Voluntary poverty — it could save your life, but it’s a hard sell

July 8, 2011

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Simple living can be comfortable, but are we ready to voluntarily seek out poverty just to survive after peak oil?

Poverty is finding middle class families these days these days through unemployment, bankruptcy and home foreclosure, whether they like it or not. And mostly, they don’t like it.

But John Michael Greer, author of this year’s The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered and several previous books on surviving peak oil, suggests that those who haven’t found poverty yet might want to seek it out for their own good.

Poor and lovin’ it

In “How Not to Play the Game,” Greer recommends preparing our households for a future of doing with fewer products and services from the marketplace once peak oil puts an end to our current age of abundance. As we look forward to Greer’s economy of “scarcity industrialism,” he urges us to develop the kind of DIY skills found in issues of Mother Earth News from the 1970s that he has dubbed Green Wizardry.

Knowing how to grow and preserve our own food is only the start. For example, Greer has also shown Green Wizards how to make an ultra low-tech cook stove in a wooden box using heated rocks as a cooking source.

And don’t stop there. Those “who know how to insulate and weatherize, and provide the small amount of energy they need from homescale sources, will be able to ignore the decline of the electrical grid,” Greer says. “Those who learn how to get the things they need from salvage, instead of relying on global supply chains fed from rapidly depleting resource stocks, will be able to stand aside as what’s left of the global economy circles the drain and goes down it.”

But how to protect our self-sufficient homestead from a dictatorial government or marauding zombie bikers who might take it all away once the sh*t hits the fan? That’s simple: just make yourself an unattractive target. As Greer puts it,

What we are talking about, to borrow a phrase from Henry David Thoreau, is voluntary poverty. The founders of the modern movement of “voluntary simplicity” backed away uncomfortably from the noun in Thoreau’s phrase, and thereby did themselves and their movement a huge disservice; it’s all too easy to turn “voluntary simplicity” into a sales pitch for yet another round of allegedly simple products at fashionably high prices. The concept of voluntary poverty does not lend itself anything like so well to such evasions. The idea, Thoreau’s idea, is to deliberately embrace being poor, in every material sense, in order to avoid the common fate of being possessed by your possessions.

As Greer says, without many modern comforts you can still live a comfortable life “when your food comes from a backyard garden, your heat comes from a wood stove, and your job comes from refurbishing salvage.”

Free your mind

A thrifty, self-sufficient life may be comfortable physically, but it’s not a middle-class lifestyle, as Greer concedes. True household self-sufficiency — homesteading or its urban variety — is more like monasticism, the lifestyle of a Benedictine or Zen monk who has taken a vow of poverty and committed himself to simple living for a higher cause.

And what isn’t comfortable about living in poverty is the loss of status. Plenty of people like to claim that “I don’t care what other people think about me,” but it’s clear from the way most Americans act that they care very much about status, reflected in conspicuous consumption from Versace to Nike to Apple.

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Big brands are not just on our bodies — they’re inside our heads, defining the good life. Would we die for them? Photo: Adbusters.

Even for Greer’s likely audience of people interested in peak oil prep and open to a message of simple living — and I count myself as one — if we’re honest with ourselves, I don’t think many of us are quite ready yet to leave behind all the ideas of the good life we’ve known since childhood and embrace what society would define as personal failure.

Indeed, as Adbusters magazine has so ably demonstrated, corporate marketers have done so well at getting inside our heads that most of us judge the good, the true and especially the beautiful by what brand advertising has taught us.

I like the idea of transitioning out of the money economy for philosophical reasons. I’d like to free my mind from money, status-seeking and corporate brainwashing. Many Americans who are in financial distress right now also might find it appealing to find some relief from the stress of juggling bills that get harder to pay each month as the economy continues to stagnate.

But to get to a life beyond money, and to do it with joy rather than resentment, will take a huge mind-shift. And looking to the past might help.

There’s a long tradition of simple living or even voluntary poverty in the West going back before today’s Amish and Old Order Mennonites through Tolstoy and St. Francis of Assisi all the way to down to the ancient Greek philosophers Epicurus and Diogenes. The latter was such a showboat that he lived in a barrel in the agora of Athens just to make sure everybody knew how much he was doing without.

But none of the great ascetics of the past embraced poverty merely as a way to survive in a difficult economy. Instead, there was always that higher motivation: to get closer to God, to reach enlightenment, to discover absolute truth.

Survival — a surprisingly crappy motivator

My guess is that if modern Americans were to do something so opposed to our national character as to go beyond the fashionable slow food, slow work and slow sex of the simple living movement to brand ourselves with the straight-up shame of poverty, we’d need to have a better reason to do it than mere survival.

A people brought up on the Horatio Alger dream of hard work, equal opportunity and upward mobility won’t soon walk around in sackcloth and ashes just to avoid notice by mutant zombie bikers. Sad to say, I think many Americans would choose to die first than to give up on their middle-class identity.

Indeed, we’ve shown that we’re perfectly ready to give our lives in the cause of maintaining our social status. It’s not only the Japanese salaryman who’s drawn to hari-kari when he loses his job. Plenty of Americans have also sought refuge in an early grave to avoid the ignominy of bankruptcy or otherwise appearing to fall out of the middle class.

I’m sure that Greer, who is himself a spiritual person (he heads an American branch of the ancient Celtic nature-faith of Druidry), has some ideas on what a higher cause than mere survival could be to embrace poverty as a welcome form of spiritual liberation — a way to save your soul, not just to save your ass.

Meantime, the rest of us can do worse than to follow Greer’s trail to Henry David Thoreau himself, the sage of Walden known to his contemporaries as “Hank the Crank”:

MOST OF THE LUXURIES, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward…The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we shall call voluntary poverty.

— Erik Curren

Erik Curren

Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in December 2009 and serves as managing partner of the Curren Media Group, an online marketing company. He is also partner in a solar energy development company. He has served on the city council of Staunton, VA since July 2012.  

Tags: Consumption & Demand