Duane Elgin: Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. New York: Morrow, 1993 (rev.)
Although a "second revised" 2010 edition of Elgin's book is available, the 1993 edition reflects a more original analysis predating popularizations and the green hyperbole of the 2000s, not oversimplifying simplicity. The pioneering, even solitary, voice of the past is today joined by many competitors and imitators.
Elgin's Voluntary Simplicity defined the concept of simplicity for decades because it provided a holistic overview of the theory and practice of simplicity. This conclusion is only underscored by the fact that the first edition was published in 1981, and that a key survey upon which it is based dates to 1979. Unlike similar titles, Elgin's book is not advice for uncluttering, time management, or getting finances in order. Such books come and go. Rather, Elgin is talking about getting oneself in order, and thereby, hopefully, the planet (though more on this later). To Elgin, the imperatives for simplicity as an individual reflect global requirements for simplicity, thus integrating in one work ecology, social thought, perennial advice, and first-hand responses of those pursuing simplicity in their lives.
Though the right place to start, the survey would need updating, and Elgin's persuasions become amorphous at times. (The introduction by Ram Dass is a clue to a 1960's cultural approach to simplification in the revised edition. The 2010 introduction by Edgar Mitchell shows how Elgin ultimately moved into a New Age approach.)
After an introductory section, the book is divided into two parts representing personal and global aspects of simplicity. Perhaps the two parts could be considered in reverse order. Some readers may want to be persuaded about the details of consumption, technology, financial collapse, peak energy resources, environmental degradation, and climate change. Despite the 1993 imprint, Elgin is positively prescient on these issues, and, indeed, the factors he enumerates have only grown worse. His arguments for simplicity take on new urgency considering the present plight.
Perhaps Elgin did not want to overwhelm readers by presenting the global picture first. His approach to simplicity is optimist. The first part, therefore, helpfully presents a positive overview of what other people are thinking and doing about simplicity in their lives.
A key factor is that simplicity must be -- as the title suggests -- voluntary, that is, it must arise from individual will.
To live more voluntarily is to live more deliberately, intentionally, nd purposefully -- in short, it is to live more consciously. ... To act in a voluntary manner is to be aware of ourselves as we move through life. [emphasis Elgin]
This axiom in turn generates the next point:
To live more simply is to live more purposefully and with a minimum of needless distraction. The particular expression of simplicity is a personal matter.
Elgin here avoids the looming question as to whether simplicity, economic or otherwise, must be imposed by the state, by legislation, by courts and agencies and armies. The very question contradicts the politics he advocates, yet the dilemma remains of how to prompt voluntary simplicity when those who dominate material conditions are blithe to the very notion. Elgin does not explore these controversies, for his readers, he seems to project, are intelligent, open-minded.
The personal level, then, is where issues start, insofar as every individual exists in specific circumstances and must work out how simplicity applies to the facts of that person's daily life. Elgin describes this application of simplicity as a balancing of "purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction." Clearly a reduction in consumption and possessions is overdue in the lives of many in the world, specifically the North American readers Elgin was primarily addressing. What is to be the model of simplicity? It is expressed as neither poverty nor wealth but consists of disengagement from models of progress, which represent the industrial-era view, contrasted with what Elgin calls an "ecological-era view" or "ecological living."
A simple life must be characterized by aesthetics and social dignity, but no more than features and tendencies can be suggested, for each individual must pursue his or her own voluntary path. Elgin quotes Thoreau:
I would not have anyone adopt my mode of living on my account. ... I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way.
This sentiment prompts Elgin to observe that:
Many of the persons experimenting with simpler ways of living said they did not view themselves as part of a conscious social movement. Instead, they were acting on their own initiative to bring their lives in greater harmony with the needs and realities of the world.
In keeping with the voluntary model, Elgin largely avoids an ethical approach to simplicity, concentrating on the economic and psychological rewards for individuals.
Overall the most common reasons given for choosing to live more lightly were to find a more skillful balance between one's inner experience and its outer expression in work, consumption, relationships, and community.
Instead of ethics, Elgin refers to "humane values," "inner growth," and the "politics of compassion." The arguments are soft in the sense of generalities, as modest ascription to historical influences like Buddhism, Christianity, and Transcendentalism, and to perennial thinking behind the familiar "golden mean." Nor does Elgin pursue cultural or national characteristics in describing respondents to his original survey, though they clearly represent a well-off minority on a global scale. While alluding to advertising and television, Elgin does not (and still does not today) delve into historical factors about industrialism, technology, corporations, non-governmental organizations, or politics and their influence on the daily lives of people and how they affect consumption and values. Are these factors too overwhelming for a voluntary or willed simplicity when so many suffer deprivation? Or are these factors at a point of inevitability such that only a voluntary simplicity on the part of individuals, a kind of statement of integrity, is all that we can do?
Only at the end of the book, in chapters on "Civilization in Transition" and "Civilization and Revitalization," does Elgin present a compelling if popularized picture of historical factors, based largely on Toynbee's A Study of History, itself a simplification of Spengler's Decline of the West. Elgin offers three outcomes given a civilizational breakdown: revitalization, stagnation, or collapse. Elgin's optimism favors working towards revitalization, moreso today bsed on incresed publicity of simplicity as a life-style. An update of Elgin's statistics would suggest the opposite.
Elgin's prescriptions for change have been, in the few years since his second revised edition, 20 years since his revised edition, and the 30 years since his first edition, quite ignored on every institutional level, and, frankly, too, despite much hyperbole and greenwash, among most individuals, too. Theses facts only underscore the failure of social change in the face of impeding collapse, and how voluntary simplicity is not a collective path, that society cannot voluntarily pursue change, that groups cannot express a will or live deliberately. Voluntary simplicity is a solitary path. Only when practiced by one individual person can it succeed, and then, perhaps, be shared with others.¶