Voluntary Poverty Has to Be a Choice

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I have read quite a few articles recently about “green” living, reducing footprints, and sustainability. None of them have mentioned one of the greatest ways of creating positive change in the world. Voluntary poverty is a far more fundamental and effective way to decrease consumption and impact, while increasing human connection and improving life all around. Our family of four lives on about $7000 a year, and our lives are more enjoyable, fuller, richer, healthier, and more interesting to us than the life we see being lived in the mainstream economy. This is nothing new of course; sages and mystics have been sharing the joys of voluntary poverty and simplicity for eons. But voluntary poverty is rarely seen as a positive lifestyle choice in modern-day America.

Being poor, for most folks, is truly awful. But that is very different from choosing voluntary poverty. Voluntary poverty needs to be a lifestyle choice rooted in care for the earth and each other with a great awareness of our serious global challenges and our roles in causing them. And, voluntary poverty is for those of us in a position to choose it. For example, my wife and I are white, well-educated, healthy, American citizens who were raised in loving families. In every way in this time and place we have the world at our fingertips - we were born on third base. And, because we know what our American corporate and consumerist lifestyles do to people on the other side of the tracks - be they in our country or, more commonly these days, abroad - we feel a responsibility to choose another path that is as life-affirming and as sustainable as we can make it while still remaining connected and participating in our native culture.

When I bring up voluntary poverty in groups and talks there is often an uncomfortable stirring among the participants. That is not surprising, since we have all been raised in a culture of scarcity, where we are expected to be go-getters and not go-givers, where the “American Dream” and our entire cultural myth rests on the pursuit of wealth, comfort, and satisfaction through stuff. Listen to the news and it is plain as day: being a good American means being a good, active consumer. Our family has chosen to structure our lives in a way that disengages from these destructive systems all around us.

One of the most helpful tools at our disposal is creating contexts or environments that support how we want to live in the world. This is a huge step in that every time you can alter your environment, your foundations, a context, in your life, you no longer have to rely on willpower to push your way towards a life of greater authenticity. Here’s an example that I use frequently: Our family lives without electricity. We don’t need to rely on willpower to avoid over-use of consumer electronics. We never plug in because no electricity comes into our home. Our meter has been removed. We have created an environment that starts at zero electricity. We have shaped our environment to support us in living the way we want to live in the world, a life of greater authenticity.

We do this is, on the one hand, to withdraw our support from Big Energy (coal mining, acid rain, oil tankers, wealth inequality) and to limit the amount of cheap consumer goods coming into our home (plastic, made in China). On the other hand, we are also doing this to move towards more and deeper connections with ourselves and with nature and spirit (the seasons, our natural biorhythms, light and dark, long rests in winter, time outside, plants and animals). Just by preventing electricity from entering our home, we have brought our lives into closer alignment with our values. For us this means a huge increase in our quality of life and a much lower impact on our precious earth.

An even more foundational context that we have created to support ourselves in living with integrity is voluntary poverty itself. We have chosen on purpose not to make much money. We could easily earn much more than we do now – we’re both college-educated with a variety of skills and successful job histories – but we choose not to. By having little money to live on (and no savings), numerous feedback loops kick in that help us live the lives we want to live. For example:

  • We are more creative with our use of resources. We cannot run to Home Depot every time we need a part, so we scavenge for them; we cultivate patience with projects; we rethink, reduce, reuse, and recycle; we ask around for help and create greater connections at each step.
  • We are healthier. We bike; we garden; we don’t stress over jobs; we eat organic food; we play; we cultivate our hobbies; we live in tune with the seasons (no electricity); we live more slowly.
  • We are wealthy in time. We have taken up instruments, developed our craftsmanship from pottery to natural building to permaculture. We spend a lot of time with our kids, our neighbors, our friends, and folks who drop in.
  • We are connected in our community. We host community dinners, help neighbors start gardens, offer art classes for kids, make murals, orchestrate community improvement projects, distribute food and clothing, host workshops. We also have a network of neighbors who tend our gardens and animals when we are away.
  • We support the Gift Economy. Everyone loves to share their gifts and once the gift snowball gets rolling, it keeps getting bigger and faster! It’s amazing what shows up when you are available to receive, use, and share it. Our little “Be the Change” project gives away $200,000 worth of clothing donations each year through the Common Threads program of the Patagonia Company.
  • We live more sustainably. This includes: less consumption; more food growing with methods that increase soil health and provide better habitat for wildlife; less travel; passive solar heating and lighting; masonry wood heater; solar oven; locally-sourced wood; great use of salvaged materials; natural building and renovations using local clay and sand; greywater system; composting; and great use of the urban waste stream.
  • Our lifestyle is less supportive of war. We don’t pay income tax, while the US government spends nearly half of every tax dollar on war. (See: www.warresisters.org/federalpiechart.)  Also, we use a very small amount of fossil fuels, which are also linked to war.
  • Our lifestyle is less supportive of extractive capitalism and the inherent inequalities it promotes.

Voluntary poverty is a radical step that is hard to start but, year-by-year, it becomes less challenging to maintain. Speaking from experience, it has great rewards that far surpass the material rewards of lots of income. If you choose this path, good luck and keep in touch. It’s nice to have a supportive tribe in such an endeavor.  ~~~

Kyle Chandler-Isacksen runs the “Be the Change Project” with his wife Katy and two young sons in Reno, Nevada. BTC is an urban homestead and learning center dedicated to service and simplicity and rooted in integral nonviolence. Kyle and Katy’s home was honored as one of Mother Earth News’ Homesteads of the Year in 2013. The family attends Reno Friends Meeting (PYM).