Book Review - Graceful Simplicity by Jerome Segal, Living Lightly by Walter and Dorothy Schwarz

LIVING LIGHTLY: Travels in Post-Consumer Society
by Walter and Dorothy Schwarz
Jon Carpenter Publishing, 1999
Charlbury, Oxfordshire, England
400 pages, $27.95 cloth
Buy this book from Powell's,
an independent bookstore

GRACEFUL SIMPLICITY:Toward a Philosophy and Politics of Simple Living
by Jerome M. Segal
New York: Henry Holt, 1999
263 pages,$26.00 cloth
Buy this book from Powell's,
an independent bookstore

Only a few years ago, futurist Gerald Celente called voluntary simplicity one of the strongest trends of the ‘90s. But now, he says, the trends are all in the opposite direction. For example, the amount of living space per person in the United States has doubled since 1970. At the same time, we now have 40 times as many commercial self-storage facilities – to take care of all the extra stuff that still won't fit in the extra living space.

So Affluenza has become an American epidemic. Fortunately, these two new books are a potent and timely antidote.

First, a confession. Of the two books, I preferred Living Lightly. I'd love to have written it myself – not because it's a great book (it's not, but it's very good), but because the Schwarzes, an elderly British couple, seem to have had such a wonderful time writing it.

Living Lightly follows the Schwarzes as they travel to dozens of communities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, India, and the Netherlands, where people are trying, in myriad ways, to live sustainably.

The journey begins in my hometown of Seattle, with visits to several of my friends, members of voluntary simplicity study circles or practitioners of the Financial Integrity principles presented so effectively by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin in their book Your Money or Your Life.

From there, descriptive writing and good story-telling take the reader to co-housing communities in California and British Columbia, then to a squalid and none-too-appealing international community in England.

Though clearly sympathetic to the ideals of the people and communities they examine, the Schwarzes are no Pollyannas. They write honestly of failures and flaws: tension and conflict between communalists, inequality of commitments that mean some do most of the work, and so on. In some European intentional communities they observe, lifestyles are maintained only by relying on government doles – not necessarily a sustainable situation.

But the Schwarzes, open and compassionate, find something to learn from each example, and so will the reader.

The Schwarzes touch on many subjects related to simpler lifestyles: sustainable agriculture, the global economy, Third World economic development, Green Taxes, and more. One excellent chapter examines Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), whereby citizens barter for each other's services using locally redeemable alternative currencies (See YES! Spring 1997). Another explores the Seikatsu cooperatives and Yamagashi communities of Japan. The reader senses from these explorations a widespread international yearning for a way of life more satisfying and sustainable than the New World Order of corporate capitalism, and discovers a variety of ingenious and idiosyncratic solutions.

The Schwarzes have picked the right title for their book. Living lightly is what the simplicity movement should be all about – as opposed to living cheaply. To grow and to matter, the movement must convince others that the full and happy life is an examined life of conscious consumption. In this, the tightwad or cheapskate elements in the movement take their eyes off the ball. The idea isn't to get your socks for 10 cents less at Wal-Mart. It's to know that they're made to last in ways that do less damage to the planet, by people who were fairly paid.

So why, after such praise, don't I consider Living Lightly a “great” book? For one thing, the obvious mistakes make one doubt the accuracy of the other information. The Schwarzes have Thoreau sneaking off to Walden in 1865 (it was 1845). They call Davis, California, “the orginal home of the anti-war movement” (UC-Davis was then a conservative campus. The action was in Berkeley). And the authors are quick to over-generalize. For example, when Janet Luhrs, editor of the journal Simple Living, opts to pay for her own snacks, they conclude that “treating one another is not done in VS.” I've been around voluntary simplicity people for a long time and have never heard that rule. If I had, I'd have dropped out long ago.

So Living Lightly has its share of flaws, but they are far outweighed by its virtues: it's informative, well-written, and fun.

Jerome Segal's book, Graceful Simplicity, is more challenging to read and to contemplate.

At the outset, Segal is unfair to Dominguez and Robin, almost mocking their efforts to help people on the road to financial independence. For most people, such independence is a pipe dream, argues Segal. He fails to acknowledge that the steps Robin and Dominguez laid out in Your Money or Your Life can be valuable to anyone in gaining control of runaway, unconscious spending. In fact, followers of their nine-step program reduce their spending by an average of 25 percent.

But Segal's central thesis is right on target. He argues that the voluntary simplicity movement is too absorbed with personal change when we really need a simplicity-friendly society.

Segal promises to make the case for this premise and succeeds admirably. He shows how difficult it is for average citizens to drastically simplify their lifestyles while the price of real necessities continually rises. It has become very expensive, for example, to find even an ordinary home in a safe neighborhood with good schools – a reasonable expectation for anyone.

Segal takes fascinating but over-long sidetrips into history that detract from his central political message. He looks into past adventures in American simplicity and international attitudes toward wealth and plain living, from the ancient Egyptians to the Hebrew Torah to the Stoics and Epicurians of Greece. It's not unenjoyable stuff, and there's much to be learned from history. But some readers might feel it takes them too far off track and set the book aside.

That would be unfortunate, because Segal offers suggestions for political changes that would make simpler, more sustainable lifestyles a real option for many more people. Most importantly, he suggests that it's time to reduce the workweek again, something that hasn't been done in more than 60 years, despite a tripling in labor productivity. Americans now work the most yearly hours in the industrial world, having passed Japan last year.

If one 40-hour job could procure an adequate family wage 40 years ago, why couldn't two 25-hour jobs do the same and then some today? Segal poses such questions and shows how a reduced workweek, national health care, limited guaranteed incomes (a “simple living credit”), alternative taxation policies, and other reforms could make the simple living ideal a reality for millions of Americans.

Segal shows that now, perhaps for the first time in history, it is possible to create a society where all people can live simply but gracefully, with time for the things that really matter – deep friendships and relationships, a beautiful and clean environment, and freedom from fear and insecurity. All that is needed is the political will.

After a recent voluntary simplicity conference in Santa Clara, California, I and the other speakers gathered, at Vicki Robins' suggestion, to discuss strategy for the simplicity movement. Where should the movement go from here? How can we best prepare for the time when the big bubble of prosperity bursts and people are ready for the message of simplicity once again?

These two books, despite their flaws, provide a starting point for that discussion. Give them a read.

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.