Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin

Voluntary Simplicity 
Duane Elgin
(New York: Quill, 1993)
In Voluntary Simplicity, Duane Elgin introduces readers to the idea of living outwardly simply, but experiencing an inwardly rich life. The book was first published in 1981 and based on a survey Elgin conducted. He writes about the “coming ecological crisis” long before anthropogenic climate change became accepted science. In many ways, this book is ahead of its time. In other ways, it is a little bit dated. However, the overall premise is sound; life can be rich and fulfilling while remaining materially simple.

The version I read was revised and reprinted in 1993. It is organized into three parts: “Living on the New Frontier,” “The Philosophy of Simplicity,” and “Simplicity and Social Renewal.” Sections one and three are broken into two chapters each, and the middle section has three chapters. Sections and subsections make each chapter easy to follow and the book is generally well-written, and I found it to be a quick read.

The first chapter explains Elgin’s idea of simplicity, which is similar to arguments put forward by authors like E. F. Schumacher and Ron Sider. While his argument is similar to others, Elgin’s concept of simplicity is a worthy addition to the literature on the subject. The second chapter contains the most dated material in the entire book because it is based on the survey he conducted.

After chapter two, chapters three through five comprise Part Two: The Philosophy of Simplicity. Appreciating life, living more voluntarily, and living more simply are the key concepts in Elgin’s ideology. They are also the most valuable part of the book. The following example illustrates his ideas in action.

Elgin tells the story about a lunch encounter with Elise Boulding. She is a Quaker, feminist, sociologist, and advocate for nonviolence. As Elgin sat down to lunch at a conference on the need for social change, he noticed that in spite of the opulent spread of food before the conference participants, Boulding, without commenting on her actions, simply took an apple, a piece of cheese, and a slice of bread. Elgin asked Boulding how she felt, and she said that she felt fine. Then, after more polite conversation, he asked about her food selection. “In a few quiet sentences, she explained that she did not want to eat what others in the world could not have as well” (p. 59). Her actions illustrate Elgin’s premise of voluntary simplicity. 

Elgin’s conclusion depends heavily on the shared traits of the Golden Rule. Building on common ground is effective in putting forward a counter-cultural idea. In a materialistic world, promoting simplicity is counter-cultural, even if it is a sound theological idea. He quotes a 28 year-old single man from the rural western part of the United States, “Satisfactions are the fulfillment of the heart. Dissatisfactions are the rumblings of the mind” (p. 102).

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