How To Be Poor: An Argument for Voluntary Poverty — Part Two   19 comments

This is Part Two of the How To Be Poor introduction. Read Part One and Part Three.

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money and utilizing complicated machinery at every turn: texting and calling a variety of people with my old and out of date cell phone that still is an intensely complicated and energy-heavy device; conducting that texting and calling over a massive, industrialized infrastructure;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.


19 responses to “How To Be Poor: An Argument for Voluntary Poverty — Part Two

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  1. Dear Joel,
    I liked this post very much. But I was wondering why the post above is slightly different from the post I received in the “Of the Hands” email. The email did not have the bit towards the end about the difference between voluntary poverty and voluntary simplicity, using an electric car as the example. I think the example added a lot to the idea of the post. Not a criticism, just wondering why the difference! Also, I’ve knit a lot while on buses, even Greyhounds. If you run into problems, email me, I’d be glad to help you out. I’ve taught many people how to knit, and also enjoy spinning and weaving. People used to walk around w/ their drop spindles, making yarn all the while, as they tended sheep and children, and, probably, while dreaming and watching ducks splash!
    Many blessing and peace on your journeys,

    Heather E. Caparoso
    • Heather, thank you! The reason for the difference was simply a slip of the click, so to speak. I write my posts in a little open source program called KeyNote. I had written the original draft at the library and then a coffee shop in Portland, and had finished what was essentially the second draft by the time I needed to go meet my friends at a pub, Horse Brass. After that bit of sociality, I loaded up the post into WordPress to edit it, knowing it needed a bit more work, and during that editing process I accidentally hit the “Publish” button. So it published, which then automatically sent it out to everyone who subscribes by email, even though I knew it wasn’t right yet. I deleted that version, did some editing and rewriting, then republished it—which sent out a second email to subscribers, which was the email I hoped they read, as it was the post you see now. I really hate slip ups like that, but it happens, and there’s the explanation (and a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes writing process, at least for me.)

      Thank you for the offer of help with knitting. So far, I’ve done all the driving, which means no knitting up to this point. I have no idea if I’ll ever truly get into knitting, but I’m extremely pleased to know I have multiple sources of knowledge available to me if I do seriously get into it. I’ll certainly let you know if I need some advice.

      Love the idea of constantly making yarn while going about your daily life. That sounds glorious.

      Thanks again.

  2. Well put, Joel. The difference between voluntary poverty and voluntary simplicity became glaringly apparent to us when we came back to the US after 2 years living in a rural 600-person fishing village in Mexico.

    I think a large part of why I’m so anxious to leave Seattle and get to rural Maine is to regain that poverty – not just for myself, but in the community. It’s a lot easier to be poor around other poor people, and Seattle is just as badly wrapped up in the coop-groceries-and-priuses mythology as Portland is. Sorry, but Microsoft’s 2 acres of “green parking lot” don’t actually make up for the fact that IT’S A PARKING LOT. It’s a mentality of bargaining for luxuries, whining like spoiled children into the burgeoning darkness we’ve brought upon ourselves. It’s too easy to fall into the edges of that psychosis, being immersed in it all the time – too easy to ‘just hop in the car’ or ‘just go pick one up’. I can’t stand it.

    • It is indeed much easier to be poor around poor people. And I say that with sort of a minimal—or partial—experience with that reality. But I know it’s extremely hard to be poor around people who aren’t poor. I like the example of the Microsoft parking lot. It is indeed still a parking lot, and that’s not a sustainable or realistic future.

      I also like that you talk about spoiled children. I think many of our issues come back to a root of immaturity. And I say that as someone who right now is in the midst of a road trip to Arizona. I am compromised too, and as much an example of our mass immaturity as anyone.

      I imagine that 600-person fishing village provided massive amounts of education to the both of you.

  3. Joel –

    While I agree there’s a very large difference between living in voluntary simplicity vs. poverty per se, voluntary or not (I’m living in the latter, non-voluntary variety), I must note that your view-of-the-Universe-as-it-should-be is somewhat extreme with respect to-the-way-the-world-really-is even though I share your world-view to some extent. I guess what I’m trying to point to is the idea that yes, we all should do this or do that – especially now – instead of business-as-usual, BUT, unfortunately the world doesn’t seem to work quite that way. One can only do what one can do and continue to hope for the best.

    I went back and re-read your piece on Portland and was immediately struck by the ambiguity of the title; “City of Contradiction”. Is the ‘Contradiction’ Portland’s or is it your own? Clearly you have not yet completely let go of the ‘way’ Portland represents – otherwise why would you continue to return? Why not let ‘it’ (family, friends, etc.) come to you now and then instead. Apparently there are more things and ways that Portland provides that you still need – perhaps some kind of food for the soul. And that’s not too surprising – Portland is, in many ways a very special place.

    Let me tell you a story about Portland lest you continue to think ill of it:

    Back in the dim, dark early 50’s, while Portland had grown to the size of a small city (around 300,000+/- souls), it was by no means the bustling, interesting and progressive place it has become. There were one or two streetcar lines still operating – leftovers from the 30’s and late 40’s – and a couple of private bus lines that covered much of the inner city including East Portland (It was once a separate town), North Portland, St. Johns, Sellwood, East-and-Westmoreland and a few other locales. Many folks who had access to the streetcars and bus lines used them – nobody rode bicycles – and everyone else drove. The freeway system was just getting started.

    As an aside, I have to note that there were no suburbs to speak of in those days; Beaverton was almost non-existent; a little farm-railroad town surrounded by farmland, and there was another miles-wide gap consisting of farmland between East 82nd Ave. and Gresham. Oregon City and Vancouver were worlds in and of themselves.

    The airport was on Swan Island in the river just north of downtown – neither the Marquam nor Fremont bridges existed in those days. Where Tom McCall Park is now there was a narrow semi-expressway that ran alongside the old Journal building that fronted the Willamette River for about four blocks – the combination blocked any pedestrian access to the riverfront. The tallest building in the Core was Meier & Frank (now Macy’s), Pioneer Courthouse Square was a double-deck parking lot and PSU was a night-school for veterans.

    Downtown was usually empty and dead by 5:30 on any weekday and on weekends the only people downtown were people who lived in the apartments along the South Park Blocks or people attending the churches in the same area. The city was reminiscent of the old song, “Saturday Night in Toledo Ohio” – not much happenin’ here. Most of the population stayed home during off-hours because there was little to do, other than go to a local park and hang out or maybe a movie when it was raining. Neighborhood districts such as the Hawthorne District, Northwest Portland, Multnomah, Sellwood & etc. existed but were not the vital areas they are now. Alberta was downright dangerous at times and The Pearl was mostly warehouses and machine shops.

    The place did have it’s charms though; you could park free – all day – on most of the downtown streets, there were some great funky old restaurants here and there, several good old movie theaters and the Yamhill Market – in those days the ‘real deal’ – filled half a block at 5th and Yamhill. One could purchase fresh-just-about-anything-locally-grown there plus fresh seafood and what would now be called artisinal meats, cheeses and bread.

    Anyway, sometime in the late 50’s-early 60’s a quiet revolution began and Portland was gradually, through vision, persistence and perseverance, transformed into the city is is still becoming today. Are there Contradictions? Certainly, and there will be more, but I guess the point I’m looking at here is that transformation requires a broad view, takes time and doesn’t – ever – come smoothly. It comes in fits and starts and oftentimes goes awry. This not only applies to cities but to individuals as well – probably especially.

    By the way, I lived in Portland during the time I described above and worked in the planning department as an urban planner through the 60’s and then with Metro’s predecessor through most of the 70’s as a regional planner, so I lived through much of the early transition years and, I like to believe, helped to facilitate the transition of the place to something better than it was going to be otherwise.

    Why did I leave, you may ask. Well, as I noted at the beginning, I share your world-view to some extent and, even though I love the place – it’s ‘my’ town – the place just got too big, too busy and too full of ‘seekers-from-elsewhere’ to suit me (I am a native Oregonian, after all – with all the quirkiness that may imply) , so I moved on to smaller, quieter and more gentle climes.

    I still visit now and then, when I can….

    • Martin, you get tonight’s perception award. A friend of mine called me out on that “City of Contradiction” post as being more about myself and my own reactions to and interactions with Portland than about Portland itself. And she was absolutely correct—that was about me far more than about Portland. I was trying to get at that in this post, in noting that I’m dealing with frustrations with my own actions as much as anything, but I don’t know how well that came through.

      Part three of this introduction is going to talk more about my personal situation, which is not really much one of poverty, at least at the current moment. I mean, it probably would be considered that for many people, but it’s not in a true and desperate sense. For as little money as I make, I’m doing just fine. I have all kinds of comforts available to me.

      I agree that one can only do what one can do. But I also see a lot of people that do what they claim they can only do, when they could actually do a lot more—and they tell themselves all kinds of stories about why what they’re doing is legitimate and sufficient and can lead to a world that is just fine, while I think that is a complete lie. And that frustrates me, greatly. And that frustration, admittedly, is rooted as much as anything in a frustration with myself, because I’ve been that person. Therefore, I’m sympathetic, while also engaging in that sort of righteousness that stems out of a recognition of your own shortcomings—if that makes sense. But I very much want to push those people, and argue that they are telling themselves stories and that those stories are very dangerous and self-defeating, because I believe they mean well and I believe they are fooling themselves, and I hope that I can push them toward a different and better path. Granted, I may be wrong and I may be falsely righteous, but I can’t help but engage in this effort.

      At the same time, I’m attempting to keep in mind my own hypocrisy and contradictions and am attempting to strike some kind of legitimate balance. That’s a very tricky act, and I’m not sure it’s something I’ve accomplished. So I keep that in mind, and continue to write, and hope for the best and for the continuing growth that may eventually lead me to more honest writings, more honest advocacy, and less hypocrisy. We’ll see how well that works out.

      Finally, I have a deep, deep love for all the Portland history you provide in this post. I love the city, and I love to hear about it’s history, and I’m completely fascinated by it. I need to respond to your email, but let me just say here that any sort of Portland history you want to send me is welcomed with open arms. I want to know far more about Portland and to try to understand it from that deep, historical level. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge here.

      Also, I should note, I think Portland’s awesome. I think it’s in many ways dealing in myth, yes, but it’s still a fantastic city and very possibly in much better shape for dealing with the future than many other cities. I don’t want to state that too emphatically, since I’m not really that familiar with most other cities and I don’t know the specifics of what the future holds, but the strides Portland’s made seem helpful to me, even if there’s an underlying myth to them that I think is dangerous.

      • First; with regard to your expressed concerns about your own contradictions, etc., even tho’ I sort of ‘called you out’, I think you’re being way too hard on yourself. What you are attempting may well take a lifetime. So you might as well relax a bit and enjoy the ride.

        Second; with regard to my ramble up there about Portland – I’m pleased you’re pleased with it, but as I’ve noted elsewhere, I tend to get carried away with my feeling toward the place even tho’ I no longer live there.

        • Thanks, Martin. I do tend to be hard on myself at times, but it also fluctuates. Sometimes I’m at much peace, then I’ll get fired up and perhaps go a bit too much toward an extreme, then I’ll ease back, and sometimes I’ll slack off too much. Finding and keeping that balance is an ongoing challenge. It’s been a challenge with this blog at times, too. I don’t want to rant and I don’t want to be unfair and there have been times I’ve had to do some rewriting and rethinking to avoid those things. I definitely got a bit rant-y in this post, and possibly a bit unfair, too. Trying to keep those urges in check and stay within a balanced view point (and not allowing frustrations with myself to come out in blanket statements and condemnations of other people) is ever a challenge and one that I think is important to engage. People calling me out in the comments, so to speak, is a helpful piece of that. I’m glad you did it.

          And yes, this is definitely a lifetime’s work. I’ve realized that, even though I forget it at times. I try to keep it in mind—and I do enjoy the ride, even if it doesn’t always come out in the blog! I do plan to have some positive posts in this series.

          As someone who tends very often to get carried away with my feelings toward Portland, I fully understand. I’ll be emailing you soon—I would, in particular, be interested in more thoughts about the city.

  4. I realize you are distinguishing between voluntary simplicity/poverty as one being more correct than the other. However, having recently read “Voluntary Simplicity” by Duane Elgin, which was the book responsible for launching the “voluntary simplicity” movement, I’ve got something to say about your perception (which is mostly correct in my view).

    The book “Voluntary Simplicity” was actually sort of a precursor to “The Power of Now” by Eckart Tolle (which in itself has been sort of turned into a middle class Oprahesque perversion, or as a petri dish for “Shelaism”). “The Power of Now” changed my thinking when I read it (in 2002, found it in a book store in some small town near the Pugent Sound area while in the navy and also AWOL, or UA in navy terms). The main insight being what Ram Das captured in “Be Here Now” in the 60’s, which is summed up in the title of that book. At any rate, “Voluntary Simplicity” was more along the lines of Ram Das’s “Be Here Now” specifically applied and married to the all important “you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet” and “Limits to Growth” meme. In fact all of a third of the book was composed of written responses to a questionnaire from people who had lived the voluntary simplicity lifestyle. They all seemed to get it, as in they were really living in voluntary poverty. At the beginning of the voluntary simplicity movement, just by gauging from the book, they were advocates for a voluntary poverty informed with a spiritual outlook to live presently. At some point the idea bifurcated into buying shit that is supposed to be more quaint and simple (think wabi sabi) for soccer moms filled with green guilt and catered to by the green market and identified as “voluntary simplicity” and the more Henry Thoreau, Walden type of poverty which is better identified with the “voluntary poverty.”

    To sum it up, before the green meme usurped and began marketing as Voluntary Simplicity, the two were really the same thing. Indeed, it would seem that true Voluntary Poverty lends itself and requires a spiritual presence in the now (which unfortunately has itself become an aberration to use). I think this all points to what you are dancing around. The sickness that is American and responsible for taking truths and marketing to them and therefore turning them into disease and more BAU. It’s really pathetic and disheartening to me. It would make me ashamed to be American if I identified as one, fortunately I don’t. I identify as a human being stuck in this mess that is the American lifestyle. I’d recommend reading some Morris Berman if you haven’t already. His latest “Why America Failed” really gets into the hustling and hucksterism that has always infected the American experience, from since before it’s conception.

    Hopefully this distinction will help you in sorting this out. I don’t mean to presume that you didn’t already know all of this. Just wanted to contribute.

    • Thank you so much for the information, Aaron. I didn’t know all that, at least not in that detail. I’ll have to check out Duane Elgin’s book and also look into Morris Berman.

      I did know that voluntary simplicity started out as a legit movement and eventually became coopted. Or perhaps coopted isn’t even the right word, so much as the term became improperly applied. I think you’re right that I was dancing around something of a connection with the green movement in general—that idea that we can simply buy our way out of the mess, which is an idea I once held in ignorant esteem but have long since come to be a touch infuriated by. It’s amazing the transitions I’ve gone through as I’ve traveled this path.

      Anyway, thank you again for the information. Very helpful, and it gives me yet more to add to the reading list.

  5. Hi Joel. No offense, but you’d drive me bananas with the last minute plans and changes. hehe! Oh well.

    Well said, sir, I enjoyed your post. It’s quite interesting that you are working with pigs and chickens. As far as meat goes you get quite a lot of bang for your buck, which is why you see them all over the third world. I’m on solar here and it’s far sunnier than where you are. I doubt whether the infrastructure could ever be implemented anyway on a large scale – not that you’re advocating that though. Hey, do you have any solar in the yurt?

    Regards. Chris

    • No offense taken, Chris. That’s a pretty legitimate response. Although, in my defense, the last minute changes often happen more on the other person’s end rather than mine. I have been known to text someone while heading into town, though, to see if they can get together that night. So I will do the last minute initiation, if that’s any different.

      There’s a lot to be said for solar, but it certainly isn’t going to be implemented on a large scale the way some people seem to think it is. But passive solar—now that’s some might effective technology. And PV has its place, but I think along the same lines of JMG on that one—it can be a helpful transition technology, but we’d do well not to think it’s going to do much beyond that. I imagine you get some good use from your solar, though.

      I’ve come to appreciate the pigs a bit more, though they really do smell quite bad. I’m starting to see their very particular charms, though.

      I don’t have solar specifically in the yurt, but I’m hooked up to the main house’s electric via a simple extension cord. So I’m using the electricity generating from the PV panels and the microhydro generator. I really just run a light, every once in awhile a small stereo system I have in there, and my laptop.

  6. Hey Joel – first off, well put and thanks for putting in the time and effort to write about what you do. Your blog is fast becoming a weekly read alongside JMG, and THAT is a compliment as I’m sure you realise. I love the comparison of poverty/simplicity to an electric car/walking – that’s a very punchy way to encapsulate that particular dream (the sustainability myth) and so very apt. How many people are voluntarily choosing to walk?

    I think that the contradictions you face are, like many of us, down to the fact that your choices are still voluntary and that you’ve been raised and indoctrinated in the system as is. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort and discipline (at least at first) to stay awake and make the ‘right’ choices and it’s easy to slip back into less sustainable patterns (a bit like your average drug addict trying to quit, unless he leaves his social networks behind the pressure to return to his substance-of-choice is immense regardless of his hopes for a cleaner life). But eventually you do come through that and see the world more as it actually is, and it really is alarming to see the degree of hypnotised thinking that goes into the ‘electric car’ meme. So maybe the contradictions will play out as you do your work.

    Of course it’s a whole other story when that poverty is no longer voluntary – THAT is what you’re preparing for, and if it’s hard for you now, doing it on purpose, how hard is it gonna be for the electric car brigade?

    On another note, I love the intent and purpose of your blog, you write with great sincerity and integrity and it really is inspirational to others out here in the ether. It’s actually a similar theme to a blog I’ve not yet got off the ground, my emphasis is not so much on farming/food, but more craft skills and food (besides the whole living with less thing) – I hope to get started on it soon.

    [ Oh and one other thing – is there any chance you could re-jig your template to put the comments link (as in to get reading them) at the bottom of the post – it would save scrolling back up! ]

    Regards, Matt Southward

    • Thank you so much, Matt, for a very high compliment indeed. JMG is by far my favorite peak oil writer and if I’m alongside him in any manner with anyone, then I’m beyond pleased about it.

      It’s amazing to me how few people voluntarily walk, though it’s pretty good in Portland. I love walking—I started that up some years ago when I moved back to Portland and have never looked back. I’m currently in Sedona, AZ for a few days and I’ve walked to the grocery store twice today, which is about a half mile away, and have been very happy for it. Particularly when the distances are that short, I can’t understand the desire to get in a car rather than walk—the walking is so much more enjoyable and so less stressful. It’s really quite odd. On the other hand, a good many people live places where walking can be a challenge due to hostile people and infrastructure. That can’t be disregarded.

      You’ve got it exactly right in regards to the challenges of voluntary poverty. I wrote about that a bit in Part Three, which I just put up, and ultimately that’s what this series is going to mostly be focused on. I don’t honestly know a lot of the nuts and bolts of how to effectively be poor, so I’m going to be talking about the experience of and adjustments to it as much as anything. I think that’s a lot of what needs to be talked about anyway.

      Thanks again for the compliments—I’m very pleased you’re enjoying the writing and finding it inspirational. That warms my heart more than I can say. I’ve always kind of dreamed about affecting people via my writing. If I’m managing that with a few people these days, then that makes me happy to no end.

      Be sure to post a link to your blog here when it gets off the ground. I’d love to check it out. Sounds like a great subject.

      As for the template issue, I don’t think I can adjust that without paying a premium upgrade, or moving over to a different theme entirely. I’ll poke around, though, in case I’m wrong. I agree that would be a good change—I’ve noticed and been annoyed by that myself.

      • Strange, I subscribed to this thread and your main blog but got no further replies – a glitch? I’ll try again.

        Anyway, sure I’ll send you a link to my as-yet-only-in-my-head blog when I get to it – it’s very interesting to see the parallels with your own journey, so I dare say we’ll have a bit to discuss down the road 😉

        I thought I’d follow up here about the template thing though – I wondered about how you were hosting your blog? WordPress is obviously open source so is dirt cheap to mess about with, I’m presuming that it’s your hosting company that won’t allow you to make changes? That seems strange to me as normally you can do pretty much what you like so long as you pay them – perhaps that’s different in your case. Anyways, I’ll catch up on your other post now!

        • Hmm, it’s not showing anyone as following this comment thread in my website info and you’re not on the list as an email subscriber, either. Perhaps there is indeed a glitch. If you’ve just signed up through the check boxes with the comments, maybe try putting your email into the subscription box at the top of the sidebar on the left. That won’t subscribe you to comment follow ups, but at least new posts.

          As for the hosting, it’s actually through WordPress. I signed up for a free blog through them, then I paid for a domain name. They still host it the same as if this was running at, though. This is one of the templates. If I want to do basically any customization of it, I have to buy a $30 customization upgrade. Then I have to figure out how to edit the CSS. HTML I somewhat know, from years ago, but I never learned CSS. I don’t think it would be too hard, though.

  7. Hello Joel. I’m fast becoming a regular. The reason is I relate to your very personal approach. Sometimes ideas just seem to bounce off the walls of the universe and poverty has been center stage in my galaxy for a few years. I just finished reading a story online at Orion Magazine called “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.” I’d create a link if I had any clue how to. (I’ll learn how if it ever seems like an important skill). The writer is about my age and echos my experience of trying to come to terms with our destruction of our home. The story and your post tell me to walk my walk. Of course this week I did have to do some retail therapy. I ordered two queen bees and six pounds of worker bees. Enjoy!

    • Much appreciated, Dennis! I figured out awhile back that I by far do my best writing when it has a personal aspect to it. I think I can write about theory fairly well, but I have a hard time being objective and most of my thoughts are within the context of my life and personal experiences. So no sense in leaving those out. Which works fine, since I’m not too guarded about my life. Sometimes, perhaps, to a fault.

      As for the bees, that’s the kind of retail therapy that seems pretty legitimate to me. One of these days, I hope to keep bees of my own.

      Thanks for the Orion reference. The article is here for anyone who might be interested in reading it. I haven’t yet but will look to get to it tomorrow, as it sounds interesting. Orion publishes a lot of fantastic writing.

  8. Pingback: How To Be Poor: An Argument for Voluntary Poverty — Part Three « Of The Hands

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