Duane Elgin: Voluntary simplicity for a regenerative future

DUANE ELGIN is a visionary writer, speaker, social scientist and educator. Born in the USA, and based in Fairfax, California, he runs an open-source collaborative project called ‘Great Transition Stories  which shares narratives from a variety of trusted sources to understand the human journey, and offer hope for pathways into a sustainable future.

Duane was described in April 2009 by the Ecologist Magazine as one of the ten leading visionaries with “big ideas for a better world“. In 2006, he received the Peace Prize of Japan, the Goi Award, in recognition of his contribution to a global “vision, consciousness, and lifestyle” that fosters a “more sustainable and spiritual culture.”

Duane is well known for championing the term Voluntary Simplicity’ with his 1981 book (now updated in 1993 and 2010) of the same name.  In this interview with Bhavani Prakash of Eco WALK the Talk.com, he elaborates upon the concept, and shares his vision for a regenerative future for humanity.

EWTT: You’re best known for initiating the ‘Voluntary Simplicity’ movement in the early 80s. What is your key message around this now, and has the message itself or the way you communicate it changed in the last three decades?

Duane Elgin

DUANE ELGIN: Yes, there have been a number of major changes in how simplicity of living is viewed over the past 30 years. Here are a few:

First, the public conversation about simplicity is shifting from complacency to urgency. In the 1970s, there was little public concern about climate change, food shortages, species extinction, water shortages, and more. The majority of people were focused on the “good life” in the short run. More than thirty years later, these are no longer problems for the distant future; they represent a critical challenge to the human community now.

Second, as people’s sense of urgency has grown, interest in sustainable ways of living has soared, and simplicity has moved from the margins of society to the mainstream. Simpler or greener approaches to living are becoming part of everyday life and culture. Television programs on themes such as organic gardening, healthy cooking, and solar living are growing in popularity. Magazines with green themes for living are sprouting everywhere. College courses in green building and environmental management are blossoming.

Third, public understanding of simplicity has evolved from fantasy stereotypes to realistic examples and archetypes. In the 1980s, it was common for the mass media to characterize simplicity as a “back to the land” movement that turned away from technological progress. In recent years, the idea of simplicity has moved from being regarded as a path of regress to being seen as a path to a new kind of progress and social vitality.

Fourth, there has been a dramatic expansion in the scope of simplicity as it has moved from a personal issue to a theme vital to our collective future. Now we are seeing the rapid growth of interest in new forms of community, solar living, state-level sustainability initiatives, federal programs, and global agreements. Simplicity of living is no longer a personal issue; it is a theme being woven into our lives at every scale.

Fifth, over the decades, simplicity is increasingly being defined by what it is for (connecting with and caring for life) instead of what it is against (destructive consumerism). In the 1980s, simplicity was seen primarily as “downshifting” or pulling back from the rat race of consumer society. Several decades later, there is a growing recognition of simplicity as “upshifting”—or moving beyond the rat race to the human race.

EWTT: Asians, traditionally, have had cultures of ‘simplicity’, but this is rapidly changing with the wave of consumerism sweeping very rapidly through the continent. It’s modelled on a materialistic definition of growth and is fuelled by the twin forces of globalisation and media.  What can be done to spread the ‘Voluntary Simplicity’ movement in Asia?

DUANE ELGIN: I would suggest that it is important for Asian countries to not be seduced by the consumerist messages of the mass media and, instead, to reclaim their cultural heritage that acknowledges the value of simplicity. In Buddhist cultures, for example, there is the idea of “wabi-sabi”. This phrase describes a feeling of appreciation for things whose wear and aging reveal life’s impermanence. For example, you may have had a cup or table in your family for several generations—and this may invite you to reflect on all the people before you that held that cup or touched that table. Each chip or scratch is not an imperfection but an added memory.

So, in my home, if I happen to scratch the dining table, I’ll say, “I’ve just ‘wabi’d’ the table” —meaning, it just got a little more patina and age—a little more value. I think we are returning to an aesthetic appreciation of the organic nature of things as they age and change. In turn, we are moving toward a more organic relationship with the Earth and a more peaceful way of being with ourselves in the midst of a materialistic culture.

EWTT: The idea of ‘sacrifice’ is anathema to most people. Doesn’t a sustainable future for humanity require some kind of sacrifice by those who already have too much, in order for them to share with those who have much too little, whether it’s within a country or across nations? 

DUANE ELGIN: Simplicity does not require sacrifice. To the contrary, it is a consumerist lifestyle that requires enormous sacrifice with lifestyles that are overstressed, overbusy, and overworked. Sacrifice is investing long hours doing work that is neither meaningful nor satisfying. Sacrifice is being apart from family and community to earn a living. Sacrifice is the stress of commuting long distances and coping with traffic. Sacrifice is the white noise of civilization blotting out the subtle sounds of nature. Sacrifice is hiding nature’s beauty behind a jumble of billboard advertisements. Sacrifice is carrying more than 200 toxic chemicals in our bodies, with consequences that will cascade for generations ahead. Sacrifice is the massive extinction of plants and animals and a dramatically impoverished biosphere. Sacrifice is being cut off from nature’s wildness and wisdom. Sacrifice is global climate disruption, crop failure, famine, and forced migration. Sacrifice is the absence of feelings of neighborliness and community. Sacrifice is feeling divided among the different parts of our lives and unsure how they work together in a coherent whole.

In contrast simplicity that is voluntary—consciously chosen, deliberate, and intentional—supports a higher quality of life. Simplicity fosters a more harmonious relationship with the Earth—the land, air, and water. Simplicity promotes fairness and equity among the people of the Earth. Simplicity cuts through needless busyness, clutter, and complications. Simplicity enhances living with balance—inner and outer, work and family, family and community. Simplicity reveals the beauty and intelligence of nature’s designs. Simplicity increases the resources available for future generations. Simplicity helps save animal and plant species from extinction. Simplicity responds to global shortages of oil, water, and other vital resources. Simplicity keeps our eyes on the prize of what matters most in our lives—the quality of our relationships with family, friends, community, nature, and cosmos. Simplicity yields lasting satisfactions that more than compensate for the fleeting pleasures of consumerism. Simplicity blossoms in community and connects us to the world with a sense of belonging and common purpose. Simplicity is a lighter lifestyle that fits elegantly into the real world of the twenty-first century.

EWTT: Does a country’s definition of wellbeing and the way metrics are designed to measure this have a lot to do with either spreading or counteracting a consumerist culture?  Do you think the concept of Gross National Happiness encapsulates voluntary simplicity in its core?

There is an old saying that “we treasure what we measure.” If our measure of meaning in life is based on money (for example, GNP or gross national product) then that is what we will tend to collectively treasure. If we shift our measures from money to well-being, then that will be reflected in our cultural definition of “progress.”

Let me place this in a historical perspective. The highly regarded historian, Arnold Toynbee, invested a lifetime studying the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history. Drawing upon his vast knowledge of human history, he summarized the essence of a civilization’s growth in what he called The Law of Progressive Simplification. He wrote that the progress of a civilization was not accurately measured by its material growth or its conquest of land and people. Instead, the true measure of growth lies in a civilization’s ability to transfer increasing amounts of energy and attention from the material side of life to the non-material side—to areas such as personal growth, family relationships, contact with nature, creative expression in music, theatre, and other arts, in a rich community life, and more.

The life-cycle of an individual provides a useful insight into measures of well-being. From the time that a person is born until his or her late adolescent years, there is usually a tremendous amount of physical growth. Then, in the late teen years, physical growth stabilizes and the person can continue to develop for the rest of his or her lifetime in ways that don’t involve growing bigger physically—in empathy and compassion, in intellectual understanding, and in soulful connection. In a similar way, a portion of our species has experienced a period of extraordinary period of material growth and is now moving into a stage where further growth could be primarily of a non-physical nature. In turn, this would liberate resources for those in desperate need and foster a more peaceful world. We require measures to reflect this natural but profound transition in our collective lives.

A quote from the philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir helps clarify this. She wrote: “Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying.” On the one hand, if we seek only to maintain ourselves, then no matter how grand our style of living might be, we are doing little more than “only not dying.” On the other hand, if we strive only for a meaningful existence without securing the material foundation that supports our lives, then our physical existence is in jeopardy and the opportunity to surpass ourselves becomes little more than a utopian dream.  We require a new partnership where the material and the non-material aspects of life co-evolve and grow in concert with one another. Working together, they can produce ways of living that are materially sustainable, personally rewarding, and culturally rich and engaging. Returning to your question, as we mature as societies, we require measurements that go far beyond material growth to include the richness of non-material areas of development.

Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin


EWTT: Isn’t it hugely challenging for the person on the street to help shape a better future for the world, when they are so much a part of a system that requires them to work long hours just to make both ends meet? What would you suggest to enable a transition?

DUANE ELGIN: Yes, it is hugely challenging for individuals to make changes when the overall system of living encourages consumerist lifestyles. Our current economic systems are not designed for lives of sustainable prosperity. We require a deep redesign of our manner of living that supports simpler ways of living and, to me, this will involve a return to valuing community and smaller scales of living.

For example, a new village movement could transform urban life around the world. A flowering of diverse, neighborhood-scale communities could replace the alienating landscape of today’s massive cities and homogeneous suburbs. “Eco-villages” and “eco-neighborhoods” of a few hundred persons could provide a practical scale and foundation for a sustainable future and become important islands of security, camaraderie, learning and innovation in a world of sweeping change. Human-sized living environments would encourage diverse experiments in cooperative living that touch the Earth lightly and are uniquely adapted to each locale.

I can imagine families living in an “eco-home” that is nested within an “eco-village,” that, in turn, is nested within an “eco-city,” and so on up to the scale of the bio-region, nation, and world. Each eco-village of 100 -200 persons could have a distinct character, architecture, and local economy. Common to many of these new villages could be a child-care facility and play area, an organic garden, a common house for community meetings, celebrations, and regular meals together, a recycling and composting area, an open space, and a crafts and shop area. As well, each could offer a variety of types of work to the local economy such as child care, aging care, organic gardening, green building, conflict resolution and other skills that provide fulfilling employment for many. New forms of community could provide places for meaningful work, raising healthy children, celebrating life and living in ways that honors the Earth and future generations.

EWTT: What is role of alternative media in creating a better future? How can we improve our messaging to create a less consumerist world? What do we say better, and how do we say it better to help encourage action? What action would make the most meaningful impact to create that better future?

DUANE ELGIN: The profound consumerist bias of contemporary mass media creates an impossible double bind: Many people use the consumption levels and patterns portrayed in TV advertising to establish their sense of identity and measure their personal well-being while those same consumption patterns are simultaneously devastating the ecological foundations on which our future depends. TV commercials are far more than a pitch for a particular product—they are also advertisements for the attitudes, values, and lifestyles that surround consumption of that product. The clothing, cars, settings, and other elements that create the context for an advertisement send strong, implicit messages about the standards of living and patterns of behavior that are the norm for society. More sustainable patterns of living and consuming seldom appear on television as these themes threaten the legitimacy and potency of the television-induced cultural hypnosis generated by mass entertainment, mass advertising, and mass consumption. By default, societies are left with programming and advertising that selectively portray and powerfully reinforce a materialistic orientation toward life. By programming television to achieve commercial success, the mind-set of entire nations is being programmed for ecological failure. How can we change this?

First, we require ecologically oriented advertising to balance the onslaught of pro-consumerist messages and to foster a mind-set of authentic choice in our consumption behavior. To balance the psychological impact of the one-sided avalanche of commercials, we need “ecological ads” or “Earth-commercials” that encourage people to consume with an appreciation of their impact on the world’s dwindling resources and deteriorating environment. Earth commercials could be 60-second mini-stories portraying some aspect of a sustainable and meaningful future and could be produced by students, non-profit organizations, and local community groups working in partnership with local television stations. These ads for the Earth could be low in cost and high in creativity, and done with playfulness, compassion, and humor. Once underway, a virtual avalanche of Earth commercials could emerge from around the world and be shared over TV and the Internet.

Second, because television teaches continuously about the lifestyles and values that are the “norm” for society, we require entertainment programming that actively explores issues of sustainability and Earth-friendly approaches to living. Television teaches by what it ignores as well as by what it addresses. If an ecological consciousness and an ethic of sustainability are missing from entertainment programming, then they are likely to be missing from our cultural consciousness as well. We could get a tremendous cultural boost to sustainability from entertainment programming that explores ecological concerns and innovative ways of living.

Third, a mature citizenry requires expanded documentaries and investigative reports describing, in depth, the global challenges we now face. Because the overwhelming majority of prime-time hours on television are devoted to programming for amusement, we are entertainment rich and knowledge poor. Our situation is like that of a long-distance runner who prepares for a marathon by eating primarily junk food. We are filling our social brain with a diet of entertainment at the very time our democracies face problems of marathon proportions. We are trivializing our species consciousness at the very time we need mature communication about our pathway into the future. This is a recipe for disaster. We need a rapid and quantum increase in the level of ecologically relevant programming and a new social commitment to investigative journalism that awakens mainstream public attention to themes of sustainability.

EWTT: Take us through your more recent work, ‘The Living Universe.’ Is the paradigm that we live in a ‘living universe’ as opposed to a ‘mechanistic’ one seen as ‘new age thinking’ or is it premised on science? What are the implications of this worldview for change agents, as well as for civil society?  In particular, what does it imply for those looking to raise ‘collective consciousness’ by advocating for positive change?

DUANE ELGIN: Regarding the universe as dead at its foundations is basic to consumer societies: It makes sense to exploit what appears dead for the benefit of what seems most alive — ourselves. However, this assumption is now being questioned by both science and the world’s wisdom traditions.

Modern science now regards our universe as:
1) almost entirely invisible (96 percent of the known universe is comprised of invisible energy and matter),
2) completely unified and able to communicate with itself instantaneously in non-local ways that transcend the limits of the speed of light,
3) sustained by the flow-through of an unimaginably vast amount of energy, and
4) free at its deepest, quantum levels.

While not proving the universe is alive, these and other attributes from science do point strongly in that direction. This is not a new understanding. More than two thousand years ago, Plato said “the universe is a single living creature that embraces all living creatures within it.” All of the world’s wisdom traditions have emerged from a similar understanding.

What difference does it make if we regard the universe as dead or alive at its foundations? When children are starving, climate is destabilizing, oil is dwindling, and population is growing, why put our attention here?

Consumerism is a rational response to living in a dead universe. In a material universe, consumerism offers a source of identity and a measure of significance and accomplishment. Where do I find pleasure in a non-living universe? In material things. How do I know that I amount to anything? By how many things I have accumulated. How should I relate to the world? By taking advantage of that which is dead on behalf of the living. Consumerism and exploitation are natural outcomes of a dead universe perspective. However, if we view the foundations of the universe as being intensely alive, then it makes sense to minimize material clutter and needless busyness and develop the areas where we feel most alive — in nurturing relationships, caring communities, creative expressions, time in nature, and service to others.

If we see the universe as mostly barren and devoid of life, then it is natural to see our time on Earth as primarily a struggle for material existence, and it makes sense that we humans would pull apart in conflict. However, if we see the universe as intensely alive and our journey here as one of discovery and learning, then it makes sense that we would pull together in cooperation in order to realize this magnificent potential.

Our view of the universe as either dead or alive creates the context within which we understand who we are and where we are going. Where a dead-universe perspective generates alienation, environmental destruction, and despair, a living-universe perspective generates feelings of communion, stewardship, and the promise of a higher pathway for humanity. Although the idea of a living universe has ancient roots in human experience, it is now radically new as the frontiers of modern science cut away superstition and reveal the authentic mystery, subtlety, and aliveness of our cosmic home.

EWTT: You often use the analogy of humanity being in its ‘teenage’ years going through the ritual of fire – metaphorically representing the serious ecological and social crises facing the planet. What gives you the confidence that this teenager won’t commit suicide and does emerge from this phase as a wise adult?  Will Nature even wait for humanity’s adulthood?

DUANE ELGIN: As you say, one way of regarding ourselves is as a maturing species that is going through the growth pains of our collective adolescence. Our self-image could therefore be that of a young species that is capable and gifted with untapped potentials. We could see ourselves as immersed in the predictable struggles and turmoil of our adolescent years and ready to move into our early adulthood where we are concerned with the well-being of the Earth and the long-term future of the human family. Therefore, despite humanity’s seeming immaturity in the past, we could be close to taking a major step forward in our evolution into early adulthood as a species.

Although many people describe our species behavior as rebellious, reckless, and shortsighted, many others also pointed out beneficial aspects of our adolescent stage of development. Adolescents have a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm and, with their courage and daring, are ready to dive into life and make a difference in the world. Many teenagers have a hidden sense of greatness and feel that, if given a chance, can accomplish wonderful things. Overall, the archetype of a maturing species explains a lot about our current behaviors and contains within it the promise of a hopeful future. As we grow into our early adulthood as a species, we can recognize we are an integral part of the living universe, consider the impact of our actions generations into the future, place meaningful work over pleasure seeking, measure ourselves by our soulful character, and patiently work to restore the Earth.


About the Interviewer: 

Bhavani Prakash is the Founder of Eco WALK the Talk .com. She is passionate about the role of individuals and communities in bringing about the much needed change we need to see in the world.  She was an economist in her previous avatar, and is now an environmental and social justice activist using social media as well as offline community participation in her advocacy of a greener, fairer and happier planet. She writes and conducts talks and workshops on sustainability and can be contacted at bhavani[at]ecowalkthetalk.com. Follow Eco WALK the Talk on Facebook, TwitterLinked IN and YouTube 


Further Links you may be interested in:

Dr Lester Brown: We’re really on the edge of some fundamental changes  

Dr Tom Crompton: Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Values in Environmental Communication 

Dr Vandana Shiva: Traditional Knowledge, Biodiversity and Sustainable Living 

Joe Brewer: An Interdisciplinary approach to understanding complex issues  


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Posted by on Oct 27 2013. Filed under Behaviour Change, Climate Change, Consumerism, Green Activism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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