In 1976 Elgin co-authored a U.S. government-funded report at the Stanford Research Institute entitled ‘Voluntary Simplicity’. In 1982 he published the book of the same name, and in 1996 the current revised edition was published. When the book first came out the New York Times described it as ‘seminal’ and it soon became the bible of the movement towards simplicity, frugal consumption and ecological awareness.
There are three main themes running throughout the book: (1) that voluntary simplicity can help mitigate the effects of climate change and other environmental problems, (2) that if we cut out the things that we don’t need then the quality of our lives will improve, and (3) that living more simply increases the spiritual dimension of our lives as we get more time for reflection.
Elgin points out that we need to live within the limits of the earth’s resources. If we do, then we can avoid the catastrophes that climate change threatens us with, and we can soften the blows that will surely come as a result of peak oil and the depletion of other resources. We can do things like shop locally, drive fuel efficient cars, use bicycles or public transport, recycle, compost, buy from second-hand stores and charity shops, plant a garden, avoid buying things we don’t absolutely need and get rid of unnecessary clutter. We can also stop spending time shopping and consuming, and we can spend less time watching tv, for example.
By cutting out the things we don’t absolutely need and by ceasing to do the things that we don’t absolutely need to do we can increase the amount of free time we have. We can use this free time to improve our intellectual and spiritual lives and to increase the quality of our relationships. Voluntary simplicity means that we keep our eye on what really matters in life. Perhaps you need to get out of the rat race and instead get to the top where the ‘top’ is defined by you, not by society or your boss.
Elgin points out that happiness does not necessarily equate with income. Studies have shown that once income increases beyond a certain point there is no accompanying increase in happiness. In fact, greater depression, anxiety, narcissism and anti-social behaviour are reported by people with higher than average incomes. Research has shown that the five main factors which make people happy are good health, opportunities for personal growth, strong relationships, service to others and connection to nature.
At its heart this is very much a spiritual book and Elgin talks a lot about the importance of time set aside for reflection, meditation, peace and quiet. Simplicity can be seen as a process of gaining self-knowledge, self-realisation and greater awareness. Having time for reflection means becoming more aware of, for example, the need to have compassion for animals, for each other and for the planet. We may become more open to ideas like co-operation, sharing and non-violence. As life becomes less ego-centred it becomes more enjoyable. When we live more consciously we become more aware of ourselves, we become more self-reflective and question our values and our actions.
Elgin is wary of making voluntary simplicity into a movement as it may become dogmatic and unappealing if it is being preached. He says it is better if people discover and apply it for themselves. He also says that we do not need to move to the countryside in order to practise voluntary simplicity – we can do it whether we live in an urban or rural environment.
I loved this book. It was a joy to read and I very much agreed with the points it made and its overall message. I highly recommend this book.