It is winter in the Great Lakes region. The mall parking lot is filled with cars while a few people skate on the neighbourhood rink. As I swish around, I wonder why people spend money on plastic stuff when they could be playing crack the whip. I imagine announcing over the mall’s PA system, “Attention shoppers! Your consumerism reinforces economic systems that plunder the earth, exploit workers, and enrich robber barons. How about skating instead?”
In the spirit of Imbolc, renewal, and beginnings, I present a couple of old ideas that, if applied widely, could steer whole societies away from mall shopping, consumerism, unsustainable consumption, and joyless, meaningless toil and toward… skating.
If the personal is political, Naturalistic Pagans could start a revolution by applying this idea en masse. Voluntary simplicity has two themes: don’t buy or consume what you don’t need and don’t waste time on activity that brings no joy or does no good in the world. But the trick is in the details. What is a need, and what is frivolity? How do we define purposeful work? Figuring this out is the fascinating part of voluntary simplicity.
For inspiration, we can look to people who have lived by these concepts. Gandhi, Thoreau, Quakers, Mennonites, Buddhist monks and nuns, and Stoics come to mind. My mother embodies simplicity as frugality. She washes and re-uses foil until it looks like lace and cleans windows with newspaper and vinegar. Others apply the principles of simplicity in eccentric ways. In the mid-1980s I had an ecology professor who wore a different colour of sock on each foot. To him, matching socks in pairs was an unpleasant task that stole time from his field work. Other people might avoid Kijiji or Amazon, or even change careers. We interpret and adjust as we go.
I live simply, but when my kids were in elementary school, I felt that our lives were spinning out of control in a whirl of culturally imposed pressures. Four other women and I decided to form a sort of Socratic group to question the choices we were making. Together we read Cecile Andrew’s book, Circle of Simplicity, and week by week, adopted simpler lifestyles. The first activity I cast off was school fundraising, a small but mighty liberation.
The best resistance we can launch against consumerism, affluenza, and neo-liberal corporatism is to participate in the economy on our own terms. A just society is not built on the purchase of happy meals. On the other hand, dining on locally-sourced food in small restaurants strengthens our towns’ economic and social health. Ultimately, we decide how we spend our time, money, and energy and what kind of economic and social arrangements we wish to support. As I skate, I wonder what voluntary simplicity would look like on a community level. This brings me to the next old idea.
Community Socialism: Collectivism, Co-operation, and Sharing
I realize that the word “socialism” is regarded with suspicion by some people who bank at credit unions, borrow library books, swim at the YMCA, and lend and borrow garden tools and missing ingredients for cakes. However, we all engage in fundamentally socialist, collectivist, co-operative arrangements with other people. To be neighbourly is to be socialist. We can expand on the concept of socialism, i.e. community-driven production, distribution, and exchange of goods and services, to wring more use from it.
When I was an undergrad a lifetime ago, food co-ops were a popular way for people to buy healthy food at low cost through bulk buying schemes. The co-ops offered fair prices to farmers by bypassing food processing conglomerates and national supermarket chains and connecting them straight to eaters. The Internet has catalyzed the development of new economic systems by disseminating old ideas such as co-ops and other sharing schemes and providing a means for people to connect with each other efficiently.
Now car shares, bicycle shares, and community gardens are common in most cities. Libraries have expanded to lend tools, toys and musical instruments, and to organize seed swaps. In 2017, our city library plans to open a makers’ space equipped with woodworking tools, sewing machines, and music and video recording equipment. Exciting times!
The advantages of community-scaled socialism are many:
- Money savings. If you lose a tree in a storm, you can borrow a chainsaw from the tool library to cut it away rather than purchasing one. You’ve saved about $300.
- Reduction in consumption of resources. Why encourage the manufacture of more chainsaws when there are perfectly fine chainsaws at the tool library?
- Reduction in carbon foot print. If I check the ride-share bulletin board and then hitch a ride with you to Montreal, one fewer car heads down the highway.
- Connection with other human beings. I’ll be great company on the drive as I dazzle you with my wit. Soon we’ll be friends.
- Transfer of knowledge. I can’t use a lathe… yet! You can’t knit… yet! Let’s meet up at the makers’ space and teach each other.
- Preservation of traditional skills. We can use up our fabric scraps at the quilting frame.
- What could be more fun than exploring Toronto on a Bike-Share, or making bread at the community bake oven in Kitchener, Ontario?
- Personal power. As we read of distant wars or catastrophic environmental vandalism we may feel hopeless. The antidote to this crumby feeling is action. I’ll sweep the local rink so we can skate. It’s therapeutic.
Like simplicity and socialism, Paganism, Naturalism, and Humanism, are also very old, very good ideas. They offer us spiritual sustenance and inspire courage to try old and new ideas as we dig ourselves out of a planet-sized pile of our own night soil. I think afternoon skaters and readers of Humanistic Paganism know that already. Have a blessed Imbolc!
Andrews, Cecile. Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Goodlife. 1997.
Elgin, Duane. Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich. 1981.
Schumacher, E.F. Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. 1973.
Note: These books have been re-published in updated editions. I intentionally reference the originals to underscore that these old ideas stand the test of time and remain relevant and helpful now.
Renee Lehnen is a registered nurse and recent empty nester living in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. With her new found free time, she enjoys outdoor sports, working on local environmental projects, and gazing at the sky wondering, “What does all of this mean?”