“It all started with a lingering discontent,” explain Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who post the on-line “Minimalists” podcasts. “Nearly a decade ago, while approaching age 30, we had achieved everything that was supposed to make us happy: six-figure careers, luxury cars, oversized houses, and all the stuff to clutter every corner of our consumer-driven lives. And yet, we weren’t satisfied.”
Millburn and Nicodemus had achieved highly-paid corporate positions with a telephone-service company. However, they discovered that “working 80 hours a week just to buy more stuff didn’t fill the void. We didn’t have control of our time, and thus we didn’t control our own lives.”
In 2009, they gave up the quest for more wealth and founded their now-popular Minimalist podcast. They reduced material possessions and decluttered their lives, but claim that minimalism is also about what they gained: “More time, more passion, more creativity, more experiences, more contribution, more contentment, more freedom.”
“Minimalism,” they write, “gets us past the things, so we can make room for life’s important things — which aren’t things at all.” Millburn and Nicodemus are not ascetics. They advocate possessing only what one needs. They have stumbled upon one of the great truths, discovered by history’s most profound teachers and advocated by modern ecologists: Possessions don’t necessarily bring happiness, can more likely bring trouble, can lead to conflict, and contribute to the degradation of Earth’s fragile ecosystems.
History of Simplicity
People who live close to the land, indigenous and rural communities, naturally understand the value of simplicity and self-reliance. Indigenous and rural communities live from nature’s cycles, typically learn to take no more than they need, and care for the ecosystem that sustains them. The modern indigenous nations of western Canada, where I live, hold Potlatch ceremonies, in which a prosperous family or village share’s its good fortune with neighbors, distributing rather than hording wealth. The tradition of simplicity has deep roots.
“The more one gives to others, the greater one’s abundance,” wrote Taoist teacher Lao Tzu, 2600 years ago. “Precious things lead one astray” (Tao Te Ching 81, 12). During this era, Śramaṇa (seeker) traditions in India also renounced possessions and developed yoga traditions, meditation techniques, and ahimsa (non-violence) practices. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad from about 700 BCE tells of a dialogue between teacher Maitreyi and a wealthy student, Yajnavalkya, who wished to become a sannyasi, or renunciant, in his old age. He offered his wealth to Maitreyi, but she refused. “If now, Sir,” she asked him, “all the world’s wealth were mine, would I be immortal thereby?” Yajnavalkya acknowledged, “No . . . there is no hope through wealth.”
Gautama Buddha, from Lumbini in modern Nepal, rejected hereditary family power, practiced yogic meditation, and taught a “Middle Way” between material indulgence and severe asceticism. He taught that having possessions may not be inherently bad, but that desire for and attachment to possessions leads to suffering for one’s self and others.
Around 300 BCE, in Greece, the philosopher, Diogenes, lived outside of Corinth in a clay wine barrel. Diogenes had renounced worldly comforts. Detractors called him “the dog,” kyon in Greek. Diogenes gleefully adopted the slur, and his followers called themselves Kyonos, Latin Cynici, the original Cynics. Diogenes boasted that he surpassed even Persian King Darius, because he desired nothing, while the king could never get enough to satisfy himself.
Historians such as John D. Crossan and Géza Vermes have described a “historical Jesus,” (“Yeshua” in Aramaic), independent of later religious contexts. The earliest known descriptions of Yeshua the Israelite teacher and his followers depict them as poor “am ha-aretz,” or “people of the land.” Jesus’ message from these earliest records suggest a universal modesty and common decency: Be generous and merciful, share what you have with others, help the poor and hungry, and don’t worry about your own comforts. Modest living brings one closer to the divine.
These spiritual traditions inspired writers and social activists throughout the middle ages and into our modern era. In 12th-century Assisi, Italy, Francesco Bernadone and Clare Offreduccio, took the Jesus teachings of modesty and compassion seriously, renounced their families’ wealth, and devoted their lives to serving the poor. When asked whom he would choose as a wife, Francis allegedly replied, “La povertà,” poverty.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Russian Dukhobors, Friesland Mennonites, English Quakers, and German Amish rejected privileged society to establish self-sufficient, pacifist communities based on simple living. In 17th-century Boston, Quakers Mary Fisher and Ann Austin were imprisoned for preaching these doctrines. The Quaker tradition of civil disobedience inspired author Henry David Thoreau, who spent time in jail for resisting the military and later retired to a cabin on the shores of Walden Pond to live a simple life, recounted in the 1854 book Walden.
Russian author Leo Tolstoy rejected family wealth and Russian nobility for a simple life based on Franciscan, Buddhist, and Hindu ascetic traditions. Tolstoy arranged for royalties from his novels to support persecuted Dukhobor communities, and in 1899, the Quakers and Tolstoyan movement helped 6,000 Dukhobors emigrate to Canada, where they established self-sufficient agricultural communities.
Mahatma Gandhi began his human rights career by establishing a self-sufficient “Tolstoy Farm” near Johannesburg, South Africa, and later organized Swaraj (self-rule) communities in India. He hand-spun his own dhoti cloth and ate simple vegetarian food. His practice of satyagraha — peaceful civil disobedience, borrowed from the Quakers — led to the liberation of India from British rule. “Earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s needs,” wrote Gandhi, “but not everyone’s greed.”
Ecology and Simplicity
In the 1970s, Greenpeace borrowed non-violent civil disobedience tactics from Gandhi and the Quakers. At that same time, in Norway, Arne Naess, inspired by Gandhi, chained himself to rocks at the Mardalsfossen fiord to protest a dam project. Naess coined the idea of “Deep ecology,” and summarized his modest lifestyle with the adage: “Simpler means, richer ends.”
From the beginning, modern ecology promoted simple living, exemplified in books such as Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé (1971), Small Is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher (1973), and Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach, (1975).
Frances Moore Lappé argued that meat production was a root cause of world hunger and she urged vegetarianism as an ecological principle. More recently, in 2006, Frances’ daughter, Anna Lappé, wrote Diet for a Hot Planet, linking our climate crisis to industrial food production.
In Small Is Beautiful, Schumacher showed how our modern, consumer economy (even 45 years ago) was unsustainable. He advocated for localization and for small, appropriate technologies that empowered people, were durable, easily maintained by users, and did not require a vast extraction industry to produce.
In Ecotopia, Callenbach, created a fictitious society based on ecological values. Callenbach’s citizens were “sick of bad air, chemicalized food, and lunatic advertising.” He described his book as “a protest against consumerism and materialism.”
Most of the world’s people, of course, do not have to worry about reducing consumerism and materialism because they already live modest lives in environments that have been plundered by the resource extraction industry. For the wealthy nations, however, simplification and material restraint are necessary tenets of ecological awareness. We’re not going to solve our ecological challenges if we don’t reverse the consumptive lifestyles of growth-addicted economies.
My family lives in an rural, island community that experiences power outages in the winter. Two years ago, we went without power for two weeks during a heavy snowfall. We cooked on our wood stove and melted snow for water. Without internet, we read more books, played more music together, and sat up at night by candel-light telling stories. We got out the big, historical atlas and studied history together. We worked together with neighbours to repair fences and dig paths through the snow. When the power came back on, and the computers fired up, we felt somewhat disappointed. We all learned a deep lesson about what really matters in life.
In 1936, Gandhian sociologist Richard Gregg wrote The Value of Voluntary Simplicity, pointing out that extravagant consumerism degraded the Earth and was socially unethical. Furthermore, Gregg argued, non-materialist satisfactions — reading, contemplation, friends and loving relationships — offered a richness that material things could not provide. Duane Elgin added to this movement in 1981 with Voluntary Simplicity, describing “a manner of living that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich,” echoing the aphorism of Arne Naess. “A deliberate choice to live with less,” Elgin wrote, will increase one’s quality of life.
In 2004, Mary Grigsby documented the voluntary simplicity movement in Buying Time and Getting By, with case studies of people who had chosen to simplify their lives, reduce consumption, and live in a smaller dwelling. “Identify the essential,” she wrote, and “eliminate the rest.”
We have huge global challenges to address: Global heating, species diversity loss, and economic injustice. For people living in environments of abundance, living modestly can be a personal statement to help address these challenges, and can also lead to a happier, more meaningful life. The Minimalists today ask the question: “How might your life be better with less?” It is a question worth contemplating.
References and Links:
Coast Salish Potlatch: “Potlach Economics 101,” Malcolm McColl, First Nations Drum, 2009
Taoism: My earlier Deep Green article on Ecology and Taoism: “Oh Gaia! I’m a Taoist!” Deep Green, 2017. Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Vintage Books, 1989; text on line at Terebess Asia.
“The Cynics and Diogenes, the Philosopher who Lived in a Barrel,” Janet Cameron, Decoded Past, 2015
“Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854),” by Robert McCrum, The Guardian, 2017
Books that influenced Gandhi: William Salter, Ethical Religion (1889); Henry David Thoreau, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience (1849), pdf; and Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894), pdf.
F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, Blond & Brigs, HarperCollins, 1973.
Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia, Heyday Books, 1975.
Poet Patrick Kavanagh on simplicity: “Kavanagh’s lessons for simple living,” Alan O’Riordan, The Irish Times, 2009
Helen and Scott Nearing, Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World, Schocken Books, 1973, at Amazon.
Voluntary Simplicity: Richard Gregg, The Value of Voluntary Simplicity, 1936, pdf; Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity, 1981, duaneelgin.com; and Mary Grigsby, Buying Time and Getting By, State University of New York, SUNY Press, 2004.