I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I had not lived.
–Henry David Thoreau
Everywhere we turn today, if we have our eyes half-open, we are faced with the consequences of our collective actions on the planet. Capitalism, endless war, famine, the disintegration of families, global warming, a mushrooming corporatocracy, skyrocketing debt …the list is long. So long, in fact, that few have the courage to really see and acknowledge what is going on. Part of our reluctance is because there are no easy solutions and from the perspective of our singular lives, the task of making a change appears utterly daunting. Just the simple act of recycling my glass becomes an inner battle as I consider the environmental cost of my washing the glass before placing it in my bin. Does anything we do really make a difference? These were my doubts until recognising the collective impact of the downshifting movement.
Downshifting, also known as voluntary simplicity, is the act of directing your life so that it truly reflects your values. Anything that is not a part of those values is gradually teased out. It also includes reducing the personal footprint on the earth: living on less, consuming less and spending less. Though the term was first coined in the 90s in the US and has only recently spread to Australia, people have been downshifting for years before then. What’s exciting is that an entire movement is flowering which is increasing awareness of the possibility to jump off the consumer wagon and reclaim our lives. byronchild recently ran an article by Anna Jahns about downshifting with some useful tips on how to get started (see byronchild 14, or go to http://www.byronchild.com/arts40.htm).
I have downshifted several times in my life. First, in my twenties when I was working as the marketing director of a large radio station in Dallas, Texas. Though the salary was nearly six figures, my life was anything but abundant. Stress, isolation, illness and lack seemed to be the norm. As I sat in my 30 th floor office overlooking downtown, a terrible despair came over me. I saw my life as it was, and the course it would make from there should I continue. It was empty. That night I went home to my fiancé and told him that I had to make a change, and fast. An environmentalist at heart working in the petroleum industry, he was feeling the same.
The shift meant moving away from the big city, to an environment more conducive to our values. It also meant taking a huge cut in pay, perhaps not finding a job at all. We had to leave our friends, family and entire community system as we knew it. And, most importantly, it meant asking ourselves some serious questions about our life. What did a life of no regrets look like? Was I living it? How could I contribute to society? If I were to do anything in the world and make money at it, what would it be? Six months later, leaping into the unknown without a safety net, we moved to Santa Fe, into a tiny adobe house. I opened a riding school. My fiancé changed careers, from petroleum geology to hydrogeology.
Life took on a whole new dimension from that point onwards. I had learned how to navigate from my depths and live according to my own script, rather than the cultural script imposed upon me. That was 16 years ago, and much has evolved since then. In those days I was not as concerned about eating organic, or lessening my impact on the environment, or consuming less. So the downshifting that occurred then was different to the kind of movement I am making today.
Now, as I grow older and my values change to reflect the concerns I have about our consumer economy, my life template changes as well. Now my downshifting occurs more subtly, as in purchasing my fruits and vegetables from a local organic farm instead of Woolworth’s, or buying recycled clothes, and taking camping trips instead of expensive over-seas vacations. We’ve weaned ourselves down to one car and ride our bikes to town for errands. But I have a large family home, with a big gorgeous garden and I am busy night and day with what I love — my family and my work. So downshifting does not always look the part.
This is the beauty of downshifting; it can look as many different ways as there are people doing it! The mistake is in thinking that it is about retreating to a mud hut somewhere in the countryside and eating beans and rice. This is only the cliché sea-change model and should not limit our imaginations to what is really possible. The real key to the definition of downshifting is this — that you are the architect of your life and have deliberately unhooked from an unhealthy, money-centred cultural norm.
I gave a presentation at the first Downshifting Downunder conference in Sydney recently and was amazed by the diversity of attendees and speakers. Some discussion arose about semantics — that the word down of downshifting implied a withdrawal from life, living less abundantly. Conversely, most downshifters reported being even more engaged in their communities than before their shift, sometimes even working more hours or as many as before, yet in something that they love, and feeling very abundant, too.
The movement has also come under fire, as people debate just how downshifters fund themselves and might they be just bludgers on society. Is it just glorified ducking out? But true life stories from the people who have done it address these concerns, and reveal a robust social movement that is conscious, informed, engaged, participatory and dynamic and far —very far — from bludging.
But here is the most exciting part about the downshifting movement: it poses a wide-spreadable solution, to widespread societal challenges. Downshifting dramatically alters the work–buy–work cycle that not only annihilates the environment, destroys cultural diversity, and eats away our very life-force, but also robs our children of the time they need with their parents and their community to feel bonded and loved.
The implications of downshifting are so immense that Clive Hamilton, Executive Director of the Australia Institute and fellow-speaker at the conference, suggested that downshifting be part of a new political movement. According to the Australia Institute’s research, 23% of Australians have downshifted in the last 10 years. Numerically this is quite a force.
While the Howard government debates their version of industrial reforms that push single mothers back to work by removing incentives to stay at home, and not yet considering paid maternity leave, downshifting puts the power back in our own hands where we can design creative solutions for ourselves and our families. Given, for example, that children benefit optimally by full-term breastfeeding (optimally two years and beyond), our current industrial relations package does little to address the real needs of future Australians, Australia’s future. In fact, none of the needs of children have yet to be addressed by Australian public policy. Downshifters need not wait for the bureaucracy to wake up and smell the coffee.
Downshifting has the capacity to move socially and publicly into numerous directions and populations. It also has the capacity to work inwardly, deeply and privately into the transformative realms of inner life. To downshift, one has to take that archetypal leap, known euphemistically as the hero’s journey. I call this deep downshifting (borrowed from deep ecology — look it up). Deep downshifting embraces not only the economical, environmental and social perspective of the shift, but also the authentic spiritual movement inside that must take place in order to live, as Thoreau says, deliberately.
In living simply and deliberately, we reclaim our lives, but not without meeting a few challenges along the way. In meeting them, transformation is at hand. One thing we come face to face with is our existential aloneness. While moving with the cultural norm, though it be an unhealthy norm, we have a sense of belonging. Our choices and lifestyles blend in with the population. There is some safety there. Once we begin confronting our relationship to money, and evaluating our lives, we find ourselves very alone.
We make unique choices based on our own values for which there are few or no sign posts to guide us. The risk seems greater, and the loss seems extreme. But in spite of appearances, we go with what we know is true for us. And to make it even scarier, there is no guarantee that if you make the leap, there will be land on the other side. This is spiritual free-fall and the stuff of living enlightenment (as opposed to the philosophical version which is much less rigourous).
Like this, everyday life starts to reveal itself as a spiritual path. Obstacles are seen as opportunities for growth, failures seen as gifts, and synchronicity appears everywhere. And slowly, an emerging sense of peace, increased happiness and connection to others is experienced. This is the true gift of downshifting.
It is time to cease being the lifeblood upon which the corporate machine feeds. Without us, without our abidance, the system as we know it becomes powerless and must then turn its ear to listen to a new way of being. Imagine if such corporate strength and savvy was used to instead feed the starving and give hope to the poor?
So where do we go from here? I thought to list a few ideas, most of which I suspect you probably already know about, but hearing ideas again and again, in my experience, keeps me on the right track.
- Ask yourself these questions: What would a life of no regrets look like? What do I value and is my life behind those values? If I could do anything to make money, what would it be? What would I like to spend more time doing?
- Read some books like:
Affluenza, by Clive Hamilton
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins
Your Money or Your Life, by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez
Living Simply with Children, by Marie Sherlock
Post a list on your fridge of alternatives to going mall shopping (reading, visit a friend, shop at your local op-shop instead), then, when you get the urge to shop, do something different. Post a list of alternatives to watching television Buy local Ride bicycles, walk or take the bus instead of driving Car pool Car share (two parties, one car) Buy second hand Use the library for magazines, books, DVDs and videos Keep a diary of every cent you spend on everything for one month and look at where the money goes. Does it reflect your values? Keep a diary of your time and where you spend it for one month and look at where the time goes. Does it reflect your values? Eat out less Repair more, replace less
I would enjoy to hear from you as you embark on this social and personal change journey. Let me know what you discover, what challenged you and what inspired you. The more we hear each other’s stories, the more empowered we become. We must unequivocally commit to shaking ourselves and everyone around us awake, then lead by example — living and becoming the very change we would like to see happen in the world.