Over the last few years I've been conscious of trying to live more simply. But I have to admit that it's not easy and most of the time I fall short of the mark. And it's a pretty elusive mark. How am I to define living simply in this place of such extravagance and abundance and waste? I have absolutely everything that I NEED and pretty much everything that I WANT. I can honestly say that there is really NOTHING - no consumer product - that I need. As I think ahead even, I'm certain that I could get buy quite nicely - probably for years - without buying ANYTHING except food (well, maybe a few more things like gas and insurance and other "staples"). But I also know that I WILL continue to buy - to keep up to date with the latest electronics, fashions, trends, and my own whims.
So I'm thinking about the concept of voluntary simplicity - the self-imposed commitment to consume less. We may think of this as a modern movement but it actually has roots that can be traced back centuries. Many religious traditions have encouraged simplicity for spiritual, social and ecological reasons. The current voluntary simplicity movement is nothing new and for most of us is likely a quite watered down version of ancient practices. So what is the REAL value of voluntary simplicity? Does it help one connect more closely to God? Does it really reduce our ecological footprint in any significant way? Does it contribute to a more just society? Bottom line, what difference does it make if I discipline myself to leave the things that I don't need on the shelf - or increasingly - out of my various online shopping carts? These are not idle questions. I think about them a lot - almost to the point of obsession!
Here's the line of my thinking:
1. consumerism is a serious addiction and most of us (in the western world) have it to some degree. All addictions affect the person who is addicted - obviously - but also people around them, maybe even to the ends of the earth.
2. this addiction DOES have spiritual, ecological and social consequences. On the spiritual level, any addiction is idolatry - it obscures our view of God and hinders our ability to relate to God. We're much more like the rich young ruler than we like to think. If you don't know about the rich young ruler, check out these passages which all give an account of the encounter between the rich young ruler and Jesus: Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30. From an ecological point of view I think there is no doubt that our addiction to stuff is hazardous to the planet. The earth's resources, as profound as they are, are not limitless and they cannot sustain us - and by us, I do mean all 7 billion of us on the planet - if we continue to plunder and waste them. There really is only ONE earth and - as I've mentioned in frequent previous posts - our current lifestyle is truly unsustainable from a purely ecological perspective. And finally, in terms of social impact and social justice, we in the western world - the one billion of us who control and consume 86% of the earth's resources - are guilty of oppression and exploitation, whether we intend it or not.
So, what to do? Voluntary simplicity is a great place to start, but is it enough? What if one person in one thousand voluntarily reduces our level of consumption? The benefit may be mostly to us - we are freed from the compulsion to buy, to consume, to own, to plunder. We are free to live more authentically - spiritually, ecologically and socially. We find that we have a better quality of life - it's less cluttered by the desires and obsessions that are inherent in any addiction. But at that level - 1/1000 - the ecological and social justice impact may not even be noticeable. I wonder what it would take to get the commitment to voluntary simplicity to a level that IS noticeable - 1 in 100, or 1 in 10 or 1 in 5? What would it take to get to a level of simplicity that humanity is actually able to address the systemic roots of injustice and oppression? And will we ever get there through voluntary commitments?
Moving from voluntary to involuntary simplicity may not be as extreme as it sounds. For instance, there have been times in the not so distant past when gasoline or food was rationed. Compliance was mandated by law and offenders were prosecuted. Nothing voluntary about that. Nobody likes to have their choices restricted, but sometimes it's necessary in order to address the social consequences of our natural bent towards greed and selfishness.
I'll continue to strive for simplicity but honestly, it will be easier for me to comply when public policy forces me to live more simply. So maybe some of my effort should go into supporting public policy that will do just this. In fact, I'd say that we'll know that we're really serious about the simplicity thing when political parties who promise to enforce simplicity measures actually get our votes. This is not a political plug and I'm not an extremist. I know I'm not an extremist because if I were, I'd be much better at leading by example. No, I'm just thinking this through and wrestling with the big picture stuff.
Voluntary compliance is always more appealing than involuntary - or mandated - compliance - but the fact is, the majority world cannot afford to wait for us to coax everyone on board. While we're patting ourselves on the back for taking a few steps towards a simpler life, they are living with the chronic indignities that come with lack of food, water, shelter, sanitation, education and medical care and they are too often dying for lack of these basic necessities.
We can and should and must, continue our individual efforts but we should also support public policy that will force us to live more responsibly and generously. And for those of us who claim to be followers of Christ, this is as much a part of our spiritual discipline and discipleship as prayer and fasting and worship and bible study and compassion.