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By Duane Elgin and Arnold Mitchell
The Co-Evolution Quarterly, Summer 1977
For the past several years the popular press has paid occasional attention to stories
of people returning to the simple life—of people moving back to the country or making
their own bread or building their own solar-heated home, and so on. Beneath this popular
image of simple living we think there is a major social movement afoot which has the
potential of touching the Unites States and other developed nations to their cores. This is
the movement towards “voluntary simplicity”—a phrase we have borrowed from Richard
Gregg who, in 1936, was describing a way of life marked by a new balance between
inner and outer growth. Further, we think that voluntary simplicity may prove an
increasingly powerful economic, social, and political force over the coming decade and
beyond if large numbers of people of diverse backgrounds come to see it as a workable
and purposeful response to many of the critical problems that we face. The emergence of
voluntary simplicity could represent a major transformation of traditional American
values. In this context, it may be a harbinger of multifold shifts, not only in values, but in
consumption patterns, institutional operations, social movements, national policies, and
Although there are many precursors and contributing streams to this social flow
(environmentalism, consumerism, consciousness movement, etc.), there is little direct
evidence to measure the magnitude of this way of life. This discussion then is not
intended to be predictive or definitive; rather, as social conjecture and pattern
recognition, it is inherently speculative and intended to provoke further thought and
comment regarding voluntary simplicity.
In this paper, we start with a definition of voluntary simplicity (which we will
sometimes refer to as VS) and look at the goals and values of people espousing it. We
next discuss who the VS people are, their living patterns, and plausible trends in VS out
to the year 2000. The paper then discusses the social and business implications of VS.
II. What is Voluntary Simplicity?
The essence of voluntary simplicity is living in a way what is outwardly simple
and inwardly rich. This way of lie embraces frugality of consumption, a strong sense of
environmental urgency, a desire to return to living and working environments which are
of a more human scale, and an intention to realize our higher human potential—both
psychological and spiritual—in community with others. The driving forces behind
voluntary simplicity range from acutely personal concerns to critical national problems.
The appeal of simple living appears to be extraordinarily widespread, even gathering
sympathy from among those who are not presently attempting to simplify their own life
patterns. Voluntary simplicity is important because it may foreshadow a major
transformation in the goals and values of the United States in the coming decades.
Although a social movement still in its early stages, its practical and ethical positions
seem well enough developed to permit useful analysis of this way of life.
Voluntary simplicity is not new. Nonetheless, the conditions and trends which
appear to be driving its contemporary emergence do seem new in their magnitude and
intensity. Historically, voluntary simplicity has its roots in the legendary frugality and
self-reliance of the Puritans; in Thoreau’s naturalistic vision at Walden Pond; in
Emerson’s spiritual and practical plea for “plain living and high thinking”; in the
teachings and social philosophy of a number of spiritual leaders such as Jesus and
A uniquely modern aspect of voluntary simplicity is that this way of life seems to
be driven by a sense of urgency and social responsibility that scarcely existed ten or
fifteen years ago. This sense of urgency appears to derive from many serious societal
problems, including: the prospects of a chronic energy shortage; growing terrorist
activities at the same time that developed nations seem increasingly vulnerable to
disruption; growing demands of the less developed nations for a more equitable share of
the world’s resources; the prospect that before we run out of resources on any absolute
basis we may poison ourselves to death with environmental contaminants; a growing
social malaise and purposelessness which causes us to drift in our social evolution; and so
on. These are but a few of the more modern elements which converge to make voluntary
simplicity a seemingly rational response to a pressing situation.
Values Central to Voluntary Simplicity
Voluntary simplicity is a name which denotes a social movement of great
diversity and richness. Not surprisingly, there are many values congruent with voluntary
simplicity—that radiate out, so to speak, touching global as well as close-to-home issues,
idealistic as well as practical matters, and worldly along with personal concerns. Yet,
there seems to be an underlying coherence to the rich diversity of expression of this way
of life. Consequently, we have selected a skeletal list of those values, which seem to us to
lie at the heart of this emerging way of life. These five values are the following:
• Material Simplicity
• Human Scale
• Ecological Awareness
• Personal Growth
These are considered in detail below.
1. Material Simplicity Simplification of the material aspects of life is one of the core
values of voluntary simplicity. The American Friends Service Committee, long a leader
in exploring a way of life of creative simplicity, defines simple living as a “non-
consumerist life-style based upon being and becoming, not having.” The Friends have
identified four consumption criteria which evoke the essence of voluntary material
• Does what I own or buy promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, or does
it induce passivity and dependence?
• Are my consumption patters basically satisfying, or do I buy much that serves no
• How tied are my present job and lifestyle to installment payments, maintenance
and repair costs, and the expectations of others?
• Do I consider the impact of my consumption patterns on other people and on the
These consumption criteria imply an intention to “reduce frills and luxuries in our
present lifestyle but at the same time emphasize the beauty and joy of living.” They are
designed to (1) help people lead lives of creative simplicity, freed from excessive
attachment to material goods; (2) aid the nation release more of its wealth to share with
those who presently do not have even the basic necessities of life; (3) help individuals
become more self-sufficient and less dependent upon large, complex institutions, whether
public or private; and (4) restore to life a sense of proportion and balance between the
material and non-material aspects of living.
Although living simply implies consuming quantitatively less (particularly items
that are energy inefficient, nonbiodegradable, nonessential luxuries, etc.), this does not
mean that the overall cost of consumption will go down drastically. Living simply need
not be equated with living cheaply. The hand crafted, durable, esthetically enduring
products that appeal to frugal consumers are oftentimes purchased at a considerable
premium over mass-produced items. Therefore, although the quantity of consumption
may decrease and the environmental costs of consumption may be considerably
moderated, the overall cost of consumption may remain relatively high since our
economy is not oriented to producing the kinds of products which fit these criteria.
Material simplicity will thus likely be manifest in consumption styles that are less ascetic
(of strictly enforced austerity) and more aesthetic (where each person will consider
whether his or her level and pattern of consumption fits, with grace and integrity, into the
practical art of daily living). In this view, material possessions are supportive of rather
than central to, the process of human growth. Since the ways of expressing that growth
are diverse, it seems likely that the degree and nature of material simplification will be a
matter for each individual to settle largely for him or herself.
2. Human Scale A preference for human-sized living and working environments is a
central feature of the values constellation embraced by voluntary simplicity. Adherents to
voluntary simplicity tend to equate the gigantic scale of institutions and living
environments with anonymity, incomprehensibility, and artificiality.
In contrast, as E.F. Schumacher has so powerfully stated, “Small is Beautiful.”
The smallness theme touches on many facets of living. It implies that living and working
environments as well as supportive institutions (which have grown to enormous levels of
scale and complexity) should, whenever possible, be decentralized into more
comprehensible and manageable entities. This further implies that people’s endeavors
should be of such dimensions that each knows what he/she contributes to the whole and,
hence, has a sense of shared rewards and shared responsibility. Reduction of scale is seen
as a means of getting back to basics by restoring to life a more human sense of proportion
3. Self-Determination Voluntary simplicity embraces an intention to be more self-
determining and less dependent upon large, complex institutions whether in the private
sector (the economy) or public sector (the political processes). Self-determination
manifests itself in consumption as a desire to assume greater control over one’s personal
destiny and not lead a life so tied to “installment payments, maintenance costs and the
expectations of others.” To counterbalance the trend towards increasing material
dependency a person may seek to become more materially self-sufficient—to grow his
own, to make his own, to do without, and to exercise self-discipline in his pattern and
level of consumption so that the degree of dependency (both physical and psychological)
Self-determination shows up in production as a counterbalancing force to combat
excessive division of labor. Therefore, instead of embracing specialization the adherent to
voluntary simplicity may seek greater work integration and synthesis so that the
relationship between his work and its contribution to the whole is more evident.
In the public sector, the drive for greater self-determination is revealed by a
growing distrust of and sense of alienation from large and complex social bureaucracies.
The individual—particularly the adherent to voluntary simplicity—seems to want to take
charge of his life more fully and to manage his own affairs without the undue or
unnecessary intrusion of a remote bureaucracy. This dimension of voluntary simplicity
may explain some of the unusual political coalitions that seem to be emerging between
the right and left—where neither support the further intrusion of big institutions into their
lives, but rather wish for greater local self-determination and grass roots political action.
This aversion to being controlled by increasingly distant bureaucracies is reminiscent of
the stubborn independence out of which was born the American Revolution.
4. Ecological Awareness A sense of ecological awareness which acknowledges the
interconnectedness and interdependence of people and resources is central to voluntary
simplicity. There emerges from this awareness a number of themes that are hallmarks of
this way of life. For example, ecological awareness prompts recognition that our earth is
indeed limited, with all that implies for conservation of physical resources, reduction of
environmental pollution, and maintenance of the beauty and integrity of the natural
environment. Importantly, this awareness often seems to extend beyond a concern for
purely physical resources to include other human beings as well. The philosophy of
“welfare” espoused by Gandhi (sarvodaya—not wanting what the least of the inhabitants
of this earth cannot have) seems to bring, in substantial part, from this intimate sense of
felt connection with those who are less fortunate than we. From this awareness there may
arise a sense of compassion and caring that extends beyond the boundaries of the nation-
state to include all of humankind. In acknowledging the underlying unity of the human
race, the growth of an ecological awareness expands the vision of voluntary simplicity
outward and brings with it a strong sense of social responsibility and worldly
involvement to what otherwise could be a relatively isolated and self-centered way of
Some of the more concrete expressions of this awareness might include: a
willingness to share resources with those who are disadvantaged; a sense of global
citizenship with commensurate adjustments in lifestyle, social vision, and political
commitments; a preference for living where there is ready access to nature; and a desire
to foster human and institutional diversity at a grass roots level.
5. Personal Growth For many persons taking up a materially simple way of life, the
primary reason is to clear away external clutter so as to be freer to explore the “inner
life.” The themes of material simplicity, self-sufficiency, a more human scale to living
and working, and an ecological awareness are, in a way, devices to sweep away
impediments to inner growth. The goal, then, is to free oneself of the overwhelming
externals so as to provide the space in which to grow—both psychologically and
spiritually. Simone de Beauvoir succinctly stated the rationale for this desire for self-
realization when she said: “Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing
itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying.” From the vantage
point of many adherents to voluntary simplicity, contemporary American society is
primarily occupied in perpetuating itself—and living has become “only not dying.” As
the workability and meaning of traditional values and goals becomes less compelling, a
small but rapidly growing number of Americans have become intensively engaged in the
attempt to surpass themselves. Although personal growth often includes a distinctly
spiritual aspect, involvement with the inner/nonmaterial dimension of life should not be
associated with any particular philosophy or religion—its scope embraces activities
ranging from biofeedback, humanistic psychology, transpersonal psychology, Eastern
philosophy, fundamentalist Christianity, and more.
A concern for the subjective aspect of experience and for the quality of human
relationships has been reflected in a steady current of evolving social trends over the past
15 years. Developments have included the emergence and proliferation of the “human
potential movement”; the emergence of “transpersonal psychology” coupled with a rapid
increase of interest and involvement in many Eastern meditative traditions; the growth of
feminism; a cultural fascination with psychic phenomena; developments in brain research
that confirm a biological basis for both the rational and the intuitive side to human nature;
a growing interest in sports as both a physical and spiritual process (e.g., the “inner
game” of tennis); and more.
Without the compelling goal of exploring inner potentials, it seems unlikely that
there will be sufficient motivation to adopt voluntarily a way of life of material
simplicity. Without greater simplicity, it seems unlikely that we will be able to cope
successfully with the problems engendered, for example, by scarcity. Finally, unless
inner learning expands, it seems unlikely there will develop the degree of internal
maturation necessary for the human species to act as wise trustees of conscious evolution
on this earth.
Still, this analysis does not penetrate to the roots of the connection between
personal growth and voluntary simplicity. To explain adequately, we must look to a
deeper underlying vision. It is an old vision —perhaps as old as civilized man—but an
enduring one that seems destined to be rediscovered again and again. The nature of this
vision is succinctly summed up by the eminent historian, Arnold Toynbee:
These religious founders [Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, St. Francis of Assisi] disagreed
with each other in their pictures of what is the nature of the universe, the nature of
spiritual life, the nature of ultimate spiritual reality. But they all agreed in their
ethical precepts. They all agreed that the pursuit of material wealth is a wrong
aim. We should aim only at the minimum wealth needed to maintain life; and our
main aim should be spiritual. They all said with one voice that if we made
material wealth our paramount aim, this would lead to disaster. They all spoke in
favor of unselfishness and of love for other people as the key to happiness and to
success in human affairs.
The foregoing five themes do not exhaust the range of basic values that may
emerge as hallmarks of the way of life termed voluntary simplicity. Moreover, these
values will surely be held to differing degrees in differing combinations by different
people. Nonetheless, these values possess an underlying coherence which suggests that
they have not arisen randomly but rather as a strongly reinforcing set or pattern. Just a
few moments of reflection reveals how powerfully reinforcing these values are: for
example, personal growth may foster an ecological awareness which may prompt greater
material simplicity and thereby allow greater opportunity for living and working at a
smaller, more human scale which, in turn, may allow greater opportunity for local self-
determination. No one value theme alone could create the vitality and coherence that
emerges from the synergistic interaction of these values. To the extent that these values
provide people with a realistic basis for both maintaining and surpassing themselves, they
then constitute a practical “world view”—a coherent pattern of perception, belief, and
behavior which could provide an important bridge between the traditional industrial
world view and an uncertain and difficult social future.
What Voluntary Simplicity is Not
We have been trying to define what voluntary simplicity is. We can also get a
sense of voluntary simplicity by suggesting what it is not.
• Voluntary simplicity should not be equated with a back-to-nature movement.
Although an historic shift in net population migration towards small towns and
rural places is underway, the large majority of people continue to reside in urban
environments. Voluntary simplicity seems perhaps as compelling for this urban
majority as it does for the rural minority. An urban existence need not be
incompatible with voluntary simplicity; indeed, many of the experiments with
appropriate technology, intensive gardening, and such have been conducted in
• Although voluntary simplicity surely traces some of its contemporary heritage and
vitality to the counterculture movement of the 1960s, its present constituency is
certainly not limited to that group. Many of its adherents are of an age and
background far removed from the proponents of the so-called “new values” a
• Voluntary simplicity should not be equated with living in poverty. Indeed,
impoverishment is in many ways the opposite of simple living in that poverty
tends to make life a struggle to maintain oneself and provides little opportunity to
• Voluntary simplicity is not a social panacea. It does imply social evolution
towards what its adherents view as the minimal requirements for long term global
survival but that does not itself cure the problems we confront; rather, voluntary
simplicity may provide a basis from which societal responses with some long
term hope for success can emerge.
• It is not a movement with heart but without the skills necessary to bring it to
fruition. Among those who adhere to many of the tenets of voluntary simplicity
are, in our estimation, some of the most creative and capable intellects, artists, and
humanistic capitalists in the United States. Voluntary simplicity draws its ranks
substantially from the well-educated, and, as such, has access to a rich pool of
• Voluntary simplicity is not a social movement confined to the United States.
Virtually all of the developed Western nations seem to be moving in a somewhat
similar direction (although its expression may be altered by the cultural context
and social experience). Many European nations, with more limited land and
resources, have been learning how to cope with scarcity for far longer than the
United States has. And there is evidence that other nations may be opting for
voluntary simplicity rather than endure the stress of striving for affluence. For
example, a recent poll in Norway found that “74 percent of the total sample
claimed they would prefer a simple life with no more than essentials (these were,
however, not defined) to a high income and many material benefits if these have
to be obtained through increased stress.”
• Voluntary simplicity is not a fad. Its roots reach far too deeply into the needs and
ideals of people everywhere to be regarded as a transitory response to a passing
The Push Toward Voluntary Simplicity
We have suggested that there is a strong pull towards voluntary simplicity. It
seems to offer a practical, workable, and meaningful way of life for a small but
significant segment of the population. Yet, despite the strength of this pull to voluntary
simplicity, there is little reason to think that this way of life will grow to embrace
substantial proportions of the population unless the pull is matched by substantial pushes.
These twin elements of push and pull need to be considered if we are to assess the
likelihood that voluntary simplicity will gather social momentum in the future. We turn,
then, to consideration of whether society problems will push us in a direction similar to
that exerted by the pull toward voluntary simplicity.
The range and diversity of contemporary societal problems is enormous. Space
does not allow more than a cursory glance at some of the more prominent problems
which may, in their eventual resolution, push us towards a simple way of life. These
• The prospect of running out of cheaply available, critical, industrial raw materials
• The prospect of chronic energy shortages and a difficult transition to a much more
• The growing threat that before we run out of material resources in any absolute
sense we will pollute ourselves to death with the intrusion of many thousands of
hazardous substances into our living environments and food chains
• Rising material demands of the third and fourth world, coupled with climatic
changes which may induce periodic but massive famine in certain areas, coupled
with the growing threat of terrorism (conventional, nuclear, biological), coupled
with the growing vulnerability of the highly complex and interdependent
technology (e.g., communications, energy, and transportation systems) common
to developed nations
• The changing balance of global power, given rapid nuclear proliferation
• The poverty of abundance—growing dissatisfaction with the output of our
industrial society as the sole or even primary reward and reason for our individual
• Challenge to the legitimacy of leaders in nearly all major institutions—both
public and private
• Apparent loss of social purpose and direction coupled with rising levels of
• Chronic and pervasive fiscal crises of many of our largest cities, coupled with an
historic and unexpected turnaround in migration patterns (the net flow is now to
small towns and rural areas)
• Decline in the expected number of meaningful work roles, coupled with growing
levels of automation, coupled with chronic underemployment and unemployment
• The prospect that we have created social bureaucracies (at the federal, state, and
local levels) of such extreme levels of scale, complexity, and interdependence that
they now exceed our capacity to comprehend and, therefore, to manage them;
coupled with growing protests that we are becoming an excessively overregulated
society, coupled with growing demands upon government at all levels
• Growing demands that domestic economic inequities be moderated, coupled with
the prospect of a little- or no-growth economy in the foreseeable future, yielding
the spectre of intense competition for a fixed or slowly growing pie
Resolution of problems such as these will likely push our society in a direction
which is more ecologically conscious, more frugal in its consumption, more globally
oriented, more decentralized, more allowing of local self-determination, and so on. To
some considerable extent, it appears that resolution of these increasingly serious
problems will push in a direction at least similar to that implied by the pull toward
III. Patterns and Dimensions of Voluntary Simplicity
We think there are at least two very distinct kinds of people fully living the VS
way of life. The first, and less numerous of the two, consists of a heterogeneous group of
families and individuals who have voluntarily taken up simple living following years or
decades of active involvement in the mainstream. The motivations of such people tend to
be highly private and specific—desire to escape the “rat race,” personal disillusionment,
boredom with the job, the desire to live a less plastic life, and so on. Such changes in
lifestyle make good copy and hence this type of phenomenon gets much publicity. In
terms of numbers, this group does not appear very significant. However, as a model for
others to emulate, this group may be profoundly important.
The other type tends to be younger, more motivated by philosophical concerns,
more activistic, and more given to promoting the VS view. Since no survey has yet been
made explicitly for the purpose of defining the demographics of adherents to VS, we are
forced to surmise their characteristics based on the attributes of related groups (such as
environmentalists, consumerists, members of “human potential” movements, those
operating Briarpatch businesses, etc.) on which some data are available. Based on this
kind of inferential evidence, the second group of adherents to voluntary simplicity
appears to be:
• Predominantly young, the large majority being in their 20s or 30s
• Evenly divided among the sexes
• Preponderantly single, although many young families are included
• Almost exclusively white
• From middle or upper class backgrounds
• Exceptionally well educated
• Bimodal in income, over a fourth (mostly students) having annual incomes under
$5,000 and another fourth having incomes over $15,000
• Independent politically—uncomfortable with the standard labels
• Largely urban residents, although many would like to live in small town or rural
Number and Degrees of VS
We have found it useful to think in terms of four distinct categories of voluntary
1. Full Voluntary Simplicity—Our best guess is that only 4 to 5 million adults (3%
of the adult population) fully and wholeheartedly live a life of voluntary simplicity. These
people constitute the active, leading edge of the trend toward simple living and are found
in all parts of the country. If we had to draw a caricature of the life-activities
characteristic of this group it would include: organize gardening, recycling, natural foods,
simple clothing, biking to work, backpacking on vacations, family oriented, engaging in
meditation or other growth processes.
2. Partial Voluntary Simplicity—A second group we call “partial” adherents to
voluntary simplicity. This group is probably about twice as large as the first (with some 8
to 10 million adults). These persons adhere to and act on some, but not all, of the basic
tenets of voluntary simplicity. These persons are scattered throughout the adult
population—probably a greater proportion of them are middle age and middle class, but
they are still predominantly white and predominantly urban.
3. Sympathizers toward Voluntary Simplicity—Polls cited later suggest that a
large fraction of the total adult population—almost surely exceeding one-third and
perhaps as large as one-half—sympathizes with many values associated with voluntary
simplicity but, for one reason or another, this group does not presently act on this
sympathy. We call these people sympathizers toward voluntary simplicity.
4. Indifferent, Unaware, or Opposed to Voluntary Simplicity—Finally, we
estimate that at least half of the population falls into the category of being indifferent to,
unaware of, or opposed to voluntary simplicity. This group draws its numbers from both
ends of the income spectrum. First there are those who are involuntarily simple—that is,
who live in poverty and have not yet experienced the life of abundance. These people
oppose VS because they are unwilling to forego the opportunity to strike it rich. Second,
at the other income extreme, there are those who are strongly achievement oriented and
see simple living as a threat to their style of life.
It appears that, of these four categories, the sympathizers will play a pivotal role.
Their numbers are so large that they constitute a major reservoir of dormant support for
voluntary simplicity. Depending upon the pushes and pulls that tug at our society as we
make our way into the future, this way of life could have enormous growth potential, as
we shall see later.
On what basis do we offer the foregoing estimates of numbers of adults in the
various categories of voluntary simplicity? The estimates can be inferred by observing
the ebbs and flows of related movements ranging from consumerism to concern with
consciousness research. However, the dimensions of voluntary simplicity are most clearly
indicated in a variety of opinion studies.
In a poll published in May 1976, the Roper organization found that 51% of
Americans believe the nation “must cut way back” on production and consumption to
conserve resources and keep the economy strong. Only 45% felt that traditional lifestyles
can continue unchanged.
Louis Harris in late 1975 reported the following results from his polls. To reduce
consumption of physical goods and products:
• 92% of Americans are willing to eliminate annual model changes in automobiles
• 91% are willing to forego meat for one day a week
• 90% are willing to do away with annual fashion changes in clothing
• 82% are willing to reduce the amount of advertising
• 73% are willing to wear old clothes (even if they shine) until they wear out
• 73% are willing to prohibit the building of large houses with extra rooms that are
• 57% are willing to see a national policy that would make it much cheaper to live
in multiple-unit apartments than in single family homes
Harris concludes: “When the alternative is posed between changing our lifestyle to have
less consumption of physical goods, on one hand, and enduring the risks of continuing
inflation and unemployment on the other, by 77% to 8% the American people opt for a
change in lifestyle.”
A very different kind of study was reported in the final 1975 issue of the Harvard
Business Review. Asked to compare “Ideology I” (the traditional American way prizing
most the values of rugged individualism, private property, and free competition in an
open marketplace) with “Ideology II” (communalism in which the rights and duties of the
individual are determined by the needs of the common good), U.S. readers preferred I to
II by 70% to 29%. More important for this discussion, 36% thought Ideology II to be
dominant today, 38% thought it more effective in solving problems in the future, and
73% thought it would dominate in the U.S. by 1985.
Concern with the inner life also has a very broad base of support. For example,
the firm of Yankelovoch, Skelly, and White finds that some 80% of the population is
interested in developing better self-understanding through the inner search for meaning.
A 1975 poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Corporation found that over
40% of American adults have undergone what they regard as a genuinely “mystical”
experience. In 1974 Roper found that 53% of Americans believe in the existence of
ESP—a belief, incidentally, that correlates strongly with education and income. A 1976
Gallup poll found that 12% of the American people are “involved in” or “practice” some
Another indicator of support for VS is the fact that books like Small is Beautiful,
The Whole Earth Catalog, and Limits to Growth each have sold millions of copies.
Finally, one might point to the remarkable acceptance of California Governor
Edmund Brown, Jr.’s personal and political posture with regard to frugality and ecology.
Further, it seems significant that both President Carter and ex-President Ford have gone
on record as supporters of the view that more is not necessarily better.
The foregoing data prove nothing, but as a set or pattern of evidence they do seem
suggestive. They seem to indicate (1) a receptivity on the part of Americans to a change
in lifestyle, (2) sympathy for values and attitudes congruent with voluntary simplicity,
and (3) a wide base of interest in the inner dimension of life.
Prospects for Growth
A crucial question concerns the outlook for the growth of voluntary simplicity as
a way of life. We estimate that the maximum plausible growth of VS would yield the
Maximum Growth of VS
(Millions of Adults)
1977 1987 2000
Full VS 5 25 60
Partial VS 10 35 60
Sympathizers 60 50 25
Indifferent or Opposed 75 60 55
These figures suggest that possibly 10 million adults follow VS tenets today (if
we assume 5 million “full VS” plus 50% of “partial VS”). Their combined numbers could
exceed 40 million by 1987 and 90 million by the year 2000. This is, for a basic
sociological phenomenon, an extraordinary rate of growth. Even so, less than a third of
the adult population would be fully living this way of life 23 years from now.
To attain the degree of growth shown in the table, we think several conditions
would have to be present. First, the push pressures described earlier would have to
continue to mount rather than decline. Efforts to overcome them would have largely to
fail, for whatever reasons. At the same time, however, the nation would have to avoid a
truly severe economic depression or else involuntary simplicity (i.e., poverty) would
largely replace voluntary simplicity.
Second, VS would have to prove a rewarding and nourishing way of life to many
millions of people who have little experience with the day-to-day realities of living
simply. Attempts to live simply are sometimes abandoned because it doesn’t yield the
expected inner rewards, because it is too demanding or too lonely, or because changed
family circumstances (e.g., having children) require a return to a less extreme lifestyle.
Some observers feel that VS makes such large demands on both inner and external
resources of people and is at such profound odds with traditional American achievement
and material values that only a relative few will be able to live the simple life happily.
Hence, they argue, VS will not prove a viable national solution to the problem it
addresses. Other observers have no such qualms.
Third—and perhaps most important—a mass production, high-productivity sector
of the economy will have to coexist with the VS sector in order to maintain standards of
living; otherwise, the aggregate decline in living standards could be so great as to invite
social and economic revolution. There appear to be no mechanical or philosophic reasons
why frugality and simplicity cannot coexist with high technology and the profit motive.
However, it is not clear whether or not antagonisms between the two life ways would
permit the minimal—but essential—levels of cooperation.
Even if voluntary simplicity does expand in the coming quarter century to the
degree indicated, it is not likely to emerge in the smooth fashion suggested by the
numbers in the table. Rather, it will develop (to whatever extent) with jumps and drops
and plateaus, reflecting a variety of specific events, perceptual insights, charismatic
leaders, and many types of regulatory and legislative policies. It is also possible that
voluntary simplicity will progress unobtrusively in the form of countless millions of
small, unannounced decisions made so inconspicuously that almost no one is aware of the
total effect until, suddenly, it is clear that a major values transformation has occurred.
IV. Future Social Implications
The long run social ramifications of voluntary simplicity—if it develops into a
major social movement—are enormous. Widespread adoption of the social goals and
characteristics implied by the value themes underlying voluntary simplicity would surely
mark a deep and perhaps permanent alteration in the nature of the American dream. The
eventual result could be the creation of a social order that is as different from the present
as the industrial era was different from the Middle Ages.
The reason that the potential social implications are so vast is that voluntary
simplicity does not represent merely an internal readjustment of the prevailing values
pattern but rather constitutes a fundamental shift in that pattern. Widespread adoption of
this way of life could launch our society on a new developmental trajectory.
We are by no means suggesting that voluntary simplicity offers the only approach
to a viable cultural and economic future. However, the United States and many other
developed nations seem to be in a period of social drift. They appear to be losing both
momentum and a sense of direction. People seem to be waiting for some leader or chain
of events to make clear the nature of an alternative social vision. The uncertainty,
indecision, and growing anxiety over appropriate social direction has prompted a new
willingness to “think the unthinkable,” to deeply consider what life means and where we
wish to go. Voluntary simplicity as a coherent, broadly relevant, practical and purposeful
world view could provide an important point of reference or anchoring point as our
nation begins searching for and experimenting with new social forms.
Although VS as a way of life may have great and obvious long run significance, it
seems at present to be struggling to achieve a critical mass of social awareness and
acceptance. We have said that it could grow to major proportions by the year 2000. On
the other hand, under some circumstances the movement could fade away. If we are to
understand the prospects of voluntary simplicity, we must attempt to understand the
nature and dynamics of the larger social context out of which this way of life could
There is great uncertainty regarding the future course of social evolution in the
United States. Although the future is fundamentally uncertain, there are four alternative
societal social futures which we feel bound much of the domain of social possibility over
the next several decades. These are:
1. Technological Salvation—This is a future where, with good luck and great
ingenuity, we find the social will and technological know-how to cope with critical
national problems and continue along a trajectory of relatively high material growth. This
future assumes that the value premises of the industrial era (rugged individualism,
rationalism, material growth, etc.) will withstand current challenges and provide people
with meaningful and workable living environments.
2. Descent into Social Chaos—This is a future in which the society is torn by
divisions and tensions among competing interest groups. There is no cataclysmic
demise—just the grinding, unrelenting deterioration of the social fabric as crisis is
compounded by crisis amidst diminishing public consensus as to how to cope with it all.
Inept bureaucratic regulation and unforeseen events (such as severe climate changes)
could change the drift toward social chaos into a rush.
3. Benign Authoritarianism—Despite the growing public pressure for and
acceptance of the need for fundamental social change, the large, complex and highly
interdependent bureaucracies in both public and private sectors could thicken and, like
slowly hardening concrete, lock people into an inescapable net of regulations and
institution. This could be a benign authoritarianism which emerges from the unstoppable
logic of well-intended bureaucratic regulation which seeps into nearly every facet of life.
4. Humanistic Transformation—One expression of this alternative could be a
future in which the underlying value premises shift and two closely related ethics emerge.
First is an ecological ethic that accepts our earth as limited, recognizes the underlying
unity of the human race, and perceives man as an integral part of the natural environment.
Second is a self-realization ethic that asserts that each person’s proper goal is the
evolutionary development of his fullest human potentials in community with others. Each
ethic could serve as a corrective for possible excesses in the other. This could be a future
that substantially embraces voluntary simplicity or some similar way of life that, though
materially more modest than current lifestyles, is overall more satisfying.
These four thumbnail sketches of alternative futures present an enormous range of
social possibility. Yet, to the extent that each of these is a plausible future, its seeds must
exist in the present. Therefore, they need not be mutually exclusive social futures. For
example, we can imagine a plausible future marked by both a humanistic transformation
and by technological success (although it may be “appropriate” rather than “high”
technology that underlies that success).
One way to test the viability of voluntary simplicity as an emergent way of life is
to assess the extent to which it could assume a significant role in all four of these futures.
In other words, is this a social movement that has relevance only in the context of a future
of humanistic transformation, or could it plausibly play a major role in the other three
futures as well?
A future marked by “technological success” would probably still require people to
attack the problems of resource scarcity, environmental pollution, and global economic
inequities by consuming less. To the extent that there is a continuing need to approach
these and related problems from the demand side, there will be a corresponding role for
voluntary simplicity even in this materially successful scenario.
In a society of growing internal strife and tension, voluntary simplicity could, in
the short run, exacerbate that conflict. In the longer run, however, VS might help to
alleviate social tensions. To the extent that voluntary simplicity provided a way of life
that transcended traditional interest group conflicts and provided a meaningful and
workable response to a worsening social condition, it could alleviate tensions by directing
social energy in a more coherent and harmonious direction.
In a society marked by growing bureaucratic regulation and erosion of democratic
processes, voluntary simplicity (with its emphasis on local self-determination, human
scale, and self-sufficiency) could provide a health corrective and counterbalancing force.
Voluntary simplicity could provide an important source of grass roots innovation and
vitality to what otherwise could be an increasingly rigid and somber society.
The important point that we draw from this is not a prediction of the social future
but rather noting the significance of voluntary simplicity in many alternative futures. To
be sure, the size of this social movement would vary considerably depending on the
social context into which it must fit. Nonetheless, there seems to be sufficient push and
pull toward voluntary simplicity that it will not soon disappear from the social landscape.
Assuming that voluntary simplicity will be a significant social force across a
broad spectrum of societal futures, we now turn to consider the general nature of its
impact. The discussion that follows is intended to be provocative rather than definitive—
in hopes of stimulating further thought and comment.
What kind of society would emerge if voluntary simplicity were to become the
predominant way of life? A partial answer to this question can be found by examining
stereotypical contrasts between the value premises and social characteristics of the
industrial “world view” and the voluntary simplicity “world view.” Table 1 presents an
illustrative array of contrasting value premises and social attributes. Several important
insights emerge from this table. First, voluntary simplicity seems to constitute a broadly
based attempt to moderate, in the short run, and transcend, in the long run, the industrial
world view. Voluntary simplicity implies going beyond material growth to include
evolution among more subtle (but no less important) dimensions of life. A second pattern
revealed by this table is that the values cluster embraced by voluntary simplicity
represents at least as coherent a world view as the industrial world view (which has
powered our social vision and industrial development for nearly two centuries). Lastly,
voluntary simplicity does not appear to be a movement who domain of social impact can
be narrowly defined; rather, it reaches out and touches a great many aspects of life.
Contrasts between Industrial World View
and World View of Voluntary Simplicity
Emphasis in Industrial
Emphasis in Voluntary
Simplicity World View
Material growth Material sufficiency coupled with
Man over nature People within nature
Competitive self-interest Enlightened self-interest
Rugged individualism Cooperative individualism
Rationalism Rational and intuitive
Large, complex living and working
Smaller, less complex living and
Growth of material complexity Reduction of material complexity
Space-age technology Appropriate technology
Identity defined by patterns of
Identity found through inner and
Centralization of regulation and
control at nation/state level
Greater local self-determination
coupled with emerging global
Specialized work roles—through
division of labor
More integrated work roles (e.g.,
team assembly, multiple roles)
Secular Balance of secular and spiritual
Mass produced, quickly obsolete,
Hand crafted, durable, unique
Lifeboat ethic in foreign relations Spaceship earth ethic
Cultural homogeneity, partial
acceptance of diversity
Cultural heterogeneity, eager
acceptance of diversity
High pressure, rat race existence Laid back, relaxed existence
Table 1 can do little more than hint at the social implications of voluntary
simplicity. Therefore, we turn to look deeper across a sampling of these dimensions.
Presented below are some of the plausible, long run directions of social change that seem
congruent with voluntary simplicity—assuming this way of life were adopted by a
majority of the population.
National Tenor—A society in which a large proportion of the population adopts
voluntary simplicity would probably have a uniquely different “feel” to it. Although
admittedly speculative, we think that such a society would likely possess a greater sense
of frontier spirit, a feeling of continuing challenge at the prospects of forging new,
evolving relationships among individuals, societies, nature, and the cosmos. Although
some would likely view this as an escapist retreat from problems or a faddish response to
soon-to-be solved difficulties, overall the VS oriented society would have a high degree
of cultural cohesion, social maturity, and social consensus. People would likely be
settling in for the long haul and hence would have a greater sense of future destiny and
the conviction they were working on behalf of future generations as well as for
themselves. The culture would likely be more open, less tense and serious, and more
tolerant. There might be a higher degree of and delight in social diversity. There would
likely be a rebirth of a sense of geographic community and regional spirit and a grass
roots renaissance in the arts.
Material Growth—Society would tend to move from a goal of material
abundance to a goal of material sufficiency. What level of material sufficiency is
appropriate would largely be decided by individual choice constrained by resource
availability and prevailing cultural norms. Clearly, this presumes a strong cultural context
with widely shared beliefs as to what constitutes appropriate levels of material
sufficiency. Although material growth may tend toward a steady-state condition, this
need not imply a materially static society. With selective growth, some sectors of the
economy would grow rapidly while others would contract. For example, growth in
appropriate technology might be rapid while production of items of conspicuous
Human Growth—The society would tend to transfer its growth potential and
aspirations from a material dimension to an increasingly nonmaterial dimension. This
shift would be of the highest import if, as many suggest, our present problems arise in
part from a gross disparity between the relatively underdeveloped internal faculties of
man and the extremely powerful external technologies at his disposal. Society would
attempt to achieve greater balance by fostering a degree of interior human growth that is
at least commensurate with the enormous exterior growth that has occurred over the last
several hundred years. This implies that our nation would increasingly become a trustee
of conscious evolution on this earth, and, in doing so, endeavor to act with a level of
awareness equal to the power and responsibility inherent in that role. The implication is
that the nation’s industrial prowess could provide, with suitable guidance, the material
base to support the pervasive and intentional evolution of individual and socio-cultural
awareness. Seen in this light, a trend toward voluntary simplicity is a logical evolutionary
extension in our civilization growth.
Life Environment—Society would tend to shift from living and working in large,
complex environments to living and working in smaller, less complex environments.
Accompanying this might be migration from large cities to small cities, towns, and the
country. Such trends would probably stimulate grass roots social action, revitalize the
sense of community, and produce stronger, more distinctive clusters of neighborhoods.
Identity—The VS society would tend to define personal identity less in terms of
consumption than in terms of one’s awareness—psychological, social, spiritual. For
many Americans consumption is not only an expression of identity but is basic to the
sense of identity. The growth of voluntary simplicity would tend to produce a cultural
perspective in which identity could be expressed in many other ways, such as
experimenting with various forms of voluntary simplicity; developing vital communities
through new forms of group and extended family relationships; exploring human
consciousness through the hundreds of consciousness expanding disciplines, ranging
from meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis, encounter, bioenergetics, and so on.
Technology—Society would tend to move from “high” or “space age” technology
to the careful application of “intermediate” or “appropriate” technology. Just as the
industrial era was built on high technology, the voluntary simplicity era would likely rely
on technology that is explicitly designed to be ecologically sound, energy-conserving,
low polluting, comprehensible by many, integrated with nature, and efficient when used
on a small scale.
Politics—If voluntary simplicity were to emerge as a dominant way of life, much
of its growth would likely be driven by political activism at a grass roots level. Extensive
decentralization of institutions would require that local communities take much greater
responsibility for the well being of their population. Politics would probably assume a
more humanistic orientation as people came to see the intimate connection that exists
between the processes of personal growth and social change. Politics would thus be
infused with a higher degree of honesty, compassion, and integrity. There might emerge
new political coalitions and a greater number of political parties. There would also likely
be greater self-righteousness; more frequent appeals to spiritual symbols in attempting to
find political consensus; persistent tension between those holding the voluntary simplicity
view and those adhering to the industrial world view; confusion concerning the equity
and scope of programs conceived and administered at the local level; and so on. Overall,
it probably would be a society in which political processes were more experimental, error
embracing, and intentionally seeking diversity.
Global Environment—The emergence of an America dominated by the
philosophy of voluntary simplicity would undoubtedly lead to many changes in
international policies. A few are:
• Support for international bodies dealing with issues such as defense, food, energy,
conservation, pollution, critical resources, regulation of nuclear activities, and so
• Reduction in trade barriers and greater economic and technical assistance to
• Much more cultural interchange
• Moderation of power politics, with the U.S. attempting to exert moral rather than
economic or military leadership
If our policies were successful, the U.S. might ultimately emerge as a symbol of human
rights, a source of sophisticated aid in technological problems, and the leader in building
a worldwide sense of unity among all peoples everywhere.
V. Business Implications
The advent of a large segment of the population acting fully or partially in accord
with VS tenets would have a major impact on business. The highlights of these
implications are sketched below.
Our back-of-the-envelope estimates are that this way of life would not reduce
Gross National Product as much as might be expected; rather, adoption of simple living
by roughly a third of the adult population (such that their consumption levels were
halved), in the year 2000 would, we think, reduce personal income available to
consumers by only about 15% over our present levels. The biggest effect would likely be
on the pattern of aggregate consumption and on moderating the level of growth.
Those businesses that view voluntary simplicity as an opportunity rather than a
threat would likely find this to be perhaps the fastest growing consumer market of the
coming decades. Our rough estimates (calculated at 100% of the spending of “full” VS
consumers and 50% of “partial” VS consumers) suggest that consumption with a VS
orientation could plausibly rise from about $35 billion today to perhaps $140 billion a
decade hence, and to well over $300 billion in 2000 (all in 1975 dollars). This growth
seems more than ample to engage traditional business and also to support large numbers
of new firms—such as the Briarpatch Network—started to serve VS consumers.
The growth of voluntary simplicity almost surely would lead to an increasingly
bimodal income distribution. The enduring disparity between rich and poor in our society
would likely grow in magnitude as VS income patterns (although motivationally quite
different) would look increasingly like those who were involuntarily simple or poor. How
long this gap would persist is an open question. For a substantial proportion of the
population—and particularly the poor—we think an equitable redistribution of income
would be a precondition for voluntary frugality.
As indicated earlier, VS consumption criteria are significantly different from
traditional patterns. The person living the simple life tends to prefer products that are
functional, healthy, nonpolluting, durable, repairable, recyclable or made from renewable
raw materials, energy-cheap, authentic, esthetically pleasing, and made through simple
technology. Such criteria will adversely affect many products of conspicuous
consumption. On the other hand, the VS lifestyle should create excellent markets for such
• First class durable products, such as solid wood furniture, high quality music and
television systems, top-grade hand tools, geared bicycles
• Sturdy cotton and wool clothing deemphasizing fashion, which can be mended,
handed down, and worn for years
• Do-it-yourself equipment for home construction, home repair and improvements,
cooking, gardening, entertaining, and so on
• Inexpensive prefab “flexible” housing
• Easy-to-fix autos and appliances, perhaps using modular construction
• Healthy, “natural,” unprocessed foods
• Self-help medical, childcare, housekeeping items
• Products for arts and crafts and other esthetic pursuits
• Simple, safe, nonplastic, nonmetal toys and games for children
• Products or services associated with shared tasks in communal living,
cooperatives, recycling, and energy reduction and food conservation projects
• Leisure activities geared to country living
• Imaginative ways of refurbishing old city and country homes
• Traveling care repair and parts services
• Machines, equipments, and systems utilizing intermediate technology
Many prices would increase substantially to meet the qualitative demands of the
market; the market will be unwilling to accept varying profit margins (i.e., profit will
increasingly be based on a “cost-plus” basis) and will no longer tend to reflect the
market’s willingness to pay a premium for style, fashion, or fad. Price will more often be
in terms of barter or “energy exchange.” “Bulk” purchasing of nondurables should be
anticipated as a frugal market response to unit pricing.
A growing and appreciable portion of market activity will take place in the
“alternative marketplace”: flea markets, garage sales, classified advertising, community
bulletin boards. Consumer cooperatives and mailorder operations will increase as VS
consumers become less willing to support superfluous merchandising costs. Purchases
will be increasingly localized to diminish the costs of transportation and to encourage the
utilization of intermediate technology. Specialty stores will likely increase, especially for
food (home canning apparatus and utensils for greater self-suffiency); shelter (energy
conservation technology, materials-efficiency guidelines); and clothing (kits).
New styles of advertising and promotion will tend to replace traditional types of
sensational, emotional, and image appeals. Although an interesting and “aware” image
will be important, the aim of advertising and promotion will be to help the consumer gain
useful (rather than solely persuasive) information. The advertising will be more closely
associated with the product or service being promoted. False or misleading advertising
will be taken not as exaggerated puffery but as evidence of the advertiser’s lack of
concern for others—a message of “you versus us” instead of “we together.” Appeals
aimed at product quality, utility, durability, and service will likely be more successful,
although the marketplace undoubtedly will have its share of “clique products.” Keeping-
up-with-the-Joneses will diminish in importance, but the popularity or market acceptance
of a product will be an important promotional criterion.
In a simple living society the role of work would be downplayed as a status and
power symbol and upgraded as a means of contributing to the collective good.
Cooperation rather than competition would be the hallmark of work. Complaints would
be directed more toward matters of ethics, social responsibility, and esthetics rather than
issues of pay, office size, and promotion. Very likely there would be many more part-
time jobs, enabling people to earn enough to fulfill their essential needs and yet have
much more free time to pursue personal development and perhaps aid others.
Significantly, management would tend to be highly participative, be organized around
tasks, and be less hierarchical than at present. Ultimately, the traditional proprietary
attitudes of business might yield to greater openness and inter- and intra-industry
cooperation. The aggressive expression of the profit motive (exemplified by “making a
killing” rather than “making a living”)—although it is not likely to vanish in the near
future—would likely be a diminishing force in business.
It seems likely the advocates of voluntary simplicity will, as a consumer group,
continue to exert political and economic pressure to change business and industrial
practices. A trend toward VS implies no abatement of activistic consumer movements
directed toward such specific issues as safety, pollution, conservation, land use,
ecological balance, and others. Some of these movements could have extensive
implications for business. As individuals, VS people may very well try to influence
business by buying in accord with rating criteria applied to long lists of specific branded
products and specific manufacturers, retailers, banks, and the like. Such activities,
accompanied by word-of-mouth publicity, might be one way in which adherents of
voluntary simplicity will try to enforce their sense of social responsibility.
We think it likely that in many parts of the nation small businesses run by VSers for
the VS trade will flourish. The Briarpatch network in the San Francisco Bay area may
prove to be one important template. Founded by Dick Raymond only a few years ago, the
Briars have established several hundred individual firms in such areas as food and
clothing stores, restaurants, book and magazine publishing (including The CoEvolution
Quarterly), auto repair, baking, small-scale manufacture, child care centers, a toy
company, etc. The Briarpatch network provides professional advice and services in a
variety of domains including finance, advertising, insurance, charter flights, quantity
purchasing, accounting and legal services, bartering opportunities, fund raising skills, and
recruitment. The operating principles of Briarpatch businesses are significant. They
• Job sharing, in which two or more people are paid for one position
• Job swapping through which people can occasionally try out other positions
• Multiple jobs or roles, in which a person might be the bookkeeper as well as a
• Functions are generally performed without titles. If a title exists, it would
probably be Facilitator instead of President, “She buys everything” rather than
• Meditation is increasingly scheduled on the job
• If there are end-of-year surpluses, they are “recycled” in various ways. But
generally there is a desire to help other projects rather than passive investors
• Directors serving as facilitators rather than watchdogs
• One favorite practice is to set prices according to the rule that the best price is
what you would charge your friends.
The phenomenon we have called voluntary simplicity appears to be of deep social
significance for three fundamental reasons. First, it is a concept and a way of life whose
time seems at last to be arriving. The idea of voluntary simplicity has been discussed for
millennia. However, our present era of relative abundance contrasts sharply with the
material poverty of the past. The voluntary assumption of a life materially simple and
nonmaterially rich, therefore, is not only increasingly psychologically acceptable but
physically feasible for perhaps the first time in history for large numbers of people.
Second, it specifically addresses the critical issues of our times—the problems of
ecosystem overload, alienation, unmanageable scale and complexity of institutions,
worldwide antagonism, and so on. Voluntary simplicity is a creative, comprehensive, and
holistic approach to a host of problems customarily considered to be separate. By coping
simultaneously with scores of interrelated specifics, voluntary simplicity seems to
provide a solution that could not be achieved via the one-by-one route.
Third, it meshes with the eternal needs of individuals to continue to grow. The
emphasis on the inner life inherent in voluntary simplicity permits people to grow
psychologically even if material growth may be denied by events beyond their control.
Further, there is reason to think that the kind of growth fostered by voluntary simplicity is
especially appropriate to our times and circumstances. In brief, the need of the individual
uniquely matches the need of the society.
Of what other emergent life patterns can these things be said?