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Seeking Something That's Beyond Just Consumerism

Values: More Americans are spurning materialism in order to spend more time with their families and embrace ecology.

Richard B. Anderson

Los Angeles Times, Commentary Section, December 31, 1998.

In the aftermath of the holidays, it's hard to believe that many Americans hunger for a life less tainted by materialism. Yet many do. Some of them are connecting with a movement called "voluntary simplicity."

The movement has been around for a generation or so, dating in its current form from the publication of Duane Elgin's "Voluntary Simplicity" in 1981. The idea is to make a better life by owning and consuming less, by trading things for time.

Not exactly a new notion, of course; thinkers from Plato the American Transcendentalists have had the same idea. Yet this modern reformulation is attracting more attention as life in the American "90s becomes more burdensome, as hours spent in labor rise and compensation lags, as working Americans become strangers to their children and to happiness as well.

Last fall, a little-publicized gathering at USC drew more than 1,000 people, twice as many as anticipated. What was surprising about the tenor of the conference was the emphasis on values, although the word was rarely used, and "downshifting"--moving away from the frenzied pursuit of material success in order to have more time for living. People wanted especially to have more time for families, neighbors, friends and community activities.

In a practical sense, values are shared beliefs, agreements about how people can live together without destroying one another. For decades, those agreements have been under assault by the consumer culture. In the service of the economy, we Americans have exalted self-indulgence without considering that it is the enemy of responsible behavior. By giving material things exaggerated value, we have discredited nonmaterial satisfactions such as love, friendship and the enjoyment of nature. In the process, we also have displaced nonmaterial values like thrift, modesty, humility, fellow-feeling, devotion to family and service to community.

At the beginning of the modern era, British economist John Maynard Keynes said, "We must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul fair; for foul is useful, and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still, for only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight." Keynes' notion of values has become our own. A look at the national scene today will demonstrate that foul has indeed become fair. The idea that we can do well by doing ill has become ingrained.

The people who attended the conference at USC were challenging that notion, questioning the logic of the American economy and society at the level of desire. They were challenging the emotional basis of modern industrial capitalism.

The voluntary simplicity movement touches a deep chord in people, a longing for meaningful life that our materialist culture has no way to satisfy. Its ultimate impact will depend on how effectively its followers can correct their own lives through self-help and discussion on an intimate small-group basis.

Yet in America today, to challenge the supremacy of materialism is a political act. Those who do so will have an influence on the course of events, whether they intend it or not. There is tremendous political potential here for those with the imagination to embrace a new vision that includes both ecology and family values. As one of the conference participants put it, "If there was a march on Washington in which members of the Christian Coalition and Greenpeace were found walking together, that would be a truly new thing in American politics."

© Richard B. Anderson, 2004

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