Voluntary Simplicity

Watching the unemployment rates, the Congressional debt ceiling debacle, and the continuing drop in home prices (formerly our retirement nest egg!) in the U.S., coupled with the rising gasoline and food prices here in Africa, I can’t help but worry that something’s gotta give.  Pessimism around here abounds, with many believing they’re watching the start of a first-world financial collapse (e.g., the U.S. and the E.U. countries) due to unbearable debt that only grows worse by the minute.

Normally, I’m a pretty optimistic person and consider myself very lucky — we’ve always been able to land good jobs, support ourselves and our children, and live comfortably.  Our children have been able to find jobs relatively easily (these are high school/college minimum wage jobs I’m talking about here).  And, we have good health insurance.

Despite this protective bubble, I can’t help but note that our house is now worth less than it was 11 years ago when we bought it, though we’ve added improvements and remodeling to the tune of $150,000 over those years.  That my dad and brother’s business had to accept California State government IOUs for payment one summer (which the banks honored at first, but then stopped honoring).  That houses are selling in mid-Michigan for $15,000, and there are no buyers.  And, that two of my sons (despite having decent size college funds to start with) have had to take out substantial student loans for their education because college costs are least 10 times what they were in the 80s and 90s.  As a comparison, the tuition/fees for my undergraduate degree at California State University were a flat fee of $500 a semester, and Pell grants covered it fully.  For graduate school at the University of California, I paid $750 a quarter for tuition/fees, which was fully covered by scholarships and assistanceships.  As I write this, I realize I underestimated the staggering rise in college costs over a mere 20 years.  In actuality, our children’s college costs are more like 20 times what mine were — MSU tuition alone this year is $11,700  for residents, and that doesn’t include housing, food or books, which brings the total for a single year to about $20,000.  For non-residents, tuition alone is almost $30,000 a year.  And this is a state school!

Geez, as I write this down I feel more depressed than ever.  When you really look at the indisputable facts — what our house is worth, what tuition costs, which neighbors are underwater on their loans, which friends have lost jobs, you can’t help but think, maybe I better be prepared to live on less.

To be a total Debbie Downer I’m also watching with awe the impacts extreme weather is having on the U.S. (not to mention the world).  As I write this large parts of the U.S. are without power or vital services.  Over 5 million people in Southern California, Arizona and Mexico lost power Thursday night (see this and this), causing airport, school and non-essential health services to shut down.  The power loss caused hundreds to abandon their cars when they ran out of gas (gas pumps couldn’t work without power), thousands of dollars in losses from spoiled foods (apparently it’s over 100 degrees in many areas), and sewage contamination in the ocean due to plant pump failures (and so forth!).  Vermont is still working on opening roads and restoring power to a large part of the state.  Texas has lost over 150,000 acres to fire, and it’s only 30% contained (photo at left from friend in Texas).

Last year insurance companies ranked 2010 as one of the worst years ever for natural disasters (see this).  Wonder how this year will compare with Hurricane Irene, the Texas fires, the tornadoes in the south, and the floods in the midwest?  Experts say that climate change has resulted in more extreme weather, and these types of weather patterns are to be expected for the foreseeable future.  (See this in Scientific America or this in the LA Times.)

What does this mean for all of us?  Well, as one who lives in a fairly impoverished country prone to frequent power outages, accompanied by high food and gasoline prices (at least double what you pay in the U.S.), I’ve become increasingly interested in how to live fully and comfortably without having to buy anything, or at least very little.  And by that I mean not buy and/or rely on anything but nature for power, food, housing.

It’s hard to peg this movement — it’s more than survivalist, off-grid, localvore, back-to-the-land, homesteading, green living, do-it-your-selfer, etc..  These labels comprise the far left, the far right and middle America.  But, like it or not, the global economy may force most of us into a paradigm shift where “wealth” is no longer measured by money, goods or property, but by one’s quality of life, health and community.

The best label I’ve seen of this paradigm shift is “Voluntary Simplicity.”  The reason I like the label Voluntary Simplicity is because it is a choice.  One is not forced to “give up” anything.  One is not living poor or limiting yourself in any way.  One chooses to live simply because it aligns with one’s values, beliefs, and soul.  One chooses to live in abundance and harmony within your natural environment.  One chooses to leave a lighter footprint on the planet.

It’s also more than decluttering, living debt-free, and turning off the lights when you don’t need them.  It’s shifting one’s emphasis from external “stuff” to the internal soul.  Thom and I had a talk the other day about what things bring us the most joy and contentment — those “things” centered on people (being with family and friends), creativity (making music, cooking from scratch, creating art), learning (reading, traveling, gaining a new skill),and working with/being in nature (gardening, biking, hiking, running, yoga).

In order to not have to buy things, we have to be self-sufficient, especially with regard to power.  We can barter for clothes, food, and building supplies we can’t provide for ourselves, but without power our lifestyle would have to change drastically.  We’re without power frequently enough here in Zambia that I can see what a pain-in-the-@#$ it is.  Reading by lantern or oil lamp just doesn’t cut it for me.  I hate it when I’m in the middle of a project and my computer dies.  Worse, it really sucks when everything in your freezer has to be thrown out because it’s gone rotten from lack of power.  Oh, and cooking.  It’s much easier to cook with a stove I can turn on and off at will.

So, how to reconcile the urge for voluntary simplicity with need for power?  Learn and install alternative sources of energy that work in your specific natural environment.  (How to be completely self-sufficient?  Learn how to do things from scratch, but that’s another blog posting!)

With that in mind I started searching for groups in Zambia that do just that.  I had heard many stories of rural peoples having small solar panels to power their DVD players, cell phones and Ipods.  I had also heard of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that specialized in teaching self-sustainability, so that’s where I started looking.  I wanted to attend workshops to learn what the locals were learning.

In my search I came across the Imagine Rural Development Initiative (IRDI).  This group was doing exactly what I was looking for AND they had a training center right here in Lusaka where you could get hands-on experience in building your own.  Last Saturday Thom, I and a visiting colleague from MSU went and checked out the place.

We were warmly welcomed by Steven Putter, who with his partner Jacqui Wintle, are the co-directors of the initiative.  Steven spent a couple of hours explaining what they did, his vision for their newly acquired training center (they had just moved to a new facility four days earlier), and his life journey about how he got from a corporate man to community development teacher.  As I’ll be writing a lot about him in the future suffice it to say it’s a remarkable story about an extraordinary person.

We toured the premises (remember, he had only been there four days) and he showed us the renewable hot water heater he had made from a compost pile.  Once made it used no energy source but the compost heap and it took no work to maintain it.  The water was so hot Thom and I yelped when we felt it coming out of the shower head! It was too hot on its own and needed to be cut with cold water to make it a comfortable shower.  He also showed us the flood-plain garden they had already planted that didn’t require any extra work or watering because of its location.  I was liking this already — use of the natural features and resources of the property to set up sources of power and food without daily work or maintenance!

When we were done we went down the road to meet Olga, an elderly Greek woman who had lived in Zambia as long as she could remember.  She served us Greek coffee and we learned what it was like to live in Zambia years past, compared to what it is like now.  (Thom asked what the difference between Greek and Turkish coffee was.  She said Constantinople flipped between the Turks and the Greeks for centuries so there was no real difference, but that Greek coffee was most definitely better!)

Thom and I came away energized, wanting to learn more.  I can’t wait to go back and learn more!  If you read their website you’ll see they have big plans for both the peri-urban community the training center is located in, as well as for a rural community with which they’ve partnered with a chief to create a model sustainable green community.  (See this and this.)

Below is the photo of the four kindred spirits — Thom, myself, Steven and Olga.  We thank them for their hospitality and generosity to the people of Zambia and to the planet!!


About Kimm X Jayne

Gravatar Photograph from the exceptionally talented Ben Heine. http://www.flickr.com/photos/benheine/3794765860/
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6 Responses to Voluntary Simplicity

  1. Michael says:

    Kimm, thanks for this great essay, and for putting it in such clear context. Of course the circumstances you describe so well are inextricably connected with the steady and dramatic rise in corporate wealth and power in government, as well as the deliberate concentration of personal wealth (which I realize is not your topic). I am shifting from involuntary simplicity to voluntary simplicity as I move to New Orleans. I’m choosing a smaller living space, functional furniture rather than traditional, and not getting a car. But I feel that I’m currently missing a community/tribe aspect of this shift that is vitally important for both personal fulfillment in simplicity and for overall societal effectiveness (e.g., due to economy of scale). In many ways, the 1970s “back to the land”/co-op/commune movement got this right. Perhaps we ought to reexamine what was learned then.

  2. Steven says:

    Great article Kimm, by the way i had a HOT shower today 🙂 Love composting

  3. Stuart says:

    I was once practicing Voluntary Simplicity. I could live on about $700 a month easily back in 2003, and that was in Germany. I had no car, my rent was $285, and my investment income of $1500 a month was plenty. I had been following the advice of “Your Money or Your Life,” the original Voluntary Simplicity book, to get rid of debt, reduce expenses, and increase interest income. In 2005, I got married. Marriage I now see is Voluntary Complication. I had to go back to work. While I was working, I watched as the US dollar dropped from $0.80 per Euro to $1.50, from 125 Japanese Yen to 75 Yen (I now live in Japan). Almost half of my net worth went up in smoke, not because of bad investments, but just because the US dollar dropped like a rock. What have I learned? No matter how much you plan, nothing seems to work out the way you expect. My new plan? Vegetable gardening. So far, so good. I had a really good kohlrabi harvest this year. I bet everything grows wonderfully in Zambia. Have you thought of giving gardening a try?

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