Simplicity in the 90’s

In the heyday of the simplicity movement (the 1990’s), the tone of many books on the topic was aesthetic, pragmatic, and psychological. The trend continues with most simplicity books, and magazines such as Real Simple, for example.

This approach avoided the ethical dimension, skirted economics, and ignored nature and the environment. Although it may have been all that a public slowly burning out from consumption, competitiveness, and middle-class ethos could accept, the lulling sense that one could be “simple” by making aesthetic adjustments to one’s household or persona led to a false ethic of simplicity.

In this version of simplicity, a too-feminine touch recurs in the search for nurturing reassurance, in the emphasis on home, family, and comfort, consciously avoiding the too-masculine attitudes of self-assertion, concreteness, and ego-boosting. In this era, men typically eschewed topics like simplicity and sustainability anyway.

A striking example of the domesticity of simplicity was the 1990’s series of books by Sarah Ban Breathnach titled Simple Abundance, which appeared as Daybook, Companion, and Journal. The author defined the wistful and increasingly self-satisfied mood of the mid-nineties: nostalgia for a simple past, for the good old days when the nation was great, life was slower, and people knew their station. This theme mingled with a New Age sense that as long as your thoughts were positive, very little mattered with regard to material conditions or the fate of the world.

The series offered many reassuring quotations from otherwise reliable sources, but gave the classics a bourgeois twist: Happiness is the most important thing in life, and the search for happiness means simplifying (at least a little), therefore a little attention to aesthetic detail will help make for happiness. Perhaps this summary is not quite fair in that some order and priorities are indeed necessary to anyone’s life. But the whole premise is an acceptance of the high status of one’s given culture and material conditions. We are otherwise lulled into ignoring that happiness in this context is merely a projection of our favorable material conditions enjoyed. Add to this the author’s soothing reassurance about simplicity’s ease and one concurs with a critic who described the author as “Martha Stewart on Prozac.”

The other maven of 1990’s simplicity was Elaine St. James, who produced several simplicity books (Simplify Your Life, and Kids, and Job, etc.) and made the celebrity circuits briefly. Her less pompous books are more practical and useful perhaps because she was in the real estate business. One critic described her books as “a pinch of Heloise and a dash of Buddha.”

The pragmatic approaches continued through the 1990s with Ish Oxenreider’s Organized Simplicity, Mindy Caliguire’s Simplicity, Linda Breen Pierce’s Simplicity Lessons, and Janet Luhr’s The Simple Living Guide. Notice that all of the authors are women. The only significant simplicity book by a male author is Duane Elgin’s classic Voluntary Simplicity, first published in 1981 and still the most insightful overview of the urgency for simplicity on a universal scale.

At least one conclusion from these forays into simplicity can be made. Ignoring ethical premises for what we buy, eat, think, say, or listen to leads to ignorant contentment and smug self-satisfaction. And when the favorable conditions that nurtured our false sense of well-being start to unravel, simplicity may help in practical terms. But the optimism of the 1990s that has been collapsing at the peak of 20 years of materialism in the Western world is closing off even the opportunity for practical simplicity to make a difference for many.

Simplicity can be approached with too many false pretexts and preconditions. Winnowing away at superfluities in what is in one’s closet or kitchen or garage is undoubtedly useful. But disengagement from pleasures and habits and objects grown comfortable is the best way to begin building an ethical framework to what one does every day. What the Chinese sages called “cultivating your virtue” is all that we need to do, and the rest of what is right will grow within us.