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Less can be more

Going Green
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  September 30, 2009

It's one thing to shoot for an ecologically softer lifestyle -- one that's more deliberate, and less wasteful. I see many people in Portland doing so. It's another to really examine why such changes are necessary, on individual and societal levels, and how we got to such an opposite extreme. That's where Less Is More: Embracing Simplicity for a Healthy Planet, a Caring Economy, and Lasting Happiness, an anthology released last month by New Society Publishers, comes in.

The book balances scholarly and accessible approaches to simplicity and sustainability. As with many academic anthologies, this one collects essays from various authors, with a multitude of backgrounds, who tackle the same topic from different perspectives. Editors Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska -- both of whom are deeply rooted in the simplicity movement -- have collected here a number of thoughtful writers; some of whom consider the concept of simplicity from a philosophical standpoint, while others write in a much more straightforward way. The combination makes for digestible, but not overly didactic, reading.

The essays address a few major realities that are both causes and effects of the modern lack of simplicity in our lives: overconsumption (of food and of material items), overscheduling, and a shift in values away from the examined life.

Andrews and Urbanska break down Less Is More into three sections. In the first, several authors define the concept of simplicity, and how its absence can affect our lives, making us feel frantic, unhealthy, or intellectually vacuous; then, another set of essays contextualizes some potential cultural solutions. The third section addresses specific policy solutions that reward or encourage simplicity and sustainability. Among the authors who address these topics are environmentalist Bill McKibben; the national coordinator of the Take Back Your Time campaign, John de Graaf; Middlebury College professor Rebecca Kneale Gould; and Natural Home editor Robyn Griggs Lawrence.

"Ultimately, we must challenge our basic American belief system about money," Andrews writes, suggesting that our societal obsession with cash and consumption leads to collective mental health issues, such as feelings of isolation and inequality.

Other prescriptions run the gamut from encouraging a "value change" from within the faith community (this from Reverend Canon Sally Bingham, of the Interfaith Power and Light Campaign); to "naming the problem" of widespread "time famine" -- "insisting that it is not merely a personal problem but also an urgent social and cultural problem" (that's Kneale Gould); to altering the way we think about work, work-hours, and Boston College professor Juliet Schor's ideas about trading income for time; to adopting author Ernest Callenbach's "green-triangle approach," which requires us to consider our daily choices through "a triangle whose points are environment, budget, and health."

"It miraculously turns out," Callenbach tells us, "that if you make a change aimed at improving one of those points, it will also help the others." He points to the example of bicycling, which is good for our wallets, our bodies, and the atmosphere.

But Less Is More has very little chicken-soup how-to type stuff. Andrews, Urbanska, and their authors trust that you know what the simpler life consists of, and how to make simplicity principles work for you (in other words, they're not encouraging us all to become homesteaders). They are more concerned with dissecting the philosophies behind such choices, and the cultural changes that will help make simplicity more widespread, than in finger-wagging. Essentially, these are nuanced and decidedly un-simple looks at aspects of simplicity. I wouldn't be surprised to see Less is More on college syllabi, or on many of our bookshelves, in the near future.

Deirdre Fulton can be reached at

Related: Growing good air, Going Green: June 12, 2009, Young energy, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Boston College, Middlebury College, Bill McKibben,  More more >
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