Which way is forward?

Often, when I talk about something like living in a village-based economy, the merits of gathering my own food, or scaling back energy consumption, folks will reply to me that “We can’t go backwards.” Some of my more philosophically minded friends think there might be a metaphysical reason for this, while a more practically minded person will point to modernity’s fallen child mortality rates.

I agree. We can’t go back.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t live in the village-sized communities our brains evolved to flourish in.

When someone equates simplification with backwardsness, they mistakenly imagine simplification as a renunciation of progress, goodness, or even life. But this idea places the accent on the wrong syllable; while it might seem like simplification focuses on negation and renunciation, I see it as affirmative and developmental. Simplification, in my view, is a means of internal transformation designed to facilitate my own flourishing and the flourishing of others around me.

Beyond that, simplification is revolutionary inasmuch as it rejects excesses: In rejecting excess wealth it rejects economic colonialism; in rejecting excess power it rejects marginalization; in rejecting excess harm it rejects oppression; in rejecting excess self-centeredness it rejects all manner of evils. Contrapositively, simplification embraces thoughtful consumption, empowerment for all people, equity, and care.

The ancient Hellenes had this idea that was super important to them called epimelēsthai sautou. (To take care of one’s self)

Socrates used this idea to scold his fellow Athenians for caring only about wealth, honor, and reputation—a critique I think he might make in the US today, if he happened to be around, except he might leave out the honor part. In his view, such narrow-mindedness leaves out self-care. Again, this seems like a valid criticism for my culture today; when the most powerful demographic in my country (white males) have the highest suicide rates, and when a person becomes more prone to suicide when they move to a richer neighborhood, (Basically. Read the study here.) it starts to seem like there might be some serious self-care issues involved in the pursuit of wealth and power. Yet this is the idea of progress a person has in mind when they think village economies are backwards.

For Socrates, self-care and betterment involved simplification. That’s because he didn’t really think that the pursuit of excess fit with a purposeful life brought on by self-reflection. Similarly, when I think about what makes life worth living, I think about relationships with loved ones, challenges I’ve overcome, beauty, and hope. Realizing this encouraged me to think differently about how I want to live. Do I want excess power and wealth like those lonely, isolated men whose lives are so miserable they flee them at the highest rates?

Nope.

The thing is, I’m a white man from the US. The standard pursuit of more is all I know. That’s why it’s so important for me to simplify. I have to check each piece of my life: Is this excessive? Hurtful? Does it bring me or anyone else joy? Why am I doing this? What could I be doing instead?

The answers to these questions should drive progress. If we aren’t asking them, we aren’t going forward.

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