Voluntary Simplicity

Carl Franz

“I love the idea of a life of voluntary simplicity,” my friend said with a sigh. “But when it comes down to actually putting it into practice...?” He waved distractedly toward his state-of-the-art desktop PC. “Where do I start? Do I buy a woodstove and trade my IBM in for a chainsaw? What do I really need and what can I do without?”

It was a familiar dilemma and an all-too familiar lament: voluntary simplicity sounds great on paper, but ... how do we put voluntary simplicity into practice? And where, when and how do we begin? How can the average American, raised on a diet of E-Z credit, conspicuous consumption and techno-temptations, manage to change his/her acquisitive ways? In fact, how do we know that Voluntary Simplicity actually works? Once we trim the fat from our lifestyles, will there be anything left? Has anybody actually tested this stuff?

As my friend complained repeatedly: “Voluntary simplicity is great -- if you happen to live in a commune in Alaska.” But here, in the upwardly mobile Great Society itself?
“The easiest and most enjoyable way to learn voluntary simplicity,” I suggested, “is to get some hands-on practice, on-the-job training from experts.”

My friend thought that sounded like a cross between a good idea and a pitch for Adult Education classes at the local community college.

“It’s better than that,” I assured him. “In fact, It’s virtually a vacation. My suggestion is that you leave town -- in other words, travel.”

When it comes to voluntary simplicity, travel offers a practical opportunity to see how the rest of the world gets along from day to day and generation to generation. How can we make an intelligent decision about alternative and simplified life-styles when our vision of ‘reality’ is limited by borders?

Are you curious about what life would be like without Cuisinarts, quasar sound systems or even electricity? Open your atlas -- a large portion of the Earth’s population lives without so-called ‘modern conveniences’. As you travel, observe what these people are doing and doing without. In most cases, you’ll find that voluntary simplicity not only works, it makes people happy, by their own standards.

“By their own standards” is the crux of this travel lesson. As an exercise, compare basic standards of food, shelter, clothing and entertainment in the countries you visit to the standards you and your neighbours have always assumed were necessary to support life.
If you can’t travel enough to actually spend a day behind a water buffalo in Luzon, try this: make a list of what you own, then pare it down to Third World size. Be realistic; few of us can get by in this country without a car though it obviously doesn’t have to be a Mercedes. As you prepare your list, identify real needs versus frills, toys and irrelevant gadgets. This is an important early step toward voluntary simplicity. As a bonus, you’ll also be setting the stage for a blockbuster garage sale.

In Mexico, I helped a man build a house from the ground up, using nothing but a machete, poles, sticks, fronds and twine. I not only learned first-hand why handmade houses tend to be small (a lot of work!) but I began to understand the notion that “Enough is enough.” The house we built was strong, attractive, comfortable, extremely cheap, and easily repairable. When I suggested that we add a back porch my new friend said simply, “It isn’t needed.”

Back home, local newspapers advise me that an average shelter in the Seattle suburbs costs $90,000 - $100,000. After my experience in Mexico, I have to ask myself, is it worth it? Will my life be happier and more rewarding with a 30-year mortgage? Is this the proper investment for a good portion of my potential life earnings?

“It rains in Seattle,” a realtor might say in defense of such prices, “Good roofs are important.” A traveller could argue that in the Orient, monsoon rains can shred an umbrella, yet millions of roofs are made from leaves, grass, fronds and corrugated tin. Banana leaves might not be a practical building material aroung Puget Sound, but do you really need that spare bedroom and double garage and full basement after all?

Lorena and I learned the technique of raised bed gardening from Guatemalan Indians, long before the popular “French Intensive Method” hit the bookstands. Guatemalans and their counterparts throughout the world have used these gardening methods for thousands of years. It seems reasonable to assume that even Americans can learn something from a thousand years of practice.

Our friends have returned from their travels with newfound skills and techniques in everything from cooking simple foods to weaving and building stone walls. Rather than travelling superficially as tourists, they’ve used their experiences in other countries to gain a better perspective on their own lives.

If I could summarize in a few words what I’ve learned about voluntary simplicity during twenty years of globetrotting, it would all boil down to this: Enough really is enough. Take the time to see how our neighbors on this planet live. Remember that old cliche: “Experience is the best teacher.” When used as a tool for learning, travel will put you onto an exciting path of discovery -- and help make voluntary simplicity a working reality in your life.

Carl Franz lives an elegantly simple life in a fixed-up shack on the edge of the Snohomish River Wetlands (or “The Swamp”, as he calls it). He is the author of three books, including the classic People’s Guide to Mexico. He occasionally leads small groups around Mexico.

Reprinted from Future in Our Hands, c/o Europe Through the Back Door, 120 4th Ave. N, Edmonds, WA 98020 U.S.A., (206) 771-8303.



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