Tuesday, June 11, 2024

World View: Voluntary Simplicity (1996)

From the June 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

A large number of Americans are turning away from commuting back and forth from "stressful” and “unfulfilling" jobs and rejecting the world of consumerism in favour of environmentally friendly lifestyles. They are adopting a new set of values: "The Three S's"—sustainability, spirituality and satisfaction, while searching for “meaning" and "aesthetic expression." This is the picture presented by Duane Elgin of the "voluntary simplicity" movement in the US at a recent debate of the Oxford Centre for Ethics and the Environment. The question for debate was “Does voluntary simplicity provide a realistic path toward ecological sustainability?" Elgin’s answer to this question was “yes".

Like many in the environmental movement, Elgin talks about changing society solely in terms of the consumer’s values changing. Dr Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American who debated Elgin argued for changing the economic structure of society. Schor who has helped set up the New Party in America, advocates a collective "downshifting” by western industrial nations. "Downshifting" is defined as making a "lifestyle decision" which reduces the amount of paid employment you do and/or reduces the money you earn in the hope of "regaining control" over your life. In a survey, 28 percent of Americans of working age said that, in the last five years, they had decided to “downshift" in this sense. Indeed. This trend among workers has been reported to have worried the stock markets, being a far broader phenomenon than that of mothers giving up work to look after children. The trend, says Schor, can be seen among both sexes, whether or not people have children and across all age groups up to those in their 50s and all income spectra.

The stereotyped view of America as a country having swallowed materialist/consumerist values whole is thus misleading, even among relatively wealthy US workers (and Schor’s statistics do not tell us how many non-downshifters remain unhappy with their “lifestyles"). Ninety-five percent of all downshifters, she explains, say they are now happier than they were before.

New Party, Old System
The ideas of Schor’s New Party are reminiscent of those of the Green Party in Britain. Schor advocates that Britain should opt for slower, “sustainable" growth (about one percent per year) and, in exchange, spend more on health and education. This assumption that capitalist economies can simply pick and choose their growth rate is naive. The economies of Britain, France and Germany, for example, are currently trying to cut back on welfare expenditure at the same time as they try desperately to boost their growth rates up and out of this current uncertain period.

Another fundamental problem with the "voluntary simplicity"/downshifting response to society’s current problems (of which the ecological crisis is just one) is obviously that most of the world’s people do not have the choice of such a "lifestyle change” open to them. Duane Elgin tells u how he was able to move to a more "modest" house in order to fund his book Voluntary Simplicity. Clearly, not everyone has a house which they can sell, or a job from which they could "downshift". Most parts of the world do not even have a welfare state that they can "downshift" into. The only kind of simplicity available to the majority of the world’s population is of an entirely involuntary nature. It involves no choice about how fulfilling one’s work will be or whether the capitalist one works for will use their resources "ethically". (It is debatable whether the capitalists have much choice about this themselves if they are to get a good return from their investments.)

The debate was billed as a confrontation of the question of how we create an ecologically sustainable society. It seems that, in answer to this, the ever-growing environmental literature, research and discussion such as that of Elgin and Schor will talk about everything other than the world’s population gaining common ownership and control over the world's resources as a necessary first step. 
Dan Greenwood

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