Graham Hill in the NYTimes discusses his epiphany while touring the world in the arms of an Andorran beauty:

I DON’T know that the gadgets I was collecting in my loft were part of an aberrant or antisocial behavior plan during the first months I lived in SoHo. But I was just going along, starting some start-ups that never quite started up when I met Olga, an Andorran beauty, and fell hard. My relationship with stuff quickly came apart.

I followed her to Barcelona when her visa expired and we lived in a tiny flat, totally content and in love before we realized that nothing was holding us in Spain. We packed a few clothes, some toiletries and a couple of laptops and hit the road. We lived in Bangkok, Buenos Aires and Toronto with many stops in between.

A compulsive entrepreneur, I worked all the time and started new companies from an office that fit in my solar backpack. I created some do-gooder companies like We Are Happy to Serve You, which makes a reusable, ceramic version of the iconic New York City Anthora coffee cup and, an environmental design blog that I later sold to Discovery Communications. My life was full of love and adventure and work I cared about. I felt free and I didn’t miss the car and gadgets and house; instead I felt as if I had quit a dead-end job.

The relationship with Olga eventually ended, but my life never looked the same. I live smaller and travel lighter. I have more time and money. Aside from my travel habit — which I try to keep in check by minimizing trips, combining trips and purchasing carbon offsets — I feel better that my carbon footprint is significantly smaller than in my previous supersized life.

Intuitively, we know that the best stuff in life isn’t stuff at all, and that relationships, experiences and meaningful work are the staples of a happy life.

The piece generally discusses the benefits of simplifying one’s life and becoming less attached to objects of consumption. It is, to use Berry’s phrase, about maximizing one’s well-being with a minimum of consumption, surely a worthwhile reminder. Still, the piece made me uneasy, and this probably because I found the author to be the wrong messenger. It comes across as an affectation of the 1% rather than an insight into how we might better organize social life. True, it is better that persons make such choices rather than not, and better that the outcome in question be a result of such choice rather than coerced through government planning, but the constant references to his wealth make it seem as if such living is an indulgence of the super-rich rather than a mode of being within everyone’s grasp. It still seems all so deracinated to me, but maybe I’m just picking nits.

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Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. The problem with the piece is that the lifestyle he describes is impossible for 99.9% of human beings on earth.

  2. What came to my mind on reading this was the old, sad, sardonic commentary on our society: “If it exists, there is porn of it.” Apparently that applies to the simple living movement as well.

  3. I agree with Benjamin. The author is amazingly full of himself, and unfortunately such is all too typical amongst the .o1% that are able to reap the full benefits of our mostly unrestricted and modern entrepreneurial-capitalist marketplace. Still, his message is a solid one, and worth learning from.

    • He very well may be full of himself, but it’s a learning process. He does have a good message..he prompts his readers to ask themselves what is important. And like anything, this piece should raise more questions than it answers.

  4. Jeff, I don’t think your unease is at all misplaced — critiques of consumerism/materialism are obviously to be welcomed, but even setting aside the author’s unusually privileged position, all too often enjoinders to “live simply” from the SWPL set turn out to be inducements to a more rootless existence, intended to better enable availing oneself of the advantages of the global meritocratic elite.

    While there are clearly some worthwhile points here, I think this article fits that description.

  5. Setting aside the class angle for a moment, if that’s possible… Here’s the thing about the “materialism” of our consumer culture: for the most part, we don’t actually want the stuff; we want the idea of the stuff. We want what it represents. And if that’s why you’re buying things — because they “befit” the role you’re playing in the world — then it’s liberating to realize that and quit buying them. I think that’s a realization that can come very quickly, as the author’s did. If you’re buying things for actual comfort, on the other hand, then it requires a different thought process to get to where he is — even if you don’t actually need the things you’re buying, even if that comfort is excessive; if you are enjoying them for material, physical reasons, then you have to unlearn the perceived need for them — which would require a kind of self-denial, and a certain amount of work, I think.

    I don’t hear any note of sacrifice or genuine self-denial in that essay — maybe I’m missing it, but what I hear is that his stuff was tying him down and he’s glad to be free of it. If that’s the case, then — granting that enlightenment is a path or a learning process, as Kim says, where does his path lead? To further enlightenment or further autonomy? I wouldn’t presume to guess about the author, because I don’t know the guy. But I suspect most of his readers will take the latter.

    It’s still better to buy less stuff, of course. And certainly if you’re going to pitch that, you’ll get a lot more converts if you put it in terms of liberation than in terms of sacrifice for others or for a greater good. It’s also quite possible I’m splitting hairs here. It’s been known to happen. But in any case, yes, this makes me vaguely uncomfortable, too.

  6. Jeffrey, that was my gut reaction as well, in particular with reference to his hyper-mobility. I wonder how having kids might change his lifestyle.

    Nonetheless, his essay is worth reflecting on.

  7. Anyone, in this age, who decides to live on less is a victory and should be enjoyed as such.

    Obviously, this person made a choice where others are not afforded such luxury but the bottom line is that the luxurious must make this choice if we are ever to hope that the poverty stricken might not continue to wallow.

  8. If you asked this man to give up all of his wealth and then live a life of less to align with his values, I doubt he would. It’s fine if he doesn’t spend the money he has because that’s how he chooses to allocate his resources, but to tell that to others as a “I know better than thou” attitude is preposterous. Money makes life easier. It doesn’t mean a rich person has to spend it if they have the money but they have no right to judge how others spend their money. He would not be touting the same tune of living with less like a vagabond if he didn’t have all that money to back him up. Money brings security and peace of mind. That’s the underlying feeling of having money. All the extras in the form of material goods is a manifestation of other emotional states money can trigger. Larry Ellison and Richard Branson like to buy plenty of expensive toys but they also contribute plenty to the world’s economy in the form of jobs and innovative services. Millionaires/billionaires come in different flavors and they have different utility profiles of how they wish they spend their hard-earned dollars. This is the problem with rich people who turn spokesperson for whatever cause/ideals they are concerned with. It’s the entrepreneurial spirit that made them all that money but also that gives them tunnel vision for their views being the only correct views.

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