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.

Why simplify?

My thinking about reducing excess and living purposefully in each moment stems from a line of thinkers I trace back through figures like Aldo Leopold, Diogenes the Cynic, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Michel Foucault, and John Cassian. a bunch of dead white dudes who used the simplicity game to help them think more clearly and live better lives.

But renunciation has gotten a bad rap, and I believe this is because we live in an era of extreme contrast: excess and poverty, ability and oppression, all unlike anything in our species’ evolutionary history. I get the feeling that my culture’s terror at the thought of downsizing results from looking over the edge of the tower and seeing how far we could fall. Hardly anyone used to piping clean water directly into their home will love the idea of drinking contaminated water they walked miles to procure, and most of them will cling desperately to whatever currently prevents their fall. It makes no difference that this is not what simplifying means; fear at the idea of loss in my culture stems from our inability to differentiate appropriate technology from ruin.

It’s my thinking that, far from being on the road to ruin, simplification affirms the best things about life. That’s why paying attention to how I live and trying to live better brings me so much joy.

Obviously, removing excess from my life means giving things up. But thinking about it this way gets things confused. That’s why I talk about living simply, living well, or living intentionally; these are affirmative acts, not negating ones. And every time we do something, we don’t do all sorts of other things, since we can only do one or two things at a time.

Think about it this way: When you take out the trash, are you “giving up” your trash? Or are you getting rid of it? Simplicity is like taking out the trash: consciously deciding what parts of life are worth your time and energy is freeing, not restrictive.