Rethinking the Good Life

By Joanna Fuller, Friend of Simple Intentions

Photo by Alex Holyoake via Unsplash

In 1932, at perhaps the most devastating point of the Great Depression, Helen and Scott Nearing moved from New York City to a run-down maple sugar farm in rural Vermont. No longer able to make a living in the ‘wage economy,’ they set out to subsist on the land—building a simple home from stones found on the property, growing their own food, and bartering for necessities they couldn’t produce themselves.

The Nearings chronicled their sixty-year adventure in homesteading in the book The Good Life, which later came to be regarded as the pre-eminent how-to manual for the post-WWII back-to-the-land movement in North America. In it, Helen Nearing recounts the daily routine she and Scott maintained, along with their many and frequent guests:

Each day was divided into two main blocks of time—four morning hours and four afternoon hours. At breakfast time on week-days we first looked at the weather, then asked, ‘How shall we arrange the day?’ Then by agreement we decided which of these blocks of time should be devoted to bread labor and which to personally determined activities. Of necessity the weather was the primary factor in making the decision.

Suppose that the morning was assigned for bread labor. We then agreed upon the tasks that each member of the group should take on—in the garden, in the woods, on construction, in the shop, at sugarmaking or packing. If one’s bread labor was performed in the morning, the afternoon automatically became personally directed. One might read, write, sit in the sun, walk in the woods, play music, go to town. We earned our four hours of leisure by our four hours of labor.

[…] We took our time, every day, every month, every year. We had our work, did it and enjoyed it. We had our leisure, used it and enjoyed that. During the hours of bread labor we worked and worked hard. We have never worked harder and have never enjoyed work more, because, with rare exceptions, the work was significant, self-directed, constructive and therefore interesting.

It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? And yet there was much more to the Nearings’ motivation than a desire to step off the proverbial treadmill and lead a simpler life. Their decision to homestead was also driven by their commitment to social justice.

Scott Nearing was an accomplished economist, a professor at the Wharton School, and a devout Socialist. Eventually fired for what were considered to be highly radical views, those views formed the cornerstone of the Nearings’ lives, and livelihoods:

We left the city with three objectives in mind. The first was economic. We sought to make a depression-free living, as independent as possible of the commodity and labor markets […] Our second aim was hygienic. We wanted to maintain and improve our health […] Our third objective was social and ethical. We desired to liberate and dissociate ourselves, as much as possible, from the cruder forms of exploitation: the plunder of the planet; the slavery of man and beast; the slaughter of men in war, and of animals for food.

The Nearings believed that the so-called American way of life—centered as it was on a relentless pursuit of profit—had not only depleted the earth’s natural resources, it was also only achievable for an elite few, who benefited from a concentrated distribution of resources at the expense of an otherwise impoverished class.  In his essay The American Way of Life, written in 1949, Scott writes:

The United States is fabulously rich. It also spends more on military preparations than any other nation. Its citizens are surrounded by public enterprises, such as highways, schools and hospitals, and by privately owned gadgets—automobiles, telephones, radios, electric refrigerators. But are bigness and manyness a sound measure of success?

Eighty years later, Nearing’s question is still relevant and the need for conversation around it is more important than ever. Since then, the consumption required to achieve our American aspiration of the ‘good life,’ has only escalated. In her book The Overworked American, sociologist Juliet Schor notes that by 1990, we could produce our 1948 standard of living in just six months’ time. And yet, household debt has never been higher and leisure time—or time spent not producing—has never been lower. According to Schor, the result of this cycle of work-and-spend is that Americans feel more overworked and stressed out than ever before. All that economic growth and we’re not even happy.

But there’s a bigger problem.

If the Nearings were concerned about the planet in 1932, consider this: According to anthropologist Dr. Jason Hickel (citing a footprint from the Global Footprint Network):

Right now, our planet only has enough resources for each of us to consume 1.8 ‘global hectares’ annually—a standardised unit that measures resource use and waste. This figure is roughly what the average person in Ghana or Guatemala consumes. By contrast, people in the US and Canada consume about 8 hectares per person, while Europeans consume 4.7 hectares – many times their fair share.

Equally disturbing: Hickel reveals that the wage gap that fuels our addiction to cheap consumer goods is perpetuating global poverty and instability.

These figures aren’t meant to depress, create shame, or point fingers, rather I believe Hickel is inviting us to objectively explore what’s going on in the world around us. This isn’t about guilt or judgement, but rather an invitation to create deeper awareness around issues that affect all of us living on this planet.

Dr. Hickel goes on to lay out a persuasive argument for why it’s time to ‘de-develop’ rich nations if we’re serious about not only saving the planet, but also about ending global poverty. Moreover, he posits that de-development is not necessarily incompatible with wellbeing:

If we look at measures of overall happiness and wellbeing in addition to life expectancy, a number of low- and middle-income countries rank highly. Costa Rica manages to sustain one of the highest happiness indicators and life expectancies in the world with a per capita income one-fourth that of the US.  In light of this, perhaps we should regard such countries not as underdeveloped, but rather as appropriately developed. And maybe we need to start calling on rich countries to justify their excesses.

It’s a radical idea…or is it?

Hickel acknowledges it’s one that would require enormous political and individual will. After all, it’s not necessarily in our nature to seek a lower standard of living. But he also points out that a growing number of people in the developed world believe we need to try to reverse our habits of consumption – and that doing so might just increase our overall happiness.

Personally, I am still at the beginning stages of this journey but it’s encouraging to see the simple living movement continue to re-invent itself, with people like Joshua Becker, Dave Bruno, and Marie Kondo, to name just a few, role modeling and bearing witness to the benefits of owning and producing less. But as the Nearings knew, living simply is about much more than de-stressing or pursuing the good life for ourselves. Rather, it’s essential to live in a way that affirms the belief that our ‘good life’ should not trade on the exploitation of the earth or its people.

I’m not saying this will be an easy journey or even that any one individual living a simple life is the solution. Will moving into a tiny house or giving up my iPhone save the world? No. That will require governments and international institutions taking enormous steps in the areas of policy and economic reform. But those things won’t happen without a massive cultural shift – which starts with each of us deepening our awareness around the impact of our daily actions – and advances with each of us re-thinking what it means to live the ‘good life.’

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