Laura Cutler launched her new School of Sustainability last month with a party that attracted an overflow crowd of 400 to an Oakland auditorium for a program of guitar strumming, multicultural prayers and talks on living in harmony with the Earth.
The celebration had been planned to recruit students, but the enrollment was filled, "so we just had a good time," says Cutler, who created the school's five-month curriculum (tuition $350) titled "It's All In Our Hands: a Course in Doing More With Less." Its lectures and workshops include urban organic gardening, starting a small business and designing self-sufficient city neighborhoods.
Cutler had set a goal of 25 students for the course. With 35 signed up, and a waiting list of 15, she believes she's on the right track. "People are really interested in finding out how they can quit commuting for two hours a day, not have to work 60 hours a week at a job they feel alienated from, and figure out ways not to mess up their credit card debt and spend the rest of their lives paying it off," says Cutler, 33, a former Wall Street lawyer.
Cutler and her husband recently sold the idea to We the People, an Oakland-based grass-roots group founded last year by former California Gov. Jerry Brown to promote self-reliance and environmentally sound living.
In becoming apostles for a simplified lifestyle, the couple have joined the growing ranks of a baby boomer-led movement that registers on the public consciousness but is too fragmented to measure. Concentrated in the eco-sensitive Pacific Northwest, it is variously described as "Simple Living," "Voluntary Simplicity" "Involuntary Simplicity," "Sustainable Living" or "Downshifting."
Participation may be as far-reaching as trading a corporate career for organic farming or as mundane as really cleaning out a closet. Most activity is somewhere in between, propelled by a common unease with too much "stuff." Whether it is sparked by economic, environmental, spiritual or family reasons, there's a longing "to reduce stress and get more balance in life," says Harvard economist Juliet Schor, author of "The Overworked American" (Basic Books, 1993).
A major 1995 survey released by the nonprofit Merck Family Fund found that a majority of Americans, alarmed by materialism and greed, rank among their deepest aspirations such nonmaterial things as more family time and less job stress. While they may reject commercialism, most practicing downshifters are not neo-Luddites; they're gobbling up computers and faxes with which to telecommute or operate home-based businesses.
"More people would downsize if they could," said Tanya Brubaker, a project director for opinion pollster Roper Starch Worldwide. In her recent consumer study on simplicity, she found an elitist group leading the trend.
"Almost everyone is overwrought with stress, worn out, and slowing down in any way they can," she said. "We find a trend of people giving up high-level jobs for less stress and moving out from cities to the country, but that is a luxury."
Statistics show that one in 10 executives and professionals have simplified by cutting back in work responsibility or taking extended time off, she said, compared to 3% of blue-collar workers.
"The caveat is that most people can't achieve simplicity in its purest form even though they may want to," Brubaker says.
The variations on implementing a simple life are multiplying.
Carol Benson Holst, a Glendale early childhood educator, directs "Seeds of Simplicity," a new national support organization for a child-centered simplicity program. Its educational agenda includes "building consumer willpower" by turning off the TV, downplaying the commercialism of holidays and encouraging national "Buy Nothing" days.
At the heart of the lifestyle transition, most analysts agree, is a generation that's beginning to realize the American dream of ever-increasing prosperity may be dead.
"This movement is being engineered by the baby boomers," says Gerald Celente of Trends Journal in Rhinebeck, N.Y. "They're getting older and taking stock, they're not happy with their jobs, their boss is a jerk and now comes the big downsizing trend in every industry that forces them to look at what they are spending and how they are living."
Celente, 50, who predicted the current voluntary simplicity movement in a 1994 Journal issue, points out that "Yankee thrift" was considered a virtue until the post-World War II boom years and that economic uncertainty may have brought it back into fashion. "The 1987 stock market crash was pivotal," he said. "The bottom fell out of the excessive '80s."
Cecile Andrews agrees that '87 was a wake-up call. A Seattle adult education director, she offered a course in voluntary simplicity in 1989 and only four people came. When she offered it again in 1992, she says, 175 people showed up. Enrollment has been booming ever since.
The response laid the foundation for her voluntary simplicity study circles, which have been featured in Esquire, U.S. News & World Report, the New York Times and BBC Radio for their focus on taking small personal steps toward change.
Andrews estimates that more than 1,000 study circles have been offered in community colleges, neighborhood centers, churches, libraries, homes and businesses. With a facilitator and a workbook, the groups of six to eight start by asking what they mean by "community," and often end up changing their lives dramatically, says Andrews.
"The people who come, by and large, are the people who have made it, but feel empty," says Andrews.
She believes Americans are increasingly torn between social pressures to spend and the personal need to simplify. "People do sense that this is a trend that goes against everything in this country. It goes against our emphasis that consumption, having lots of stuff, money, will make you happy," she says. "Yet at the same time it is very American, because it says you can change your life, you have a joyful happy life, you can do it."
"Most people came because their lives are overwhelming," she adds. "Then you connect it up with the environment and that gives them new meaning and purpose."
Concerned that the United States, with only 5% of the Earth's population, consumes one-third of the planet's resources, and wastes an estimated 75% of that share, grass-roots environmentalists are promoting conservation activities with a passion not seen since World War II's mandated ration cards and paper drives. For instance:
* In Portland, Ore., Dick Roy, a former corporate lawyer, now runs the Northwest Earth Institute. Its "Earth-centered" courses focus on the connections between lifestyle choices (a ceramic cup versus a plastic foam cup) and environmental destruction. "The yearning for a simpler way of living is so strong--partly because of the uncertain economy, but for a lot of people it's feeling they have no sense of purpose in their lives," Roy says.
* The Global Action Plan for Earth (GAP) in Woodstock, N.Y., has developed a Household EcoTeam Program that utilizes a coach and a workbook to implement waste-reduction strategies. The more than 3,000 graduates have sent, on average, 42% less garbage to landfills, used 25% less fuel for transportation and achieved an average annual savings of $400.
* Newsletters like the ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report or Mothers for a Greener Planet don't let a major or minor holiday pass without nudges on how to observe it in a thrifty way. The current USL focuses on the Olympics, its environmental impact on the water and solid waste in Atlanta, and ways Games-goers can reduce that impact (don't rent a car, take a van).
Other signs of the trend toward simpler living include various systems of bartering among neighbors, which supporters say can strengthen community bonds and save money and resources.
"It's like the pendulum has swung as far as it can in terms of alienating society," says Olaf Egeberg, 59, of Takoma, Md., a former biochemist and educator, who started exchanging carpentry and home repair skills for housing 14 years ago. His PEN neighborhood exchange has grown from 11 members to a 20-page directory offering 500 different services.
The focus, says Egeberg, is on developing human-scale communities in an urban neighborhood. "Cities are too big."
Scaling down has created a new career for Elaine St. James of Santa Barbara. She has emerged as a movement guru since 1990 when she stopped mid-point in a frenetic real estate career to downsize. She and her husband, writer Tony Gibbs, gave away masses of possessions, moved from a large house to a small condo, scaled back their wardrobes and cut off their junk mail. By reexamining every aspect of their lives, she says, they freed up about 30 hours a week.
The point, emphasizes St. James, was not deprivation. "We had a good life, we just didn't have the time or energy to enjoy it."
She has written three how-to books, which together have sold more than 650,000 copies, "Simplify Your Life," "Inner Simplicity" and, last May, "Living the Simple Life: A Guide to Scaling Down and Enjoying More."
St. James says she started out thinking of voluntary simplicity as a trend. "I thought I was writing for maturing yuppies, like my husband and myself, who had gotten caught up in the consumerism of the 1980s and wanted to cut back," she says.
But having received thousands of letters in the past two years from teenagers, college students, young married couples and retirees, she now believes the movement is a permanent shift. "There are people across the board looking to make some lifestyle changes."
To Celente, of Trends Journal, the waves of downsizing indicate we are on the brink of a social restructuring that he sees leading to an extended era of thrift, savings and anti-materialism.
He predicts that by 2000, about 15% of the baby boom population will be buying into voluntary simplicity in a serious way. These practitioners will be the pace-setters, says Celente, in a "new global renaissance."
"It is really significant and it is just starting," he says. "I am very optimistic about the future."
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Deepest Aspirations Are Nonmaterial
When asked what would make them more satisfied with their lives, Americans responded with nonmaterial needs.
I would be much more satisfied with my life . . .(Percentage who agree or strongly agree)
* If I were able to spend more time with my family and friends: 66%
* If there were less stress in my life: 56%
* If I felt I were doing more to make a difference in my community: 47%
* If I had a nicer car: 21%
* If I had a bigger house or apartment: 19%
* If I had more nice things for my home: 15%
SOURCE: Merck Family Fund Survey of American Attitudes on Consumption.