Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Conspicuous Simplicity

I'll start off by admitting that I'm making this whole concept up as I type this: Conspicuous Simplicity. It's a work in progress--but hey, this is a blog. Don't set your bar too high.

It can be difficult to convince people that reduced consumption and minimization of the use of exotic, high-tech, imported and 'unnecessary' goods is a worthy sacrifice in the name of localization, self-sufficiency, sustainability and the reduction of hierarchy. The thing is, we like our stuff. In an atmosphere of faltering family, loose or non-functioning community, little sense of place and an enhanced feeling of separation from nature, we have allowed hierarchy to replace these sources of experiential wealth, psychological wealth and fulfilled ontogeny with material surrogates. We have more things in our life, but perhaps not more happiness than our ancestors.

But despite what our logic may (or may not) tell us, we aren't prepared to give up these security blankets of consumption in exchange for the promise that "you'll be ok--actually, you'll be better without it." We look at the wealth of tribal people and peasant cultures and can't place it within our mental framework of MTV Cribs and Christmas presents. Unless we're forced by some climate event or economic crisis, we're unlikely to voluntarily reduce consumption. The propaganda of the hierarchal economic system is just too strong a draw. Of course, by the time one of those inevitable triggers (i.e. no more petroleum) begins to cause problems, it may be too late to pull of the most difficult maneuver in the play book: an orderly retreat. There's a good chance that, unless we can figure out a way to voluntarily reduce our consumption early and often, it won't be a pretty picture once we're forced into it.

How can the allure of the hierarchal consumer-economy be defeated by a movement of voluntary simplicity? I suggest two simple principles: 'elegant simplicity' and 'conspicuous simplicity'. Taken together, they just may smooth the landing of the brief flight of our 'free-energy' ship.

1. Elegant simplicity: some things work better, are more efficient when they are simple. Simple may not serve the needs of hierarchy, but it often does serve the needs of the individual, family or community. We need to develop and explore these instances when simple is more efficient than complex. I won't go into examples here, but this is a body of knowledge that must be developed, remembered, etc.

2. Conspicuous simplicity: replace the cultural ethos of "conspicuous consumption" with "conpicuous simplicity". If it is desireable to have a flashy and showy level of simplicity, to have as high a standard of living as possible in a "simpler" manner than your neighbor, then we may be able to make the transition from hierarchy and complexity to rhizome and simplicity. It CAN happen--take a look at advertising all around you and look at how attractive the "simplicity" is, how hard the advertisers have to work to make that rolex or ferrari stick out of the beautiful nature scene, how difficult it is to brand your hotel when the real attraction is a quaint seaside locale. How the real star of that diamond commercial is two people in love--or at least the nice meal they're sharing.

Elegant, conspicuous simplicity. It's at least a start.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Your article could also easily have been written by E F Schumacher who spoke of "Buddhist economics"

Unfortunately it takes a strong individual to not only realise "conspicious simplicity" but also to act upon it.

Kind regards,