll learn how this movement has changed and developed almost 30 years since he wrote this book.

Background on the Voluntary Simplicity Movement

The concept of voluntary simplicity is as old as human recorded history. The roots of simplicity are often seen in the philosophies of asceticism which is associated with a variety of religious practices, according to Wikipedia, in the Shramana traditions of Iron Age India, in Buddhism, and in biblical Nazirites (notably John the Baptist).

Wikipedia claims that “Simple living has traditions that stretch back to the Orient, resonating with leaders such as Zarathustra, Buddha, Lao-Tse and Confucius and was heavily stressed in both Greco-Roman culture and Judeo-Christian ethics.”

The definition of “Epicureanism, based on the teachings of the Athens-based philosopher Epicurus, flourished from about the fourth century BC to the third century AD” is similar to the descriptions of voluntary simplicity one hears today. Its founder, “Epicurus[,] pointed out that troubles entailed by maintaining an extravagant lifestyle tend to outweigh the pleasure of partaking in it. He therefore concluded that what is necessary for happiness, bodily comfort, and life itself should be maintained at minimal cost, while all things beyond what is necessary for these should either be tempered by moderation or completely avoided.”

This tradition has also been carried on by a number of religions and philosophies–Shakers, Mennonites, Amish, Harmony Society, and Quakers. And this philosophical orientation is familiar to many Americans through the writings of Henry David Thoreau, a naturalist and author, who advocated a life of simplicity in his book Walden (1854).

In England, a number of advocates followed the philosophy of simple living–Henry Stephens Salt, Edward Carpenter, William Morris, and the members of “The Fellowship of the New Life.”[7] “C.R. Ashbee and his followers linked simplicity with the Arts and Crafts Movement[8].  In the 1930s John Middleton Murry and Max Plowman practised a simple lifestyle at their Aldephi Centre in Essex.

During the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, the Vanderbilt Agrarians of the Southern United States advocated a lifestyle and culture centered upon traditional and sustainable agrarian values as opposed to the progressive urban industrialism which dominated the Western world at that time.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, a number of modern authors articulated both the theory and practice of living simply, among them Gandhian Richard Gregg, economists Ralph Borsodi and Scott Nearing, anthropologist-poet Gary Snyder, and utopian fiction writer Ernest Callenbach,” who wrote the book Ecotopia, [for which our program has been named.]

[Our guest tonight, Duane Elgin wrote what is considered to be the most highly influential book in the current movement, Voluntary Simplicity, in 1981.]

In September of 1995, Carey Goldberg wrote “Choosing the Joys of a Simplified Life”  for the New York Times. Goldberg reports that in the summer of 1995,

“pollsters announced the striking results of a survey measuring patterns of consumption. From a nationwide cross section of Americans, 28 percent said they had downshifted and had voluntarily cut back on their income in some way over the last five years to reflect changes in priorities.”

“Commissioners of the poll, the Merck Family Fund . . .  said the 800-person focus group and telephone sample also indicated that 82 percent of Americans agreed with the statement ‘We buy and consume far more than we need.’. . .

Many of the downshifters were parents who had cut their consumption to reduce working hours, thereby gaining time with their children. But many were also just responding to the yearning “to reduce stress, get more balance, get a saner life,” said Juliet B. Schor, a Harvard economist who wrote the “The Overworked American” (Basic Books, 1993)

Voluntary Simplicity is an idea more ancient than Ecclesiastes, with stops at Buddha, Jesus, the Puritans and Henry David Thoreau. What is different these days, say those who are charting the trend, is that the seemingly unnatural choice to slow down and cut down shows signs of going broadly mainstream, across age groups and class lines. And, they say, it is taking on new power in light of Americans’ growing environmental awareness.[…]

The Trends Research Institute of Rhinebeck, N.Y., [chose] Voluntary Simplicity as one of its top 10 trends of the 90’s. It predict[ed] that by the end of the decade, 15 percent of America’s 77 million baby boomers [would] be part of a “simplicity” market for things like low-priced durable gardening and home products that are short on slickness and status.[…] Gerald Celente, the director of the institute, [predicted that] youngsters . . . in their early teens . . . [were] going to buy into the idea that we’re overconsuming,” he added. “This is the first group that’s been indoctrinated green.”

Since the end of the conspicuously consuming 80’s, a striving for simplicity and thrift has been showing up in fields as wide-ranging as construction (architects note a tendency to renovate rather than to build) and physical fitness (witness the growing popularity of walking, a sport that requires nothing but a pair of shoes).”

Our Discussion with Duane Elgin

Duane Elgin, is author of Voluntary Simplicity. The book was first published in 1981 and a revision has recently been released. He’s also author of Promise Ahead, Awakening Earth, and The Living Universe.

1. As we were researching the world of voluntary simplicity, we found references to you all over the web. You’ve been involved in thinking about this for about 30 years. What got you interested in voluntary simplicity?

2. You frequently use the term a “garden of simplicity” to represent the many faces of this movement. What are some of the manifestations of simple living?

3. One of the things we associate with the history of this movement is from some of our friends in the 60s—people who decided to “drop out” or those who decided to move “back to nature.” But you emphasize that simplicity doesn’t mean living in poverty or apart from society. Do people have to give up creature comforts to live simply?

4. How has the movement changed over the past 30 years?

5. Your characterization of voluntary simplicity includes a strong spiritual element. How central is spirituality to voluntary simplicity?

6. In our opening we described forms of simple living over millennia—including Greek philosophers, religious groups in Europe and America, and Henry David Thoreau.. How does our unique moment in time shape new notions of voluntary simplicity?

Voluntary Simplicity in Practice

1. Tell us about some of the inward riches that people discover when they seek voluntary simplicity.

2. You also emphasize community throughout the book. Describe how community and voluntary simplicity work hand in hand.

3. You distinguish between regressive, cosmetic, and deep simple living. Can you explain those?

4. Can you give us more examples of voluntary simplicity? What can we do to get started? And if we have listeners who already have ideas, but need to take that next step toward living simply, what suggests do you have?

Duane Elgin is the author of the recently revised and re-released Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. It’s published by Harper.

Do-It-Yourself Voluntary Simplicity
(Can there be any other kind?)

We want to recommend several websites for those who would like to learn more and DO more (or less)!

One of the most useful websites we found was Our guest tonight Duane Elgin is a “partner” in this group, which is celebrating its 14th Anniversary. In addition to a list of resources in simple living, green living, gardening, country living, and cooking and food, the site offers  various ways of interacting–Discussion Forums, Study Groups & Circles, Blogs, and Listings for events, workshops, speeches, appearances, announcements, on-line classes, gatherings and more from authors and organizations in the simplicity and sustainability movements. also has an informative newsletter. It includes suggestions and testimonials, as well as guidance on the various issues those who want to live simply can make use of.  A testimonial by Dan Ryan, a former Mad Man Ad Executive who now works as a full-time artist, discusses his ‘Journey To Financial Integrity.” It began in 1994 after he read, Your Money Or Your Life in 1994. He says:

At the time, I was buried in a large mortgage, credit card debts, student loans, car loan, and house down payment loan to Dad. Needless to say, I was receptive to a new way of thinking and living.

I should have known better — I was part of the whole problem! I was a Senior Creative in the advertising machine. I created the ads which seduced people into a lifestyle of endless consumption. I hated the industry, my job, the hours, and the whole mess!” . . . . Now, he says, “I’m avowed cheapskate and proud of it! My cars are ten years old and will run for another ten if I can make them..” . . . .

There are thousands of people out there living like I was in the ’90s. They are up to their eyeballs in debt, trapped in a lifestyle they resent. They have done nothing wrong. Heck, they were seduced into the idea that Bigger is Better! . . . .

It’s like I tell my son: You can have whatever you like…just pay cash and buy it used.”

A weblogger, Katy Wolk-Stanley writes daily as  “The Non-Consumer Advocate.” In the newsletter she writes:

Want to start living the green life?

Retailers would have you believe green living is all about organically grown hemp sheets and sustainably harvested bamboo living room sets.


The best green purchase you can make is the one not taken.”

She is part of  “world wide non-consumer group called The Compact. (Buy nothing new.) Since joining in January 2007, “I’ve only bought a few new items here and there.”[…] She advocates that the

next time you’re about to buy a brand-new product, pause a moment to think whether it could be found used.

Or maybe even not bought at all.”

Ann Haebig looks through the sites discussion forums to report on what people are doing in the “do-it-yourself” realm. She says she

was struck by how active our members are. We do a lot of things for ourselves, whether for reasons of frugality, self-sufficiency, or the simple pleasure of a task well done. Here’s a sample of some of the things we’re doing:

* We’re helping the environment by switching from disposable sanitary pads.

* We’re getting healthier by making our own energy bars, granola, and yogurt.

* We’re building our community by figuring out how to meet other simple livers and how to talk to them once we do.

* We’re becoming more self-sufficient by raising chickens for meat, building our own seed starting setups, and growing much of our own food.

  • We’re also cutting our water bills by reusing greywater and making rain barrels.

She concludes: “What a fascinating and dynamic bunch of people! These folks truly are making the changes the world needs. This collection of topics demonstrates how many things we can do that benefit our finances, our health, and the environment.”

If you’re looking for ways to live more simply, you might want to check out this website:

Playlist for Ecotopia #70: Voluntary Simplicity

1. Hallelujah       2:57  MaMuse       All The Way

2. Give Me the Simple Life (Live At the Crescendo)   1:54  Ella Fitzgerald      Twelve Nights In Hollywood

3. Life Uncommon       4:57  Jewel       Spirit

4. Simplicity       4:48  Shawn Pander      Memories 4 Sale

5. Rag & Bone    3:48 The White Stripes       Icky Thump

6. Weave Me the Sunshine    4:28  Peter, Paul And Mary       The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

7. Bridge Over Troubled Water      4:51  Simon & Garfunkel       Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits

8. This Life 4:30  Bruce Springsteen      Working On A Dream

9. Life Is a Song Worth Singing      6:03  Johnny Mathis     The Essential Johnny Mathis

11. Garden Song 5:34  MaMuse   All The Way

12. You’ve Got a Friend        4:33  James Taylor     Mud Slide Slim & The Blue Horizon Rock

13. Sunshine On My Shoulders (Digitally Remastered)       5:11  John Denver       Definitive All-Time Greatest Hits