Q. Back in 1981, you wrote the book Voluntary Simplicity (Morrow), which helped define a trend, a longing, that's still growing today. You've said, "Simplicity means taking charge of a life that is too busy, too stressed, and too fragmented." That resonates with so many of us. How do we start simplifying?
A. For me, simplicity has everything to do with our life purpose, so it's very individual. We can start by asking, What is my life about? Take a walk, reflect in the silence of nature. Or, you can take notes while you're sitting on the freeway. It comes down to realizing, My life's important; this is it! Thoreau wrote about not wanting to come to the end of his life and then asking, Did I really get down to the marrow, the juice of life?
Q. What are basic, pragmatic ways to start?
A. There is no "cookbook" for the simple life. That said, the big three, in terms of our ecological footprint, are the house we live in, the transportation we use, and the food we eat. Many people inhabit only a small part of their large home, yet they're pouring their life energy into paying the mortgage and upkeep. It's a question of: What do I really need? It's the same with deciding whether to drive a Mercedes or a Prius. Then there's food. The average item on our dinner table has traveled 1,500 miles to get there, which means an enormous amount of energy is being spent to feed the average American. I love to cook, but eating simply and locally is a great place to start reducing our impact.
Q. How do you resist the temptation to buy new stuff?
A. I have my vulnerabilities. I love to buy books. Rather than purchasing on impulse, I generally try to wait and see if it's something I really want.
Q. But the simple life isn't necessarily frugal, right?
A. It's not about sacrifice. Frugal living is one theme. It might lead you to greater financial independence and greater freedom. But the truth is, you are much more than you consume. Consumption is too shallow to be satisfying. Dive deep. Figure out what your unique gifts are, and you will get up juiced every day, excited to bring them into the world.
Q. Our personal consumption also has an impact on the planet.
A. Right now, humanity is consuming about 1.2 Earths. We're seeing the collapse of fish populations in the ocean; we're overpumping aquifers trying to sustain our agricultural system. If all humans consumed at the U.S. level, it would take five Earths to support what we're consuming right now, not to mention future increases. It's unsustainable.
Q. For me, the idea of a simple life is so appealing. But then I find myself in habitual mode, lusting after something shiny and new.
A. It's very difficult to make this shift individually; I recommend small steps and going gradually. Our system is set up around consumerism, not around having a deep life. So you're going against the stream. But it's clear that we can't continue as is and will be pushed to change—within this generation—whether we like it or not. Imagine two people riding bikes. One is thinking, This is great! I'm getting fresh air and exercise out in nature. The other is thinking, What a bummer! I'm not in my car; I'm getting sweaty; it's so slow. They're doing the same thing, but they're having radically different feelings about their experience. Similarly, we can embrace simplicity happily, or we can resist it.