Did Thoreau have it right as a model non-consumer?
It has been nearly a century and a half since Henry David Thoreau, hardly a man burdened with too much stuff or too many commitments, offered a gentle warning to those who were. He urged his readers to "Simplify, simplify."
Good advice then, even better advice now. So good, in fact, that Thoreau, or at least his philosophy, is coming soon to a newsstand near you. Late next month Time Inc. will launch a magazine about simplifying life, called Real Simple. Playing off the maxim that "Less is more," its theme is "Do less. Have more."
Note that first verb. It's not "Buy less," but "Do less." Getting readers to buy is, after all, the purpose of most magazines. With 110 pages of ads in the first issue, among them such upscale names as Chanel, Cadillac, DeBeers diamonds, and Nordstrom, the magazine does not encourage readers to consume less.
Instead, according to a spokeswoman, the idea here is to consume more selectively. But finding the perfect object takes time and effort, too, not to mention a steady paycheck to keep those platinum credit cards in good standing.
Real Simple is targeting its pages to overcommitted working women and mothers who are college-educated and have a median age of 36. Their hunger for simplicity appears so great that the magazine reportedly represents the biggest launch in Time Inc. history, with a projected initial circulation of 400,000. Real Impressive.
In theory, this "less is more" ideal carries irresistible appeal. During the past decade a movement called "Voluntary Simplicity" has sprung up to preach the virtues of less to a culture obsessed with more, more, more. Whole forests have been felled to print books with titles such as "Simple Abundance," "Getting Control," "Slowing Down to the Speed of Life," "The Simple Life," "Frugal Luxuries," even "Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui."
But in practice, "less is more" faces stiff obstacles. Economist Juliet Schor labels the problem "competitive consumption." No longer, she says, are the
Joneses down the street the ones most families aspire keep up with. The new role models grow out of the images of affluence relentlessly portrayed by entertainment media.
In her forthcoming book, "Do Americans Shop Too Much?" to be published this spring, Professor Schor explains, "Because television shows are so heavily skewed to the 'lifestyles of the rich and upper middle class,' they inflate the viewer's perceptions of what others have, and by extension what is worth acquiring - what one must have in order to avoid being 'out of it.' "
Schor warns that this "upscale emulating," or "new consumerism," however harmless it appears, carries huge price tags. It requires both parents in a family to work, which adds costs in child care, transportation, convenience foods and services, and stress. It funnels private money away from charitable donations. It steals time from community and social activities. It gives business interests greater influence on government and culture. And it contributes to ecological problems.
To counter these tendencies, Schor proposes a new "politics of consumption." She urges Americans to form a consumer movement in which people weigh their basic needs against their desires and place new values on family, leisure, and community time.
It will take more than a glossy magazine chock-full of ads, selling dreams and good intentions, more than bookshelves filled with homespun advice to "pamper yourself," to bring noticeable change. Overconsumption represents only one force conspiring against simplicity. The tyranny of excess extends beyond too much to buy and includes too many things to do.
Loosening the hold of clocks and datebooks will require larger institutional and systemic changes: Changes in work schedules. Changes in commuting patterns. And changes in domestic arrangements.
By targeting women, Real Simple inadvertently raises an interesting question: Where are the men in the simplicity movement? Women are hardly the only ones with bulging day planners and long lists of Things to Do. Although men's participation in childrearing and housework is showing heartening progress, what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls the second shift - the work parents do at home in the evening after their day jobs are over - still falls disproportionately to women.
Little wonder, perhaps, that they make up the largest audience for what could be called the simplicity industry - not only those soothing self-improvement books but also products and services ranging from aromatherapy and spas to personal coaches and organization experts, all designed to promote the three C's of contentment, control, calmness.
For many Americans, paring down and cutting back will continue to be Real Hard. The siren call of the marketplace, now including e-commerce, exerts a strong pull. But by urging people to ask, What constitutes a good life and abundance? the simplicity-movement books and magazines might encourage redefinitions of success and fulfillment.
Until then, the phrase "Less is more" will continue to be little more than a warm and fuzzy ideal, overshadowed by the reality that more is still more. Until then, the search for harmony,balance, and free time will go on. To which Thoreau could only say, "I told you so."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society