Stop the Great Chastisement, I'm Not Getting Off

Why aren't opponents of consumption happy about the recession?


If there's a silver lining in the clouds over the global economy, Live Simplers are the people you'd expect to find it.

Proponents of voluntary simplicity, critics of excessive consumption, localists, sustainability advocates, and other mild-mannered critics of consumer culture have a lot to brag on these days. They have stooped for years under the tyranny of big-box retailers, SUVs, wall-sized televisions, crap culture, gourmet coffees, and self-storage facilities.

And here it all is going tits up, just as the Live Simplers knew it would. Greedy financiers, scheming moneylenders, and ignorant American fatsos are all getting their comeuppance, oozing bad debt, punished for living beyond their means. Affluenza has been cured. Its related ailments—shopoholism, work-life imbalance, expenditure cascades, status anxiety, positional externalities—are in remission.

What political faction can claim a win this vast? Libertarians are finding few takers for arguments against market intervention. Social justice types must explain away the redistributionist antics of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Only the Live Simplers can say with straight faces that they told us so. But gloating has never been their style.

"I'm sorry that it happened this way," says John de Graaf, national coordinator of the Take Back Your Time campaign and one of the authors of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, a 2001 book based on a late-'90s public television documentary. "I'm not riding high thinking this is a great thing. I would rather see us wean ourselves gradually than have it go off like a bomb."

That more-sorrow-than-anger spirit sets the Live Simplers apart from their occasional bedfellows, the hardcore Collapsitarians, who are generally excited to see the whole mother burn to the ground. Yet it's the Live Simplers who have contributed the most context to the current mood. If, for example, you have recently been emailed the popular "What the World Eats" photo essay—juxtaposing pictures of American and European families and their weekly food supplies with pictures of fancifully garbed families in Bhutan, Chad, and other distant, underfed lands—you're seeing a trick essentially drawn from Affluenza. The genius of the simplicity movement was to shape a political argument (an extraordinarily broad and total critique of commercial exchange) into a spiritual koan (why am I so unfulfilled by my Big Macs and gadgets when simple Bushmen have all the soul nourishment they need?).

A vision that broad, however, turns out to be difficult to follow to its logical conclusion. David Wann, president of the Sustainable Futures Society and one of De Graaf 's two co-authors on Affluenza, describes the overstimulated economy of the post-Reagan era as a "completely toxic loaf," yet he also supports the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's $550 billion economic stimulus component—both because more than $100 billion of that spending is targeted at environmental-ish initiatives and because "we don't want the whole ship to sink."

Why so squeamish? De Graaf cites humanitarian concerns. "The enormous expectations in the American economy, unmatched by increases in real wages, and the gap between the rich and poor, all led to this crisis," he says. "Even I would not have predicted it would be as extreme as it is. I didn't think it would be this high a price. This crisis is horribly painful for people."

That's an understandable concern, but then, what is to be done? If ending hyperconsumption was impossible in boom times, and belt tightening imposed by hard fiscal reality doesn't count because it's not voluntary simplicity, then how do you ever move masses of men to change their lives of quiet desperation?

And given that even during the boom few of us could spend $95 on a sea grass market basket or $145 on a Holy Lamb Organics diaperchanging pad, is radical economic change the best path to sustainability? President Obama plans to spend $31 billion just for green retrofitting of government buildings. Experience suggests that simplicity or localism at anything more than boutique scale is expensive. McMansions and PDAs (which are available in the grimmest developing-world hellholes) may or may not be excrescences of an overstimulated economy. But public libraries and organic farmers markets definitely are.

The third author of Affluenza has taken a path decidedly different from his colleagues'. Thomas H. Naylor, who now dismisses the work as a "cutesy book," founded the Second Vermont Republic (SVR) in 2003. This separatist movement works for "political independence for Vermont and the peaceful dissolution of the Union." The SVR's goals include "Human Scale, Sustainability, Tension Reduction," etc., but its rhetoric has a febrile, hot-medium quality that you wouldn't normally associate with the Green Mountain State.

Naylor freely disparages the new administration ("if anything, Obama's worse, because he's smarter than Bush, and better able to sell that") and draws a hard moral about the collapse of the global market ("technofascism carried to its logical conclusion: robotism, megalomania, globalization, and imperialism"). He is also sanguine about the market's rough justice. "In the long run, it's not going to be bad news," says Naylor. "The global economy will be radically different under Obama, but he had little to do with changing it. This is the death spiral of the global economy."

That's still a hard conceptual leap for most Live Simplers to make. "Although some religious traditions have advocated a life of extreme renunciation," wrote Duane Elgin in his 1981 book Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich, "it is inaccurate to equate simplicity with poverty." The Live Simplers seek a change not in people's fortunes but in their hearts, and that's a recipe for eternal disappointment. "Affluenza hasn't been solved," says Wann, "because there's still this assumption that now we're down, but as soon as we can we'll get back up again."

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh is a writer in Los Angeles.