Are We Simple Creatures?

January 7, 2000

By Michael Jessen

You say you've got a resolution. The note on the fridge that you wrote to yourself says Change life now!

You're ready to turn in your frantic, hectic, and harried existence for a quieter, simpler, more fulfilling way of life.

The good news is that you're not alone in having these feelings; there is a widespread skepticism that our fast-paced, mass-consumption society represents the highest form of human social development. For many people, their gut feeling is something just doesn't feel right.

The bad news is that it is almost impossible to make these changes alone.

North Americans have experienced two hundred years of economic growth, yet we have not moved beyond the point of always needing more money. Inflation has eaten so far into our pay increases that economists tell us we're no farther ahead than we were in the 1970s.

With governments acting as our role models, we too have begun to accumulate debt and live beyond our means. In 1998, Americans' personal savings rate was 0.5% of disposable personal income, the lowest savings rate since the heart of the Great Depression in 1933. By the second quarter of 1999, it had fallen to -1.1%, meaning Americans spent more than they earned.

We are reminded that simple living has always been a part of the North American psyche. The Puritans, the Quakers, the Transcendentalists (remember Henry Thoreau living by Walden Pond for a year), and numerous communes have all advocated lifestyles free of consumerism and materialism. There is a myriad of resources to show how we can simplify our lives by cutting back on this and that. Stories abound about individuals and families with $100,000 incomes that have downshifted and are happy.

One major problem - most individuals and families are trying to survive on incomes of between $30,000 and $45,000. Many are struggling to get by on even less. These people have very little room to maneuver.

"Consumption requires income - which in turn, for most of us, requires labor," writes Jerome Segal. "And labor is costly in two ways. For many people, labor beyond a certain point is unpleasant, painful, unhealthy, or boring. And even where it is not, labor takes time - time to prepare for, time to get to, time to perform, time to return from, and time to recover from. Yet the amount of time we have is relatively fixed."

Segal, author of the book "Graceful Simplicity," concludes we have created a very inefficient society, one in which our very real and legitimate economic needs can be met only with high levels of income.

Let me use my own family as an example. My wife and I have been trying to budget better in order to survive on a smaller income. When we sit down and tally up all our expenses for a mortgage, food, clothing, transportation, health care, insurance, utilities, a small personal loan, our child's education costs, and a small amount to savings, the total quickly reaches about $2,500 per month net.

To have that amount of money left after all payroll deductions, a gross income of $50,000 per year will just get you by. You'll live simply, with a few nights out a year, but it won't be lavish by any means. You won't be living under an illusion that you have more than you need.

No, if we're going to find the less stressful life at the end of the rainbow, we're going to need help. As Segal says, a meaningful life is no longer just an individual project, it must be a matter of collective politics. Unless we change our economic and social systems and acknowledge the "politics of simple living," the simplicity movement will only be a solution for the few and irrelevant for the many, he adds.

Imagine what would happen to your life if there were a guaranteed annual income. Suppose our society said, "Go out and find your dream job. Or, go out and become self-employed in a realm that calls to you. Or, just go home and spend more time with your family and friends. So long as you are prepared to live on modest means, you need not fear for a living. If you do not earn enough for your family to meet their core economic needs (modestly understood), sufficiency will be provided. The society will provide you with a supplement to the income you earn."

"Overnight we would enable millions of people to rethink their entire life plan," Segal writes. "Economic activity, for those who chose to take this route, could be limited to activities that in themselves gave meaning and excitement and enrichment to life."

We could also overhaul the tax system to reward those people who wanted to work fewer hours per week by reducing their tax burden. We could do the same for those who chose to work in the non-profit and volunteer sectors. How about rewarding those who choose public transport over automobile ownership? Some financial institutions already recognize the societal impact of living in the suburbs by giving lower mortgage rates to those willing to live in the inner city.

"The social and economic world we inhabit either facilitates graceful living or frustrates it," says Segal. As we enter the 21st century, we should be asking the questions and seeking the objectives that allow our social and economic policies to expedite a simpler life for all.

ONE SMALL STEP - Lily Tomlin said it best: "The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat." To begin the dialogue about the simple life, the Center for a New American Dream's web site at is a great starting point.

RESOURCES - Jerome Segal's book is published by Henry Holt and is available in paperback. An excellent sourcebook for simple living solutions is "The Simple Living Guide" by Janet Luhrs and published by Broadway Books. Ms. Luhrs is the editor of "Simple Living - A Journal of Voluntary Simplicity." Information about journal subscriptions and sample articles and editorials can be found on the web site A step-by-step resource guide for those who are serious about learning to live a more conscious simple, healthy and restorative lifestyle (called the Web of Simplicity) is available on the Simple Living Network web site at If you would like to transform your relationship with money, "Your Money or Your Life" by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin is highly recommended. It has just been republished in a second edition paperback by the New Road Map Foundation and is available at its web site at

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