Thursday, February 22, 2007

Simple living and poverty

There is an interesting discussion going on over at the New American Dream about whether the "simplicity" movement is essentially a pipe dream of the privileged class. Clearly there is some basis for making that claim, when the gurus of simplicity (Joe Dominguez, Jim Merkel) are touting retiring from their Wall Street or Department of Defense contract jobs in order to do volunteer work, or getting rid of clutter as a spiritual practice, or when a member of my simplicity circle wonders if he is truly welcome if he can't afford to buy organic vegetables.

But as someone who lived in a substandard trailer without running water for five years in involuntary simplicity, I think I can say that on both the practical and the ethical level, simplicity so-called is not just for jaded trust fund yuppies. I have difficulty with the counterclaim that simplicity is essentially about frugality too, but at least that claim is on some level about living in the real world of labor and material objects. And in terms of the crunchy spiritual goodness inherent in each bite, when I was poor, much poorer than I am now, I was no less beset by images of people in nice clothes in front of handsome Craftsman houses with roofs that didn't leak. Logically enough, the material necessities I dreamed of were not generic but imbued just the same with messages from the culture.

One of my hopes for this blog is to limn that hazy line that separates simplicity as an aesthetic practice from simplicity as an ethical practice. I mean to do this from my perspective as one now firmly entrenched in the middle class who hasn't always had the luxury of deciding whether to use my station wagon less frequently to be nicer to the Earth.


Elderwoman said...

I found your post insightful and thought-provoking.
My own take on it is that simple living is like a house with many doors into it. Scarcity makes people appreciate the things they do have, so simplifying for ethical reasons or as an aid to stress-reduction can lead to a realization of the aesthetic aspects. Likewise, someone who simplifies as part of a spiritual practice might then realize the ethical implications (“Hey, look, my eco-footprint has gotten smaller!”)
Even enforced scarcity can lead to greater appreciation of things, as I know well from my own experiences of tough times. However, if one is living in really desperate poverty one may feel too numbed by the constant stress and anxiety of it to appreciate anything much – especially if there are kids to feed. (Remember Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’?)
My own work in this area, especially my book, 'The Lilypad List'
has been to blend the ethical and the aesthetic aspects and to explain the importance of both.
Blessings on your journey to simplicity.

Leslie said...

Yes you can grow strawberries and more in subarubia! I did it when living just south of Macon. I had a small garden and my neighbor taught me to can my own veggies. It is singularly satisfying, at a deep level, to see canned goods on your shelf and know that you did that yourself. You should take up canning, if you don't already do it.

You made a good point that simplifying is not equivalent to frugality. I didn't realize how besieged we are by the media to buy, buy, buy! until I moved out here to nowhere. The pressure to look a certain way is subtle but strong.

We decided not to have television (movies, yes, but cable/dish/airwave signals, no) when we moved and it is staggering how big an impact that has made on us. We missed it mightily at first but we've developed new habits and now I never miss it.

Perhaps best of all, I'm now blissfully unaware of how unhip I am :)

The Simpleton said...

Elderwoman--thanks for letting me know about your book! I'll look into it.

Leslie--I appreciate the encouragement. I used to can about a hundred years ago, when I lived in a more rural setting and had more peaches than I could can (there's a woodchuck joke in there somewhere). Let's see if I can get the fruit to bear first, though. I may be calling on you for advice.

And congratulations on your new setting. We have a TV that gets used to play DVDs now and again. But I agree--it's nice not even to know when you're not keeping up with the Joneses.