It is important to recognize inaccurate stereotypes about the simple life because they make it seem impractical and ill suited for responding to increasingly critical breakdowns in world systems. Four misconceptions about the simple life are so common they deserve special attention. These are equating simplicity with: poverty, moving back to the land, living without beauty and economic stagnation.
Poverty fosters a sense of helplessness, passivity and despair, whereas purposeful simplicity fosters a sense of personal empowerment, creative engagement and opportunity. Historically, those choosing a simpler life have sought the golden mean -- a creative and aesthetic balance between poverty and excess. Instead of placing primary emphasis on material riches, they have sought to develop, with balance, the invisible wealth of experiential riches.
Thoreau wrote that he had "more visitors while I lived in the woods than any other period of my life." The romanticized image of rural living does not fit the modern reality, as a majority of persons choosing a life of conscious simplicity do not live in the backwoods or rural settings; they live in cities and suburbs. While green living brings with it a reverence for nature, it does not require moving to a rural setting. Instead of a "back to the land" movement, it is much more accurate to describe this as a "make the most of wherever you are" movement. Increasingly that means adapting ourselves creatively to a rapidly changing world in the context of big cities and suburbs.
Many who adopt a simpler life would surely agree with Pablo Picasso, who said, "Art is the elimination of the unnecessary." Leonardo da Vinci wrote that, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." Frederic Chopin wrote that, "Simplicity is the final achievement ... the crowning reward of art."
The influential architect Frank Lloyd Wright was an advocate of an "organic simplicity" that integrates function with beauty and eliminates the superfluous. In his architecture a building's interior and exterior blend into an organic whole, and the building, in turn, blends harmoniously with the natural environment. Rather than involving a denial of beauty, simplicity liberates the aesthetic sense by freeing things from artificial encumbrances. From a spiritual perspective, simplicity removes the obscuring clutter and discloses the life-energy that infuses all things.
Although the consumer sector and material goods would contract, the service and public sectors would expand dramatically. When we look at the world, we see a huge number of unmet needs: caring for elderly, restoring the environment, educating illiterate and unskilled youth, repairing decaying roads and infrastructure, providing health care, creating community markets and local enterprises, retrofitting the urban landscape for sustainability and many more. Because there are an enormous number of unmet needs, there are an equally large number of purposeful and satisfying jobs waiting to get done. There will be no shortage of employment opportunities in an Earth-friendly economy.
A central and exciting task for our times is consciously designing ourselves into a sustainable and meaningful future, from the personal level outwards. In envisioning what this future could look like, it is important to not be bound by old stereotypes and to instead see the realism and the beauty of simpler ways of living.
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