In this introduction and in the coming series of How To Be Poor posts, you’ll find that I’m arguing for voluntary poverty, as opposed to voluntary simplicity. This is deliberate. I don’t advocate for voluntary simplicity, at least not in the way it’s commonly thought about, because it often deals in a very American middle class form of simplicity. That sort of simplicity isn’t necessarily about being poor or even using less energy and resources, but is much more rooted in a particular and popular myth I feel needs to be better addressed in our society.
To get there, I want to talk about the last couple days. I arrived in Portland Friday evening, after a day of taking care of chickens, hauling wood and mucking out pig stalls, and my life has been anything but simple in the previous 24 hours. As is my tendency, I made some scattered and last minute plans with a variety of friends, trying to place different people in different time slots on a moment’s notice, texting and calling and changing plans, then changing them back, then coming up with something entirely different. It’s a ridiculous way to live, and I’m tired for it, and I want to take a nap except I feel I need to write a blog post and, in a few hours, I’m supposed to meet two friends at the bar.
Throughout all of this, I’ve been spending money and utilizing complicated machinery at every turn: texting and calling a variety of people with my old and out of date cell phone that still is an intensely complicated and energy-heavy device; conducting that texting and calling over a massive, industrialized infrastructure; driving my car around town, often meeting people at the last minute, burning gasoline and taking advantage of a system of roadways that’s insanely subsidy-dependent, devouring incredible amounts of resources and energy; sitting in over-heated commercial buildings and drinking craft-brewed beer and micro-roasted coffee, all the product of energy-intensive processing systems and often using ingredients shipped from long distances; eating prepared, industrial food products that require, again, massive amounts of energy and resources, as well as the enslavement and abuse of animals and the degradation of human workers throughout the supply chain. I’ve been in town less than 24 hours, and I’ve already done all this, engaging these systems for my own comfort and pleasure and convenience.
I and many of the people here in Portland understand the horror and unsustainability of these systems. They understand at an intellectual level that it’s a dead-end route, bringing misery and devastation with it wherever it establishes a presence. They’ve read the literature and heard the lectures and marched in the protests. They’ve chanted about the 99% and agitated against social injustice and bemoaned the easy destruction of our environment. And when I write “they,” I include myself in that designation, both as someone who is here in the city now and as someone who has lived here in years past and happily partaken in all these same devastating systems.
Understanding the shortcomings and terrors of these systems, many of the people here advocate for and desire different systems. They don’t want to be a participant in these horrors and want, instead, alternatives to the dominant paradigm. Due to this collective yearning, Portland has come to be a city particularly adapt at telling a certain kind of story—a story that we hear often, from a variety of well-meaning people and a variety of politicians who may or may not be well-meaning, but are almost certainly self-serving. I think of this as the myth of the sustainable middle class, and I’m well versed in the story.
Originally I wrote out a long list of the components that make up this story, but I actually found a much more concise summary in the lede of an article over at AlterNet. The story, therefore, goes something like this: “Fossil fuels are going to disappear, whether we like it or not. Petroleum, natural gas, and coal are becoming scarcer, harder to extract and a greater danger to the global climate. If we proceed with business-as-usual, energy companies will take advantage of increasing scarcity to dominate the world economy by vacuuming up more money from the 99%. They will be able to ally with military and financial institutions to construct an energy-military-financial complex that could eventually reduce most of the rest of us to a form of debt peonage. On the other hand, if we could possibly elect a government that does what governments do best – build infrastructure – we can avoid a world of global warming and economic collapse by building enough wind farms, solar panels, and geothermal systems to power our economy and ignite a sustainable, broad-based period of economic growth. Of course, this will require a sea-change in the direction of the political system, along the lines of the Occupy movement, but there is too much at stake to throw up our hands in despair.”
This is a fine, compelling, and horribly destructive story. It’s a story that provides ease of mind to every one of us who has a weakness for all the comforts that the dominant system provides us while simultaneously tearing apart our planet and normalizing cruelty toward billions of humans and non-human creatures alike. This story—this myth—is dangerous because, while it provides the illusion of personal responsibility by telling us that we need a massive effort “along the lines of the Occupy movement” to elect a government that will provide us this utopian future, it ultimately absolves us of all responsibility for our current reality by assuring us that “we can avoid a world of global warming and economic collapse by building enough wind farms, solar panels, and geothermal systems to power our economy and ignite a sustainable, broad-based period of economic growth.” In other words, if we find ourselves facing an impoverished future of environmental devastation, catastrophic climate change, and dramatically reduced standards of living, and failing public health, it’s not because we dove full bore into the easy lives of massive overconsumption and resource depletion, but because we failed to elect the correct elites and thus were the victim of being denied our birthright—our outsized, yet still somehow sustainable existence of crass consumption, easy luxury and unending comfort.
This is the sort of storytelling that keeps us from honestly addressing our very pressing problems. As long as we continue to think that we’re above this planet and its physical processes—that human ingenuity, a phrase I’m quite sick of, somehow places us outside of and unbeholden to the laws of physics—we’re going to look for and assume easy answers, and we’re going to suffer as a result. The sooner we realize that we are of this planet, a part of it, a species upon it like every other species upon it, and that we must work within the same natural and physical realities as these other species do, the sooner we can begin to live well and improve the outlook of our future. If we’re going to live sustainably, then that means living within the planet’s natural flows of energy and using the planet’s resources at a sustainable rate—and using a small enough percentage that the planet is still able to support the billions of other plants and animals that help make up the healthy and functioning ecosystems upon which we depend. That means using orders of magnitude less energy and resources than we do now, which means a wholesale change in the way the populations of industrialized nations live.
This doesn’t mean building a huge infrastructure of solar panels and wind farms and geothermal systems and then using all that energy to pay the craftswoman down the street $20 an hour to make knick-knacks out of biodegradable, corn-based plastic and FSC-certified wood. That’s the absurd fantasy world of the sustainable middle class. A real sustainable world would mean that the populations of industrialized nations live much more like the populations of what we charmingly refer to as “third world” nations. It means living very basically, living poor, radically downsizing our lives and our resource and energy usage, and figuring out how to do that well. It can be done well and it can still provide a relatively comfortable and enjoyable life. The sooner we realize that and dedicate ourselves to the process of learning that, the better off we’ll all be.
If, instead, we continue to tell ourselves stories about a magical, sustainable future in which we all have electric cars and the ability to travel vast distances in small amounts of time and for little money, we all have well-paying jobs in which we don’t actually create things of use, all the energy is there for the taking so long as we elect the proper government that’s willing to build the proper infrastructure, or that so long as our coffee is microroasted and our beer is microbrewed, our grocery stores are locally owned and stocked with industrially-produced but organic food, and that the new wing of the local co-op was made out of cob and recycled wine bottles, then we can continue to indulge in outsized luxury and comfort and everything will be fine—well, then, we’re going to dive as full bore into our future disaster as we have into careless energy and resource depletion. As fantastic as I think a building made out of cob and recycled wine bottles is, it’s not going to allow us to otherwise live our lives unchanged. That’s a bedtime story that’s putting us to sleep at the exact time we most need to be wide awake.
This is the difference, in my mind, between voluntary poverty and voluntary simplicity. Voluntary simplicity seems very much to me a movement co-opted by the myth of the sustainable middle class. Poverty was not seen as particularly attractive, so instead it became simplicity. You can still buy your way to happiness, it’s just a slightly different happiness than what the mainstream prescribes. Voluntary poverty, on the other hand, is brutally honest. There’s no getting around the word poverty—it means less money, less energy, less resources. It means doing without and making do. It means you can’t buy your way out of your predicament, and that instead you have to learn how to live in a fundamentally different way. It means less comfort and luxury, and learning how to live well with that.
Voluntary simplicity, in other words, is the electric car. Voluntary poverty is walking to where you need to go. Walking is honesty. The electric car is storytelling. That’s the difference, and it’s a critical one.
When I wrote my post about Portland a couple months ago, that storytelling is what I was referring to. A big part of the reason I find it so frustrating is because I’ve believed that story. I’ve acted out that story, lived my life according to it. I’ve spent much of my life beholden to it, indulging in it, and I look back on that with a certain amount of chagrin. As frustrating as that can be for me, though, it also needs to be a source of education—an awareness which I use to push myself further into voluntary poverty, into what seems a more appropriate way of living. Every time I return to this city—this city that I really do, in many ways, love—I find myself slipping back into that story and the easy comforts it provides. I do this with a mix of awareness and abandon, sometimes with the personal understanding that I am allowing myself this comfort and that, while not benign or ideal, it is a reality I’m acquiescing to at that moment. However, that can’t be the end of the story. That in itself is a luxury and indulgence, and it can very easily become the same indulgence with which we entertain the myth of the sustainable middle class. At that point it becomes dangerous, self-defeating and a threat to a life well lived.
This as well, then, is the context of my current work. And that is going to be much the context of this series of posts on voluntary poverty. I’m at the beginning of a very specific and personal journey. I think there are lessons I’ve already learned that will be helpful to others, and I suspect I’ll learn many more lessons that will be of further help. In part three of this introduction, I’ll talk more about my personal situation, my plans for the future, how I think that relates to my readers, and my specific plans for this series going forward.