Voluntary Simplicity—Least Heeded in Times When it is Most Needed

mahatma gandhi

The concept of voluntary simplicity has been integral to some of the greatest human beings in all history and the inspirational value of their life and message influenced a very large number of followers. More generally, those who adopted voluntary simplicity used to get a lot of respect in society. Unfortunately, at a time when the world needs voluntary simplicity more than ever before, this respect for voluntary simplicity has declined in many societies.

What exactly do we mean by voluntary simplicity? This means that an individual or group takes a decision to consciously limit  consumption of goods and services keeping in view various considerations of social responsibility and a well-lived life. These considerations may be related to environment protection, justice, spirituality or related matters, or a mix of these. What is common to all these is for a person to feel strongly that there is a calling higher than that of merely going on increasing material consumption ( or accumulation) and in fact restraining material consumption beyond a point is helpful for this higher purpose  and so this person takes a decision to voluntarily reduce consumption/accumulation.

This certainly should not be equated to self-imposed poverty, denial of essential needs, miserliness, misery that comes from denial, becoming ascetic or a recluse. In fact a person who accepts voluntary simplicity is likely to be more engaged socially (this decision is often taken as part of a higher sense of social responsibility) and is like to be happier and more creative, having managed to get out of the narrow tunnel (which actually is a very, very narrow tunnel once you consider the much wider and higher visions of human life) of pursuing consumption and accumulation.

Voluntary simplicity does not have any iron rules to be followed by everyone, and can of course take different forms for different persons/professions and in different cultures, geographic and climate conditions. However in general there is an expectation that goods and services which are socially more harmful will be discarded or reduced greatly as a higher priority. Giving up alcohol, tobacco and guns while reducing meat, high energy guzzling energy gadgets and high luxury products would appear to have higher priority, but what is more important ultimately is the basic principle of voluntary simplicity.

What makes the concept of voluntary simplicity most relevant for present and future times is the fast aggravating environmental crisis at various levels in various forms. A big contribution can be made to resolving various aspects of this crisis, including climate change, if more and more people accept voluntary simplicity. In addition the cause of peace and justice is also helped if millions and millions of people give up the aggressive pursuit of increasing their consumption and accumulation, which may often be at the cost of other people, including those located in distant places in a globalized world.

Unfortunately, at a time when there is greater need for embracing voluntary simplicity than ever before in human history, this appears to be least heeded. One reason is that the attractions in the form of a very wide range of glittering consumer goods with the appearance of some newness are now higher than perhaps ever before. Another reason is that the role of advertisements and celebrity endorsements in strengthening the consumerism based mass culture has increased a lot. There are more and easier as well as quicker means of satiating a vast diversity of consumer demands in a culture of instant gratification. Perhaps the biggest factor is that social values which led to respect for voluntary simplicity have been weakened in several societies and cultures.

Many people tend to equate a lot of this with economic progress and a life of more pleasure, but more serious reflection would definitely reveal many increasing threats to the present day world and to the future of children, in significant ways related to consumerism and instant gratification. Unfortunately the tendency for such serious reflection is also much less than it needs to be. Hence, on the whole, despite some good efforts, the principle of voluntary simplicity is least heeded today when it is most needed.

Are remedial actions possible? Certain– in the form of campaigns for voluntary simplicity which are also linked for campaigns for environment protection, justice and peace. This can be a very creative and constructive effort, highly relevant and much needed.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.


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