Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch, has been rerunning articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the October/November 1998 issue of Whatcom Watch.
by John Freeburg
While a graduate school student in the early seventies, I received literature from Bob Keller about the voluntary simplicity movement. The movement was then based at Stanford University, where years later my son would earn a master´s degree. Years after I received the literature from Keller, I landed a professional job in Wilmette, Illinois. I purchased a ten-speed bicycle, instead of a car, to get around during daylight. In a Chicago winter (I purchased a Peugeot bike in the fall), I found out that voluntary simplicity could be a bear. The streets turned to snow and ice. Cars skated through the 1978-79 winter when I only infrequently rode my bike. Cutting back might be fine in California or in Bellingham, but, in Chicago for warmth and admiration, I needed a 3- or 4-speed manual or automatic foreign-made auto. The next fall, my wife and I purchased a second car — a Datsun hatchback that had been front-ended.
Unconsumerism — A Growing Movement
We can take note, though, that according to the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, by the year “2000, about 15 percent of the baby boom population will be attracted to voluntary simplicity….” (U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 11, 1995). My earlier decision to purchase a Peugeot bike because I wanted to exhibit voluntary simplicity is a decision similar to what a minority of baby boomers are now making.
Myra Stark of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising says the voluntary simplicity movement may establish marketing trends. For example, people are being advised to “cut down on the number of your cards and accounts or give up buying on credit altogether” (Brandweek, May 26, 1997). She says of voluntary simplicity: “It can all lead to a real questioning of the consumption ethic, that urge to express the self through possessions and acquisitions. The new values are frugality and thrift. Do you really need the new home, new furniture, new clothes? Why buy a new car if you can prolong the life of your old one? Is it really necessary to buy branded food items? Can you do without the expensive restaurants and vacations?” (Ibid.)
Downsizing One´s Life
People who take part in the movement have been known to give up lucrative careers. A lawyer, Jonathan Schacter, 35, and his wife used to live on $90,000 a year. Now the Schacters live on $15,000 a year. U.S. News and World Report also states that Jeanne Muir left a $65,000 a year job because she did not want to move to Chicago from Bellevue, Wash. Another woman, Aleta Thompson, secured her company´s permission to transfer from their offices in Huntington Beach, Calif., in order to telecommute from her new home in Seattle. Thompson says, “Now I walk everywhere to the grocery store, dental appointments, restaurants.” (U.S. News and World Report)
Reading Up on Voluntary Simplicity
Of course, exponents of voluntary simplicity are probably not subscribers to U.S. News and World Report where I am getting my most objective information. The main book used by members of the voluntary simplicity movement seems to be “Your Money or Your Life” by Vicki Robin and the late Joe Dominguez.
Henry David Thoreau´s “Walden” is a central inspiration. Interestingly, Mr. Keller and Mr. Rand Jack are planning another course where they will spend some time camping. Do they think Walden Pond will answer Thoreau´s question (“Walden, are you out there?”) while the class is eating meals peppered with embers?
Another popular voluntary simplicity cult book is “How to Survive Without a Salary.” Popular reading for this more highly educated group is also Simple Living or Living Cheap News. Cecile Andrews, whom I have heard speak, is a leader in Seattle of the voluntary simplicity movement. She has a doctorate from Stanford University.
Pitfalls of the Simple Life
Because the cult, group or movement rejects consumerism, it seems ecological. Having been a college student during the first Earth Day, I worry about the confidence or ego strength of children brought up by the movement. The children may not grow up with the determination to succeed that they need to be good providers in a global economy. The movement, probably largely atheist or agnostic, resembles the devout Christian, John Calvins´ views, insofar as he advocated self-denial. He said you would only get into heaven by doing good works; but, good works alone were not sufficient to get into heaven. To make his followers even more delusional, he denied it was possible to know if you were among the elect (going to heaven).
In voluntary simplicity, there is no end to what you can give up. At Fairhaven College, students will have the opportunity, and have in the past, to give up a dorm room for a plastic tube tent, not a hotel room where you will rub shoulders with movers and shakers.
Is There a Stopping Point?
So what are the standards, (a favorite word of Mr. Jack´s) of the voluntary simplicity movement? Do we or are we to cut back to the point of losing ego strength, which inevitably occurs among those who have lived in poverty? Mr. Jack gave up a lucrative law career to teach at Fairhaven. Are Mr. Keller, Mr. Jack and Ms. Andrews among the elect; can we know or are they setting students up for diminishment?
As a long footnote, Jerry Brown, the former governor of California, won the mayor´s job in Oakland recently. He, who had lived in an apartment instead of the mansion while governor, was asked if he was using the mayor´s job as a stepping stone toward a political comeback. He replied, “That would be putting the horse before the cart.” The New York Times report was uncertain whether Brown mispoke or was mischievous. Does the voluntary simplicity cult, group or movement idealize cutting expenses or creating a more ecological, but industrial world? Do we have to go to back camping and horses?
John Freeburg lived in Bremerton when this article was written.