Book Review: Voluntary Simplicity
Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity is a plea for a simpler, more balanced way of living. I never quite figured out why the lifestyle he describes is any more simple than other ways. I have what I suspect is a knee-jerk annoyance with those who have always had enough to eat and hot and cold running water in their lives, who romanticize pre-industrial living. I tried to keep an open mind for this, but I think I’m just not the correct audience for this book.
The audience seems to be affluent urbanites. Elgin is clear that he’s not talking about actual poverty, just a clever simulation. He describes what he means by “simple,” and while I don’t think it’s actually all that simple, I get what he’s talking about. Simplicity involves reducing spending and possessions to the things that are really needed, getting in touch with the really important things in life such as family and vocation, and maintaining awareness of the plight of the poor.

I think it’s the “voluntary” part that I have a hard time understanding. The audience seems to be affluent urbanites. Elgin is clear that he’s not talking about actual poverty, just a clever simulation. He makes it clear that this is a choice, so if you’re not making the choice it’s not voluntary and, apparently, less worthwhile or laudable. While I practice much of what he talks about, I don’t know how “voluntary” it is. I don’t own a car, and I walk, bike or take public everywhere I go. Is this voluntary? Well, I hate cars and think they’re evil and dangerous. I also can’t afford one right now. I live in an area where it’s not difficult at all to live without a car. I prefer not owning a car, but right now I couldn’t have one if I wanted one. So is this voluntary?

If I lived out in the country, I’d have a car. I’d use it as little as possible, because I hate cars, but I’d have to use it now and then. Is my lack of a car now voluntary? Would my car ownership at my rural home be voluntary? I mostly am just reacting to my circumstances. How could I make this voluntary?

I buy local produce and meat as much as possible. This qualifies as “simple” in Elgin’s scenario. It tastes better and the produce is usually cheaper. It’s also really convenient to go to the farmer’s market down the street. I like it better. If you told me tomorrow that it would benefit the planet for me to buy at the supermarket instead, I might still buy at the farmer’s market – I’d feel a little guilty about it but cheap, tasty, healthy and convenient are all important to me. So is this voluntary? Should I be feeling the warm glow of moral superiority when what I’m doing is exactly what I want?

It sounds like, to really practice voluntary simplicity, you have to be an affluent urban professional who enjoys shopping at the supermarket, driving a cushy SUV, and buying lots of toys. It would be a sacrifice for this hypothetical person to give all this up, but that warm glow I just mentioned is meant to make up for all those nice things. I don’t like any of that stuff. I dress like a librarian. I shop at the farmer’s market. I take SEPTA. I’m not the right audience for this book – I’d be miserable with the kind of lifestyle he describes as what we’d all choose if we weren’t volunteering to be simple. I think there was something he was trying to say that I just didn’t get, because I’m just not the right audience.

I got more out of the last part of the book, “Simplicity and Social Renewal.” Elgin take a complete turn from the personal to the global, and this is where I really got interested. He discusses the importance of a positive shared vision of the future, which is something really lacking right now. He gives a plan for creating that future, and that kind of practical approach seems much more useful than the exclusionary and elitist kinds of talk he engages in at the start of the book.