Voluntary Simplicity

Voluntary Simplicity (Part 2) – A Transition from Consumption

A life of simplicity means different things to each of us. For me, it means second-hand clothes and only cleaning house when it’s therapeutic. For a friend of mine, it’s choosing unhurried, inexpensive pleasures like reading a good book or listening to the birds sing, rather than racing around town looking for entertainment. A doctor I know equates it with the carefully examined life. And for others it’s a conserver lifestyle, using a bike instead of a car or practising the art of frugality. There’s one thing in common for each of us, and that is taking the time to be deliberate and intentional in our life choices.

Although voluntary simplicity certainly is becoming more difficult as modern life becomes more frantic, there is nothing new about leading a simple life. To many, the way of simplicity is reminiscent of the best traditions of our ancestors. And in many parts of the world, for millions of people, life is still simple: till the soil, feed the family, warm the home, keep the body healthy. (Ironically, most of us would consider that a hard life!)

As I pointed out to a group of students during a recent presentation on Responsible Consumerism (an oxymoron, we decided), we suffer from cultural amnesia, so it’s vital to learn that our society hasn’t always been this frantic nor this consumeristic. For example, only a generation or two ago, people didn’t buy things they couldn’t afford—they saved until they had enough money. Credit used to be about recognition and trust. Imagine the simplicity of a life without credit cards and lines of credit…. Shopping as a time-consuming hobby, gone! Clutter, gone! The stress of debts, gone! The need for both parents to work, gone! When we restrict our purchases to things we need (with a few treats thrown in now and then), conserver values, personal pleasures and family activities get more of our time and attention.

But how did this transition to the “excessive-compulsive” lifestyle come about? Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew and father of the public relations industry, wrote in 1928 that it was “the astounding success of propaganda during [World War I] that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind.” Bernays talked of “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses” and called the manipulators “an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” After the war, Bernays’s job was to sell a new American Dream (a dream that was ramped up again in the 50s and 60s when World War II munitions factories starting churning out “consumer goods”), and he did a great sell job.

On the cusp of the Great Depression, Samuel Strauss, a journalist and philosopher, suggested the term “consumptionism” to characterize this new way of life, noting that it created a philosophy of life committed to the production of more and more things—”more this year than last year, more next year than this”—with an emphasis on “standard of living” above all other values.

Knowing that our spending habits, our sense of self-esteem, and indeed our ethics and values are all manipulated by the advertising and public relations industries gives us the awareness and strength we need to forge a new way of being in the world—an ancient and simple way, if that’s what we choose. Sometimes it’s easier to learn new things by looking back, turning over an old leaf.

(To learn more about this issue, visit http://www.americanidealism.com/articles/edward-bernays-forger-of-the-public-relations-industry.html )

Julie Johnston is a Pender Island teacher and adult educator with a special interest in environmental education and sustainable development learning.