[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I’d like to call upon the collective wisdom of the Front Porch Republic, to help me with a new class I’ll be teaching in the fall. This one is an attempt to pull together several long-standing interests of mine, and get a bunch of students to think with me about local government, alternative economics, environmentalism, and consumerism. I’m calling the class “Simplicity and Sustainability”; my hope for the course is that it will be focused equally on the national and international political and economic priorities and realities that can make difficult the kind of local and lifestyle control upon which “simplicity” depends, and on what we, as individuals and members of our communities, actually need to do and value in order to make “sustainability” a viable goal. As this will be the first time I’ve ever taught such a class, I have no illusions that I’ll be able to hit that sweet spot which will enable the students and me to focus thoughtfully upon both these themes, but we can try.

In some ways, this course will borrow from a class I blegged about previously, my upper-level course on “Capitalism, Socialism, and Localism.” But this won’t be a seminar for advanced students; more of an introductory course. Of course, I could just have them read all of my “simplicity” posts from years ago, but that would be vain of me and painful for them.

So what am I looking at? The work of Juliet Schor (whom I’ve talked about before), for one: The Overworked American, Plenitude, or collections she has contributed to, like The Consumer Society Reader or Do Americans Shop Too Much?–all of those are possibilities. Barry Schwartz’s wonderful The Paradox of Choice is, I think, an absolute must. I may make use of Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes, a book that I’ve recently made use of (and need to blog about sometime) in connection with some local food stuff I’ve involved my students in. Wendell Berry is an important possibility, of course, as may be E.F. Schumacher or Herman Daly. And those authors lead me to another consideration–the degree to which I want to make this a class that can align with some of the courses and programs here at Friends University that touch on Christianity, spiritual formation, intentional living, and social justice. A part of me wants to have the students read through the Dao De Jing together, and follow that up with The Tao of Pooh (which is, sincerely, a great little book). But in addition to that? Perhaps Thomas Merton, or Richard Foster? And how much philosophy do I want to bring into this anyway? There’s a part of me which sees very clearly the connection between the specialization, professionalization, and standardization of modern life, and how that makes it difficult for us to even conceive of more “simple” arrangement, and in that sense I would like to talk about one of my favorite books of the past few years, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft…but I recognize that the philosophical perspective he brings to bear on these questions just may be way over my students’ heads.

Moreover, I shouldn’t stick with my favorites–I should stretch myself as well, and use the class as an opportunity to work through arguments which defend the complexity, the pace, the mobility and individuality, the busyness and anonymous dependency of modern capitalism and consumer culture: all these things that complicate the idea of living a simple, sustainable life. But I suppose that’s why I’m making this a blog post. What should am I missing, everyone? Any recommendations you may have, whether they’re books or films or anything else, whether they’re personal memoirs, economic studies, or religious works–throw them at me. And thanks.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. Oh my!

    Please consider assigning one of my favorite books of all time: David Shi’s “Simple Life.” It examines the impulse of simple living through the entirety of American history, and focuses heavily on the spiritual elements. It wuld be a great survey framework upon which you could hang various primary documents. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


  2. I’d recommend Page Smith’s (forgotten?) As a City Upon a Hill: The Town in American History (1966), which starts (obviously) with Winthrop & the covenanted communities of colonial America. Highly readable survey on a topic that oddly hasn’t been covered much, I think.

  3. You might want to consider a recent memoir by Kristin Kimball called The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Food, Farming, and Love. In short a Harvard educated New York City freelance author falls in love with an organic farmer who is studying Amish farming methods. She gives up her old life and they move to the Eastern Adirondacks where they start a horse powered, organic CSA. It is very accessible and explores the joys and trials of such a radical lifestyle change.

    I would also consider you to consider some reflective activities you could have the students complete. For example, have them brainstorm a list of things that inhibit them from living simpler lives. They then could conduct short fasts from them and journal about the experience. Possible examples might include a fast from electronics or from processed foods.

    By the way, definitely use the Richard Foster.

    I hope this helps.

  4. Dale Allison’s ‘The Luminous Dusk’ is a great introductory look at the tension between certain aspects of modernity (e.g. artificial light, ubiquitous noise, etc.) and the life of the spirit and the mind. It is quite Berry-esque in tone, although dealing with different matters than W.B. usually does.

  5. Call the course “‘Complexity and Sustainability.” You live the simple life when you get everything you need by puchasing it. You live the complex life when you don’t.

    David Kline’s Scratching the Woodchuck comes to mind. I take Farming magazine, which he edits and publishes.

  6. Wow, that’s quite the course. I’d love to see/help with a draft syllabus when you get to that point. Three that I would recommend:

    Gus Speth’s “Bridge at the End of the World”:

    Joseph Tainter’s “Collapse of Complex Societies”:

    Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy”:

    I wrote a review of Crawford’s work, and while I love that book, it’s a bit heady. Only a bit though. I think it may stimulate some good conversation though…

  7. I hope this is not off the mark but for a different perspective consider G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology with the introduction by C.P. Snow.

    Hardy was a great Mathematican who lived a very uncomplicated life as he avoided such technological advances as telephones and elevators. He stubbornly refused to employ his talents on behalf of the British war effort in WWII. He refused to apply his considerable knowledge to deal with “real” world problems. He chose to focus all his attention on pure mathematics. His Apology is an elegantly written defense of his decision to remain “pure.” His defense is accomplished by inviting the reader into his very special intellectual world. Mr. Snow fills in biographical material about Hardy.

  8. For an example of simplicity you could take the welfare state. It takes all the fascinating complexity of human lives and relationships, and forces them, necessarily but unnaturally, into an overly simplified array of relationships, thus creating a new complexity all its own that is something other than fascinating.

    For an example of something that is not simple, you could take this blog, which possibly leads the internet in having an impenetrable structure and being overly difficult to navigate. It hides articles where they can’t be found again. It’s bad enough on a regular PC, but today I when I was without regular internet I tried finding this very article using my smartphone. I knew it was here somewhere, because I had seen the title in an RSS feed earlier in the day. But despite having several minutes of boredom with nothing better to do than look for it, I did not succeed. I was quite aware of the irony of trying to find an article about simplicity in such a complicated blog system. I did not have the same difficulty with other blogs that I seldom read on my smartphone. It wasn’t until I got to my home computer and could play the silly game that the upper-left window of moving objects makes one play to find things, that I found it and was able to read it.

    To help overcome any illusions about the simple life, you could re-read Dan Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe as well as the later books in this genre about going to a remote, uninhabited island and building a new civilization from scratch.

    And now that I am in such a good mood after wasting so much time trying to find things in this blog, could I also point out that it was nicer back when I could elect to have notifications about comments e-mailed to me? It saved a lot of looking. It was a much simpler time.

  9. Let me second John Gorentz: ditch the “window of moving objects”!

    John Gray’s _False Dawn_ is a nice critique of some current ideologies that also rejects the idea of getting back to a “simpler time” — it might do for a contrary text for you.

  10. You might want to dig around in some of G.K. Chesterton’s writings on distributism. Also Gilbert Magazine, published by the American Chesterton Society, has regular columns on distributism which might be of interest.

  11. Thanks for these many recommendations, everyone. And Jeremy, thanks for yours in particular; I’d been trying to remember the title or author of that book, the one by Eric Brende, but failing. This is what makes FPR valuable: a community of people whom, whatever their many disagreements, are all engaged in some similar, often rarely examined, ideas.

  12. http://www.amazon.com/Ten-Foot-Square-Tales-Heike/dp/0766193365



    There’s a lot of good suggestions, so some odd favorites, above.
    I do enjoy Mertons’s Wisdom of the Desert:


    You could just take them fishing. Or quantify the amount of trash they generate during the semester. That’s kind of an eye-opener, that one. Just let it pile up for a bit.

  13. You’re welcome Russell. For your own information, if inclined someday for this course, Eric Brende has traveled to talk with college students in the classes that a family friend has. This friend of ours is a Communication Professor at Wheaton College in Illinois. He stated that Eric was not necessarily the most dynamic talker, but it was still a useful time.

    For your own reference – no posting required. Thank you.

  14. I recommend C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. Although it is the final volume of a trilogy, it may be read independently. (My first reading was some time before I read the second book, Perelandra.) The St. Anne’s household is all about localism, right reason, etc., and stands over against centralism, severance from perennial wisdom, etc. as embodied in the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments. The book may make an appeal to your students’ imaginations that would be otherwise unavailable.

  15. The problem with including W.Berry is choosing what to use.The essay I keep going back to is “Economy and Pleasure”from the collection “What Are People For”.He makes connections here that I have found nowhere else.

  16. Re: consumerism & sustainability–can’t beat Anne Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff.”

    Re: the simple life, can’t possibly leave out Emerson & Thoreau.

    Re: economics, excerpts from Karl Polanyi who identified dislocation–i.e., destruction of local communities–as the chief disruption characterizing the onset of “the great transformation” (industrialization and the rise of market liberalism). Your class is in the larger scheme of things part of Polanyi’s countermovement in answer to all that–the impulse of society, grounded in the vital interests of local community, to protect itself. I admit Polanyi doesn’t dwell on the issue of localism, but it’s nonetheless essential to his point of view. I’m sure you or others here could do a far better job than I of finding specific chapters, essays, etc.

    Can’t help noticing the irony of all the links to Amazon here. Begs all kinds of possible first questions re: simplicity (is it enhanced by centralization and technology?)

    I belong to Berkeley’s Hillside Club, founded in 1896 at least as much on an environmental and architectural mission as for social functions. It aimed to preserve the natural beauty of the hillside community and to promote the kind of “simple home” ideal–the vernacular, Craftsman style architecture–Berkeley would become known for. (Keeler was sort of a spokesman for the less articulate but brilliant architect Bernard Maybeck.) The “bible” of the Club is Charles Keeler’s, _The Simple Home_ (http://www.oregoncoast.net/simplehome.html), his revolt against the times and its

    “shoddy home, the makeshift of a shoddy age. It is the natural outgrowth of our prosperous democracy. Machinery has enabled us to manifold shams to a degree heretofore undreamed.”

    I recommend this (quick read; little more than a pamphlet) to you for a few reasons. First, as an expression of localist impulse to create a community sheltered–it’s no stretch to say that the idea Keeler abundantly applies to the house is extended to the community as a whole–from “modern materialism” (see Polanyi). It was an age in which California, at the limits of western expansion, was in stark contention between market forces and those who saw it as the last best chance for humane civilization to be reestablished in harmonious relation to nature. The precursor to the Club was a Ruskin Club run by Keeler; the spirit of William Morris is redolent as well. Selections from these two visionaries of the simple life strike me as indispensable. Second, the centrality of architecture, art and handcrafts is notable, as I believe today’s proponents of localism generally give short shrift to material culture. Many modern readers find the book amusing, reading it as a busybody’s silly faith in “correct” home decorating–if only his neighbors will listen to his tasteful advice–to redeem society. A fair reading, though, grounded in respect for the social ideals of Ruskin, Morris, et al recognizes its aims as restoring through specific, concrete examples the material foundations of life in harmony with nature, rooted in community, family, and work and its traditions. Third, as a specific historical effort with an enduring legacy it provides roots to your study.

    Hope you’ll blog your syllabus and keep us informed on the class. Wish I could take it!

  17. Hi Russel,

    While I think Eric Brende would be a valuable resource, it’s worth noting that Amish and Mennonites live with a simplicity that is deeply rooted in faith, community and tradition, and not the reverse. The Amish approach to living is not a lifestyle that one can simply adopt, but the natural outgrowth of deeply-held beliefs and long-rooted cultural habits. Surface-level lifestyle similarities can mean very different things when pursued with different motives, and the Anabaptist motive is not to live simply, per se. Trying to be like the Amish without believing like the Amish would be impossible. If you want to be a snail, you have to do more than adopt the shell.

    Which is not to downplay the importance of the shell, or discourage people from pursuing a simple lifestyle, but to underscore the importance of belief and motive, and the nuances of how belief and motive translate into application and practice.

    I wish I could take your class. Where do you teach?

  18. So much already – the course on simplicity is not going to be simple, eh? You mentioned looking at national and international issues, but to me the first 2/3 ought to be grounded in locality; only then look at the external factors that affect this. I like the idea of going fishing; I’d even say the students should have to acquire, kill, prepare, and eat a chicken. Some course content ought to look at “negative” issues: “simple” systems in the past meant that one bad year could cause serious hardship, multiple bad year famine and death. And can simplicity really be pursued with 7 billion people living on the earth? Are we prepared to accept “simple” health care?

  19. Zac – I agree the beliefs we hold are fundamental to shaping us as we live out a simple life. But goods are both received and given by anyone embracing the simple life. Beliefs shape lifestyle, but living a simple lifestyle will also shape beliefs. In that we can hope for God’s grace to become more real for everyone who declines participation in modern culture.

  20. Zac & Jeremy Delamater
    Theologian Karen Armstrong’s explanation of the meaning of belief–as love, which is the root of the word, rather than subscribing to ideals revealed by scripture or laid out in doctrine–provides an interesting framework to this. The pursuit of the simple life guided by an understanding of real wealth as including at its foundation love and fellowship materially shapes our choices.

    More generally I’d argue that the material aspect of the simple life is crucial–not as a matter of what’s tasteful or not (plain vs ostentatious, for example) but in terms of what we labor at and how we design our houses, for example in relation to nature (landscape and materials); scale; energy usage; usage of space and how it reflects our priorities in terms of time and leisure with family, given to hospitality, etc.; handcraft; etc. The arts, including architecture, reflect our values and beliefs, help reinforce those values and instill them in the young. Material culture shapes us as we shape it.

  21. “I’ll Take My Stand.”

    Can’t believe I forgot that in the original comment. Nor can I believe it has not come up since. ‘The Hind Tit” in particular. Equally interesting is the way the text has been received and re-received over the years.

    Plus… it’s deeply, deeply problematic, which makes it interesting.

  22. Zac, you should post those words of wisdom over at Erik Wesner’s Amish America blog some time. Not that that sort of thing isn’t ever said there, but you said it very well.

  23. Reminds me of a class Ralph Potter taught at Harvard Divinity entitled, “The Rise and Fall of the Simple Life” — here’s hoping that you’re more hopeful (sounds like it).

  24. I Thess. 4:11,12
    “…and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.”

    I agree that a lifestyle of simplicity must arrive out of belief. I also agree that for a course on simplicity it is sounding awfully complex. Just live simply; work with your hands, be a producer not a consumer, love/help your neighbors and family, live without debt, and eschew TV, internet, and other mind-numbing/sheeple making devices. That is what I am going to do now. Finish cutting up a tree, burning brush, digging a ditch to move a drain line, feed the pigs, and mow the lawn if there is time: Simple!


  25. I was going to reply tartly until that despicable reprobate Peters beat me to the punch. We like to refer to this current mosh pit of unrelenting Gran Mal Idiotica as “complexity” while the halcyon days of yore are considered “simple”. Ho ho ho.

    Modernism, distilled down to its very essence, is the fate of the bed-ridden indigent, besieged by all manner of idle entertainments under the rubric of “progress” and “choice” while any kind of meaningful labor is derided as something one pays the wogs to do.

    Living self-sufficiently or as part of a two-way street commercial community is hardly “simple”. No, its damned complex and in complexity, we damned well trust because we have that deft little instrument called a brain and simplicity, though a fine aesthetic aim, is a bit of a dangerous sedative to this greedy organ. the good old Separation of Powers comes to mind…a balance of complexity and simplicity…..the one being worthless without the other. The one, in fact, not existing without the other…..or, perhaps, existing as caricature.

  26. Are things “simpler”? I bet it’s a wash. I think sheering the sheep and rotating the crops and mending the roof took quite a bit more than people imagine. But so does being a nurse on a standard med/surg floor in 2011.

    It’s my understanding that when people say this, they mean it not in terms of “how hard is your job,” but “what’s the list of things you things you trouble yourself with?” That list really is pretty long in modern America. It includle trifling things like whether Kenzie’s prom dress matches Tyler’s cumberbund… and whether you’re OK with Caitlin next door going with Nancy. But it also includes big questions like where should I live, what should my religion be and am I happy enough in my marriage to stay in it?

    Used to be you didn’t have an option where to live. You didn’t have an option about what religion you’d practice, and only goons got divorced. At least that’s what folks believed. None of that stuff was really in play for people in the respectable middle. And in that sense, yes; things were simpler. When I was a kid, nobody had ever even heard of salsa.

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that “management consultant” is inherently more complex than sharecropping.

    If calling a move to Walden “simplification” is good enough for Thoreau, I am inclined to let the nomenclature stand.

  27. I’d recommend the economic history of Kevin Carson. This highlights the role of the state in creating and sustaining so much of modern society. I’d recommend Lewis Mumford when it comes to assessing technology and Wolfgang Smith for assessing ‘Scientism’ in its various forms.

    I cannot really answer the question about how much religion/philosophy is wise. Works that I’d recommend though for fostering simplicity, if by that you mean a God-centred life, would include C.S Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, Frithjof Schuon, Henry Corbin, Meister Eckhart, Erigena or St.Gregory of Nyssa.

  28. GK Chesterton’s work is interesting here that would provide you with a dissenting position (but one that conservatives may appreciate), largely because he found great romance in the complex things of civilization. I’m thinking of the chapter ‘On Sandals and Simplicity’ in his book Heretics.

    Also, you might want to consider a couple of the episodes of the British comedy TV series The Good Life. Though it’s very light hearted, a few episodes consider the immense difficulty of simplifying one’s lifestyle while remaining within the modern world.

  29. I second the Eric Brende comments. He has roots in the Pearson Humanities Program with Dr. John Senior. So, perhaps Senior’s books Death of Christian Culture or Restoration of Christian Culture might be of interest?

    Also, Dorothy Day has a number of good articles that she wrote on voluntary simplicity and voluntary poverty (or Holy Poverty). These are of course free either online or on microfilm, which is always a good thing.

    Affluenza is good, I believe there is some sort of TV/movie made with it, but I’ve not seen it. Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity is of course an old standard, even if I don’t agree with him on everything.

    Karl Hess’ books are good, as is his very interesting life story. I think he’s got some on Community-scale enterprise and he actually lived it. Kevin Carson has a book called Home Brewed Industrial Revolution that seems along the same lines, but I’ve not read it.

    If you’re talking more about how the US is unsustainable, Collapse by Jared Diamond is interesting.

    This is good to see, I’d love to put together a class like this, if I can find anyone to hire me as a professor. Please keep us updated.

  30. Also, can’t believe I forgot: Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful! the follow up by Joseph Peirce is also good.

Comments are closed.