The recorded history of voluntary simplicity, often associated with asceticism, begins with the Shramana traditions of Iron Age India. Buddha and biblical Nazirites (notably John the Baptist) were early ascetics. Various notable individuals have claimed that spiritual inspiration led them to a simple living lifestyle, such as Francis of Assisi, Ammon Hennacy, Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore, Albert Schweitzer, and Mohandas Gandhi.
Simple living has traditions that stretch back to the Orient, resonating with leaders such as Zarathustra, Buddha, Laozi, and Confucius and was heavily stressed in both Greco-Roman culture and Judeo-Christian ethics. Diogenes of Sinope was a Greek cynic who advocated extreme voluntary poverty - purportedly choosing to live in a barrel in the agora.
Epicureanism, based on the teachings of the Athens-based philosopher Epicurus, flourished from about the fourth century BC to the third century AD. Epicureanism upheld the untroubled life as the paradigm of happiness, made possible by carefully considered choices. Specifically, Epicurus pointed out that troubles entailed by maintaining an extravagant lifestyle tend to outweigh the pleasure of partaking in it. He therefore concluded that what is necessary for happiness, bodily comfort, and life itself should be maintained at minimal cost, while all things beyond what is necessary for these should either be tempered by moderation or completely avoided.
Simple living within the early Christian era draws heavily from the Eastern desert tradition. This inspired the early ascetic monastic Irish community for instance.
Various religious groups including the Shakers, Mennonites, Amish, Harmony Society, and some Quakers have for centuries practiced lifestyles in which some forms of wealth or technology are excluded for religious or philosophical reasons. There is a Quaker belief called Testimony of Simplicity that a person ought to live her or his life simply.
Henry David Thoreau, a North American naturalist and author, is often considered to have made the classic non-sectarian statement advocating a life of simple and sustainable living in his book Walden (1854).
In Victorian Britain, Henry Stephens Salt, an admirer of Thoreau, popularised the idea of "Simplification, the saner method of living". Other British advocates of the simple life included Edward Carpenter, William Morris, and the members of "The Fellowship of the New Life". C.R. Ashbee and his followers also practiced some of these ideas, thus linking simplicity with the Arts and Crafts Movement. British novelist John Cowper Powys advocated the simple life in his 1933 book A Philosophy of Solitude. John Middleton Murry and Max Plowman practised a simple lifestyle at their Aldephi Centre in Essex in the 1930s. Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh championed a "right simplicity" philosophy based on ruralism in some of his work. 
George Lorenzo Noyes, a naturalist, mineralogist, development critic, writer, and artist, is known as the Thoreau of Maine. He lived a wilderness lifestyle, advocating through his creative work a simple life and reverence for nature. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Vanderbilt Agrarians of the Southern United States advocated a lifestyle and culture centered upon traditional and sustainable agrarian values as opposed to the progressive urban industrialism which dominated the Western world at that time.
Thorstein Veblen sounded a clarion call against the Conspicuous consumption of the materialistic society with The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899); Richard Gregg coined the term "voluntary simplicity" in The Value of Voluntary Simplicity (1936). From the 1920s, a number of modern authors articulated both the theory and practice of living simply, among them Gandhian Richard Gregg, economists Ralph Borsodi and Scott Nearing, anthropologist-poet Gary Snyder, and utopian fiction writer Ernest Callenbach. E. F. Schumacher argued against the notion that "bigger is better" in Small Is Beautiful (1973); and Duane Elgin continued the promotion of the simple life in Voluntary simplicity (1981).
In the United Kingdom, the Movement for Compassionate Living was formed by Kathleen and Jack Jannaway in 1984, to spread the vegan message and promote simple living and self-reliance as a remedy against the exploitation of humans, animals, and the Earth.
Some people practice simple living to reduce need for purchased goods or services and, by extension, reduce their need to sell their time for money. Some will spend the extra free time helping family or others. During the Christmas and holiday season, such people often perform alternative giving. Others may spend the extra free time to improve their quality of life, for example pursuing creative activities such as art and crafts (see starving artist). The philosophy behind these choices is examined at length in Ernest Callenbach's 1972 non-fiction book Living Cheaply with Style, which also devotes hundreds of pages to practical tips and how-to guides for both voluntary and involuntary practitioners of simple living.
Another approach is to focus more fundamentally on the underlying motivation of buying and consuming so many resources for a good quality of life. Though our society often seeks to buy happiness, materialism very frequently fails to satisfy, and may even increase the level of stress in life. It has been said that "the making of money and the accumulation of things should not smother the purity of the soul, the life of the mind, the cohesion of the family, or the good of the society." There are eco-anarchist groups in the United States and Canada today promoting lifestyles of simplicity.
The grassroots awareness campaign, National Downshifting Week (UK) (founded 1995) encourages participants to positively embrace living with less. Campaign creator, British writer and broadcaster on downshifting and sustainable living, Tracey Smith says, "The more money you spend, the more time you have to be out there earning it and the less time you have to spend with the ones you love". National Downshifting Week encourages participants to 'Slow Down and Green Up' and contains a list of suggestions for individuals, companies, children and schools to help adopt green or eco-friendly policies and habits, develop corporate social and environmental responsibility in the workplace, and create eco-protocols and lessons that work alongside the national curriculum, respectively.
One way to simplify life is to get back-to-the-land and grow your own food. Self-sufficiency can reduce dependency on money and the economy. Although a large plot of land will produce more crops, pot gardens and miniature indoor greenhouses can also provide fresh home grown fruit and vegetables for city dwellers. Tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, peas, strawberries, and several types of herbs can all thrive in pots. Radical Simplicity also says that a person –could sprout seeds. They are tasty, incredibly nutritious, and easy to grow–We grow them in wide mouthed mason jars with a square of nylon window screen screwed under a metal ring–. One argument against gardening at home is how often people begin a garden and later stop it. Farmer Matt Moore spoke on this issue: "How does it affect the consumer to know that broccoli takes 105 days to grow a head?," . . . "The supermarket mode is one of plenty – it's always stocked. And that changes our sense of time. How long it takes to grow food – that's removed in the marketplace. They don't want you to think about how long it takes to grow, because they want you to buy right now" . One way to change this viewpoint is also suggested by Mr. Moore. He placed a video installation in the produce section of a grocery store that documented the length of time it took to grow certain vegetables . This raises awareness in people of the length of time actually needed for gardens and could easily be combined with online lectures to help new gardeners.
Many Green Parties often advocate simple living as a consequence of their "four pillars" or the "Ten Key Values" of the United States Green Party. This includes, in policy terms, their rejection of genetic modification and nuclear power and other technologies they consider to be hazardous. The Greens' support for simplicity is based on the reduction in natural resource usage and environmental impact. This concept is expressed in Ernest Callenbach's "green triangle" of ecology, frugality and health.
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 a smaller scale, e.g. the ecovillage.
The alleged relationship between economic growth and war, when fought for control and exploitation of natural and human resources, is considered a good reason for promoting a simple living lifestyle. Avoiding the perpetuation of the resource curse is a similar objective of many simple living adherents. Opposition to war has led some to a form of tax resistance in which they reduce their tax liability by taking up a simple living lifestyle.
Although simple living is often a secular pursuit, it may still involve reconsidering personal definitions of appropriate technology, as Anabaptist groups such as the Amish or Mennonites have done. People who eschew modern technology are often referred to as Luddites or Neo-Luddism adherents.
People who practice simple living have diverse views on the role of technology. Some simple living adherents, such as Kirkpatrick Sale, are strong critics of modern technology, while others see the Internet as a key component of simple living in the future, including the reduction of an individual's carbon footprint through telecommuting and less reliance on paper. Simple living may include high-tech components–indeed computers, Internet, photovoltaic arrays, wind and water turbines, and a variety of other cutting-edge technologies can be used to make a simple lifestyle within mainstream culture easier and more sustainable.
The idea of food miles, the number of miles a given item of food or its ingredients has travelled between the farm and the table, is used by simple living advocates to argue for locally grown food. This is now gaining mainstream acceptance, as shown by the popularity of books such as The 100-Mile Diet, and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. In each of these cases, the authors devoted a year to reducing their carbon footprint by eating locally.
Advertising is criticised for encouraging a consumerist mentality. Many advocates of simple living tend to agree that cutting out, or cutting down on, television viewing is a key ingredient in simple living. Some see the Internet, podcasting, community radio or pirate radio as viable alternatives.
A new economics movement has been building since the UN conference on the environment in 1972, and the publication that year of Only One Earth, The Limits to Growth, and Blueprint For Survival, followed in 1973 by Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.
Recently, David Wann has introduced the idea of –simple prosperity– as it applies to a sustainable lifestyle. From his point of view, and as a point of departure for what he calls real sustainability, –it is important to ask ourselves three fundamental questions: what is the point of all our commuting and consuming? What is the economy for? And, finally, why do we seem to be unhappier now than when we began our initial pursuit for rich abundance?– In this context, simple living is the opposite of our modern quest for affluence and, as a result, it becomes less preoccupied with quantity and more concerned about the preservation of cities, traditions and nature.
A reference point for this new economics can be found in James Robertson's A New Economics of Sustainable Development, and the work of thinkers and activists, who participate in his Working for a Sane Alternative network and program. According to Robertson, the shift to sustainability is likely to require a widespread shift of emphasis from raising incomes to reducing costs.
The principles of the new economics, as set out by Robertson, are the following:
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