Why is simple living so complex? (Part 1)

Detroit - abandoned house - Delray
An abandoned house in Detroit.

Simple living should be a simple idea, but it’s not. The basic idea of living on less is an old idea, practiced by such people as the Buddha, Jesus, Epicurus, the Quakers, Thoreau, and Gandhi. Given the environmental crises that we now face, and given huge income inequality, simple living would also seem to be a timely idea.

The problem is that our society makes increased consumption easy, under the banner of “economic growth.” Trying to consume less, rather than more, is officially discouraged; someone trying to consume less is bound to run into problems.

Here are a few cases in point I’ll briefly discuss: (a) reducing our consumption to a level the entire world could afford, (b) riding a bicycle or taking the bus, and (c) veganism.

Reducing consumption. Could we, in the United States, all live on the global average income? Or better, on the global median income? Let’s see how that would work. According to the Gallup company, “the median per-capita household income [worldwide] is $2,920.” The median income is defined as that income where half the people earn more, and half earn less. If it’s any comfort, the average per-capita world income — total world income divided by total number of people — is somewhat higher; it was $7,000 in 2007 and is probably higher now. The average income is higher than the median income because of inequality. Just a few super-rich people bring the “average” up without affecting the typical incomes in the middle.

Could you live on an annual income of $2,920 a year? Just for reference, the poverty level for a single-person household in the United States is $11,770, so this would put you way below the poverty level. An income of $7,000 would almost bring you up to the U. S. poverty line and might be doable in, say, Detroit. It would be possible, perhaps, if everyone in the United States agreed to live this way, and we changed our entire infrastructure and way of life. For just one person to do it, well, it would be complicated. But however you figure it, it’s sobering to realize that even the rather minimal income of $7,000, multiplied by the billions of people on the planet, seems unsustainable for environmental reasons. That’s what we have now, and we have climate change, mass extinctions, oil depletion, deforestation, soil erosion, and all the other assorted environmental disasters.

Bicycles on Cherry Creek bike path
Bicycles on Cherry Creek bike path

Living without a car. Here’s something easier: living without a car. The bicycle is the most energy-efficient form of human transportation. James Kunstler has made a good case that cars have wreaked havoc on American society (The Geography of Nowhere). There are people who advocate car-free living, such as Kathryn Alvord (Divorce Your Car) and Chris Balish (How to Live Well Without Owning a Car).

However, our society is not bicycle-friendly. The bicycle won’t work well if the distances are very far, and the way that American cities are set up, many desirable destinations will be far away. Riding a bicycle can be dangerous; an accident that would be no more than a fender-bender for an auto driver, can be fatal for a cyclist. Riding a bicycle can be problematic in bad weather; and without special equipment bicycles cannot carry heavy loads. There are ways to minimize or get around all of these obstacles, but you have to seek them out: it’s complicated.

Buses travel farther than bicycles, are safer, and protect you from the weather. But taking the bus will typically take longer than driving a car, and at present gas prices, may be more expensive as well. You’ll have to know the bus schedule, plan your trip when the bus is actually running, wait for the bus, walk to your destination from the bus stop, pay a fare that exceeds the price of the gas and routine maintenance, and get there later than you would have if you’d just driven a car.

Ditching your car altogether can be fraught with problems, and in less populated areas, won’t work at all. Even in urban areas, living without access to a car can easily isolate you socially. You can do it, but it’s complicated.

Going vegan. Going vegan would greatly decrease your ecological footprint. Livestock agriculture is the leading cause of climate change and the leading cause of species extinctions. If everyone went vegan, huge swaths of land now devoted to livestock agriculture (on the order of 1/3 of the earth’s land area) could be returned to nature.

Yet, oddly enough, going vegan doesn’t decrease your expenditures by all that much. Some modern “simple living” advocates continue to eat meat and don’t see a particular problem with it. My guess is that this is related to the fact that meat-eating just isn’t that expensive. And aren’t we omnivores by nature? Sure, meat can cause health problems if you go overboard, but health insurance for the fat, diabetic meat-eater is no more expensive than health insurance for the vegan.

Isn’t this odd? Shouldn’t something which is so destructive of the environment cost a lot of money? Well, it doesn’t. “Simple living,” in the sense of “reducing your costs,” doesn’t always align that closely with “treading lightly on the earth.” This clearly applies to meat-eating, but it applies to such activities as driving a car or heating your house as well. Is simple living about reducing costs, or about reducing environmental impact? This is a key point that Kate Lawrence makes in The Practical Peacemaker: true simple living means not consuming any more of the earth’s resources than we need to.

There’s no one around to present you a bill, at the end of the month, for all the environmental damage you’ve done through your purchases. Who pays for soil erosion, groundwater depletion, or deforestation? Or, for that matter, who pays for dumping carbon dioxide or methane waste products into the atmosphere? No one, because these are natural resources just there for the taking. The environmental damage is real, but the consumer never sees it.

In a society dedicated to economic growth, it is easy to consume and hard to live with less. Simple living isn’t something a single individual can easily do. In fact, it may not be something that can be done at all, until we voluntarily reduce our bloated human population. Simple living is a project for our whole society.

9 Replies to “Why is simple living so complex? (Part 1)”

  1. And there is still the issue of an appropriate economic model. We don’t know how to prevent collapse without growth. Moreover, simple living is likely to be forced on the poor as globalization reduces everyone’s slice of the pie. The wealthy on the other hand will see this as justification for more luxurious living. I used to think the rich couldn’t get away with their pay little, price high strategy much longer; but with globalization opening new avenues for them well into the future, I now believe we could have a two class system just like they do in the Middle East for many decades to come.

    1. There will be a revolution, or revolutions, of some sort. The question is, what kind?

      Forcing simple living on the poor would achieve very little that’s positive, since the poor don’t have very much to start with. The burden of dealing with the environmental crisis needs to fall on the consuming class, that is, the rich and the rich countries. That’s us, I think. That’s why we need to think about simple living and nonviolence; it’s the easiest way to get something done, environmentally speaking, and redistribute some of that wealth while we’re at it.

    2. It is a little scary that the impression is that global economics is evolving into a pattern like that in India, Asia, etc. As you say, one of a two tier/class system. Hopefully not. The paradigms of veganism, non-violence and respect for our planet, are beginning to cause a groundswell movement. It is so encouraging to see countries like Israel being impacted by the likes of Gary Yourovsky, and choosing the less violent path.

  2. I agree with everything you say and am currently doing my best to shrink my own footprint further (moving to a tiny home and to an area where I won’t need a car, for instance), yet I feel sad when wealth is measured in money alone. It’s not a criticism of what you wrote, because it’s very helpful, but an observation of a societal evolution. Not that long ago there were still communities functioning purely or largely on the basis of a gift culture, where everyone’s needs were met without money. I have lived in countries such as Ethiopia or Nepal where I have seen monetarisation reach every corner of rural life and destroy this fabric of communal exchanges. I feel we need to aim for as simple a life as possible and return to moneyless exchanges as much as possible!

    1. You’re absolutely right. Ultimately we want to be able to measure how well we are doing in real terms, not just by measuring how much money we’ve got, which is misleading in so many ways.

  3. Thank you Keith, a very good article, and food for thought about where we are heading as a global population. Growth does seem to be the Golden Cow that is driving the majority into poverty, yet also fuels innovation, experimentation and seeking answers to the world’s problems, diseases and inconsistencies, through technology. It would be nice if we could only pause and see that prevention is better than cure, “a stitch in time” etc. I really look forward to part 2. Thanks again, Mark

  4. Living simply takes more time and thought, and, as you say, is not necessarily always cheaper. In a society that values speed and convenience, you are swimming against the tide. When I decided to start cooking vegan, it was a huge learning curve. There was the research of new foods and recipes. Food preparation became much more time consuming. In time, I would learn that you could as easily throw a large portobello mushroom in a pan as you could a steak–but then again, the mushroom won’t last long in the fridge, and you can’t freeze it as you would a steak.

    I have relied a lot on frozen vegetables, but lately have become more concerned about plastic. Going from frozen to fresh will not be “simple” for me. I have found that the more I try to “fix” in my lifestyle, the more I need to fix.

  5. I agree that simple living is something that is much easier accomplished when it’s a collective effort. It has and is currently happening in little pockets of the world, my personal favorite of which is Auroville, India. It’s worth looking up, if for no other reason than to see that it is possible.

    I find the transition from the unconscious consumer life into a more conscious and eco-friendly lifestyle is much harder than I would have imagined. Which is why I appreciate this article. Well done!

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