(C) K and R Lovegrove
"The attraction of simplicity is mysterious because it draws us in a completely opposite direction from where most of the world seems to be going: away from conspicuous display, accumulation, egoism, and public visibility — toward a life more silent, humble, and transparent than anything known to the extroverted culture of consumerism."
~ Mark A. Burch
Before you leap to conclusions about my grandfather, let me clear up a few points; he was not Amish, neither was he Quaker (although I am), he was not a member of some austere socialist ‘back to the land’ movement, nor a hermit-like transcendental philosopher. In fact, he was a retired stonemason who voted Conservative and read the Daily Telegraph. Those ‘important’ outings I mentioned were usually to the village store or, more rarely, to the local Anglican Church. This was not too long ago either, the early 1960s, before the small group of cottages in which his home was situated was connected to mains water or the electricity grid. And geographically he was not, as you will have guessed by now, in rural Ohio; rather he lived in Berkshire in the UK. A noisy motorway now runs not far away from where his simple and tranquil retirement took place.
The big difference between simplicity now and simplicity then is that in his day, rural living just was simple! He didn’t choose a simple life, he just accepted it. Today, the complexity of life is the ‘norm’ which we are all expected to accept; a simple life is a choice that we make and an aspiration that we work towards. Living simply today is voluntary - it is also an act of nonconformity and may even be seen as a radical act of passive resistance – it’s really up to you!
|(C) K and R Lovegrove|
Why Live Simply?
The reasons for adopting a simple lifestyle are often only perceptible to those who do so. Ask any practitioner and you will get a range of answers varying from those who see it as a way of ‘opting out’ of the system to those who see it as a spiritual path which helps them to add an additional dimension to their lives. As for myself, as a Quaker, I see a simple lifestyle as a way of focusing my attention on important things, whilst clearing away the physical and mental clutter that goes with life in a post-industrial society. Those ‘more important things’ include my family and a kind of three-pronged communion with God, my community and myself. For you it might be very different, but while our reasons for travelling the road to simplicity may differ, our direction is the same ~ the desire to live a more simple, more satisfying, more rewarding life.
In this ‘new life’ we accept the need to be more self-sufficient, less dependent on the consumer-led society around us and more satisfied with what we have. We do not expect a simpler lifestyle to give us more money, more material possessions, more power over the lives of others or even more time, but we do expect that the quality of our lives, and the lives of those we come into contact with to be touched by the beauty and grace-like calm of simplicity.
(C) K and R Lovegrove
“Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford. Do you keep yourself informed about the effects your style of living is having on the global economy and the environment? ”
Advices and Queries: Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain 1994
Where did the idea of Simple Living come from?
The straightforward answer is from the past, before much modern technology had been developed. It is wrong to look too fondly on things that we imagine came from some kind of ‘golden age,’ because such an age never occurred. The distant past had a number of advocates of the simple life; Socrates, Jesus, Buddha and others, but it is the not too distant past that this book will draw more heavily upon. In the last fifty to one hundred years we have seen probably the most dramatic changes to everyday life that have ever been witnessed, so we are not far removed from a way of living that seems strange to us now, but almost within our grasp. Like ‘the day before yesterday’ those times have gone, but if we work at it we can capture the essence of them and select those things which have been lost, which should have been cherished and nurtured.
We gather most of our impressions of how things were done in the past from books, films, paintings and photographs, but these can give artificially simplistic ideas about what the past was like. We may be able to see a reconstruction of an 1850s kitchen, but we can never be aware of the levels of light, the smells, the noise etc. … we are left with a fairly ‘rosy’ impression of what it would have been like. Life has always been very hard for the vast majority of people on the planet; what seems to us being a nice or even fashionable little pastime, such as making bread or growing potatoes, was just another part of the great drudgery of living and ‘making ends meet’. We don’t want to return to simple drudgery, however - we want to live simply, but happily. We want our simplicity to be a joy, not a burden; and to achieve this we need to use technology very carefully. We need to look at technical advancements and, rather than accepting them merely because they exist, we need to evaluate them carefully to see whether they can help us live the way we aim to live; that is what technology is for
Various movements and individuals have tried to develop a simple approach to life, based on spiritual/philosophical ideals. Among them are many Buddhist groups and those following the monastic lifestyle in the Celtic, Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions. In more modern times, various religious groups such as the Mennonites and Amish, Quakers and Shakers have all developed a simple approach to life from which all of us can learn. More recently still, secular ideas of minimalism have made an impact on the lives of many. Tolstoy, Gandhi, Thoreau and others have written of simplicity, and in turn, their writings have influenced countless numbers of individuals and persuaded many to change their lives; some a little, others vastly.
One often-overlooked source of ‘modern’ simplicity comes from Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid. Reid was a key member of the Scottish Enlightenment and a founder of the Scottish School of Common Sense, which argued that the feelings and actions of humans were governed by basic principles of common sense. This may have been a strong influence on Samuel Smiles, another Scot, who wrote several Victorian best sellers, including "Self Help" (1859), which provided the English speaking world with hundreds of easy-to-remember quotes on self improvement. One can sum up Smiles’ philosophy as “keep clean, and work hard”. It is surprising how often Smiles is quoted (usually unaccredited) in self-sufficiency books and websites. Indeed, much of the ‘homespun’ advice to families up to the middle of the twentieth century comes from Smiles.
“The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual.”
“A place for everything and everything in its place.”
“The experience gathered from books, though often valuable, is but the nature of learning, whereas the experience gained from actual life is of the nature of wisdom.”
Common sense still has to be at the heart of our simple lives. We need to do things because they are the common sense way to achieve our goals. Cooking, housekeeping, growing food and bringing up children all require a ‘common sense’ approach, otherwise they are not simple at all.
Victorian homes were traditionally places where people from all classes tried to display as many material possessions as possible to show off their wealth and status. Wallpaper, curtains, potted plants, pianos, vases, plates, framed pictures and other artifacts filled drawing-rooms and front parlor. To our eyes these look like rooms full of clutter, a mishmash of styles and functions. William Morris and others led a movement towards a more simple way of furnishing homes, using well-designed craftsman-made items. This became known as the ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’. To be honest, it still looks a bit cluttered at times to our modern eyes, but the move towards less items of better quality was an important one and one we should aim to learn from.
|(C) The National Trust UK|
Morris drew very openly on medieval ideas to develop his style, and this led him to the use of traditional materials and craftsmanship, sometimes producing a monastic feel to his work. He did come up with a famous maxim for all those who seek a simple, yet beautiful space in which to live.
“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
― William Morris
We also need to note that Morris was concerned for the well-being of the craftsmen who made the objects and materials he used, and in this we see the start of some kind of realization that the goods that we use need to be ethically sourced.
Homesteading is a familiar lifestyle for many in North America. Use of the term in the United States dates back to the Homestead Act (1862) and hit its heyday in the period between the end of the American Civil War and the start of the Twentieth century. Perhaps most of us get our concept of homesteading from the "Little House on the Prairie" and its companion books, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This view of a homesteading family, as seen through the eyes of Laura as a girl, has had a potent effect on many who read it as children. In my experience, any conversation with a self-sufficient homesteader gets back to the influence of these books very quickly. I have heard all kinds of theories about the alleged ghost writing of these books, but nothing distracts from their charm.
|(C) Garth Williams 1953|
It is a little known fact that many African-American families were given plots of land to start up homesteading after the Civil War. Homesteading is still an important way of life for many in America and it is interesting to note how strongly those who adopt it believe they are the inheritors of that pioneer spirit which drove their great grandparents ever farther westwards. Homesteading has its followers among those on the liberal left who see it as an expression of radical disobedience and a way of avoiding corporate interference, whilst those homesteaders on the right regard it as a stand against ‘big government’ and see it as the last refuge of individualism in modern America. Perhaps it is just that most homesteaders see it as a way of life which allows them to develop strong family and community ties and lets them become self-sufficient, free to make their own decisions.
In Western Europe the homesteading movement has never gained momentum, with most self-sufficient growers and farmers calling themselves ‘smallholders,’ less likely to see their choice of occupation as being a political or philosophical statement.
Hippies are not normally considered as the inspiration for a simple lifestyle, but they did have a profound effect on western society. Starting famously in 1967, “the summer of love” in San Francisco, they developed the spirit that was to lead many to live an alternative lifestyle. So many alternative lifestyles were developed that by the 1970s, a whole range of “counter cultures” were on offer. Most significant of these to our cause were the “Green movement” (not yet to become a political force) and the related movement towards self-sufficiency. This was helped by some influential books of the time; “Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World” by Helen and Scott Nearing (1970) in the US and “Farming for Self-Sufficiency - Independence on a Five Acre Farm” by John Seymour (1973) in the UK, followed by his “The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency” (1976). A great deal of attention was also given to the publication of “Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered” (1973) a collection of essays by British economist E. F. Schumacher. These books changed many peoples’ lives by convincing them that they do have the ability to become more self-sufficient and less dependent on modern industrial and agricultural techniques. These movements might have started without the development of the ‘Hippy Movement’, but the general spirit of the age led to new ideas about how to live taking root more quickly than might have been thought possible.
What ideas, support Simple Living today?
Just three things are important;
- The desire to live more simply and avoid a life that is more complicated than necessary
- The need to care for and cherish the environment
- The belief that simplicity is a gateway to greater understanding of the true values of life and/or a more spiritual approach to life
Throughout this book I will work on the assumption that simple living, environmentally ‘green’ living and ethical living are all so connected that one cannot truly be doing one without having given some attention to the other two! For me, these ideas are encapsulated by the American Quaker John Woolman, a man who thought hard about the consequences of his everyday actions and took steps to live in a way that was compatible with his beliefs.
“The produce of the earth is a gift from our gracious creator to the inhabitants, and to impoverish the earth to support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age.”
~ John Woolman
As a basic rule, if you want to live simply, it requires you to examine the ethical and environmental consequences of your choices; you cannot do things or make changes to your life unless it is very clear that you are not damaging the lives of others, nor ‘impoverishing the earth’. We know more about the environmental consequences of our actions today than those who pioneered the homesteading movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so we can design a life where simple and green ideas are fully compatible.
Simplicity and Technology
|(C) K and R Lovegrove|
A skeptical viewer of the movement towards simplicity may think that it is just a move against technology. They will see many practitioners of a simple life as being Luddites who, unable to cope with the changes that technology brings, opt out and decide not to use it. Such claims are often levelled at the Amish of North America. They live a life that seems like living in another century to many onlookers. It is certainly seen as ‘quaint’ or ‘charming’ for sure, but can also be considered to be restrictive and sometimes even austere. A closer examination of the Amish, however, reveals that while some contemporary technology is rejected, other aspects are embraced. For instance, while the Amish will not have computers in their homes, they are happy for their children and themselves to use pocket calculators. While electricity is not supplied to houses, LPG tanks are used to provide gas for cooking. While telephones are not found in Amish houses, they are used for Amish businesses, including farm buildings. While the Amish wear traditional clothing, they are able to make the clothes from modern synthetic materials. Washing machines are found in most Amish homes, the power coming from small generators connected directly to the appliance. From these few examples we can see that the Amish do not reject modern technology, rather they are very selective in how they use it! We would be wise to do the same and consider the impact of new technology on our lives before falling over ourselves to embrace it, sometimes based on nothing more than having bought into the skillful marketing techniques of those who would wish to sell it to us.
Simplicity and change.
It is both true and clear to us that change has always taken place - changes in society, changes in technology and the evolution of new ideas. However, it is the rate of change which causes us to catch our breath at times. Try explaining to any child of ten or eleven years of age what the world was like when you were their age ~ striking differences will be revealed and the child will wonder just how you got by with such a staggering lack of communication channels and the pure ‘smallness’ of your childhood, as compared to theirs. So much of the world around them is filtered through electronic gadgets nowadays, and the level of information is both daunting and dubious in its accuracy, as well as offering a view of the world that is often slanted, commercial and sometimes divisive.
To some extent, simplicity has built within it the power to resist those economic problems which have cast great waves of uncertainty around the globe. It acts as a buffer; spending less of your income leaves a surplus and provides you a safety net; moreover, being self-sufficient lessens your reliance on others. If you are growing your own carrots, then the price of carrots in the supermarket is not a problem to you! If you buy less, the rate of inflation affects you less, if you consume less, than the power of advertising upon you is lessened and your independence increases.
Don’t assume that simplicity can be used as an ‘add on’ to your life; neither can complexity be removed. Simplicity must be woven into your life and everything that you do. Strands of it will hold your life together in ways you never expected; it will add strength and beauty and make the fabric of your life into a wonderful, yet simple tapestry. Simplicity will not restrict your life, but enable you to redefine your life in terms of reduced complexity, sustainability and sound ethical values. Simplicity gradually affects more and more areas of your life, until it is making a real impact on you, your family and those that know you. Don’t expect the world to understand all that you do, but do expect people to notice your life and think about their own.
How to make your life more Simple.
At the end of each chapter in this blog, I have arranged some things to think about or skills that you may need to develop. New skills are sometimes easy to develop for yourself; others may require the use of self-instruction books or helpful material on the internet. More advanced skills might require someone to show you how to do it. Find someone with that skill or in a class. Many skills are fast disappearing, so do what you can to keep them alive. No skills suggested in this book are specific to one sex or the other; knitting and woodwork are skills we can all attempt to learn. (The only exception to this rule is breastfeeding!)
- A simple green box suggests some straightforward changes you could make to your life to make it simpler or to reduce the impact that your life has on the environment.A pale green box contains some more fundamental changes that you could make. You might want to move on to these after some time using the suggestions from the box above, or give them a fair trial period before deciding if these ideas will fit your life.A dark green box contains some very significant changes to your life. You may choose to move into these suggestions after having tried those in the previous box, or again, try a trial period if that seems possible.
Please remember that this is nothing more than advice – you can decide for yourself whether you are comfortable with making these changes to how you live. Simplicity must be voluntary. Simplicity and a ‘one size fits all’ mentality will not prove useful! You may also find that many of these suggestions are already part of your life – you might then like to venture into a ‘darker green box’. Discuss with your family those changes you want to make and those that will be affected; simplicity is infectious and may help them to make changes.
You may like to read
Jennifer Kavanagh Simplicity Made Easy~ Winchester, UK, Washington USA 2010
A UK Quaker's view of simplicity, exploring some of the philosophical and spiritual reasons for adopting it as a way of life.
If you want children enthused about simple living, try reading the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (various editions) to them, or the ‘Borrower’books of Mary Norton, in particular The Borrowers Afield (various editions) ~ wonderful!
John Seymour The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency ~ Dorling Kindersley 2009 edition.
A book that shows its age, but still an outstanding guide to self-sufficiency and alternative living. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t reach for this.
Text (C) Ray Lovegrove 2014 ~ All rights reserved.
(NB Links are for North America, European readers, please click on the Amazon UK box on the right hand side of the page)