Is simplicity necessary in this era of abundance?

Americans want to simplify their lives. We want more balance, calm, control. We want less chaos, clutter, and competition for the cultural brass rings of fame and fortune.

Some statistics validate a yearning for the simple life. Demographer John P. Robinson reported in the June 1996 issue of American Demographics that 45 percent of Americans would trade a day's pay for a day off. Almost 20 percent have, this decade, made a voluntary lifestyle change that entailed earning less money. Most of them say they are happier - and no, not just after their first Volvo: Nearly half were earning less than the median wage before the change.

Advertising confirms what the demographers say. So many products promise to simplify our lives - automated bank tellers, laptop computers, closet organizers, take-out foods. You name it, Americans want an easier way to manage it.

Many "simplicity" books have visited the bestseller lists - and some have taken up residence.

Out of this desire for simplicity has come a "movement," if you will, of people paring down their treasures and obligations in favor of "voluntary simplicity." Five years ago demographers such as Gerald Celente of Trends Research Insititute were saying voluntary simplicity was one of the strongest trends of the 1990s.

But now, some say things have changed. From time to time I do a phone survey of my favorite trend trackers and futurists. Several, including Mr. Celente, point out that the savings rate has gone negative, that everyone and her brother is trying to get into the casino called Wall Street, that the up-and-coming generation is filled with "wired wonders" who want to be millionaires by age 30.

Is simplicity obsolete in this time of abundance? My own analysis tells me no. It's hard to measure the demographics of a value system, especially when it involves not buying things.

Yet I believe this value system continues rippling outward. It has tendrils in other lifestyle-change movements, as well as in suburbia and corporations. Look at the whole range of lifestyle movements - simplicity, frugality, holistic health, natural foods, environmentalism, and personal growth processes, for instance.

For people who choose to swim upstream in the current of material excess, I believe that becoming visible to one another is an important step in taking seriously our contribution to society.

It's not always easy. We are used to people staring incredulously when we tell them we turned down a promotion in favor of retaining personal free time, or moved to a smaller home, or chose to be a stay-at-home parent when it meant losing an income.

This integrity of "walking the talk" is part of our strength. Telling people about our struggles and our transformation is a way we help one another and show our strength to those who are seeking a more meaningful way of life.

I think, in the end, that we need to do this not only for ourselves but for the world in which we live and consume.

On a depleted earth with only so much to go around, perhaps our restraint will give the billions of people who live on less than $3 a day space to flourish. A 1998 UN human development report stated that the world's richest 20 percent consumes 86 percent of the world's resources.

Fewer homes and dining sets here might mean forests elsewhere can remain intact. Burning less oil here would mitigate global warming. Perhaps our discovery that beyond affluence lies a sweeter valley called "enough" may give those in the developing world a better beacon toward which to steer. Just as we learned in kindergarten, a little sharing feels good and builds friendships.

Now the question is, how can the personal choices made by those who live a life of voluntary simplicity have a measurable impact on the larger community and world? Can an ethic of goodwill and good sense at the grass roots mitigate the more destructive aspects of the commercialization and commodification, like harvesting endangered species for jewelry and medicine? Do such individual acts by good people have enough oomph to overcome systemic problems such as child labor and pollution - the hidden price of products we buy?

I don't have all the answers. But I do know that people who have made small changes in their lives are by no means small. They are legion and they are the quiet leaven that has the potential to offer the world (and America) a better game than "more."

* Vicki Robin is co-author of 'Your Money or Your Life' (Penguin Putnam, 1992) and president of New Road Map Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization in Seattle.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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