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Less is More

Title: Less is More: The Art of Voluntary Poverty
Editor: Goldian VandenBroeck
Publisher: Harper Colophon Books, New York
Copyright: 1978 Goldian VandenBroeck

Less is More: The Art of Voluntary Poverty is a seemingly definitive collection of excerpts, quotations, and passages from world literature (mostly western) about how superior life is when deliberately lived at the poverty level, i.e., when lived frugally.  The book is edited by Goldian VandenBroeck, who happens to have a tiny internet footprint; I could find very little information about her, which saddens me because assembling this collection of wise words, no doubt, required vast knowledge and continual patience to put everything in its proper order.  The person who did this work ought to have her rightful place on the internet.  Well, perhaps, some humanities student can do her thesis on the mysterious life of Goldian VandenBroeck.

Less is More gets three POT Dots because I admire the effort and feel a little changed for having read it or if not changed, then certainly strengthened since I've always said I would excel at being a poor person.  The actual 1978 copy that I posses may have had an interesting existence because it is double inscribed, and telling by the looks of the worn spine, it appears to have been read at least more than once.  The first inscription is from one woman to another and captures strong tones of second-wave feminism; the second inscription is from a man to another man who is semi well-known in his field of economics.  The book actually comes to me from a woman who has ties with this economist and was selected for me because she knows very well that, indeed, I would make a very good poor person (or better yet a very good obscenely rich miser).  Too bad she didn't inscribe it to me to further its interesting existence.

As for the message of the book, well, the idea of living simply is not simple, and I don't just mean the actual execution of living simply but the impact it would have on our current economic system and direction as an evolving species if everyone decided to all of a sudden live simply.  Our current economic system is based on productivity, which means: Buy, baby! Buy, and produce, baby! Produce! Produce even if the product is not needed and buy even if the product is unwanted.  This system depends on people consuming like crazy, which is why it is necessary to have a substantial middle class.  Thus, if the critical mass of American citizens were to realize how cool it is to live simply, the economy would starve to death, and there would be ramifications.

For example—a positive outcome of simple living or voluntary poverty is that the natural environment would be given a chance to recover from all the damage inflicted upon it by ceaseless industrialization and mass production.  Less is More speaks to the relationship between our consumption habits and the health of the natural environment.  Here, for example, is a quote by Gandhi: "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not enough for every man's greed."  Also, VandenBroeck found Garrett De Bell, author of The Environmental Handbook (which was published way back in 1970), to advise us about the impact of modern appliances that offer conveniences, stating "a decision made to purchase one of these 'conveniences' is also a decision to accept the environmental deterioration that results from the production, use, and disposal of the 'convenience.'"  I have to ask what average American ever thinks twice about environmental impact.  I don't know many people, but the ones I do know never think about their impact on the environment,1 and, admittedly, I'm only so-so about it myself.  Thus, if the idea of voluntary poverty were to become the next best thing in American life, I'd be so relieved knowing flora and fauna would get a chance to flourish again.

Another consequence from the mass implementation of voluntary poverty is the flattening of the steady incline of Moore's law, Moore's law being the exponential advancement of technology.  This is where the real complication comes in when considering the simple life en masse.  Without the capitalistic sense of competition and the mass production of things fueling the race to achieve technological superiority, we may retard our ever-advancing trajectory.  Now, I don't know what others think our technological trajectory is (I do know they've given up on jetpacks), but I have it in me like a magnet in a compass that it is our goal to preserve the evolved biology of this planet for eternity, which includes escaping the red giant that our sun will become.  We most definitely need to improve the rate of technological progress to achieve this.  We cannot bear to risk a slowdown.  For this reason, widespread voluntary poverty is a dangerous idea unless implementing it can be done according to a whole new paradigm of thought where we would be ever-so mindful of our goal to preserve our planet's evolved biology.  Albeit, escaping the red giant is not as critical at the moment as is reversing the momentum of climate change, deforestation, and loss of animal habitat.  And I think each should concern herself with her individual impact on the environment, or else we'll be throwing the baby out with the bath water with regards escaping the red giant; we simply won't have anything worthy of the effort to escape.

Reading Less is More made me realize that greed, avarice, and materialism—along with the sensibility of how repugnant these human traits are—have been present for as long as humankind has been able to write.  I'm left feeling ambivalent about our ability to transcend our baser human qualities because if we could we would have already.

But there might be hope in today's young people.  I hear that millennials are fervent philanthropists and truly altruistic at heart and hope to achieve a zero marginal cost society.2 But do they understand the carrying capacity of the planet? Where do they stand on population control? A population crash seems inevitable at the rate we are consuming and subsequently polluting the natural environment.  Is it not better to avoid an uncontrolled crash with a controlled effort?

In all honesty, I feel hopeful sometimes about our ability to live in balance (voluntary poverty) with life . . . not really.  Nevertheless, I sure do fantasize about participating in the red giant escape and kind of like the sense of blissful optimism when I read quotes like these that VandenBroeck included in her compilation and I shall now hopelessly repeat here:

The gods only laugh when men pray to them for wealth.
Japanese proverb

Whatever you do, do in moderation.
Be easily pleased and easily sustained.
Run like a wild animal from whatever would entrap you.
Atisa (10th cent.)

Everywhere people ask: "What can I actually do?" The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order.
E.F. Schumacher (1911 – 1977)

1. During the few weeks that I spent reading Less is More, two separate individuals I know bought brand new cars. One of the cars has an 8-cylinder engine, and when I asked why the need for such power, the new owner said he wanted to be able to easily pass other people. The other new car purchased is a BMW SUV, and I wonder why the gal who bought it didn't go for a hybrid or an all-electric car or even just an economy car. What were they thinking? Then I read the following sentence: "[She] knows only how to live in the opinion of others," and those others are certainly not conscientious about the environment.  We need to put a little peer pressure on each other to become more sensible when making purchases of environmental consequences such as cars.  Risk your friendships if you must.

2. Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism (New York: New York, Palgrave MacMillan Trade, 2014).