If reasons for living more simply include acts of sharing and sustainability, Jorgen Lissner has suggested that simplicity is an act of solidarity in community with others. Our personal choice to live simply places us in the company of those who have no choice. Acts of solidarity are expressions of both political consciousness and social affirmation. Such expressions are particularly significant when we have a real choice. To live simply because of misfortune or accident of birth is to endure one of the darker sides of fate. But to live simply as a matter of choice is to affirm the value of non-material goals in life and to bring our warmth and creativity to the world of constraints and limitations that shapes the lives of people who must live with circumstance. If life is in any way a matter of “taking sides,” and many spiritual mentors have suggested that it is, then simplicity as an act of solidarity declares our decision to side with the mass of humanity such as it is, rather than the values and lifestyles of the privileged.
Finally, simplicity as an act of solidarity declares to those of slender means that a life of material affluence doesn’t always deliver all that it promises. The most successful feature of international development projects has not been transferring technology to the developing world, eradicating disease, alleviating illiteracy or establishing social and political justice. The greatest success of international development efforts since the 1950s has been to thoroughly diffuse the North American obsession with affluence into every other culture it has touched. Now, not only do we live the unsustainable paradox of 20 per cent of the worlds people producing 80 per cent of its ecological damage and waste, we have the remaining 80 per cent of humanity clamoring to live the same way. The choice for simplicity declares by example that not everyone in North America is prepared to admire the emperor’s new clothes.
I agree with Lissner that simplicity as an act of solidarity can also be provocative of dialogue on the values that guide the development of our societies and our families, anticipatory of the day when the majority of the people who have been disenfranchised from affluence will make their just claims to share of Earth’s resources, and an act of advocacy for a cultural and economic order that is more equitable and life-giving.
Voluntary simplicity is also an exercise of purchasing power. Many of us live from pay check to pay check without ever attending very closely to the considerable financial power we exercise as individuals. Consider that someone employed for 40 years with a median income of perhaps $40,000 per year will be making daily decisions during that period that deploy $1.6 million. Some practitioners of simplicity will trade income for time. Others will find opportunities in their careers to make meaningful contributions in service of values they cherish, but may divert some part of their income to non-material purposes.
Whatever income is earned must eventually be spent somehow. Exactly how it is spent has a profound effect on the shape of our economy and society. For all its faults and injustices, our economy is exquisitely sensitive to the market demand or the lack of it. When demand disappears for a product or service, so does the product or service. Great strides have been made in the technology of artificially creating demand for products and services that have no relation to basic human needs, or for needs that could be met much more directly in some other way. The success of the market economy and its oppressive effects on the human spirit in North America can be found in how often shopping is a substitute for a social life, the major antidote to boredom, a significant way to express feelings of power and control, an important opportunity to socialize and experience sensory stimulation, and the purchases resulting from it are major surrogates for self-esteem.
The choice for simplicity implies making decisions regarding how we dispose of personal income through purchasing or, as the case may be, refraining form purchasing certain goods and services. Some general principles that can help guide these decisions have been suggested by the Simple Living Collective of San Francisco. These principles are reviewed in the Explorations section of this book, but come down to the relating our purchasing decisions directly to basic needs and activities that enhance personal independence and reduce social and international oppression.