In Voluntary Simplicity (in)Voluntary Simplicity involuntary simplicity

Linda Ruchala
UNL Associate Professor of Accountancy

Living simply, with purpose and harmony, has been an ethos for modern life in the peace community for some time.  Social scientist and author Duane Elgin notes that the movement grew largely out of Gandhi’s teachings.  Elgin quotes Richard Gregg, a Gandhi student, in defining voluntary simplicity as a “singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life… It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose.”

Elgin distinguishes between voluntary simplicity and poverty. Simplicity is sought by choice; large numbers of very poor people globally have no choice but to live simply because they are poor.  He notes that “poverty is involuntary and debilitating, whereas simplicity is voluntary and enabling.  Poverty is mean and degrading to the human spirit, whereas a life of conscious simplicity can have a beauty and a functional integrity that elevates the human spirit.”

Climate change is blurring the distinction between a voluntary simplicity that is sustainable and the involuntary simplicity (poverty) that accompanies population relocation, resource depletion and economic depression. The Nebraska Report has published a number of articles over the past year focusing on human-created climate change and the environmental problems caused by our dependence on coal and oil energy sources.  The linkages between these issues and peace and justice are both direct and indirect.  

Directly, the depletion of oil and non-renewable energy resources is a major source of conflict and war.  In April of this year, the Department of Defense issued a report explaining that while it may not know how much oil it uses, it has a good idea of when it will start running short of supplies.  By as soon as 2012, the report postulates, “surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.”  The Pentagon report itself draws the connection between global political stability and oil shortages:  “While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds.  Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India.” (3) That’s the direct link.

The ‘indirect’ link between a continued dependence on carbon-based energy sources and peace/justice is obvious to anyone who follows the news.  As environmental activist and founder Bill McKibben describes in his recent book (4), global warming, with its attendant scourges of famine, population displacement and species extinction threatens to figuratively and literally cook the planet on which we live.  We are daily undermining the climatological conditions under which human civilization arose.

The scientific implications of climate change, however, are compounded by our seeming inability to order our political and economic transactions so that they account for the costs of the ecological damage done.  Our reliance on large corporate and managerial organizational structures means that responsibility for environmental devastation is rarely borne by the activities creating the effects.  Big Oil and Big Coal are largely exempted by our corporate-influenced elected officials of any economic liability for their leading role in climate destruction.  Further, the emphasis placed on economic growth as the primary criterion used in policymaking places us firmly on a collision course with resource and sustainability limits.

Moreover, we cannot rely on new technological inventions or solutions to get us out of this bind.  The more complex the level of technology we use, the greater the unknown and unintended risks of damage to our earth.  The risks associated with such have been called “black swan” events.  Black Swan events, according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, have three characteristics:  they are unpredictable, they carry a significant impact, and, after such impacts occur, we retrospectively (and erroneously) attach explanations for the event rather than attribute the cause to the underlying random error in the process.  That is, we try to make the event seem more predictable (and rational) than it was. (5) Taleb uses his theory to explain why the complex financial instruments and mathematical risk models used in financial institutions failed to incorporate the magnitude of risk that led to the financial collapse.  

In essence, as we move past peak oil production and ramp up new technologies for drilling off-shore in deep seas and processing uranium into nuclear energy sources, we leverage the earth as we have leveraged the economy with the use of complicated mathematical models and financial instruments.  We can’t understand the risks of new technologies for which we have no experience, yet the potential impacts to the earth are severe.

Second, even where we can understand the some of the risks of the technology we use, we need to start factoring in the cumulative effect on society as a whole of the small risks taken by individual actors and organizations.  The lack of sound regulation means that small risks taken by individual corporations can become magnified as additional companies take on those risks.  Large-scale adoption of sub-prime mortgage policies, for instance, intensified the impacts of collapse to society beyond the risks borne when such actions are taken by only one firm.  We are learning as well that the use of antibiotics, in ever larger quantities, is causing them to lose effectiveness and in fact leading to the development of resistant bacteria and ‘super’ infections.  Finally, the BP oil spill in the Gulf and the proposed Keystone/XL pipeline project in Nebraska provide two other examples in which technological and economic imperatives mask the magnitude of ecological harm that occurs at the point of failure.

We need to expose the limitations of policymaking that prioritizes economic growth in the use of cost-benefit models versus the increased risk to our health—and the health of our planet.  Instead of a debate myopically premised on using industrial methods to constantly ramp up energy production, we need, as Bill McKibben says, to start “backing off” on projects that center on expansion and growth.  McKibben describes it thusly:  “Big was dynamic; when the project was growth, we could stand the side effects.  But now the side effects of that size—climate change, for instance—are sapping us.  We need to scale back, to go to ground.  We need to take what wealth we have left and figure out how to use it, not to spin the wheel one more time but to slow the wheel down.  We need to choose safety instead of risk, and we need to do it quickly, even at the sacrifice of growth.” (6)

In short, what was a voluntary form of simplicity is now becoming involuntary.

Dan Kahan, writing in Nature (7), suggested that the concept of "cultural cognition"—the influence of historically held group values and assumptions relating to equality, individualism and community—is driving the political conflict and polarization over climate change and other related issues.  Thomas Horner-Dixon, professor of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada, notes that: "Powerful special interests like the coal and oil industries have learned how to halt movement on climate policy by exploiting the fear people feel when their identities are threatened." (8) He believes that a disastrous climate shock, like the economic shocks experienced recently, will be what it takes to change the individualistic and materialistic cultural cognition that has developed and been shaped by powerful special interests. 

We are in a race with time to adapt our cultural and economic beliefs and institutions.  With each day that passes without effective energy policy to reduce carbon emissions, our ability to choose—to be voluntary—about the types of simplicity we undertake becomes more limited.  Winona LaDuke says it is the time to “stop talking about talking about it.”  It’s time for each person to take on the cultural transformation and model sustainable behaviors, even when it’s not comfortable or convenient to do so.  The last words are for Bill McKibben (9):  “Global warming is a negotiation between human beings on the one hand and physics and chemistry on the other.  Which is a tough negotiation because physics and chemistry don’t compromise. They’ve already laid out their non-negotiable bottom line: above 350 [parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere] the planet doesn’t work.”


1 Elgin, Duane. 1993. Voluntary Simplicity. Quill (William Morrow).

2 Ibid. p. 27.

3, April 11, 2010.

4 McKibben, Bill. 2010. Eaarth : Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Times Books.

5 Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. 2007. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Random House. p. 164.

6 Eaarth, p. 124.

7 Kahan, Dan. Fixing the communications failure. Nature, 463, p. 296-297 (21 January 2010). 

8 Homer-Dixon, Thomas. Disaster at the Top of the World. New York Times (August 22, 2010).

9 Eaarth, p. 81.

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