Conscious Simplicity

Here are three major ways that I see the idea of simplicity presented in today’s popular media:

1. Crude or Regressive Simplicity

The mainstream media often shows simplicity as a path of regress instead of progress. Simplicity is frequently presented as anti-­technology and anti-­innovation, a backward-­looking way of life that seeks a romantic return to a bygone era. A regressive simplicity is often portrayed as a utopian, back-­to-nature movement with families leaving the stresses of an urban life in favor of living in the woods, or on a farm, or in a recreational vehicle, or on a boat. This is a stereotypical view of a crudely simple lifestyle — a throwback to an earlier time and more primitive condition — with no indoor toilet, no phone, no computer, no television, and no car. No thanks! Seen in this way, simplicity is a cartoon lifestyle that seems naive, disconnected, and irrelevant — an approach to living that can be easily dismissed as impractical and unworkable. Regarding simplicity as regressive and primitive makes it easier to embrace a “business as usual” approach to living in the world.

2. Cosmetic or Superficial Simplicity

In recent years, a different view of simplicity has begun to appear — a cosmetic simplicity that attempts to cover over deep defects in our modern ways of living by giving the appearance of meaningful change. Shallow simplicity assumes that green technologies — such as fuel­-efficient cars, fluorescent light bulbs, and recycling — will fix our problems, give us breathing room, and allow us to continue pretty much as we have in the past without requiring that we make fundamental changes in how we live and work. Cosmetic simplicity puts green lipstick on our unsustainable lives to give them the outward appearance of health and happiness. A superficial simplicity gives a false sense of security by implying that small measures will solve great difficulties and allow us to continue along our current path of growth for decades or more.

3. Deep or Conscious Simplicity

Occasionally presented in the mass media and poorly understood by the general public is a conscious simplicity that represents a deep, graceful, and sophisticated transformation in our ways of living — the work we do, the transportation we use, the homes and neighborhoods in which we live, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and much more. A sophisticated and graceful simplicity seeks to heal our relationship with the Earth, with one another, and with the sacred universe. Conscious simplicity is not simple. This is a life way that is growing and flowering with a garden of expressions. Deep simplicity fits aesthetically and sustainably into the real world of the twenty-­first century.

Today’s world requires far more than crude or cosmetic changes in our manner of living. If we are to maintain the integrity of the Earth as a living system, we require deep and creative changes in our overall levels and patterns of living and consuming. Simplicity is not an alternative lifestyle for a marginal few, but rather a creative choice for the mainstream majority. What does a life of conscious simplicity look like? There is no cookbook we can turn to with easy recipes for the simple life. The world is moving into new territory and we are all inventing as we go.

Questions for reflection: What does conscious simplicity mean to you? Can you share a personal experience of a time when you experienced conscious simplicity? What is a test that you find useful in determining the kind of simplicity you are facing?


This post excerpted from the first chapter of the 2010 edition of Duane Elgin’s now classic book, Voluntary Simplicity.  See more at: Used by permission of the author.

Images: ginnerobot

About the Lead Author

Duane Elgin
Duane Elgin
Duane Elgin is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and trans-partisan media activist. He is the director of the Great Transition Stories project that, in turn, is a project of New Stories, an educational organization serving as a resource center, creative collaboratory and project incubator in support of emerging new stories for who we are as humanity, what we are becoming, how we are changing and where we are going together. Duane recently spoke about this work at a major gathering in Hollywood sponsored by GATE—the Global Alliance for Transformational Entertainment. His books include: The Living Universe: Where Are We? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? (2009), Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (2010, 1993, 1981), Promise Ahead: A Vision of Hope and Action for Humanity's Future (2000), and Awakening Earth: Exploring the Evolution of Human Culture and Consciousness (1993). With Joseph Campbell and other scholars he authored the book Changing Images of Man (1984). He has worked as a senior staff member of the Presidential Commission on the American Future and as a senior social scientist with the think-tank SRI International where he coauthored numerous long-range studies such as Anticipating Future Global Problems (for the President’s Science Advisor). He has an MBA from the Wharton School, and an MA from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2006, Duane received the international Goi Peace Award in recognition of his contribution to a global “vision, consciousness, and lifestyle” that fosters a “more sustainable and spiritual culture.” Duane’s website is

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