But even here, the claim to “have” something that we have made is tenuous at best. It positions the human worker on a par with Divine Being, as if we made things out of nothing. Again, what we actually do is claim temporary user rights over materials that have been loaned to us from the heart of another, truly creative mystery. Who knows, really, how the tree grows? Who can make it grow when it will not, or make it grow thus and not so? And from whence comes our insight, our creativity, our ability to solve problems and hatch new plans? Are we not actually recipients of mysterious materials, mysterious abilities and marvelous powers? Do we not, in fact, rearrange elements of creation we neither make nor unmake?

From this perspective, we must be more tentative in crying “Mine!” In choosing simplicity, we further the growth of consciousness by appreciating life as gift rather than personal accomplishment. We recognize ownership as a human convention born in fear and violence, fear that we lack something we need and violence to assure its supply, which has no cosmic basis. We then become less prone to endorse the use of violence against others to protect “rights” that have no foundation in being.

Closely related to the capacity of the state to exercise coercive violence to maintain property rights is the extension of the violence to war-making. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the relaxation of East/West tensions, much of the drive behind the post-Second World Ware peace movement has now dissipated. Yet war and the preparation for war continues to be a major preoccupation of many countries. The conflict in the Persian Gulf demonstrated that conventional war-making is just as destructive in both human and ecological terms as nuclear war might be. The Persian Gulf example is particularly apposite to voluntary simplicity since a major reason for North American involvement in that conflict was to assure the stability of oil prices.

While many conflicts around the world are local or regional battles related to nationalistic goals within the countries concerned, conflicts that involve North Americans have invariably been related to protecting economic interests. The lifestyle of affluence and consumption that is widely promoted in our society contributes directly to these military adventures.

Moreover, research and development activities for military purposes still largely dominate the attention of the scientific and technological establishment. Military spending still consumes a very large fraction of global wealth and resources each year while the production, use and disposal of this equipment serves no life-giving purpose.

The debate over whether or not armies are still required in today’s increasingly interdependent world will likely go on for some time. What seems clear, however, is that the present level of military production and spending are unsustainable. In addition, to the extent that individuals begin to choose simple living and the overall resource and energy intensity of our economy is reduced, the motivation for military overdevelopment will be reduced as well. While military institutions may never completely disappear, it would be all gain if they could be scaled back to vestigial replicas of the monsters that are still so much with us.

Militarism is a global issue with systemic roots. The individual decision to live more simply clearly will not reverse the trend to militarization of economies and societies. But as we mentioned before, individual decisions do matter when many individuals take similar decisions. Thus, another major reason for simple living is the hope that by supporting each other in this choice we will eventually build sufficient social momentum for systemic as well as individual change.

Should this transition occur, then the opportunities for people in other regions and countries to become more autonomous in their development would greatly increase. Money and resources that are now going into arms purchases and defense would become available for local development. Savings from arms expenditures would also be available for expanding our knowledge and appreciation of the universe, for the exploration and colonization of space, and for the alleviation of much human misery


Mark Burch works as a specialist in sustainable development education. He has written extensively on environmental education, and lectures on environmental citizenship, sustainable development, and voluntary simplicity.

From Simplicity: Notes, Stories and Exercises for Developing Unimaginable Wealth, by Mark A. Burch. Copyright © 1995 by Mark Burch. Reprinted by permission of the author.