Not Really Simple

Charlotte Allen | Posted on 04/19/10

Hunting is usually taboo in the simplicity movement because it involves guns. However, if you're hunting boar in the upscale hills ringing the San Francisco Bay so as to furnish yourself a "locally grown" boar paté," then you're doing a fine job of returning to the simple life.

It was the $380 "bona fide horse-riding boots" that got me clued into the simple life. There they were, sleek, polished to the sheen of black pearls, and taking up an entire page of Real Simple magazine. "You'll never want to take them off," the accompanying copy promised. It was the first time I'd ever picked up Real Simple, the women's magazine that distinguishes itself from other women's magazines by its lack of tips for getting rid of belly fat, its Zen-lite self-help pages ("learn to live with uncertainty"), and its tastefully minimalist layouts characterized by snowdrift-sized expanses of white space. Here's a food article picturing six balloon-sized Brussels sprouts scattered over the page and not much else. There's a photo essay featuring elegant mothers and their poetically posed toddlers that actually seems to be about hand-tatted lace, which appears in the foreground or background of nearly every picture. And here's one about jewelry crafted out of the original brass door numbers at New York's Plaza Hotel - the pin goes for $260. I closed my issue of Real Simple, stuffed with equally tasteful and equally minimalist ads for wines, Toyota Priuses (the automobile of choice for simple people), and many, many wrinkle creams, and thought: gee, all this simple living can set you back.

Welcome to the simplicity movement, the ethos whose mantras are "cutting back," "focusing on the essentials," "reconnecting to the land" - and talking, talking, talking about how fulfilled it all makes you feel. Genuine simple-living people - such as, say, the Amish - are not part of the simplicity movement, because living like the Amish (no iPod apps or granite countertops, plus you have to read the Bible) would be taking the simple thing a bit far. Modern simplicity practitioners like Jesus (although not quite so much as they like Buddhist monks, who dress more colorfully) because he wore sandals and could be said to have practiced alternative medicine, but they mostly shun religious movements founded in his name. Thus, simplicity people are always eager to tell you how great the Amish are, growing their own food (a highly valued trait among simplicity people), espousing pacifism (simplicity people shy away from even just wars), and building those stylishly spare barns (aesthetics rank high in the simplicity movement), but really, who wants to have eight kids and wear those funny-looking hats?

For similar reasons, genuinely poor people don't qualify for the simplicity movement, mostly because of their awful taste in everything from beer to bling to American Idol. Tattoos, flatbill caps, Ed Hardy T-shirts, and chin piercings are not the stuff of the fashion pages in Real Simple.

Hunting is usually taboo in the simplicity movement because it involves guns (hated by the professionally simple) and exploitation of animals (ditto). However, if you're hunting boar in the upscale hills ringing the San Francisco Bay so as to furnish yourself a "locally grown" boar paté, as does Berkeley professor and simplicity movement guru Michael (The Omnivore's Dilemma) Pollan, or perhaps to experience an "epiphany," as another well-fixed Bay Area boar hunter recently told the New York Times, you're doing a fine job of returning to the simple life. Indeed, the Times article was replete with quotations from portfolio managers, systems analysts, and graphic designers who have taken up shooting boar, deer, and bison in their spare time because it affords them a "primal connection" with the food on their plates and is also "carbon-neutral" (zero "food miles" if the deer you slay happened to have been munching the tulips in your backyard). But if you're a laid-off lumber mill worker bagging possums in Eutaw Springs, S.C., because your main primal connection with food is that you don't have much money to spend on it, you're an unsophisticated redneck.

Simplicity movement people always seem to shell out more money than the not-so-simple, usually because the simple things they love always seem to cost more than the mass-produced versions. On a website called Passionate Homemaking that's dedicated to making, among other things, your own cheese, your own beeswax candles, and your own underarm deodorant, you are also advised to cook with nothing but raw cultured butter from a mail-order outfit called Organic Pastures. The butter probably tastes great. It also costs $10.75 a pound - plus UPS shipping. At farmer's markets, where those striving for simplicity like to browse with their cloth shopping bags, the organic, the locally grown, and the humanely raised come at a price: tomatoes at $4 a pound, bread at $8 a loaf, and $6 for a cup of "artisanal" gelato.

Wealthy and well-born people admiring - and sparing themselves no expense in convincing themselves that they're cultivating - the virtues of humble folk is nothing new. Two millennia ago, Virgil, in his Georgics, heaped praise upon the tree pruners and beekeepers whom he likely could see toiling in the distance while he sipped wine on the veranda of his wealthy patron, Maecenas. Marie Antoinette liked to dress up as a shepherdess and hold court in her "rustic" cottage at the Petit Trianon. Other harbingers of today's simplicity movement were the arts-and-crafts devotees of the early 1900s who filled their homes with handcrafted medieval-looking benches and the 1960s hippies whose minibuses and geodesic domes that enabled their gypsy lifestyles usually came courtesy of checks from their parents.

But it has been only in the last decade or so that the simplicity movement has come into its own, aligning itself not only with aesthetic style but also with power. Thanks to the government-backed war against obesity (fat people, conveniently, tend to belong to the polyester-clad, Big Mac-guzzling lower orders) and the "green" movement in its various save-the-planet manifestations, simplicity people can look down their noses at the not-so-simple with their low-rent tastes while also putting them on the moral defensive. Thus you have Michael Pollan, whose zero-impact ethic of food simplicity won't let him eat anything not grown within one hundred miles of his Bay Area home, and preferably grown (or killed, milked, churned, or picked) himself. He bristles with outrage not only at McDonald's burgers, Doritos, and grapes imported from Chile (foreign fruit destroys people's "sense of place," he writes in The Omnivore's Dilemma) but even at Walmart's announcement in 2006 that it would start stocking organic products at affordable prices. Walmart, like factory farms, SUVs, wide-screen TVs, and outlet malls, is usually anathema to the simplicity set, but here you would think the giga-chain would be doing poor people a favor by widening their access to healthy, less-fattening produce. Not as far as Pollan is concerned. Instead, as Reason magazine's Katherine Mangu-Ward reported, Pollan worried on his blog that "Walmart's version of cheap, industrialized organic food" might drive the boutique farms that served him and his locavore neighbors out of business.

The problem with the simplicity movement isn't simply that you've got to be rich to live simply. In their 2007 book Plenty, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, who had vowed to spend a year sticking to the 100-mile locavore eating radius (and, as freelance writers, had plenty of time to put together meals that lived up to this promise), discovered that they were spending $11 per jar on honey to substitute for $2.59 sugar and that one of their locally foraged dinners cost them $130 and more than a day to prepare. Nor is it the problem that "simplicity" can amount to just plain silliness, as when simplicity blogger Leo Babauta announced that he had cut down on grooming products by shaving his head, and suggested that one way to cultivate simplicity was to give loved ones massages instead of birthday presents (ask first, Mr. Babauta!). Or when Steven Rinella, author of The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine, invited his friends over for a meal of bear, squirrel, elk, and sparrows trapped in his girlfriend's Brooklyn backyard. Rinella's aim, both in writing the book and throwing the party, was, as the New York Times reported, "to demonstrate that most of us have depersonalized our relationship to food, and that current regulations requiring that any game commercially sold in America must be raised on farms or ranches is actually harmful to both the farmed animals and wild ones."

The problem with the simplicity movement is that its proponents mistake simplicity, which is an aesthetic lifestyle choice, for humility, which is a genuine virtue. Humility is an honest acknowledgment of one's limitations and lowliness in the great scheme of things and a realization that power over other human beings is a dangerous thing, always to be exercised with utmost caution. The Amish, as well as monks, Eastern and Western, cultivate humility because they know they have a duty toward what is larger than themselves. Leo Babauta of the foregone grooming products cultivates simplicity because it makes him feel "happier," as he writes on his website. For humble people, their own happiness or other personal feelings are secondary.

Furthermore, no virtue is a real virtue unless it is available to everyone. Simplicity doesn't fall into that category. If everyone decided to hunt boar in the Berkeley hills like Michael Pollan, it wouldn't take long for boars to become extinct. Furthermore, simplicity, because it is a lifestyle choice, necessarily means that its practitioners have to have the financial wherewithal - and usually plenty of it - to make the choices.

If you can't afford fine grooming products, you're not practicing simplicity by going without; you're just plain poor. Not so for humility, for even the poorest of the poor can be humble - or its opposite, irritatingly full of themselves.

Finally, simplicity is fundamentally indifferent to others. It's all about the experiences - "primal connections" or what have you - of its practitioners. Simplicity movement people don't care, for example, how other people would get around if you took away their cars in the name of "going green," or how they would feel about being forced to compost their garbage, as they're already forced in San Francisco, or how they would eat if factory farms were put out of business as so many simplicity-loving folks would like. Not so with humility, which is always outwardly directed.

That's not to say that tasteful, elegant things aren't genuinely tasteful and elegant, or that raw cultured organic butter isn't superior to Lucerne. But choosing them shouldn't be confused with moral superiority or living the moral life. Now about those $380 riding boots I saw in Real Simple....

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