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The Cost Of Cutting Back
April 25, 2010 10:02 AM   Subscribe

"Welcome to the simplicity movement, the ethos whose mantras are "cutting back," "focusing on the essentials," "reconnecting to the land" - and talking, talking, talking about how fulfilled it all makes you feel." Charlotte Allen of In Character about the Simplicity Movement, magazines, wild boars, virtue, and 350$ riding boots.
posted by The Whelk (75 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Any simplicity movement with a glossy magazine devoted to what to buy is fooling itself. I'm all in favor of shopping smarter. For people who have disposable incomes and care a little bit about these things, it makes total sense to shop wisely. That said, Real Simple has always given me the willies. This quote, to me, nails it.
The problem with the simplicity movement is that its proponents mistake simplicity, which is an aesthetic lifestyle choice, for humility, which is a genuine virtue. Humility is an honest acknowledgment of one's limitations and lowliness in the great scheme of things and a realization that power over other human beings is a dangerous thing, always to be exercised with utmost caution.
It's funny to me as someone who lives in a rural community watching "city people" sort of do the lifestyle tourism where they pretend to live like people here do [eating locally, shopping locally, cooking food at home] and get big write-ups in the paper. Not like I'm all "hey check me out this cheese was made two miles from here!!" and I think that's part of it. There's walking the walk and then there's the relentless need to talk about walking the walk. I'm not even sure it's a class thing so much as an attitude thing.
posted by jessamyn at 10:17 AM on April 25, 2010 [21 favorites]


I couldn't make it through the first few paragraphs of bullshit conservative identity politics. Does it get better?
posted by afu at 10:19 AM on April 25, 2010


Does it get better?

It does not.
posted by enn at 10:21 AM on April 25, 2010


Sigh. Yes, "Real Simple" is real stupid, but that was an obnoxious post. The author repeatedly asserts, without providing evidence, that simplicity-movement folks look down condescendingly on people who don't follow their lifestyle, while repeatedly committing that act herself.
posted by Tsuga at 10:22 AM on April 25, 2010


I hate lifestyle magazines but now I kind of want to go buy a copy of Real Simple just to piss off this terrible, terrible person.
posted by enn at 10:24 AM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's funny to me as someone who lives in a rural community watching "city people" sort of do the lifestyle tourism where they pretend to live like people here do [eating locally, shopping locally, cooking food at home]

Serious, non-snarky question - I don't live in a rural area and haven't for quite a long time. But do rural areas actually do these things? I only ask because I occasionally travel to rural areas on business, and from what I can see, the folks out there shop at Wal-Mart and eat in chain restaurants. Maybe I'm not getting rural enough? Maybe my experience here is only limited to the plains states and it's not like that everywhere?

I don't know...but I've always suspected that the "eat locally/shop locally" was nice for people who could afford it.
posted by Thistledown at 10:31 AM on April 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


The problem with the simplicity movement is that its proponents mistake simplicity, which is an aesthetic lifestyle choice, for humility, which is a genuine virtue.

I enjoyed this.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:34 AM on April 25, 2010


Are we allowed to call this piece Class Warfare? Because it looked like it was fun to say that durring the 2008 election cycle, and I really want to give it a try.

Besides, if I have the money and time to live like I give a damn, I really rather would.
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:36 AM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I could have done without the claptrap about Jesus and guns and just wars, but I have seen these upper class lefty class tourists and they can be quite irritating (that said, some of my best friends are lefty class tourists).

You can't blame a person for wanting some simplicity, and for trying to free themselves from the sticky web of the American "consumer paradise", but the way that class tourists turn simple circumstances of a lifestyle into some kind of religious rite of purity has about as much to do with a simple life as ritchie rich comics do with affluence.
posted by idiopath at 10:36 AM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Hmm. I'm not really seeing the conservative identity politics. She is describing a certain kind of style/claimed identity that is quite real and usually quite classist.

So, I am insecure that people who like, source their own local food look down on me because I am at turns too hedonistic and too poor, and it made me feel better than them. So that means it's kinda an asshole article, which I can identify by how much more awesomer I felt about myself in comparison to the people she is writing about. Summary: there is something there but it is mostly used in service of the ego of people like me who eat imported grapes and feel vaguely bad about it at the same time.

"Nor is it the problem that "simplicity" can amount to just plain silliness, as when simplicity blogger Leo Babauta announced that he had cut down on grooming products by shaving his head, and suggested that one way to cultivate simplicity was to give loved ones massages instead of birthday presents (ask first, Mr. Babauta!)"

Actually that is the only awesome thing she described.That and the door jewelry from the Plaza. I would really like that. Jewelry made out of a door! Heh.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:36 AM on April 25, 2010


She makes some good points, but on the other hand: Are these people themselves actually equating simplicity with humility?

I'm not sure "simplicity" is the term I would apply to spending eleven dollars plus shipping and handling on butter, less because that's not simple for the consumer (that's very simple if you have an internet connection and fifteen dollars) than because what you're paying for is the work that's going into something made by more human processes, and I am sure that churning butter by hand is really not as simple as getting a machine to process dairy into butter. By which I mean to say, the technology that runs a butter factory is surely quite complex, but for the person running the machine that makes the butter, it's a lot of flipping switches and stuff. That's simplicity. When you spend fifteen dollars on butter, you're paying for work. Will you get a better product? You bet. Is it worth it? That's up to you and whether you can afford it. Probably no one can afford it who isn't making more money than the average person. That one person can afford better things than another isn't fair, but that's capitalism in action. Ugly, perhaps, maybe even cruel, but there you go.

Looking down on people who can't afford this stuff is just as repulsive as any other instance of the wealthy looking down on the poor, but is that really what's happening here? If the truth is that these things are generally better -- better to eat, better to wear, and better insofar as putting your money into the right hands -- who is damned by saying that? Is it not better to hate the game that feeds poor people shit?

I know that plenty of people who can afford nice stuff are blissfully unaware of their own privilege. Those people? Are douchebags. But I just don't know that there's real profit in expounding on the inherent doucheyness of having stuff that's nice. That seems to miss several points all at once.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 10:36 AM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Thistledown: "But do rural areas actually do these things? "

In Vermont, where jessamyn lives, yes they do.
posted by idiopath at 10:37 AM on April 25, 2010


mccarty.tim: "Are we allowed to call this piece Class Warfare? Because it looked like it was fun to say that durring the 2008 election cycle, and I really want to give it a try."

No, just because the rich people are people you identify with doesn't mean that you can be overly sensitive to criticism of their funny-sounding spending habits.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:37 AM on April 25, 2010


But that said, "Real Simple" is a ladies' magazine that focuses on how to do lady-type things. It's not really my speed. Try maybe "Good," although I think my lifestyle really doesn't have a decent magazine. I just have books and magazines I like to read, and I live how I want to.
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:38 AM on April 25, 2010


Thistledown: "I don't live in a rural area and haven't for quite a long time. But do rural areas actually do these things? "

Kinda, we used to have a side of beef in our freezer all the time from a local cow-raiser, and we would eat enough sweet corn all summer to get sick of it, but that's two things out of the million other things that made up our diet, most of which were decidedly non-local, because there is only so much corn and cow you can eat before you want to stab yourself in the face.

Eating local sucks in a lot of places and would be both miserable and nutritionally deficient.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:40 AM on April 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


I've picked up a couple of copies of Real Simple while sitting in waiting rooms, etc. It always looked to me as another version of Martha Stewart Living with a slightly different focus / aesthetic. Is it really somehow on the vanguard of some kind of "live simply" movement? Because my minimal non-scientific analysis of that particular rag left me thinking it was really just there to sell things.
posted by hippybear at 10:44 AM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


But do rural areas actually do these things?

Sort of? This is really where this sort of thing is a class issue, to me. Folks without a lot of money tend to go one of two ways. Either they live a barebones Walmart lifestyle [i.e. buying stuff cheaply, lots of disposable whatnot] or they live in DIY style where they grow most of their own food, make their own stuff, fix their own house and buy stuff that's built to last. It's the second type that people see to want to emulate, but to be fair there are probably more of the former type. Folks living better really often do go the local route. Not entirely [and as some people have said, sometimes this costs more] but it seems to be a community value where I live, which is one of the things I really like about living here.

Bill McKibben is one of the big anti-Walmart people, but even he says that this is a class-conscious stance. Like if people are really truly broke, let them shop where they want to or need to. Focus on people who can make consumer choices and avoid places that aren't returning good things to the community. And don't be judgey about people who make other decisions.

That said, I think more people than usual, like more average people, buy stuff locally and are at least aware of the local options here. Which is, I think, the bigger deal. And there are probably people with $350 boots here too, but it's more likely that they have them because they're really good, will last or whatever. I mean a lot of this is hand-wavey and marketing in a general sense. Ready access to the internet means that few people absolutely HAVE to shop someplace that they can walk to. So given that there are some things that most people in most circumstances have to buy, how do you make good decisions about that sort of thing. Buy Local is definitely one approach. Buy Simple [or whatever these folks are selling] is another but I don't think the two approaches are that similar. I think they could be more similar and they're just not.
posted by jessamyn at 10:50 AM on April 25, 2010


*shrug*

Unless the human population drops by a few billion, the idea that you can "reconnect with the land" is really an upper class luxury.
posted by delmoi at 10:51 AM on April 25, 2010


OK, fine, so my modern lifestyle is 100% pure arrogant, destructive, hedonistic, imperialistic, thoughtless, reckless crap. I get the message. But apparently, so are the alternative lifestyles. I give up. I have no idea how morality works. What seems right to me clearly isn't. Will someone please just tell me what to do, and I'll go do that? Do I quit my job and go live off the land in Montana? Do I join Greenpeace or write for one of these magazines or something? Are any of those things actually, unambiguously right? What do "good people" do? Is there anything? Are there "good people" at all? What do you people do? How do you all stay so clear of the stain of caring about yourselves?

God, I hate being alive.
posted by Xezlec at 10:54 AM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm a Quaker, and simplicity is one of our traditional "testimonies," though the question of what exactly simplicity is has always been vexed. My meeting tends to be quite affluent, with a lot of college professors, doctors, and lawyers, and I thought some of what she wrote in the article was spot-on. One time I arrived for a Quaker event and my minivan was the only non-Prius in an entire row of parking spots. Pruises are pretty darn expensive cars; when we bought a new car, we didn't end up with a Prius because we just flat-out couldn't afford it.

A lot of affluent Quakers like "simple" clothing that is expensively hand-made, for instance, and have exactly that looking-down-on-Walmart thing going on. I mentioned in a comment before that that consumption is extremely conspicuous: it's never just, "I brought some apples for the snack after worship," but, "I brought some locally-grown, organic heirloom-breed apples," or "I brewed a pot of free-trade coffee," and so on--this kind of making sure people know you're making those choices, instead of just making them and shutting the fuck up about it. I liked this article better than it sounds like many of you did in part because it so perfectly described one of things that drives me persistently nuts about my beloved fellow Quakers.
posted by not that girl at 10:55 AM on April 25, 2010 [27 favorites]


Rich people eat fancier and more expensive foods. There's nothing new about this. I'm not really sure why one would object to their consumption patterns rather than the underlying inequality.

It's also true that many rich people like to make spurious moral claims about their more expensive consumption choices in order to convince themselves they're better than poor people. That's pretty obnoxious but it's not what this woman is objecting to.

She's simply objecting to people living differently from herself. Specifically, she's objecting to urban modes of living, which is why she complains about people not having cars as though not buying a car were somehow the same as buying the $10/lb yuppie butter when in fact the two are opposed to one another in terms of class significance but are both things that people who live in cities do. That's what makes it tired right-wing identity politics.

Also she has a problem with people shaving their heads. I can't really figure that one out; I think it's just a surfeit of bile and crankiness that has to find an outlet somewhere.
posted by enn at 10:57 AM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've always thought of "Real Simple" as kind of a joke. Why would anyone whose life is truly simple be buying a glossy monthly magazine full of product advertisements to make their lives simpler? In terms of steps towards simplicity, that one is a no-brainer. But there are greater problems with 'simplicity', notably the Lockian idea of doing no harm to others by leaving 'as much, and as good' for others to reap. This transgression is committed by dumpster divers, morel gatherers, and (as the author notes) Bay Area boar hunters in the name of simplicity.

The difficulty that simplicity-minded people these days have with the poor and working class is telling. If you can't afford the incredibly high prices for produce and luxury items at the farmer's market, you can grow your own garden! Because a single mom working 40 to 50 hours a week has plenty of time and energy to grow a freaking garden. There is little acknowledgment of the fact that simplicity is unlikely to catch on in most places simply because it is a luxury. The only country that, if everyone in the world lived the way they did, would only require one earth. And that country is Cuba. Often the sustainably-minded are really just selectively gluttonous. Living 'humbly' would be a much better attempt at sustainability, but not as successful at selling magazines.

The inflated perception of significance within the simplicity movement is stultifying. The books that preach to the choir abound (see The Great Turning, Deep Economy, and the like), pretending as if there is a major philosphical shift underway, and if anybody disagrees it's only because they haven't been converted yet. They point to Alice Waters lunches and school garndening programs as if school systems like East Saint Louis did not even exist. As if to ignore the vast majority of the country that does not share their values (aesthetic or ethical).

Finally, the part I find to be most troubling about simplicity and local foods minded folks is the idea that the are making a difference for the environment. Scientists are just beginning to suss out which foods are most sustainable, and it's extremely complicated. Organic food production uses more fossil fuels because more work is needed to keep pests and disease off the food. Local food may not be more sustainable because if New Zealand can produce more apples on less land with fewer inputs, the effect of transporting the food may actually be quite minimal compared to what is needed to grow the same food close to home. Even the idea of compassion is slippery if we consider the case of organic meat. Is it somehow more compassionate to deny a suffering animal antibiotics and risk death from infectious disease than to just treat the sick animal? Buying local food is good for many reasons, but sustainability is a bit of a red herring.
posted by stinker at 11:01 AM on April 25, 2010 [8 favorites]


My wife and I qualify as targets for Ms. Allen's ire: We shop at farmer's markets when they're open, we eat locally as much as possible, we recycle and buy carbon offsets and knit our own scarves. We even subscribed to Real Simple for a while. Apparently we're inauthentic pricks because we also make good money, live in a nice apartment, and own MacBooks. We're purchasing a lifestyle, as the well-off are able to do.

Fine. If we're damned if we do and damned if we don't, we'll just keep doing what we think we should. We see choices to make, and try to make better choices rather than worse choices. Fuck us for giving a shit and not putting on a hair shirt at the same time.

As for identity politics:
Charlotte Allen is author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus (Free Press) and a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus website.
Yes, this is about conservative identity politics. The Manhattan Institute is right-wing think tank. This is a "real American" smearing liberal yuppies.
posted by fatbird at 11:15 AM on April 25, 2010 [9 favorites]


It's been over a decade since I lived in New England, but I grew up there and Wal-Mart was unknown when I was a kid and where I lived. The first time I stepped into a Wal-Mart was maybe five years ago on a trip in Florida.

I don't think New England is against Wal-Marts, so much as Wal-Mart is alien to New England. And the further north you go, I think the more alien it's likely to seem, at least to long-time residents.

This probably varies from region to region in New England, and also varies depending on how stable a region is. There are parts of New England where everyone knows each other and their grandparents, and those are where I'd expect to see the more DIY, make it yourself ethos, as that's a Yankee farmer (independent / penny-pinching / make it well) tradition.
posted by zippy at 11:17 AM on April 25, 2010


by stable I meant low-turnover
posted by zippy at 11:17 AM on April 25, 2010


Stinker The difficulty that simplicity-minded people these days have with the poor and working class is telling. If you can't afford the incredibly high prices for produce and luxury items at the farmer's market, you can grow your own garden! Because a single mom working 40 to 50 hours a week has plenty of time and energy to grow a freaking garden.

Michael Pollen actually goes to great lengths to observe exactly this, that our fast-food driven diet is frequently a matter of necessity driven by working poverty.

But more than that, there's a straw man here, that eating locally or organic is necessarily expensive. My wife and I pay attention to the prices we're paying, and don't by $12 butter or $15 honey just because it's organic. Any lifestyle can be purchased, but that doesn't mean everyone living that way is paying a premium for convenient moral superiority. The marketplace of organic and local products is like any other marketplace: There's good deals and bad deals, and a knowledgeable consumer can pay less for more while a blithe spendthrift can simply put it all on credit and never care that they're being overcharged.

Finally, the part I find to be most troubling about simplicity and local foods minded folks is the idea that the are making a difference for the environment.

We could be wrong that getting our garlic from an island in the Georgia Strait, about a hundred miles away, is better environmentally than shipping it from Argentina. But until we see some evidence that it's actually better to ship it 10,000 miles, we'll continually to make at least somewhat knowledgeable choices about what we do.
posted by fatbird at 11:24 AM on April 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


How do the Bobos fit into this?
posted by Confess, Fletch at 11:38 AM on April 25, 2010


Some day maybe I can have one of these Lifestyles everybody is talking about. Right now I feel lucky just to have a life.
posted by Floydd at 11:58 AM on April 25, 2010


Not that I'm against having an ethos (I rather like it, actually), but by definition, simple people don't have four ethoses, they have one.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 12:17 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's walking the walk and then there's the relentless need to talk about walking the walk. I'm not even sure it's a class thing so much as an attitude thing.

Yeah, I'm in no way close to the upper class of the U.S. (though arguably still part of the richest population in history) and I still recognize this in parts of myself: sometimes when I do something new to me and out of my comfort/habit zone, I bean-plate and even become proud of the changes of perspective that follow, and I can get talky about it.

I think almost everybody needs part of two internal stories going: a story about how you're growing as a person (either by growing into habits/patterns/places that you've settled on or growing out into new discoveries), and a story about how you're a decent human being, doing good things for yourself and others. It seems to me the simplicity stuff can provide both to some degree. The question is whether these narratives, particularly as sold by things like Real Simple, can be false and I think the answer is, sure, absolutely, probably in particular when we're talking about aesthetics, and I think there've been some good points made in thread and by the author of the posted link about where this tends to fall down.

On the other hand, though, I don't know how much I want to blame people for trying to weave this stuff into their life, even when they haven't gotten it right yet. That seems to me to lead to stuff like Xezlec's comment, this sortof despair at the realization that despite trying to live up to past standards you might have thought were acceptable, you realize that you had some things wrong (maybe very wrong). And the thing is, that's probably a fact, it's tied up with your humanity, and realizing it is the precursor to that virtue of humility the author mentioned. It seems inevitable: you're wrong about something. There is none good, no, not one. Now what? You adapt. You rebuild your narratives to your new realizations about good and bad. Over time, you learn to rebuild your meta-narrative to realize that you'll have to do this again, the next time you're fooled by a glossy magazine or your own head. You learn to appreciate what grace there is in the world and hope there's enough for all of us.

And I don't know that I want to be as hard as the author is on some of the lifestyle choices people make. Whether or not you're rolling in cash, cutting your hair to save on styling products and giving massages to loved ones instead of gifts doesn't seem "silly" to me, certainly no more silly than spending lots on hair products and worrying about finding an appropriate tangible token of affection for purchase, and arguably indeed "simpler." Not everybody needs to do this, and the world would probably be poorer if this became the rule, to be honest, but the process I imagine Babuta going through, evaluating the role hair products and gift-giving plays in his life and conceding that much of the time, these things aren't necessities for him, seems to have merit to me.

All told, I'm a fan of some critical examination of this movement and this kind of critical examination of any movement. I think it's a necessary part of that rebuilding process that I mentioned earlier. I suppose I just hope people are as careful to look for potential merit in it as they are in looking for flaws and false promises.
posted by weston at 12:37 PM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


We're purchasing a lifestyle, as the well-off are able to do.

As long as you are aware about it, no harm done. The ones who grate on me are the people Jessamyn describes above, the ones who are loud and moralizing and happy to tell everyone how since their eco-insulation is organic and reclaimed, therefore their 5000 sq ft newly constructed second home is "sustainable" and allowing them to reconnect to a simpler lifestyle.

I think of it as Potemkin simplicity/sustainability -- it's about the use of conspicuous consumption to mark yourself as simple, without necessarily being simple or sustainable at all. It's not class envy on my part -- I earn enough to have as ostentatiously "simple" of a lifestyle as I might want to have. Instead, I'm offended aesthetically and intellectually, and wish that their consumption patterns were more pleasing to my tastes.
posted by Forktine at 12:37 PM on April 25, 2010


But there are greater problems with 'simplicity', notably the Lockian idea of doing no harm to others by leaving 'as much, and as good' for others to reap. This transgression is committed by dumpster divers, morel gatherers, and (as the author notes) Bay Area boar hunters in the name of simplicity.

Are you saying that dumpster divers and morel gatherers are depriving other, poorer people of resources they need? Because I don't think that's true.
posted by twirlip at 12:39 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


That entire article id nothing more than a rant that would have been better suited to a blog. The author appears to have mo real idea what she's on about.

For example $390 is the price of a mass produces pair of riding boots. Custom one run $600+ but will last you 10 or more years.
posted by fshgrl at 12:44 PM on April 25, 2010


Forktine
We're purchasing a lifestyle, as the well-off are able to do.
As long as you are aware about it, no harm done.


When I said this, I was being ironic, trying to caricature the accusation that we're inauthentically simple. My wife and I aren't purchasing a lifestyle. We continually try to be more conscious of what we consume, to make better choices both morally and for our own health, and to reduce our overall environmental footprint. We don't harp on it to other people, we don't sneer at the line-up at the MacDonald's drive-through, and we don't hector friends or strangers about living like we do. We just do it.

And for doing it, we become the target of a conservative culture warrior who mocks us for trying to be better. C'est la vie.
posted by fatbird at 12:48 PM on April 25, 2010


It should be observed that there's a confirmation bias at work here: You notice the dickheads who do a bad job of being "simple", the ones who pay lots of money to buy a superficially green lifestyle and then prate on and on about it. You don't notice the people who just do it quietly.
posted by fatbird at 12:55 PM on April 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


Amen, Fatbird!

What no one has yet said here (and you hinted at in your last comment), is that the stereotype that people who endeavor to live more simply somehow look down on others who don't is just that -- a stereotype. In fact, most of the people concerned with living simply that I have met are very well informed and aware of the financial necessity for many poor people of shopping at Walmart and eating fast food; which is why they are also usually politically liberal and exercise their democratic right to vote in a way that would promote better conditions for workers and stricter regulations on corporations that force people into this false dichotomy. I rally against Walmart all the time, but I don't judge those who shop there.

Contrary to people's repeated assertions to the contrary, there are enough resources on this planet for everyone to eat healthy and lead happy, middle-class lives in comfort and satisfaction. They just wouldn't all be able to drive SUVs and refurnish their houses annually. The problem is, the way those resources are currently utilized makes this impossible.

Those who wish to live simply are merely trying to put into practice the kind of lifestyle that would be sustainable if everyone were to actually practice it. Think globally, act locally. One person at a time. We can't change the world, but we can change ourselves.

Sure, there are people who build second homes. If they do so, well, then good for them for doing it in such a way that it reduces the environmental impact.

My mom had a favorite saying, "Damned if you do, damned if you don't." (Xezlec) It is just this kind of logic in this article. Reject the stereotypes!
posted by PigAlien at 1:10 PM on April 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


Is it not better to hate the game that feeds poor people shit?

I think there should be a consciousness, though, that "the game" that creates $2.99 pounds of butter is also the game that enables most people to be able to eat butter. If all butter were produced in an authentic manner, with all the labor that goes into it, I guess most people would just have to eat their bread plain. And it's unseemly for those who could still buy butter to say that's fine with them, as long as their values are satisfied.

(Maybe better to talk about "the game" that creates $1.50 pounds of grapes, since many people would think it would be better for all of us if we ate less butter.)
posted by palliser at 1:35 PM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Yeah, this article is definitely a rather noxious example of right-wing identity politics. I'm pretty sure this is the same Charlotte Allen who wrote this notorious Washington Post editorial on how women are all, like, totally stupid and stuff, because look at how they're all swooning over Barack Obama. (Seriously. And the Washington Post actually published it.)

Sure, conspicuous consumption that pretends to be green simplicity is obnoxious and hypocritical, and there's definitely a fair amount of it that goes on. But fundamentally, I think the point of this article isn't just to attack that, it's to attack the very notion of a more "green" way of living. I have a feeling Allen has no problem whatsoever with the sort of conspicuous consumption practiced by your average wealthy Texas Republican oil baron, for example, her talk about "humility" aside. (And there's an irony in her discussion of humility as being done by those who feel that they have a duty towards what is larger than themselves- isn't serious environmentalism just that sort of duty? Surely "green living" can indeed come from a place of true humility, by her lights, but it's a possibility she entirely denies, because she doesn't regard environmentalism as a legitimate example of such a duty.) Her second to last paragraph, with its outrage at the idea of San Francisco forcing people to compost their garbage, gives much of her true agenda away, I think.

It's true that it's much easier to do the local/sustainable/green living thing if one is wealthy, and this is unquestionably an injustice. So what is the answer to that injustice? Is it that no one should bother trying, and that we should all continue with our current practices of agriculture and labor (which are, though perhaps this is too obvious to even mention, both environmentally unsustainable and generally inhumane) and celebrate the existence of Wal-Mart? Or is it that we should work towards the reform of a system which creates that situation in the first place? I'm pretty sure Charlotte Allen is arguing for the former option. Difficult though it may be to achieve the latter option, I don't agree with her, needless to say.
posted by a louis wain cat at 2:03 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Aren't we missing the point when we're trying to work out the precise configuration of self deception at play in 'simple living'?...the question isn't about the authenticity of individuals' choices but how can we encourage fairer modes of production. Trying to solve this through private enterprise gives you our current problem - in presenting social and environmental benefits as added value, issues of production become issues of consumption and a collective, political choice is reduced to individual morality mediated by consumer choices. How can a government that spends $20 billion a year on farming subsidies fail to bring up ethical and sustainable production as a political issue?
posted by doobiedoo at 2:31 PM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


I just want to clear one thing up:

Is it somehow more compassionate to deny a suffering animal antibiotics and risk death from infectious disease than to just treat the sick animal?

Animals on organic farms that become ill and require antibiotics aren't left roaming around suffering and dying. They are quarantined, given antibiotics, and then sold as conventional non-organic beef.

posted by Orb at 3:19 PM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh, yeah, Orb, thanks for mentioning that, I meant to speak to it. The other thing you didn't mention was that livestock are not given anti-biotics to treat illness, they are given anti-biotics daily to prevent illness, even when it's not necessary. Also, why would a cow who took anti-biotics for an illness be non-organic? Daily anti-biotics is not the same as being treated for an occasionall illness. Anti-biotics do work their way out of the system with time.
posted by PigAlien at 3:52 PM on April 25, 2010


Unless the human population drops by a few billion, the idea that you can "reconnect with the land" is really an upper class luxury.

Living simply, like dieting or voluntary exercise, is a specifically middle-to-upper class western lifestyle choice, that can only be made if there is an actual option to overconsume & laze around.

For most of the world, living simply, being "connected with the land" and being physically active are not choices, but necessities. And they're necessities that most people spend their lives trying to escape.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:55 PM on April 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


For example $390 is the price of a mass produces pair of riding boots. Custom one run $600+ but will last you 10 or more years.
posted by fshgrl at 3:44 PM on April 25 [+] [!]


for real? because of the horsemen/women I know, the style-conscious high school girls wear ariat fat baby boots that cost about $100, but their parents wear $30 laceups or wellies from walmart.
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:14 PM on April 25, 2010


Here's the bug that got me to post this, vile Manhattan Institute aside: Whenever the issue of "simple" or "natural" or "local" stuff comes up the discussion of how to bring better food/jobs/stuff to the working poor almost always comes down to a market-driven solution.


This annoys me.

Yes there is the power, nay the responsibility of people with more money to support systems to keep money inside communities and humanely employ people in exchange for a higher quality (or just higher-status) product - a kind of Noblesse oblige - but this raises a bigger and more troubling issue. The underlining assumptions that these are problems that can ONLY be solved via the market. Not only does this cut-out everyone who can't afford to "vote with their wallet" and ignore how powerful and resourceful huge businesses are at lying to and manipulating the market but it also feels like giving up. Like we're just okay with overseas slave labor and shitty food and bad health. For a country that fetishes small town life we sure seem to have waged a 70-year long campaign to wipe them off the face of the earth. Business life, hell even community life is so structured around constant growth rather than stability that we have to use the language of commerce rather then language of charity, mercy or dignity.

This depresses me.

Real change into bringing better quality goods and food and jobs into the hands of smaller towns and poorer groups would require the kind of sacrifices Americans are rabidly opposed to - trade protection, regional food controls, taxes, incentives for small business - that last one hits hard home cause the entire tax code seems designed to punish anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur. The whole game is so fixed into the favor of a few mammoth companies that no wonder people run out and spend their money, sacrifice it, to absolve the sins of globalism. Since you can;t fight City Hell, which is owned by systems so vast and complex they've become quasi-natural forces, why not potluck your money - set it on fire- in the hope of feeling just a little bit better. ..which is creating it's own problem.

Yah, I don't know what to do either.
posted by The Whelk at 4:18 PM on April 25, 2010 [8 favorites]


and the single best long-term thing you can do for eases resource drain is support easy, free access to birth control worldwide, IMHO.
posted by The Whelk at 4:19 PM on April 25, 2010 [8 favorites]


the ethos whose mantras are "cutting back," "focusing on the essentials," "reconnecting to the land" - and talking, talking, talking about how fulfilled it all makes you feel."

More like the ethos of "everyone I've met in San Francisco who I don't like."
posted by Afroblanco at 4:23 PM on April 25, 2010


afu: “I couldn't make it through the first few paragraphs of bullshit conservative identity politics. Does it get better?”

Ah yes, because everything in existence is defined by your petty political squabbles.
posted by koeselitz at 4:24 PM on April 25, 2010


It's quite plain that, given the chance, Charlotte Allen would have us believe that George W. Bush was just a working class boy made good. Defending the doublethink of right-wing populism and left-wing "elitism" is quite plainly vital to the continued survival of the American right. This is just one example of an ongoing media narrative.
posted by howfar at 4:33 PM on April 25, 2010


howfar: “It's quite plain that, given the chance, Charlotte Allen would have us believe that George W. Bush was just a working class boy made good. Defending the doublethink of right-wing populism and left-wing "elitism" is quite plainly vital to the continued survival of the American right. This is just one example of an ongoing media narrative.”

Seriously? You can't imagine that anybody would disagree with the simplicity movement unless they were a political conservative? This seems like the very definition of narrow-mindedness - we can't comprehend the possibility that something exists beyond our left-right categories.
posted by koeselitz at 4:37 PM on April 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


howfar: “It's quite plain that, given the chance, Charlotte Allen would have us believe that George W. Bush was just a working class boy made good. Defending the doublethink of right-wing populism and left-wing "elitism" is quite plainly vital to the continued survival of the American right. This is just one example of an ongoing media narrative.”

Seriously? You can't imagine that anybody would disagree with the simplicity movement unless they were a political conservative? This seems like the very definition of narrow-mindedness - we can't comprehend the possibility that something exists beyond our left-right categories.
posted by koeselitz at 7:37 PM on April 25 [+] [!]


aren't you both right?
posted by toodleydoodley at 5:06 PM on April 25, 2010


and the single best long-term thing you can do for eases resource drain is support easy, free access to birth control worldwide, IMHO.

While I agree with you [and to a greater extent: population _is_ the core problem], this is too pat an answer and is somewhat based on wishful thinking

Free birth control is not going to help much in many cases (for example, it will not make much help in India, and definitely will make no difference in Ethiopia [where population control is many years too late and orthodox christians rule]). There are serious cultural issues at work that cannot be easily dismissed.
posted by rr at 5:28 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Careful with that crazy birth-control talk , The Whelk. When I made a similar observation here a while ago, along with the suggestion that people genuinely wishing to address over-population needed to first stop having babies themselves, I was offered a punch in the face, seriously told to kill myself, and branded a misogynist by more than one outraged liberal conservationist.

In certain circles it perfectly acceptable to express concern for the planet, but God forbid that you actually take concrete steps to address the core issue, which is simply that the Earth is over-run with people, and that the privileged ones born into the Industrialized World are the biggest burden. I can go ahead and add more ethically-aware consumers to the planet they argue; after-all the market allows me to buy carbon-offsets, and organic, locally-sourced heritage-tomatoes and free-range bison to magically negate the consequences.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:39 PM on April 25, 2010


Having followed this thread, I'm at a bit of a loss. I read the article, without paying attention to the sidebar reality of the author's political stance, and said, Yeah, I know of a lot of people who seem to pay "money-service" (because they can afford it) to an idea they believe will give them a certain positive social cache. Of course there are people who buy these same items that identify them as "simple-minded" folks for the right reasons. But who in hell can plumb the morass of intention?

How do you and I know WHY we do anything? I, for instance, happen to believe that the eggs our chickens lay taste better than the eggs you buy in the store. Of course I'm invested dearly in that belief. So I've gotta represent. Right? Isn't a lot of this posturing (I know that sounds bad) just representing? The issues of simplicity and responsible consumption have come to have a moral dimension, but what are these principles? Is a posture, or a political position, a good principle on which to make these kinds of decisions. I've decided neither of these are helpful.

I choose to eat food that tastes good. It tastes good to me. I live on six acres. We "made" our own place. We have chickens and a garden because we like the taste. We buy local as much as possible because I like my neighbours, and the shopkeepers, and the guy who comes by to clean out our septic tank once a year. I like those relationships. I really like them.

So I'm making these sorts of decisions based on a balancing of these two connected principles: good taste (on my tongue) and neighbourliness (local first, global second). If I think about it any further than that, I get hopelessly and horribly lost.
posted by kneecapped at 5:50 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Unless the human population drops by a few billion, the idea that you can "reconnect with the land" is really an upper class luxury.

delmoi, what are you talking about? In many places, like, say, Des Moines, all one needs to do to "reconnect with the land" is drive about 15 minutes. Unless you meant a more specific sort of reconnecting...

Also this.
posted by limeonaire at 6:11 PM on April 25, 2010


koeselitz, huh? What did you read? It wasn't what I wrote. Of course I can imagine other opposition to the "Simplicity Movement". It's just that Allen's article is a cheap straw-man argument. As you've demonstrated, it's easy to disagree with an argument you made up yourself.
posted by howfar at 6:16 PM on April 25, 2010


not that girl: "I'm a Quaker, and simplicity is one of our traditional "testimonies ..."

I like Quaker Oats.
posted by bwg at 6:17 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Them so called "Quaker Oats" are a fuckin' gyp and all. It's like me bringing out my own brand of "Shi'ite Hamburgers".
posted by howfar at 6:22 PM on April 25, 2010


Careful with that crazy birth-control talk , The Whelk.

You seem to have misunderstood what was disliked about your earlier comments. Supporting access to birth control is not the same as telling people what to do with that reproductive freedom. It's especially not the same as approaching women carrying actual live babies, who have their own human right to exist just like you, and mocking them.
posted by palliser at 6:52 PM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ah yes, because everything in existence is defined by your petty political squabbles.

You live on a strange planet if you think the battle between the Neo-Cons and, well, pretty well everyone else is "petty". It's already consumed hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:08 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Any time someone's trying to "live more simply" or save the planet by BUYING SOMETHING, they're doing it wrong. The best way to live simply and save the planet is to for crap's sake, stop buying things.
posted by ErikaB at 7:10 PM on April 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


not that girl: "I'm a Quaker, and simplicity is one of our traditional "testimonies ..."

I like Quaker Oats.


All your questions about Quakers answered.
posted by not that girl at 7:34 PM on April 25, 2010


the real simple, and I'm proud to say that I have subscribed for many years.
posted by HappyHippo at 8:15 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


For example $390 is the price of a mass produces pair of riding boots. Custom one run $600+ but will last you 10 or more years.
posted by fshgrl at 3:44 PM on April 25 [+] [!]

for real? because of the horsemen/women I know, the style-conscious high school girls wear ariat fat baby boots that cost about $100, but their parents wear $30 laceups or wellies from walmart.
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:14 PM on April 25 [+] [!]

I don't know about riding boots, but I can speak to workboots. KMart $40 specials last about 6 months. $200 Dannons last about 2-3 years. (This is with daily wear.) I hear that laying down the $400 for a pair of custom boots means rarely having to put money out for footwear ever again.

Sometimes the money saving option doesn't actually save any money.
posted by hippybear at 12:11 AM on April 26, 2010


Critiquing a glossy (sorry, fashionably matte) mass-market magazine and a pro-blogger like Leo Babuta is like shooting fish in a barrel. And it's not even the right barrel.

Where were the interviews with Vicki Robin of Your Money or Your Life or Duane Elgin of the voluntary simplicity movement? Allen mentions the 100-mile diet people, but only to cherry-pick one example of how expensive it can be to get local food, which they only brought up to show how screwed up the system is.

Allen isn't interested in the simplicity movement - she's lazily skewering 'elites' she doesn't like on a personal (or maybe political) level. It's a sloppy, poorly-thought out article that doesn't even address her ostensible topic. Mocking the inevitable corporate leeches who attach themselves to any genuine movement could have been interesting, but it's got nothing to do with the real people trying to change their lives.
posted by harriet vane at 2:11 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ignoring, for the moment, the allegations of identity politics in the article, I still think the author is on to something significant. Specifically, it teases out the distinction between virtue itself and the consequences of virtue, things which the simplicity "movement," as far as there is such a thing, tends to conflate.

As evidence, I'd offer this comment. For a lot of people, the urge to adhere to something like the simplicity movement can be described as something like this "I want to be virtuous. Virtuous people seem to do things like x, y, and z. So, if I do those things, I'll be virtuous too, right? Wait, you're telling me I can do those things and still not be virtuous? Well, fuck."

Because that is in essence what the linked article is doing: telling people that simply choosing to spend your money in a different way does not actually make one virtuous. This is actually a rather old idea. Adopting the trappings of simplicity in ways that are ridiculously expensive--even taking The Whelk's insight into account--but and which require an incredible amount of time and worry is not the same thing as actually being simple any more than tithing mint and cumin while neglecting faithfulness and righteousness is keeping the spirit of God's law. The simplicity movement is, arguably anyways, an updated version of Phariseeism for progressives, with the added bonus of requiring a lot of money, giving its practitioners a rather more exclusive way of setting themselves apart from their less righteous peers.

Rejecting this argument, which appears to be the argument that the author of the linked post is making, because she is associated with the Manhattan Institute is perhaps as obvious an ad hominem as it is possible to make.
posted by valkyryn at 4:31 AM on April 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I live near Chicago. If I adhered to the 100 mile example, I'd be eating mullet, squirrels and corn. And die of starvation in February.

It's easy to live the simple, humble life in the Northeast; the land and the population density are set up for it.

The world is full of tourists. This writer is just as guilty as those she criticizes.
posted by gjc at 4:38 AM on April 26, 2010


Valkyryn,

Almost all of the simply living people I know are involved in social justice work. They are not neglecting faithfulness and righteousness. There are always examples of people of any class you can pick out to hold up a stereotype. There are Blacks who eat watermelons and Jews who are cheap. Just because there are some people who might spend $600 on handmade boots doesn't mean the whole idea of living simply makes one a Pharisee. The author is taking these people and turning them into stereotypes, and you're jumping right on board.

Yes, when you're a single mother working 2 or 3 jobs to support your children, you don't have the luxury of NOT shopping at Walmart or being a locavore. Simply living people understand that. Go to any local Simply Living meeting in any community around the country and you are very likely to meet people who are also very involved in their local Democrat and Green parties and advocate for poverty reduction, oppose corporate personhood and work to end exploitation of workers.

The people that simple living followers have a problem with are the middle class consumers, who need to trade in their cars every 2 years and get the latest item of trendy clothing and have a television in every room. It is that kind of mindless consumption that is unsustainable for 6 billion people.

Simply Living people want everyone to have the choice to live simply. They also don't think the whole world needs to live simply. However, they do believe the whole world needs to live in such a way that is sustainable for everyone and allows everyone access to safe, fulfilling lives. People living simply are among the few in this world who are actually trying to practice what they preach. Sure, they don't do it perfectly. Who does? At least, they're trying. We grow one step at a time, learning from each mistake as we go.

As for the stereotype of simple living being an affectation of the wealthy, MANY of the simple living people I know are actually retirees on fixed income and young people who wish to eschew the corporate ladder. These are people who don't want to be obsessed with material things, and want to focus on building stronger relationships and community.

Instead of listening to and reinforcing stereotypes, why don't you do some real research? Get to know some simply living people? You'll find very soon the stereotypes aren't true.
posted by PigAlien at 6:10 AM on April 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


Living simply, like dieting or voluntary exercise, is a specifically middle-to-upper class western lifestyle choice, that can only be made if there is an actual option to over-consume & laze around.

posted by UbuRoivas at 3:55 PM on April 25 [3 favorites +] [!]


Voluntary simplicity is an option available to anyone regardless of payroll and social class. Its not about what you buy, its about what you don't need. I agree that it is a western-base counterculture movement. Because the dominant paradigm in industrialized countries seems to be work hard and consume a lot.

I would strenuously object to the idea that reconnecting to the land is a rich man's game. There are plenty of options for those who would like to and don't have the funds to buy their own patch. There is quite a movement of people trying to farm and create community.

That magazine is for people who have confounded two narratives. The american narrative of buying a lifestyle and the idea of virtue through simplicity. It is exactly wrong and now it is being used as a reason to criticize the ideology of the simplicity movement. It is a decoy and a glossy straw-man all in one and it is no more relevant to simplicity, than skymall is to the average air traveller.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 7:39 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


PigAlien, I think you're reading both too much and too little into my comment. Your accusation of ignorance thus strikes me as a bit strange.

I would bring this statement to your attention again: "...telling people that simply choosing to spend your money in a different way does not actually make one virtuous."

I think one of the biggest problems with the simplicity movement* is that it conflates consumer spending and morality. Spending money this way is good while spending money that way is bad. The focus of this particular movement really is conspicuous consumption. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for community formation, poverty reduction, etc. But there's a missing connection which relates liking those things and the things on which we spend our money.

Furthermore, for a movement which doesn't want to be "obsessed with material things"--your words--the simplicity movement spends a lot of time, well, obsessing about material things. jessamyn got at some of this earlier, as did fatbird: while living simply can be evidence of a virtuous life, the sorts of things that the author of the linked article are talking about cannot be anything but an affectation of the rich designed to promote a feeling of moral superiority simply because they cannot really be emulated by anyone without ample amounts of time and money. It's the difference between, e.g., buying local when, after a reasoned consideration of your options, the local product makes the most sense, and buying local because it's The Thing To Do. The former not only includes the possibility of not buying local, but it treats buying local as a means to an end, i.e. community formation and the responsible use of resources, while the latter treats it as an end in itself, i.e. a lifestyle affectation. The former also does not lend itself to glossy lifestyle magazines, as its focus is on wise decisionmaking not consumption as such.

I think what you're missing is the distinction I tried to lay out in my first comment: the distinction between doing the things that virtuous people do and actually being virtuous. Virtue comes not from doing certain things as much as being a certain way, i.e. actions are the result of virtue, not its cause. So a virtuous person may well do a lot of the things that the simplicity movement likes. I've got no beef with that. But I will continue to argue that 1) doing these sorts of things does not, in itself, make you a better person, and 2) one can have the virtue the simplicity movement wants without doing most of the things it espouses and doing a lot of things it doesn't like.

To the extent that it is, indeed, a movement; I'm uncomfortable generalizing about this but don't really have a good way of dealing with the subtleties of what's going on here in a short form medium such as this.
posted by valkyryn at 7:48 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes, when you're a single mother working 2 or 3 jobs to support your children, you don't have the luxury of NOT shopping at Walmart or being a locavore. Simply living people understand that.

I actually witnessed an argument on this topic that got so heated I had to leave. In that argument, there were people arguing that anyone who shops at Wal-mart, or refuses to support our local food co-op or farmer's market by shopping there, was making a choice and that they certainly could make a different choice. One woman in particular simply refused to believe that paying the higher prices was genuinely out of reach for some people. So I would modify your argument to say Some simple living people understand that. Certainly not all.
posted by not that girl at 9:06 AM on April 26, 2010


Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell from Mad Men) lives simply:

Some of the ways that Kartheiser has chosen to do this are unconventional, at least among Hollywood TV stars. He has, for example, in the city of cheap gas and freeways, given up on a car.

"I go on the bus, I walk. A friend left his car recently at my house and I took it out one day just for 15 minutes and it was terrible. You know why? I felt like I was back in LA again. Four or five years ago, when I had a car and I had been out of the city I wouldn't feel I was back until I got in the car, you know. But now I feel off the grid. I feel that I am not part of the culture. And because I don't have a car I don't really go anywhere to buy things. In fact, I have been in a slow process of selling and giving away everything I own."

He has? Like what?

"Like, I don't have a toilet at the moment. My house is just a wooden box. I mean I am planning to get a toilet at some point. But for now I have to go to the neighbours. I threw it all out."
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:18 AM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


nitpicky: IIRC Michael Pollan went on one boar hunt as part of the research for his book. Same with that 100-mile diet; it was part of the structure of the book's content, comparing various modes of eating, not necessarily his life-long diet. Fact-checking does not appear to be part of this particular rant.
posted by epersonae at 11:08 AM on April 26, 2010


not that girl, to paraphrase, "Let them eat cake," yes?
posted by valkyryn at 11:45 AM on April 26, 2010


Trying to fix the world's problems through lifestyle choices is counter-productive, it can only happen through large-scale collective action, and the simplicity/green/locavore movement makes this harder to do.

Individual identity is reflexive--you construct it yourself, largely through consumer choices, rather than having it determined for you. It also has to be regularly reinvented, mostly by getting rid of stuff (simplify!) and getting different stuff. The only limitation is that your choices shouldn't interfere with anyone else making their own choices.

We use consumption to communicate to ourselves and each other who we are, and this is considered sacrosanct across the political spectrum--violating this principle is considered authoritarian. We could change this if our individual identities weren't tied up in the unique and special ways we choose to consume, which would allow us to limit consumption without threatening individuality. The simplicity movement goes in the opposite direction, by making how you consume even more central to your identity as an individual.

Instead of consumption as a casual and passive leisure activity, these movements promote a vision of consumption that has almost religious levels of significance to one's self-identity. What would happen if this was broadly adopted in society? We'd have the same kinds of large carbon footprint consumption we have today, except that people would be even more strongly attached to their particular style, making it even more difficult to put limitations on it.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:57 PM on April 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Trying to fix the world's problems through lifestyle choices is counter-productive, it can only happen through large-scale collective action

Why can't lifestyle choices be combined with large-scale collective action, e.g. the Use Half Now campaign or boycotts against misbehaving producers?
posted by mrgrimm at 1:16 PM on April 26, 2010


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