Cambridge, Mass. — Back in 1972, a man in Oregon coined the phrase "living lightly" in reaction to a culture that seemed to center around "bigger is better" and "use it up and toss it out."
Today the idea of living lightly is still catching hold. Recycling, making gifts rather than buying them, eating meatless main meals, bicycling, or joining cooperative are not established norms. But, in one 1977 Harris poll, 79 percent of the respondents placed greater emphasis on "teaching people how to live more with basic essentials" over the 17 percent who focused on "teaching higher standards of living."
But what does it mean?
To a working couple in Bellevue, Wash., it means equipping their new home with a wood stove for heating. The wife, a doctor, and the husband, an engineer , commute to work by public transportation although they own two cars.
To live more simply, an engineer in Palo Alto, Calif., bikes to work, and his wife organizes shared meals with other families. Their whole neighborhood gets together for such projects as weather- stripping each other's homes. The family also recycles paper, glass, and cans through a community curbside service that picks up recyclables in the same way the sanitation department picks up garbage.
And over 20,000 Norwegians are participating in a project titled "Future in Our Hands," where they try to live simple and less wasteful lives by avoiding processed foods or by buying at secondhand clothing stores.
"Voluntary simplicity" has been viewed as a California fad or a last gasp of the 1960s and early 1970s counterculture. But belt-tightening and self-reliance has become the economy of the '80s. And many people are finding it does not have to mean a decrease in their quality of life.
"The rewards can't be quantified in dollars," says Tom Bender of Nehalem, Ore., who was one of the first people to use the phrase "living lightly." He and his family have chosen to give up the cultural advantages of Portland, where he was co-editor of a magazine, for the satisfaction of living more independently on the Oregon coast, where Mr. Bender writes, does some architecture, and is involved with energy issues.
Dorothy Leonard-Barton, assistant professor of management at the Alfred P. Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, has done research on voluntary simplicity in California. She agrees with Mr. Bender.
"It takes effort to garden, but the vegetables taste better," says Dr. Leonard- Barton. "It takes effort to bike places, but you are healthier. You are less comfortable when you heat with wood, but the family gets together more often in one room."
There are several different types of people who practice voluntary simplicity , says Dr. Leonard-Barton.
"Some have always lived frugal lives," she says. Recycling, shopping at garage sales, or doing their own auto repairs is just another example of that life style. A young man in Cambridge, Mass., bought a wool suit for work at a rummage sale, and made a bookcase from scrap lumber tossed out of a condominium conversion.
Others are convinced that the world's resources are limited and that something has to be done about it.
"These are the people who want to spread the word about voluntary simplicity, " says Dr. Leonard-Barton. Tom Bender is active in his advocacy of living lightly. He is working with a group studying whether Tillamook County, where he lives on the Oregon Coast, can develop a base of renewable energy.
A third group of people follow trends in living simply because it is easy or the "fashionable" thing to do. A person who recycles in Palo Alto because of the curbside service might not do it in Boston, which does not offer the same service. A high school student who bikes to school with friends in one town might not keep it up if he or she moved to a town where no one biked.
The idea of voluntary simplicity is not new, and some insist today's belt-tightening is a logical extension of a traditional work ethic and pioneering spirit.
"Ecology was important to Henry David Thoreau," says Dr. Leonard-Barton. "Recycling was popular during World War II. But there are new motives for cutting back today. There are global urgencies."
The effect of voluntary simplicity on energy consumption could be very great, say experts. "Energy Future," a study from the Harvard Business School, concludes that conservation and renewable energy sources are the best short-term solutions to an energy crisis.
There is considerable political support for voluntary simplicity internationally. Presidential aspirants have called for a conservation ethic. And the "Future In Our Hands" project in Norway has received funding from the government. But most people point to today's economy as the major impetus for living more lightly.
"There is one group in which it is very fashionable, but there is a much larger group in which it happens to be a matter of money," says Tom Bender. He says that surveys show that between 30 and 45 percent of the residents in his coastal county heat their homes with wood.
"And they are doing it for more than ideological reasons," says Mr. Bender.
The popularization of comfortably worn blue jeans and fashions from the attic has made it socially easier to live simply.
"No one need blush wearing secondhand clothes," says Dr. Leonard- Barton. She sees an overall trend toward a desire for durable goods and an appreciation of older items.
"Used furniture, with marks of affection and wear, is valued. And you can mix old and new clothes or furniture and it is accepted."
Living lightly can be a family affair. Children learn to conserve and do things for themselves both at home and in school. One father tells of being chastised by his daughter for throwing out a soda pop bottle instead of putting it in the glass recycling box she had started as a school project.
"children are natural disseminators," says Dr. Leonard-Barton, who has two school-age children. But she also warns that there is a lot of pressure on children to buy new goods to keep up with their peers.
"It is more of an efffort for children," she says. "but they do enjoy the self-sufficiency and self-reliance that they learn."