A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity
Produced by Jordan Osmond and Samuel Alexander
$5 for download (or free to stream)
“It’s clear enough now that we need to transition swiftly away from a fossil fuel energy economy to an economy based on renewable energy, not only due to climate change, but also because in coming years or decades fossil fuel energy production will inevitably peak and decline. But we can’t just green the supply of our energy, we also need to significantly reduce energy demand.”- Samuel Alexander, A Simpler Way
Voluntary simplicity cannot be defined as a $50 Walden candle. “The Walden fragranced candle…with it’s wild berry & citrus fragrance aims to transport your senses to a less cluttered place.” Voluntary simplicity may be defined as the voluntary simplification of one’s life. This can involve practices such as minimalism, self-sufficiency, and the avoidance of $50 Walden themed candles. Thoreau, who penned Walden (1854), the ultimate voluntary simplicity book, would most likely feel despondent to learn that his ideas have been picked up, melted down, infused with synthetic wild berries, and sold to rich westerners dying from over-consumption.
People choose voluntary simplicity for many reasons, common ones being work-life balance, frugality, anti-consumerism, and increased connection to community and nature. Earlier this year Greening the Apocalypse, a weekly radio show on RRR, recorded an interview with Samuel Alexander. Samuel Alexander is the founder of Simplicity Institute, an educational and research group grounded in voluntary simplicity. His recent books are Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future and Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation. The latter book led a reader to offer him land. That land led to Wurruk’an, a community and on-the-ground experiment where the theories of voluntary simplicity are put to the test. A Simpler Way documents a 12-month living experiment called The Simpler Way Project at Wurruk’an.
Prior to watching A Simpler Way, I had already cut my teeth on voluntary simplicity. Cue a montage of my aha moments: sitting at a long wooden table at Melliodora while permaculture co-originator David Holmgren explained to me the idea of controlled descent; close observation of loved ones who live the principles of voluntary simplicity; and a realisation that the less I worked, the more I could write. For me, the penny had already dropped, but talking to Samuel Alexander over a beer after the radio show made said penny ricochet around my brain. So I was dead keen to watch A Simpler Way.
“There’s a major, major benefit if you don’t get trapped into working 20,30,40 years to pay the mortgage on your too big McMansion, boy oh boy, have you gained a lot of time and freedom from worry.” – Ted Trainer, A Simpler Way
I’ll admit I was nervous. I thought the documentary might be a bit handheld, overly optimistic, a tad obvious. My suspicions were unfounded and entirely a product of burned out synapses from years of watching terribly produced activist documentaries. I should have known that anything with Samuel Alexander’s name on it was bound to be excellent. It is beautifully produced, with exceptional cinematography and editing.
The first interview is with a resident of Wurruk’an, Antoinette Wilson, (who co-wrote A Simpler Way) who says, “I came because I was looking for a way to simplify my life. I knew that the way that I was living my life wasn’t right and the things that seemed necessary to strive for weren’t the things that I really wanted to strive for.” Antoinette’s words resonate with me. I often find myself chasing some career goal, or material thing, but when I really think about it I want a simple life built around the maximum amount of writing time, and quite a lot of cheese. I have spent the last few months consuming far less, and slowly climbing off the treadmill of consumption. I have started loosely planning to build a tiny house. Am I the target audience for this film? I would guess that the target audience is larger than the semi-converted.
Interest in ideas explored in the film–tiny houses, avoidance of debt, organic self-sufficiency, localisation, retrofitting the suburbs, household economies, and peak-oil to name a few–are gaining traction as more people feel their souls desiccate on the tram on the way to work. One of the Wurruk’an residents, Emmet Blackwell, a former town planner, talks about how joining The Simpler Way Project ‘gave me the ability to remove myself from the daily grind,’ an idea that is occurring to many these days.
The talking heads in this documentary are exceptional, including Ted Trainer, Zainil Zainuddin, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Bill Metcalf and David Holmgren. My favourite quote from A Simpler Way: Crisis as opportunity is from David Spratt, author of Climate Code Red:
You can’t produce an answer, unless you name the problem accurately. Unless we really understand the circumstances we’re in, we’re not going to see the solutions and find the path to it. And I’ve seen what I call after Barbara Ehrenreich a lot of ‘bright-siding’– It’s all happy clappy, it’s all good, we’re all going in the right direction, there’s renewable energy, sunflowers, all of this. I think in part some of this is a personal psychological response, people wanting to talk about the good news because it allows them to go on, but we have to deal with this problem as it really is.
Another subject, Nicole Foss, author of The Automatic Earth, sums it up brilliantly:
“Techno optimism in particular is really insidious. It’s about telling us we don’t actually have to change anything.” “Essentially all political systems exist to extract wealth from the periphery and concentrate it at the centre.” “Sustainable is not nearly good enough. What you need is not sustainable, you need regenerative.”
The balance between footage of the Wurruk’an experiment and interviews with experts is perfect.
Some people moved away from Wurruk’an. The documentary touches briefly on the social difficulties faced during the year, but I would have liked to know more about the conflicts that transpired. I joked with Samuel Alexander during the Greening the Apocalypse interview that I would like to live on an unintentional community ‘Steppenwolf’, for misanthropic introverts who don’t want to talk to other people. I was being tongue-in-cheek to mask the truth: I want to live simply but find group dynamics exhausting. To live intentionally, I would have to find a group with a very dark sense of humour who won’t be offended when I ignore the lunch bell to hide in my cabin reading Voss. “Sorry everyone, no shared ritual for me today dudes!” Samuel Alexander, if you’re reading this, can you please start an unintentional community, with a minimalist Japanese/Danish aesthetic and a strict djembe, patchouli and leggings-as-pants ban? (note to self: Re-watch the part in A Simpler Way where intentional community scholar Dr Bill Metcalf talks about how it is important to develop skills in interpersonal relationships in order to function within a community.)
I won’t lie, there are small parts of the film that made me cringe, shots of people doing difficult things badly reinforced my ever present fear that the whole exercise of sustainability is futile. But if I bypass my ever present rampant cynicism, the documentary is insightful and the experts interviewed are hyper-intelligent and committed. It is better to do something than to sit on the sidelines being critical of overcooked broccoli, after all. The time-lapse shots of the tiny house being built for $420 (including petrol) gladden my heart. I think everybody should watch this documentary. A Simpler Way documents a community in Gippsland, Victoria, but its scope is greater than that, it forms part of what the film calls ‘a broader conversation about the importance of voluntary simplicity, permaculture and economic realisation in an age of limits.’