INSIDE Chico State
0 April 18, 2002
Volume 32 Number 14
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Combating a Styrofoam Lifestyle

Circle of Simplicity author asks that success be defined in new ways

Living up to its mission, the university’s Environmental Action and Resource Center hosted an evening lecture April 4 on voluntary simplicity. The topic was defined andfocused through author and teacher Cecile Andrews, herself a cheerful embodiment and endorsement of the movement’s challenge to define success in ways that differ from current cultural conventions.

Andrews has written The Circle of Simplicity: Return to the Good Life. She earned a doctorate in education from Stanford and currently is an affiliated scholar at that university’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender. She casts a large shadow on the lecture circuit and the Internet. She promotes “barefoot teaching” through simplicity study circles scattered across the country. She’s also working with several organizations on health promotion and community building.

People are attracted to living with less, contends Andrews, despite media coverage that labels voluntary simplicity as “a ‘yuppie liberation movement’, irrelevant and insensitive to the poor and homeless.” But for those seeking more meaning and autonomy in their lives, who hope to gain a community and lose their clutter—for the middle class, she admits—the movement is fundamentally meaningful. However, it also encourages three central themes relevant to all strata of society: saving money, saving the environment, and building community.

Andrew’s campus lecture opened with a casual sermon to the 75 or so like-mindeds in attendance. Then, encouraging people to respond to her sallies—how Americans have “mastered the art of living with the unacceptable,” according to one South American pundit, and that more bankrupts than college graduates walk the nation’s sidewalks while corporate presidents earn 400 times more than their average employees—Andrews quickly established a town hall atmosphere in which even children participated.

“Americans have this mantra that says, ‘do more,’” she commented, “but the way we live is simply killing the planet.” Audience members happily furnished first-hand examples of our collective death wish, everything from shopping while a coach walks you through via cellphone to a residential street where a dozen different lawnmowers sit mostly idle for twelve tiny patches of lawn.

In addition to lecturing, Andrews directs the Simplicity Circles Project of the nonprofit, Cornell-based Seeds Simplicity organization (www.seedsofsimplicity.org), which is allied to the university’s Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy. Members of the nonprofit receive “diverse educational materials on free thinking for all ages,” as well as Andrews’ consulting and coordinating services when they establish simplicity circles in their communities. The circles, usually four to six individuals meeting together for “peer-led, egalitarian, self-education and social change,” are modeled on the prevailing educational option in Sweden, known as the “study-circle democracy.”

At the organization’s Web site, program director Carol Holst summarizes circles and voluntary simplicity as simple survival, which these days requires less preoccupation with self and more genuine interest in others. “It seems to me that we need to evolve past the Darwinian model, if at all possible, in order to survive,” she writes. To underscore this transformation, the site offers a refreshingly subversive (and free) shoppers’ warehouse stocked with life philosophies and moral tenets. Visitors can pick and choose among the “RealGoods” to create their own life statements, then post them on the site.

“Simplicity is about asking what’s real and what’s not,” said Andrews. “Ultimately, what the voluntary simplicity movement wants to do is change this country’s value system. It says that we can no longer put profits above the well-being of people and the planet. If profit is the most important thing, people feel uncared for, and their sense of self-worth suffers. It’s bad enough that the poor in this country have little money, but they’re also often denied a sense of self-worth because we judge that by their economic success.”

Therefore it’s okay, even beneficial, to choose the simple life, to ignore the persuasions of an out-of-control, consumer-based society, she reminded her audience. And it’s definitely okay to slow down. “Do your friends a favor,” she laughed. “Schedule an event, then cancel it.”

Taran March

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