John Wooding, a regular contributor to this blog, is the author of a new biography of Richard Gregg, an expansive thinker of the 20th century whose ideas about peaceful resistance to violence, voluntary simplicity, and sustainable environmental practices still inspire people today. John is also president of the Mill City Grows board of directors. Here are his thoughts about Gregg and Earth Day. The book is available at loompress.com
Earth Day 2021: The Value of Voluntary Simplicity
By John Wooding
As we celebrate Earth Day this week and reflect on the enormous challenge of adapting and mitigating global warming and its catastrophic consequences, it is good to think about how we got here and why. We have known for decades that carbon emissions from human activity are heating the planet. We’ve learned that unrelenting consumption in developed economies was unsustainable, destroying nature, polluting the air, water, and earth. Yet, we have done little to stop it. Sure, we have regulated and reduced some toxic emissions. Protected some habitats, become perhaps more conscious: recycling, making better choices, educating, pleading. Ultimately, however, we are on the road to destruction.
The future of the planet is in doubt, yet, more than 75 years ago, the social philosopher, pacifist, and organic farmer Richard Gregg warned of the consequences of unrestrained consumption. In 1936 Gregg wrote a small book The Value of Voluntary Simplicity, where he made the philosophical and practical argument for reducing consumption so that human beings might live in greater harmony with nature. In making his arguments for voluntary simplicity (he coined the term), he stressed that simple living could not be separated from peace and nonviolence or the search for inner harmony. He also made clear that he was not demanding we give up everything or live like monks:
Our present ‘mental climate’ is not favorable either to a clear understanding of the value of simplicity or to its practice. Simplicity seems to be a foible of saints and occasional geniuses, but not something for the rest of us.
We are not here considering asceticism in the sense of a suppression of instincts. What we mean by voluntary simplicity is not so austere and rigid. Simplicity is a relative matter, depending on climate, customs, culture, the character of the individual.
Gregg saw simpler living as a key to a nonviolent world:
Simplicity, to be more effective, must inform and be integrated with many aspects of life. It needs to become more social in purpose and method. It ought to be organically connected with a thoroughgoing program of nonviolence as a method of persuasion to social change, and to be definitely a part of a constructive practical program for the economic security of the masses.
For those who believe in nonviolence, simplicity is essential. Many possessions involve violence in the form of police protection and lawsuits. The concentration of much property in one person’s possession creates resentment and envy or a sense of inferiority among others who do not have it. Such feelings, after they have accumulated long enough, become the motives which some day find release in acts of mob violence. Hence, the possession of much property becomes inconsistent with principles of nonviolence. Simplicity helps to prevent violence.
And for Gregg, it was always about the inner self. The need for a complete understanding of who you are and why you act in the world the way you do. Simple living focuses our thinking and our joy in beauty: The most permanent, most secure, and most satisfying sort of possession of things other than the materials needed for bodily life lies not in physical control and power of exclusion but in intellectual, emotional and spiritual understanding and appreciation. This is especially clear in regard to beauty. He who appreciates and understands a song, a symphony, a painting some sculpture or architecture gets more satisfaction than he who owns musical instruments or works of art.
And, ultimately, for Gregg to live simply and to protect and sustain our environment, we must accept that there is an underlying moral question about justice and equity for humankind and our planet:
The great advances in science and technology have not solved the moral problems of civilization. Those advances have altered the form of some of those problems, greatly increased others, dramatized some, and made others much more difficult of solution. The just distribution of material things is not merely a problem of technique or of organization. It is primarily a moral problem.
To learn more about Gregg’s life and work, and his arguments for voluntary simplicity, please take a look at my new biography of Richard Gregg.:
Available here: https://www.loompress.com/store/the-power-of-non-violence
The e-book, Kindle, is available on amazon.com