Why Simple Living Is Not Enough

It is common practice in addressing the ecological crisis from a religious perspective to present wasteful consumerism as the crux of our problem, and to advance simple living as an appropriate spiritual response. Some folks conclude that the growth of the capital-driven economy must stop and its damaging activity shrink in order to bring the human/Earth relationship into a sustainable condition. If this is the case, it is logical to argue that the wealthy populations must greatly decrease their consumption of goods and services, especially since many impoverished populations certainly want to increase theirs—a reallotment that seems only fair. In this scenario, the overall change that is required will only occur when enough people in the overdeveloped regions of the world significantly curtail their use of the Earth’s resources. We are further reminded that it is the special role of persons of faith, and of religious communities, to act on this matter and provide leadership for this critical change in economic behavior.

These themes were variously set forth at a conference I recently attended on Quaker social and economic testimonies. It was the prevailing view that the ecological crisis was best responded to by a personal spiritual commitment to shun materialism, and by lifestyle adjustments that curb over-consumption of goods and services. At the conference, it was repeatedly emphasized that significant social change is the result of a sufficient number of individual changes. A faith-based response entailed individually practicing incremental good works in the expectation that, cumulatively, they will result in significant, society-wide change. During the course of the conference I became increasingly uneasy. I kept waiting for the analysis and recommendations to broaden and encompass the full context of economic life and public policy. Several participants offered thoughts and observations that could have opened a path in this direction, but they found no traction. A condemnation of materialism, a spiritual call to simple living, and working for incremental change were as far as the discussion of economics could proceed.

While I greatly value the tradition of working for social change in an incremental way and have spent most of my life engaged in these kinds of activities, I no longer think it is the most effective way to address the critical problems that arise in the conflict between economics and ecology. During my years in various business enterprises I have developed a sense of orientation around the relationship between the ecological reality and human behavior, and around the way a religious perspective connects with the work of ecological reformation.

Religious Discourse and Ecological Reform

I am concerned about the way the relationship between economic process, individual behavior, and social change are characterized in religious discourse. The call to simple living is often advanced as touching on the essence of the economic/ecological dilemma, but it really just skirts around the edge of the problem. Rejection of materialism and the promotion of simple living is not enough.

How does the call to simple living square with the reality of those who do the basic provisioning and service work of the world? I think it is fair to say that for those who struggle daily for access to the means of life, the idea of simple living represents something less than a fully rounded comprehension of economic realities.

In a world where millions struggle with perpetual impoverishment, where the link between employment and income security has been deliberately and decisively broken, where for many workers impoverishment is only a paycheck or two away, and where these conditions are design features of the capital-driven economy, it is particularly difficult to see how a marginal decline in consumption of goods and services by the relatively well-off can be seen as significantly advancing the quest for economic justice and ecologically sound adaptation. This is not to say that individual lifestyle change is of no significance. Such action should obviously be undertaken and encouraged at every opportunity, and it is certainly appropriate for religious leaders to take the lead in this regard. But, as I read historical ecology and reflect on our collective experience of the last 50 years or so, there seems to be no convincing evidence that the kind and scale of change needed will emerge from an accumulation of incremental lifestyle changes. The experience of our time teaches us that key systemic changes are needed to accomplish the readaptation of human settlement and economic process that ecological sustainability requires.

If we wish to address effectively the capital-driven economy and the way it has created patterns of unsustainable behavior, we will have to understand its basis in design and policy. We will have to create and implement public policies that change the design of the economy in ways that promote a sustainable human/Earth relationship. The key point in thinking about ecological sustainability and what is required to begin moving in this direction is that effective change is systemic. This means that change begins with critical hinge factors, which, when altered, set up a series of subsequent changes within a system. The systems involved include agriculture, forestry, fishing, construction, transportation, manufacturing, monetary, political, civic, energy, education, healthcare, artistic, religious, recreational, and over it all the belief—or worldview—system.

The factors of Earth processes that condition ecologically sustainable adaptation are generally comprehensive. This means that the patterns of human settlement and socioeconomic process that create a mutually enhancing human/Earth relationship are not of one kind for affluent societies and of another kind for impoverished and subsistence societies. We are all dealing with the same nutrient base, metabolic pathways, material options, and energy flow of Earth processes.

The significance of ecology as a scientific, economic, and social worldview, and as a practical working discipline of adaptation, is the way it incorporates the activities of human life within an integrated understanding of Earth processes. It is our response to the integrity of this whole system—the integrity of Creation—that enables our individualistic religious sensibility to be transformed into a more fully rounded ecological consciousness. The ecological worldview illuminates economic relationships in a comprehensive and systemic way. It helps us address the critical relationships that are hinge factors for triggering effective economic and social change. If, as William Penn wrote, true religion leads us to help "mend the world," we should be alert to how the mending we seek can best take place. If we add to this the advice of anthropologist and pioneer of systems analysis Gregory Bateson, we have a useful orientation. He told his students, when working for social change, to "look for the difference that makes a difference."

We are in a situation that requires a radical readaptation of human settlement and economic process in order to move effectively toward a mutually enhancing human/Earth relationship. The arrangements, scale, and timeline of this readap-tation are such that it seems unlikely to be accomplished by individual lifestyle changes. Only hinge factor changes, changes in key economic and social relationships that set in motion a cascade effect of further positive change, can begin to move toward ecological sustainability in a timely way.

A Hinge Factor of Change

For example, one of the key factors of our ecological dilemma is the way the monetary system works in our capital-driven society. The problem of the way money works is not primarily a matter of people doing bad things for bad reasons, although that certainly happens. The idea that money is neutral, and that its use for good or ill depends on the user’s intentions, is a fallacy. The main problem is that our monetary system requires, as a matter of course, that all of us—good, bad, and indifferent—regularly do bad things for good reasons; things we routinely need to do in the normal course of our vocational and social lives, but that are clearly damaging to the regenerative health of Earth’s living communities. No amount of lifestyle change or simple living will alter the fact that this is the way money works in the capital-driven economy.

Some folks, when they see this fact, make a determined effort to opt out of the money economy to as great an extent as they can. That is a good move for personal righteousness, but it doesn’t address the problem. Others try to cut back on the Earth-damaging impact of their participation in the capital-driven economy. That, too, is good but it only prolongs the agony of maladaptation; it doesn’t correct it, and it doesn’t alter the way the monetary system works. Only a design change in the monetary system can address the problem.

Because the use of money in modernized societies is absolutely essential for access to the means of life, its motivational force cannot be expected to change. What can change, however, is the way access to money is attached to activities, products, and behavior. It is always a matter of incentive. If we are to begin moving toward greater ecological sustainability, the monetary system must be redesigned so people are financially rewarded for doing the right thing, ecologically speaking. There is no mystery to this. The dynamics are well understood and various, detailed scenarios have been developed that address this hinge factor of positive change: see The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken; Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Armory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins; Who Owns the Sky? Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism by Peter Barnes; The Ecology of Money by Richard Douthwaite; and Money: Understanding and Creating Alternatives to Legal Tender by Thomas H. Greco Jr. A major information source can be found at the website ccdev.lets.net.

It seems unlikely that significant change in economic behavior could ever occur against the incentives of the current monetary system. In general, it cannot be expected that ordinary working people will act against their financial interests. Even less can such action be expected of the impoverished and those who struggle for subsistence. Only a monetary system that makes it pay to do the things that help develop a secure, supportive, conserver society can effect the required behavioral changes. A redesigned monetary system that makes it easy, natural, and profitable to advance ecologically sustainable adaptation is needed to reverse the present negative force of the economy. Lifestyle changes would then make both ecological and economic sense and major adaptational changes would occur. The market dynamic of supply, demand, and price could work for ecologically sound goods and services just as well as it now works for ecologically damaging ones.

A More Fully Rounded Context

To understand this example of hinge factor change, a first step is recognizing the design history of the current monetary system. Money behaves in various ways depending on how it is created and regulated. There are different kinds of money that relate to particular economic relationships and processes in different ways. An open mental space needs to be established in public discourse on the potential for redesign of the monetary system. This system is a tool, a kind of technology that can be used in a variety of ways, and we have come to a time when it must be redesigned to become a tool that supports ecological sustainability.

The task of reforming the monetary system also requires attention to basic income. When a certain income is required for access to the means of life, there must be, in a market economy, a secure flow of that income level to each member of that society. This is a matter of ensuring the functional efficiency of the system, on the one hand, and of honoring the historical, moral commitment of free market capitalism, on the other. The alternative to this commitment is a triage process that systematically marginalizes, excludes, and then writes off people who, for whatever reason, have not secured adequate income.

Since the capital-driven economy has now decisively rejected the historic link between employment and income security, some other arrangement of income allocation must be brought into play. This should be simply a matter of enlightened self interest on the part of those who control monetary resources and wish to continue the operation of the capital-driven market economy. Thanks, in part, to the labor movement, a previous generation of entrepreneurs, financiers, and makers of public policy came to a partial understanding of the importance of adequate income allocation.

The controlling elements of the current generation of business, finance, and government leadership seem no longer to understand this relationship. At the level of public policy, we have to make a choice: we must decide whether a reasonable degree of financial security for everyone is to be an explicit public policy of the society in which we live and a functional outcome of the economy in which we work, or if it is better to have a high degree of income security in society and be willing to write off those who cannot, for whatever reason, make it.

At present, this latter scenario seems to be favored by those who control monetary resources as well as those in control of public policy. They are calculating that the impoverished, marginalized, and excluded peoples of the world can be written off without disrupting the capital-driven economy and the security it provides its privileged participants. It seems likely they are making a major miscalculation. In allowing this situation to persist, they are taking a terrible risk. They are producing a significant breakdown of social order that could be avoided by incorporating the allocation of adequate basic income into the design of the economic/monetary system. If we add this risk of social breakdown to the ecological disruption already underway, we have a scenario of spiraling conflict that can only end in catastrophe for the human world and Earth’s biotic integrity. I think it is fair to say the breakdown is already in strong evidence and ecological disruption is already accelerating.

These considerations have a global reach and must be framed within a world context. A redesign of the monetary system to support worldwide ecological and social sustainability must include close attention to basic income security for people in all regions. This is one of the logical outcomes of a globalized economic and monetary system. Basic income security can now be appropriately seen as a world-wide human rights issue.

Since adequate income is absolutely essential for access to the means of life for most people, it can be compared to access to water. It is now being argued that access to adequate water is a universal human right. How much easier ought it to be to provide an adequate basic income as a human right? Water is a strictly limited gift of Creation. The creation and regulation of money, on the other hand, is limited primarily by the phenomenon of trust within social and trade relationships. Social trust is not a strictly limited resource. Its growth, combined with the design ingenuity of human problem solving, could make basic income security a feature of monetary systems that function to support ecological and social good. Well developed models and creative initiatives for building basic income into monetary reform exist. See Basic Income on the Agenda by Robert van der Veen, and What’s Wrong with a Free Lunch? by Philippe Van Parijs.

The growth of social trust and the sense of human solidarity that is needed to underwrite this kind of monetary system reform is at the heart of human spiritual development. The case for direct involvement by people of faith in these matters of economic behavior and public policy seems self-evident.

The Eye of the Needle: Transition or Disaster

What, then, should be the role of people of faith and of religious leadership? Should the primary effort be to counsel against materialism and advocate for simple living? Or should the focus also weigh strongly in on the design and policy dimension of the economics/ecology conflict?

Consider this: The capital-driven economy and its monetary system, as currently constituted, have no tolerance for stability or shrinkage. They both must constantly grow. If they fail to grow, they collapse. This critical growth dynamic is well understood, consistently monitored, and closely managed. Now, if at the urging of religious leaders, and if by some extraordinary movement of the Spirit, enough citizens reduced their economic activity to the point that the growth of the economy stalled or reversed, the system would crash and the result would be terrible. A crash, such as might well occur, does not necessarily mean an opportunity for economic rebuilding within a sound ecological context. In fact, the opportunity for this kind of rebuilding may be greatly delayed or virtually lost. It seems more likely that enclaves of wealth would consolidate their security and control of resources still further, while the economic and social circumstances of whole regions and of large populations within regions, would deteriorate into highly chaotic subsistence. Subsistence does not necessarily mean ecologically sound economics. Subsistence, in this context, would likely be a competitive, Earth-ravaging phenomenon. Scholars of world trends are forecasting "resource wars," struggles over basic needs such as water. An economic crash would likely kick this already evident behavior into high gear. Given the level of conflict and violence currently in evidence worldwide, the thought of further widespread economic destitution and accompanying social disruption is a sobering prospect.

Working for a subsidence of the growth economy without at the same time working for a redesigned monetary system that can remain functional throughout the transition to an ecologically sound economy, is a recipe for human disaster. The incentives of the monetary system must be reoriented toward ecological sustainability and income security before a subsidence of the growth economy triggers an increase in impoverishment, suffering, and violence.

While, on one level, the call to simple living is always appropriate, the monetary and fiscal dimensions of public policy must also be incorporated into a fully rounded religious response to the ecological crisis.

Keith Helmuth

Keith Helmuth is a sojourning member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting and a member of the coordinating group of Quaker Eco-Witness.