A while back, during an online discussion, someone mentioned that they had issues with sustainable living because of its apparent elitism; i.e. only the wealthy can afford organic and local, only the wealthy can afford eco-friendly alternatives like hybrids and solar retrofits, etc. At the time I didn’t address her point but I’ve been thinking about it ever since and I’ve decided that yes, in a way she was right. However, it’s not that Simple Living is a luxury that one can only afford when one is wealthy. Instead, I see Simple Living as the responsibility of the wealthy. Because it is the wealthy who consume at an unsustainable level. And I define “wealthy” as including most people in the Developed World, many of whom might argue at being included in that group.
It is undeniable that there are desperately poor people living right here in North America. People who spend every day in a state of stress, wondering where their next meal will come from, whether they’ll be able to pay the rent, and – in America – fearful of the possibility of falling ill. Poverty is not the same thing as frugality; Voluntary Simplicity must be just that, voluntary. When one is occupied every day with the basics of survival, there is no room for adjusting attitudes toward a view of Simplicity.
But then there’s the rest of us. Some have lots of money, some have little, but we all have some sense of security – nobody in our family is going hungry and we will always have a dry, safe place to live, however small. We have enough of an education to inquire about the world around us, and we have time to contemplate matters of importance. Some are struggling with the burden of debt due to poor consumer choices and a lack of basic financial skills; there are solutions for this group. We are the consumers, and it is our lifestyle – rapidly being exported to developing nations – that is the cause of so many of the world’s problems.
The lifestyle looks something like this: we work hard to afford the things we think we need – a big house in a nice neighbourhood, private schools, cars (usually more than one), sculptured lawns, the latest electronic gizmo…We take on debt to acquire these things, then we have to work harder to pay off that debt. At the end of the day we’ve spent precious time away from our families that can never be recovered, and have a heap of possessions that have lost their monetary value and require the aid of a “decluttering expert” to deal with.
Advocates of Simple Living have learned that it is a very effective way to achieve real happiness, perhaps not in the spiritual sense of the word (though that’s up for debate), but certainly in the sense of being content with what we’ve got. So much of our unhappiness these days seems to lie with what we want but do not have. So while Simple Living as a key to happiness and prosperity (redefined) may seem to be a “privilege” that only the wealthy are free to consider, I believe we are precisely the group who should be considering it.
And not just for our own sake, either. If all people on the planet consumed at the level we do, we’d need five Earths to sustain us all (see The Story of Stuff). Changing our lifestyle has ramifications for the poor, those without choices who suffer to provide us with the food and consumer goods we use up at such an alarming rate.
So go ahead and think about it. You’re not being elitist, you are taking responsibility and being part of the solution. A while back I defined the Seven Aspects of Simple Living. Consider how your lifestyle relates to each of these topics. Ask yourself what changes you think you could make. Start slowly, one step at a time. Look to others for ideas and inspiration (see Blogroll at right). If you can afford to make changes that reduce your ecological footprint, do so without the guilt of privilege. You’ll probably find it to be the most satisfying and rewarding way to make a better life…for you and for everybody else.