Book Review: Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity

Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich
Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich by Duane Elgin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My husband and I took a “Voluntary Simplicity” discussion course back in 2000/2001. The course was from Northwest Earth Institute and was based on Duane Elgin’s book and scads of other terrific writings about simplicity and mindfulness. It was remarkably influential on how we lived our newly-married life together, but for some reason, it took me more than ten years to pick up Elgin’s original book (well, the 1993 revision).

When I finally did read the book, I was blown away by the simplicity and compassion with which Elgin presents the idea of Voluntary Simplicity.

The book consists of three main sections. The first introduces the idea and contains excerpts from the written replies on a 1977 survey of people committed to voluntary simplicity to give a sense of how some people live the principles of voluntary simplicity. The second expands on the idea of voluntary simplicity, dissecting both the “voluntary” and the “simplicity” aspects of this way of living. And the third was a rather apocalyptic vision of the future if we choose not to address our current ecological problems head on.

The first section was a little dry at times, but I found it interesting to note the demographics of the respondents as I read their responses. It was encouraging that so many people from all over the country and with so many different ways of life embraced voluntary simplicity and were finding similar benefits (and challenges). It was also interesting how similar the culture of 1977 seems to be to the culture of 2011. My dad would laugh to hear me say that and make some comment about how it wasn’t that long ago and how he was there when I was born, after all. But being that I was less than a year old then, it seems like a long time ago to me, and it seemed odd how little things have changed, really, in the past 34+ years.

The second I found inspiring as Elgin made it clear that there’s no one way to live a voluntarily simple lifestyle. It’s about making individual choices with awareness of both their direct and indirect effects on us and on the people and environment around us. Two people can live lives of voluntary simplicity that look vastly different from one another. The important piece is to stop living on automatic pilot. We must wake up and make conscious choices.

The third section I approached with some trepidation. Elgin empathizes with the discomfort the reader will likely experience considering the possible collapse of civilization as we know it. “All of the hopes and fears that lie in uneasy though quiet repose in our everyday lives become starkly visible as we consider the depth and scope of change that lies ahead.” He encourages us to embrace these changes as natural: “Our anxiety about transformative civilizational change is lessened when we realize that it is part of a natural and purposeful process.”

I wasn’t really comforted.

It took me a week or so to pick the book back up, but last night I screwed up my courage and finished the book. And it really wasn’t so bad after all. Elgin outlines three possible cultural responses to the current ecological, societal, and governmental problems:

1. Overshoot and collapse. Basically we continue to increase our rampant consumerism and individualistic focus until the ecosystem can no longer support us and society collapses because we’re not at all prepared for the disasters as they mount. The human race experiences a massive die-out due to disease and famine and civilization enters an extended dark age. This was the one I was worried about reading. On to the next…

2. Dynamic Stagnation. This is the one where we as a culture fight so hard to maintain the status quo that we don’t really make anything all that worse, we’re just not well prepared for what comes so we end up making the changes necessary to survive but not to thrive as a species and a civilization. We depend too much on existing institutions rather than taking personal, local, and global responsibility for the changes necessary to make it through this “Winter” period of our culture. This is bad, but not so bad compared to #1.

3. Reconciliation and Revitalization. This is the one that made it possible for me to go to sleep last night once I closed the book. Individuals come together in a grass-roots effort to build up new decentralized institutions to provide for the needs of our population on a more local level and to put pressure on our government and the global community to make choices based not on isolationism and personal gain but on a collective desire to see humanity thrive. We enter a period of unprecedented cooperation and compassion which results in a New Renaissance of cultural, artistic, and governmental advances.

Elgin concludes by making the case for compassion as the basis for our society and for our species going forward. “If we value our freedom and vitality as a species, we are obliged to do no less than learn to love one another as a human family or else destroy ourselves in the learning,” he writes.

I immediately began to think of ways that I could act in my own life to improve the health of my community. Voluntary simplicity from Elgin’s perspective isn’t about a back-to-the-land movement or about living a life of deprivation and social/geographical isolation. On the contrary, Voluntary Simplicity requires making conscious choices not only in our own homes but also in close cooperation with our communities and being active in creating the changes that we need on a national and international level. I thought of things that I could do to connect with my neighbors and to be a part of our small city and our religious community that would also serve my introverted needs for physical space and quiet reflection. Learning about the history of our town, inviting the neighbors over one or two families at a time to talk and share food, asking for assistance in gaining expertise about issues from home repair to hiking trails, and sharing yard and garden-care equipment were all ideas that came to mind. It will be a challenge to engage like this, but I think that if I do it prudently, we’ll experience a much richer involvement in our community.

The key really isn’t simplicity so much as it is consciousness. Making conscious choices, we understand the larger impact of our consumption patterns. For example, when we buy a television, we recognize not only the price tag, but the materials and labor and research and marketing that went into bringing us that television. We understand the social impact of the manufacture of the television on the community where it was assembled. We understand that our perceptions and our desires will be shaped not only by the programs we choose to watch but also the advertising that we see between and within the programs and by the time we spend watching television rather than interacting. In addition, we understand where that television will go when its useful life is over (or when we choose to upgrade to a newer model) and what affect that later life will have on our environment and on the health and wellbeing of the communities surrounding the television’s final resting place. Voluntary Simplicity doesn’t mean not buying the television; it means knowing what it is we’re really buying.

Making conscious choices, we see the world with open eyes, and we realize that there is nothing we can do that doesn’t somehow affect someone else. And that’s comforting, when you really think about it.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity

  1. I’m still in the middle of this book, and I am finding it very informative too. I’m not optimistic about the rest of the human race, but i do try as hard as I can to be mindful and to actually make choices rather than going with the flow of things, and just doing what is accepted.

    One thing I had to laugh at–in the part with the snippets of letters from that survey he did, one woman said that she was going to nurse her car past 100k miles. I actually woke Cameron up to read him that because our last vehicle we didn’t donate until it had about 300k on it (it was still running, it was just becoming less than reliable–not good when you have a baby!), and this one here we have about half of that so far. LOL you should have seen that old truck. It looked like it had leprosy, and the fabric on the ceiling was all falling down. It was like a tank, though, it could take a beating. In all honesty, sometimes I think I would rather have kept that old thing–I LOVED driving it!


    1. I didn’t remember that part about the car. Funny! Some of those little trucks just keep going and going. (Not sure why I assume it was little…)

      My first car was the family car, a Volvo 240 wagon my parents bought when I was 6. I finally sold it at about 170,000 miles and 20 years old when I found I was always in the shop (or stranded and calling AAA) because of random electrical problems. I cried when I dropped it off, even though I loved my new car. I still miss that Volvo and kind of wish I’d kept it and just had the mechanic refurbish the electrical for me. But, I do like having airbags. And front-wheel drive. That car was a beast in snow. Until we moved here, we averaged ~5,000 miles/year, even with extensive road trips and a cross-country drive, so our current nearly 10yo car hasn’t reached 100K yet. We’re closing in more quickly living here, though.


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