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Encyclopedia > Voluntary poverty

Voluntary simplicity is a lifestyle considered by its adherents to be a sustainable, ecologically sensitive alternative to the typical, western consumerist lifestyle. The term "downshifting" is often used to describe the act of moving toward a lifestyle based on voluntary simplicity.



People who practice voluntary simplicity act consciously to reduce their need for purchased services or goods and, by extension, their need to sell their time for money. Quite often, this means that people who practise this lifestyle must do many things for themselves, such as gardening and cooking, sewing, and constructing or maintaining a home.

There are some North Americans who have successfully applied voluntary simplicity techniques to allow them to live on an income of only a few thousand dollars a year. However, it is important to note that money is not the major reason to practise this lifestyle. Most do it to improve their quality of life in one of many dimensions: financial, spirituality, interpersonal relationships, family, etc.


Monks in the middle ages were possibly the earliest practitioners of organized lifestyles of voluntary poverty, though the use of fasts of short duration are common in many cultures throughout history.

The Luddites, a group of English weavers who smashed automated looms during the industrial revolution, held similar views.

In North America, religious groups including the Shakers, Mennonites, Amish, and some Quakers have for centuries practiced lifestyles where some forms of wealth or technology are excluded for religious or philosophical reasons. Henry David Thoreau, a naturalist, ethicist, and writer, is often considered to have made the classic non-sectarian American statement of this sensibility in his book Walden.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, a number of fairly prominent modern writers (in English) had articulated both the theory and practice of lifestyles of this sort, among them Gandhian Richard Gregg, economists Ralph Borsodi and Scott Nearing, anthropologist-poet Gary Snyder, and utopian fiction writer Ernest Callenbach. The modern version of Voluntary Simplicity was named in the 1970s by the seminal book of the same title by Duane Elgin. There are eco-anarchist groups in the United States and Canada today promoting lifestyles of simplicity.

Advocacy by Greens

The Green Parties have been much influenced by the above groups and often advocate voluntary simplicity as a consequence of their four pillars or Ten Key Values. This includes in policy terms rejection of genetic modification and nuclear weapons and other potentially hazardous technologies beyond human control.

Many with similar views avoid involvement even with green politics as compromising simplicity, however, and advocate forms of green anarchism that attempt to implement these principles at smaller scale than modern nations, e.g.the ecovillage.


Eliminating the role of television in one's life is a dominant theme in many recent essays regarding simplicity. Writers of these essays see television both as a waste of time and as an implicit advocate of consumerism. Advertising in particular seems to be regarded as an evil by most of the authors. Some see community radio or pirate radio as a viable alternative without the visual distraction; one can, after all, work while listening, but not while watching.

Computer addiction is also a subject of recent interest. Some see computers as sources of instant knowledge (e.g. as in Wikipedia). Others see them as necessarily distracting from the local immediate people and places, and providing a form of false community called "virtual community" which is all too often distracting from body, family and life as lived within same.

Electronics of all kinds require a complex industrial base and knowledge of physics and materials science, which may be part of a military-industrial complex, and so may defeat some of the purposes of voluntary simplicity movements, or lead in the long run to other forms of domination.


Related topics

  Results from FactBites:
The Three Ages of the Interior Life - Part 3 (3105 words)
Voluntary poverty can be practiced either in the midst of the abundance of worldly goods, when the spirit is not attached to them, or in destitution when one bears it generously for love of God.
The value of voluntary poverty may even appear to those who have not faith, because they see the disorders which arise from cupidity, the concupiscence of the eyes, the desire of riches, avarice, the excesses of capitalism, and the forgetfulness of the poor who are dying of hunger.
Voluntary poverty and confidence in God go hand in hand; the more detached man is from earthly goods, the more he desires those of heaven; and the less he relies on human helps, the more he places his confidence in God's help.
CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Poverty (2689 words)
If voluntary poverty is ennobled by the motive which inspires it, the poverty which puts aside temporal possessions for the service of God and the salvation of souls is the most noble of all.
It is the apostolic poverty of the Christian religion which is practised in the highest degree by missionaries in pagan countries, and to a certain degree by all priests: all these voluntarily give up certain possessions and advantages in order to devote themselves entirely to the service of God.
Voluntary poverty is the object of one of the evangelical counsels.
  More results at FactBites »



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