Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Boutique Simplicity

During the mid-nineties, in another milder recession, a colleague asked me if I would be downsizing - the term for an earlier version of what we call "simplicity" these days. I had been struggling to make a career change to academia, with only part-time and contract work for a few years - after the years of having even less as a student.

I was poor, not making enough to save anything to support myself through the summers with no work (and being overqualified for anyone to hire me for anything else).

I responded to the question, saying that I would have to "upsize" first in order to fully embrace the experience of downsizing. I wouldn't be enjoying the simplicity of giving up a European vacation, driving instead to a rented cabin on a lake for a week. I had no car and was worried about paying the rent on my tiny apartment for the summer.

Only the privileged and comfortable people can ask such questions. When people are truly "downsized," they have not much to give up.

Charlotte Allen writes about simplicity in an article in In Character - "Not Really Simple" - in which she is funny, frustrated and satirical about the designer simplicity movement and some of the nonsense that occurs.

Hunting wild boar in the hills above San Francisco in order to have a primal connection with one's food is one such bit of nonsense; any other type of hunting would make the simplicity set shudder:
Hunting is usually taboo in the simplicity movement because it involves guns (hated by the professionally simple) and exploitation of animals (ditto). However, if you're hunting boar in the upscale hills ringing the San Francisco Bay so as to furnish yourself a "locally grown" boar paté, as does Berkeley professor and simplicity movement guru Michael (The Omnivore's Dilemma) Pollan, or perhaps to experience an "epiphany," as another well-fixed Bay Area boar hunter recently told the New York Times, you're doing a fine job of returning to the simple life...But if you're a laid-off lumber mill worker bagging possums in Eutaw Springs, S.C., because your main primal connection with food is that you don't have much money to spend on it, you're an unsophisticated redneck.
Allen takes potshots at this kind of simplicity that calls for not a little wealth in its afficionados.

One anecdote is particularly telling. Walmart has recently introduced a line of organic produce which has drawn the ire of some shoppers at small markets. They worry that by making organic produce more readily available to those with lower incomes, Walmart may drive their boutique markets out of business - specifically THEIR boutique markets.

I don't know any specs on the Walmart produce - where it comes from or its carbon footprint, etc. - so there may well be room for criticism , but the point of the story highlights for Allen the main problem with what I call boutique simplicity:
The problem with the simplicity movement is that its proponents mistake simplicity, which is an aesthetic lifestyle choice, for humility, which is a genuine virtue. Humility is an honest acknowledgment of one's limitations and lowliness in the great scheme of things and a realization that power over other human beings is a dangerous thing, always to be exercised with utmost caution. The Amish, as well as monks, Eastern and Western, cultivate humility because they know they have a duty toward what is larger than themselves...For humble people, their own happiness or other personal feelings are secondary.
Simplicity as Allen points out is an aesthetic lifestyle choice for cool rich people. Real simplicity practiced by the truly humble involves everyone on the planet and the planet, too.

What a simple idea - everyone should have enough healthful food to eat. Methinks boar pate is not the answer!


Ciss B said...

Very good - well said and explained!

As an old Shaker hymn tells us, "T'is a gift to be simple, t'is a gift to be free..." To actually be simple, or humble and willing to share everything it takes so much more than a village.

ChrisJ said...


Allen's article mentions the Amish - who are admired by the "simplicity set" but not taken seriously as people to emulate.

lifeshighway said...

This reminds me of a television interview I saw with a know celebrity. She was showing off her green house. She had installed solar panels and for heat and electricity. The beautiful wood floors were from a reclaimed/recycled barn siding from New England. There were other examples but you get my drift. All to the tune of $80,000 or so. Then she proceeded to berate the rest of us for not installing these simple (expensive) measures in our own homes.

ChrisJ said...


Exactly - it's an identity, snob issue for so many.

Pearl said...

Just what Andrew Potter was talking about at Ottawa's writer's fest, calling a spade of people using the concepts of organic and simple as status gambits in an era when flashy wealth is frowned on. instead we need to equip ourselves with experiences as mark of higher prestige.

ChrisJ said...

When I was very poor as a student, I had the motto that it was better to do than to have - it helped me through. Today, with more money, I forget sometimes, but still think it's the best way to live.

angelshair said...

You are right Chris, and I love he tone of your post :).
When I had not much money and was advised by some friend who could afford organic and healthy products to become green, I found it laughable and a little bit insulting.
I sometimes interrogate myself about all this green movement, and have come to the conclusion that most of the actions that are taken will not really change the face of the earth (because most of them are done to follow a trend while biggest and actions are taken against the ecological system), but the real change is the one that is slowly taking place in the mind of people around the world.

ChrisJ said...


I know. It is very hard to know what to do, but I agree with you; things will only change when the hearts and minds of all of us change.

corfubob said...

So much to think about here Chris, and no easy conclusions for anyone.

having done is surely better than having had.....for someone who ever had the choice. And now that I have reasonable certainty of about 100$ a week for absolutely everything, and my daughters in the UK not planning to get rich,I can consider myself well off, and do so. However, the contentment I enjoy is based on the skills to do things, and the philosophy to create a mental life somewhere (well)north of despair. But do I want more things? Don't I just.

ChrisJ said...


I think you have nailed it. We can create a good life thinking and doing, but we seem never to cease to want.

I wonder how much advertising has to do with it and how much is perhaps a human acquisitive nature, or maybe early conditioning.