Degrowth and Voluntary Simplicity

Concerns about Climate Change and general climate instability seems to be on everyone’s mind right now. It’s no surprise considering that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and large shifting weather patterns that seem to be related to our relationship with nature. One of the biggest concerns that the sustainability community is dealing with right now is that our consumer-driven economy tends to see growth as good unconditionally despite the fact that exponential growth is physically impossible and we have already well outstretched our sustainable rate of growth.

One of the movements looking to tackle the Global North’s love affair with growth is the Degrowth Movement. Degrowth is an idea that critiques the global capitalist system which pursues growth at all costs, causing human exploitation and environmental destruction. It essentially means that instead of focusing on growth at all costs within our societies as a form of progress, we need to focus more on making sure that we have enough to live but reduce our consumption models to match those needs.

The Voluntary Simplicity Movement is another similar movement that seeks to disrupt our high-consumption culture by promoting a way of life that rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer cultures and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life’ or ‘downshifting.’ Clearly, Voluntary Simplicity and Degrowth have a lot in common and tie into one another quite highly.

While trying to research these movements to figure out my place within them, I’ve found it difficult to find practical information on how to get started. There is a lot of information out there, but much of it is obfuscated in academic language or is organized in a way that I find confusing. In an effort to better make sense of all of this information, I’ve started to write a few blog articles where I take notes on the information I find and try to make it a bit more organized and understandable for myself. I hope it’s helpful for you as well.

This first article is my interpretation and notes on an academic paper that ties together the concepts of Degrowth and Voluntary Simplicity and looks at the obstacles that people have to face when choosing to live simpler, less consumptive lives. The paper itself does not detail solutions to these obstacles and also seems to leave out income and opportunity inequality, so some of the thoughts below are my own and not taken directly from the paper, though most of this information is directly from the research.

Degrowth Implies Voluntary Simplicity: Overcoming Barriers to Sustainable Consumption

High-consumption lifestyles, which are a big part of Western society, are extremely resource and energy intensive. Almost everything we do costs money, consumes energy and natural resources, and creates waste. However, it is hard to say that these lifestyles make the majority of people in these societies any happier. Depression and other mental health disorders are at an all-time high in Western society as many people struggle to find meaning, live in impoverished conditions, have debilitating disabilities, have difficulty finding and affording healthcare, and are often locked into unsatisfying and difficult jobs that leave little time for leisure.

It is possible that people may actually be able to increase their life satisfaction by voluntarily reducing their resource and energy consumption since it is possible to trade some of that drive for consumption with additional free time with which to pursue leisure, connection to others, community, and other less materialistic markers of meaning. In this way, a simpler life is a path to help both ourselves and the planet.

A cultural revolution of transitioning away from consumer lifestyles and embracing lifestyles of reduced and restrained consumption is a necessary precondition to a degrowth or steady state economy. However, our lifestyle decisions are not made in a vacuum. They are largely driven by political, social, and economic structures which constrain what choices we’re able to make. There are many obstacles to choosing a simpler life and six of the biggest factors locking people in to higher consumption lifestyles are a lack of suitable transport options, a lack of suitable employment, insufficient product information, difficulty resisting consumer temptations, a lack of suitable social activities, and a lack of suitable housing.

Lack of Suitable Transport Options

Walking, riding bicycles, and taking public transportation are widely regarded as the most sustainable forms of transportation. Reducing the distance and regularity of travel is also an important component of more sustainable consumption since driving and flying are extremely carbon-intensive modes of transportation.

However, escaping car culture is difficult or impossible for many people living in consumer cultures, especially in the United States of America which has very car-centric urban planning. While it is true that there are cases where people have the option to walk, bike, or take public transit but choose to drive instead, there are also plenty of cases where people wish to use more sustainable methods of transportation but end up driving fro structural reasons beyond their immediate control such as an absence of safe bike lanes, a lack of accessible public transportation, inefficient public transportation routes, and the absence of usable sidewalks and walkable communities.

Investment in walkable communities, safe bike lanes, public transportation, and other forms of sustainable transportation infrastructure is necessary to give people other options. These investments must take into consideration not only able-bodied adults but also children, elderly people, and people with disabilities. If you’re only investing in safer bike lanes for example, you’re only investing in a portion of the population that is already privileged with good health and the means to have such a personal mode of transportation.

Other structural issues also lead to increased frequency and distance of transportation as well. Sprawling urban landscapes with restrictive zoning laws increase the distance that people need to travel regularly to work and live and provides a broader area which needs to be supplied. Globalized trade allows us access to a great many items and food that we would not otherwise have access to but comes at the cost of shipping items over extremely long distances all of the time. Promoting mixed-use zoning, higher density living, and investing in a localized economy are also important tools for reducing the consumption cost of transportation.

Lack of Suitable Employment Options

Neoclassical economic theory claims that people in market economies are capable of maximizing their happiness through selling as much or as little of their time as they wish. This assumes that everyone’s time is valued the same and that there is a market fluid enough to sell your time as you wish, neither of which are true as evidenced by the especially high amount of income and opportunity within the United States of America and structural biases in many advanced capitalist societies that promote overwork such as laws that treat the 40-hour work week as standard and exclude part-time workers from necessary employment benefits.

The effect of these structural biases is to lock many people into working longer hours than they want or need which creates cultures that over-consume resources and under-consume leisure. This translates into “wealth” in the form of higher income and consumption per capita but at the cost of quality of life and planetary health. Even this “wealth” of higher income isn’t seen by the average worker since much of this wealth is funneled upwards to wealthy elites who enforce these structural biases and force a high-consumption lifestyle onto those who work for them just to be able to have the “privilege” of living. Many people state that they would like to work fewer hours but low wages and a lack of benefits prevent them from doing so.

This situation could be improved by shortening the work week to 35 hour as in France or even 21 hours as recommended by the New Economics Foundation. Ensuring that part-time workers are given the same benefits as full-time workers and severing the link between healthcare benefits and employment would also go a long way towards making sure that people have the freedom to work fewer hours without losing out on necessary resources for living. Increasing wages to match the cost of living is also imperative to shrinking income inequality, allowing people’s time to be more equally valued.

Insufficient Product Information

While it is very difficult to draw the line on where consumption is truly ethical, “ethical” consumption in market capitalism can be understood as choosing to purchase goods and services based on their ecological or social justice impact even if this means paying more for them. While this style of consumption alone will not create a just and sustainable society, this behavior may play a significant role in transitioning from a consumer culture to a more sustainable culture as it encourages people to consume less and think about the external cost of the goods and services that they consume.

“Ethical” consumerism allows people to “vote with their dollars” when facing commodities that are priced as not taking into account their ecological or social costs, but does not account for consumers being limited in choice by the amount of income that they have to spend or the choices that they have within the market. If consumers were able to mobilize en masse and boycott all environmentally unsustainable products, global capitalism would be transformed quickly and significantly, but these limits make this significantly difficult.

However, “ethical” consumption also requires access to the information required to make informed decisions. The degree to which this information is accessible to consumers is a structural issue that affects the way people are able to consume. For example, if the origins and farming procedures for food is unavailable, it is impossible to choose to consume only locally grown and sustainably farmed food. Making it mandatory to label items in certain ways and it becomes easier to purchase ethically based on the information provided. It would also make it easier for consumers to boycott products which don’t live up to their ethical standards

It is also important to recognize that label regulations are not enough. Many companies are already engaging in obfuscation practices and “greenwashing” campaigns that portray their products as more ethical and sustainable than they really are. The more steps there are between the product’s creation and the consumer, the more likely these practices are, making the only real choice for “ethical” consumption purchasing from local people where you can observe the practices used in developing the goods that you purchase.

Exposure to Consumer Temptations

Advertising claims to play an important role in providing people with information about products that could increase their wellbeing. After all, if a consumer doesn’t know what their options are, it is impossible to make conscious decisions about what purchases might increase their wellbeing. This assumes that advertising is the only way in which people get this information while many people attribute word of mouth as the most impactful form of information gathering about products and services.

Sociologists and psychologists have shown that people do not always spend money in ways that seem to contribute to their well-being, questioning the assumption that all free-market actors are acting in “rational self-interest.” These studies also show that consumer desires are not fixed but can be shaped by external forces, structures, or norms in society including advertising. Advertising does not merely provide us with information but actively shapes our desires, often in insidious ways as they deliberately play on our emotions and insecurities.

People in consumer societies may be exposed up to more than 3,000 advertisements a day in increasingly subtle and subliminal ways. This relentless exposure undoubtedly affects the way that people consume in addition to wearing down our cognitive faculties and draining our attention making it harder to make informed choices which positively impact our wellbeing. Increased regulation of advertising may be one way to free people from some of the structural pressures that encourage high consumption lifestyles.

Lack of Suitable Social Activities

Human beings are not isolated and atomic individuals whose desires are independent from those around them. Rather, human desires are shaped by the culture and social infrastructure within which they live. Commodities play a role in human life that go well beyond their material functionality as they also function symbolically as social artifacts through which people express and create their identities and in which people seek not just satisfaction but meaning and social acceptance as well.

What we own and what we purchase in modern consumer societies can be understood to be part of the extended self. Therefore, the meaning of consumption is not inherent to the commodity or service purchased but is rather a social construct that is dependent on the culture within which the act of consumption takes place. The cultural background within which consumption takes place is basically a structural given beyond the immediate control of the individual. Even though an individual is able to influence culture, the amount that they are able to do so is limited within their lifetime. Unless we uproot ourselves from our current culture, we do not get to choose the culture within which we live and this is problematic when a given culture celebrates practices of consumption that may not be in the best interests of the individual, the society, or the planet.

Additionally problematic is that people can find themselves locked in to those practices of consumption if social and cultural norms do not provide alternatives and they are unable to provide alternatives themselves. If high-level consumption is required for material provision, social acceptance, the social expression of one’s identity, and the creation of meaning in life, then consuming less is not always as easy as one might hope. Therefore, it might be that people live high-consumption lifestyles not because they are indifferent to environmental and social concerns, but because they are trying to negotiate cultural norms of consumption in search of meaning and social acceptance.

Consuming more sustainably in a consumer culture does not require denying oneself a credible place in society. There are ways to enhance or create meaning and social acceptance by consuming in ways that oppose cultural norms. Anti-consumerist movements have never advocated renouncing meaning or social acceptance but rather encourage finding meaning and social acceptance through methods focusing on community, connection to nature, and simple pleasures. All too often, the cultural presumption in consumer cultures seems to be that socializing needs to involve spending various amounts of money and there is no reason this needs to be the case.

How a society is designed from an urban planning perspective can also be understood to be a structural issue that affects how human beings socialize, including to what extent they socialize through market consumption. The lack of free public spaces such as parks, libraries, and community centers within walking distance limits the amount of ways that people can socialize without spending money. Overcoming barriers to sustainable social activity will depend on community-based action to grow community resources more than state action.

Lack of Suitable Housing

Housing is typically life’s greatest expense, so it is no surprise that it is also one of the biggest barriers to consuming more sustainably. It is also a deeply complex issue with many facets.

Housing which is designed using “eco-friendly” features (recycled materials, solar panels, double-glazed windows) are often so expensive that only a privileged few can afford them. Living close to work can reduce dependency on cars but living closer to a place of work often means prohibitively expensive housing, especially if people are also seeking some land upon which to grow their own food. If everyone sought land to grow their own food, this could contribute to urban sprawl in problematic ways.

Even if one was privileged enough to purchasing expensive housing for the sake of sustainability, this can lock people into a large mortgage, an unfulfilling job, and long hours. This does not fit well with the ‘balanced’ lifestyle implied by voluntary simplicity. If people purchase or rent cheaper housing this may allow them to reduce their expenses when it comes to housing, but it may them bind them to their cars in ways that inner city living would not or might involve living in particularly unsafe or underdeveloped parts of town. Searching for housing in cheaper parts of the country or world might be feasible but also often comes at the cost of taking people away from their friends, family, and broader social support networks.

Solving the issue of a lack of suitable housing is a particularly difficult one to solve as any adequate solution may involve restructuring private property rights for the purposes of redistribution and this is largely controversial in materialistic societies who find cultural value and identity in their private property. However, it is clear that to achieve a sustainable and just world, members of the global consumer class have to consume less, differently, and more efficiently. It is not clear that such a transition is possible within the structural confines of consumer-capitalist society. If those structures were changed in ways to facilitate the transition to ‘simpler lives’ of reduced and restrained consumption, nothing that resembled consumer capitalism would remain.

Other Structural Obstacles to Sustainable Consumption

The above obstacles are by no means an exhaustive list. They are just some of the most common obstacles that all people have to consider when attempting a more sustainable life. Removing these obstacles to living lives of reduced and restrained consumption is a necessary cultural precondition to any transition to a degrowth or steady state economy.

Other obstacles include availability of green energy supplies, laws requiring superfluous packaging of items, prohibitions on personal agricultural activities within city limits, etc. As we cannot reasonably rely on sufficient actions being taken by our governments, the only option that remains is to take matters into our own hands and begin building alternative societies ourselves.

Toward a Politics of Voluntary Simplicity

Any transition to a sustainable and just society requires a shift in values away from the consumerist ethos that ‘more consumption is always better’ toward the post-consumerist ethos that ‘just enough is plenty.’ Structural change is required to make the practice of voluntary simplicity a more viable alternative to consumer lifestyles.

It is worth noting that one of the biggest barriers to sustainability more generally is the ‘growth model of progress’ that is so deeply entrenched in the developed world today and increasingly elsewhere. Until a government embraces a post-growth model of progress, top-down politics of voluntary simplicity will not be taken seriously. Activists have two main tactics for promoting sustainable consumption: promoting post-growth models of progress to governments and citizens, and directing one’s energy into community-based action in the hope of doing what governments seem unwilling or unable to do.

5 Replies to “Degrowth and Voluntary Simplicity”

  1. Hello, Rose:
    Thank you for making these many excellent points, particularly that “Investment in walkable communities, safe bike lanes, public transportation,” is a key element in our shared infrastructure.
    I hope to see more of your thoughts, and would be happy for you to visit and tell me if you find my work compatible with yours.
    Best regards,

    1. Thank you, @ShiraDest! I hope to write some more on this subject soon and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    2. Most welcome, and most likely!
      I’ve been really tired, lately, and am a bit headachy, so please forgive this short reply.
      Please keep in touch!
      Stay safe,

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