Less is More

Within the body of Transition movement literature, I don't often see references to the Simple Living or Voluntary Simplicity movement.  Perhaps the Voluntary Simplicity movement is less active in the places that Transition founders Rob and Naresh have lived.  Perhaps it is because at its origins, Voluntary Simplicity focused more on individual choices and individual changes than on community-centric and societal-transformation ones.  I can only speculate.

This week I picked up a small book at my public library, Less is More, edited by Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska.  Its collection of essays focus on "Simplicity," but they are (as our British friends would say) "spot on" about the inner journey of Transition.  I strongly recommend this book as a part of Transition literature.

Simplicity is about much more than ten tips to save money.  Ultimately, Simplicity is asking yourself: "How do I really want to live?  What truly makes me happy? What are my actions doing to the planet?  How does my lifestyle contribute to the greater good?"  Ultimately Simplicity is about knowing who you are, being clear about your values, understanding what brings true well-being.  It's cutting through the commercial static of manipulation and deceit that says that the consumer society is the good life.  Ultimately, it's about discernment and deliberation.
-- from the Introduction by Cecile Andrews

Substitute the word "Transition" for "Simplicity" and read that quote again.

In another essay, Andrews goes on to quote Antoine de St. Exupery, author of The Little Prince:  "He said that if he wanted a boat built he wouldn't just give people a bunch of tools and wood; no, he would teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."

Dare I say that, with its Permaculture foundations, in many cases thus far the Transition movement has been about enthusiastically providing lots of tools and wood and reskilling classes.  Less is More examines how to teach people to yearn for the sea.

Yearning for the sea

As the essays in the book unfold, one after another the various authors address the emptiness people feel with contemporary lifestyles.  The U.S.-centric book was published in 2009, so it is post-Obama's election, and includes the experience of the recession; its essays are written by authors standing in a world that -- particularly economically -- is rapidly revealing itself to be not what it had pretended to be.

Theodore Roszak's essay includes his recognition of what we in Transition call the collapse of the Industrial Growth Paradigm, and reveals the Simplicity movement's similar comprehension.  Interestingly, Roszak writes of the psychological influences that an aging baby boom demographic will inevitably have on our more-more-more consumerism. 

The greatest consciousness-transforming agent of all comes to us from within our own experience and as naturally as breathing.  It is the experience of aging, which brings with it new values and visions, none of them grounded in competition and careerism, none of them beholden to the marketplace. ...
Now, in ever greater numbers, we are aging beyond the values that created the urban-industrial world.  That fact begins with the boomers, but it will roll forward into generations to come as the now-young become the then-old ...  Which means that every institution in our society will be transformed as its population drifts further and further from competitive individualism, military-industrial bravado and the careerist rat race.  It is as if the freeways of the world will one day begin to close down, starting with the fast lane and finally turning into pastures and meadows.
-- from "Enroute to Eldertown" by Theodore Roszak

Voluntary Simplicity author Duane Elgin writes of "The Garden of Simplicity," which includes

  • Uncluttered simplicity - cutting back on clutter, complexity, and trivial distractions, both material and non-material
  • Fugal simplicity - bringing the opportunity to more consciously choose our path through life
  • Ecological simplicity
  • Business simplicity - the many expressions of "right livelihood"
  • Compassionate simplicity - developing a strong sense of kinship with others
  • Soulful simplicity - to cultivate our experience of intimate connection with all that exists

Transition topics

Some authors address topics we struggle with in the Transition movement.  Again, substitute the word "Transition" for "Simplicity" as you read.

A language barrier exists between the intellectuals and academics who abound in the Voluntary Simplicity movement and the everyday working-class people who use simple and direct speech.  The tendency to employ multi-syllabic words and abstractions in extended conversations and dissertations is pleasing to like-minded sophisticates involved in Voluntary Simplicity.  But for everyday folks whose involvement is necessary if the Simplicity movement is to achieve its public policy goals that benefit all the people, it often comes across as highfalutin and condescending and is misunderstood.  We must do better at using simple language because the goals of the Voluntary Simplicity movement in the US are critically important.
-- from "Simplicity, Simply Put" by Tom Turnipseed

In "Simplicity isn't Voluntary Any More," Ernest Callenbaugh (of Ecotopia fame) basks for four pages in a vision of the future which is spot-on a Transition vision.  It's too long to quote here, but I hope to gain permission to distribute that text widely. 

Callenbaugh's essay directly mentions peak oil, and several other authors reveal their comprehension that our energy opulence has reached its end.  Yet none of them plays "the heavy," going on and on about The Problems.  Instead, they are all focused on positive consciousness change to create the new ways of the future.

We must make community part of everything we do.  When we have our meetings to talk about lobbying the city council, we need to start with tea and cookies and time to chat.  Instead of ruthlessly pursuing Roberts Rules of Order, we need someone who runs the meetings in a relaxed, conversational manner allowing people to talk of their personal experiences.  Interspersed with meetings to save the trees, we need potlucks and picnics where people gather in a congenial, convivial fashion.  We need meetings about global warming, but we also need Scrabble nights.
-- from "The Circle of Simplicity" by Cecile Andrews

Nothing's too small to make a difference

But perhaps the most heartwarming thing I found in this remarkable little book is a short sentence in an essay by co-editor Wanda Urbanska as she writes about the Simple Living television series she hosted.

a mantra which threaded overtly and subliminally throughout the show's 39 episodes ... "Nothing's too small to make a difference."  Picking up a trash-bound paperclip, repurposing your mother's 1960s skirt into kitchen curtains, installing a water-saving, dual-flush commode; each of these action steps qualified.

"Nothing's too small to make a difference."  In the short days since I've read that phrase, it has given me enormous peace of mind. 

In the Transition movement I often immerse myself in the huge problems, the sweeping issues. How do we transform an entire society?  How do we Transition a city the size of Los Angeles?  How do we bring along the poor and the extremely poor, not just the upper-middle-class white faces?  What events or programs will best get the attention of those upper-middle-class faces, entrenched as they are with teeth gritted in the final throes of the Industrial Growth Complex rat race?

So often I forget to value what I do have.  "Nothing's too small to make a difference" has given me enormous relief this week.  An hour spent weeding the community garden.  A meal which includes vegetables from my own backyard.  Watching my kids sit in the cage with our new chickens.  There is great joy in these little moments.

The journey to the post-petroleum future is going to be made up of a bazillion of these "too small" events.  It is the cumulative energy that creates the Transition movement.  Yet there is joy in the details.  No, it doesn't make U.S. dollar sense to raise city chickens, but it makes enormous difference to my kids and to my own heart.  No, it doesn't change the world if my dinner includes only a few homegrown ingredients.  But it's a start.  And at this point on the timeline, we need to remember to value each of those little "too small" steps.  We need to make space in our lives to appreciate and honor the "starts." 

Less is More and the Simplicity movement remind us that the inner goal is "knowing who you are, being clear about your values, understanding what brings true well-being."  In this context, each of the erstwhile "too small" steps has value.  Each brings us that much closer to the mark ...
of living the way we dream of living;
of living a life of deeper integrity; 
of putting a foot more firmly onto the moving sidewalk into that Transitioned future;
of bringing yet one more small bit of the future to reality, today.


As you network your Transition Initiative (Step 3 of the 12 Steps), don't overlook local chapters of

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