Simple living as a concept is distinguished from those living in forced poverty, as it is a voluntary lifestyle choice. Although asceticism may resemble voluntary simplicity, proponents of simple living are not all ascetics.
Epicureanism, based on the teachings of the Athens-based philosopher Epicurus, flourished from about the fourth century BC to the third century AD. Epicureanism upheld the untroubled life as the paradigm of happiness, made possible by carefully considered choices and avoidances. Specifically, Epicurus pointed out that troubles entailed by maintaining an extravagant lifestyle tend to outweigh the pleasure of partaking in it. He therefore concluded that what is necessary for happiness, bodily comfort, and life itself should be maintained at minimal cost, while all things beyond what is necessary for these should either be tempered by moderation or completely avoided.
In North America, religious groups including the Shakers, Mennonites, Amish, and some Quakers have for centuries practiced lifestyles in which some forms of wealth or technology are excluded for religious or philosophical reasons. For more information about Quaker simplicity see Testimony of Simplicity.
In Victorian Britain, Henry Stephens Salt, an admirer of Thoreau, popularised the idea of "Simplification, the saner method of living Other British advocates of the simple life included Edward Carpenter, William Morris and the members of "The Fellowship of the New Life. C.R. Ashbee and his followers also practiced some of these ideas,thus linking Simple Life ideas with the Arts and Crafts movement.
British novelist John Cowper Powys advocated the simple life in his 1933 book A Philosophy of Solitude.
George Lorenzo Noyes, a naturalist, mineralogist, development critic, writer, and artist, is known as the thoreauvian of Maine. He lived a wilderness lifestyle, advocating through his creative work a simple life of sustainable living and his spiritual reverence for nature.
During the 1920 and 1930s, the Vanderbilt Agrarians of the Southern United States advocated a lifestyle and culture centered upon traditional and sustainable agrarian values as opposed to the progressive urban industrialism which dominated the Western world at that time.
From the 1920s to the 1960s, a number of fairly prominent modern authors articulated both the theory and practice of lifestyles of this sort, among them Gandhian Richard Gregg, economists Ralph Borsodi and Scott Nearing, anthropologist-poet Gary Snyder, and utopian fiction writer Ernest Callenbach. Gregg wrote a book entitled The Value of Voluntary Simplicity (1936) and many decades later Duane Elgin wrote the highly influential book Voluntary Simplicity (1981). There are eco-anarchist groups in the United States and Canada today promoting lifestyles of simplicity. In the United Kingdom, the Movement for Compassionate Living was formed by Kathleen and Jack Jannaway in 1984, to spread the vegan message and promote simple living and self-reliance as a remedy against the exploitation of humans, animals, and the Earth.
Another approach is to look very fundamentally at the whole issue of why we need to buy and consume so many resources for a good quality of life Though our society often seeks to buy happiness, materialism very frequently fails to satisfy, and may even increase the level of stress in life. It has been said that "the making of money and the accumulation of things should not smother the purity of the soul, the life of the mind, the cohesion of the family, or the good of the society.
The 'grassroots' awareness campaign, National Downshifting Week (UK) (founded 1995) encourages participants to positively embrace living with less. Campaign creator, British writer and broadcaster on downshifting and sustainable living, Tracey Smith says, "The more money you spend, the more time you have to be out there earning it and the less time you have to spend with the ones you love". National Downshifting Week encourages participants to 'Slow Down and Green Up' and contains a list of suggestions for Individuals, Companies and Children and Schools to help them lean towards the green, develop corporate social responsibility in the workplace and create eco-protocols and policies that work alongside the national curriculum, respectively.
Many Green Parties often advocate voluntary simplicity as a consequence of their "four pillars" or the "Ten Key Values" of the United States Green party. This includes, in policy terms, their rejection of genetic modification and nuclear power and other technologies they consider to be hazardous. The Greens' support for simplicity is based on the reduction in natural resource usage and environmental impact. This concept is expressed in Ernest Callenbach's "green triangle" of ecology, frugality and health.
Many with similar views avoid involvement even with green politics as compromising simplicity, however, and advocate forms of green anarchism that attempt to implement these principles at a smaller scale than through modern nations, e.g. the ecovillage. This view is often allied with a general critique of globalization as industrial capitalism, colonial imperialism, or a neoliberal "neocolonialism." Such a pairing is not universal among practitioners of simple living, however, who may denounce such obsession with worldly affairs as distasteful or unseemly.
The relationship between economic growth and war, when fought for control and exploitation of natural and human resources, is considered a good reason for promoting a simple living lifestyle. Avoiding the perpetuation of the resource curse is a similar objective of many simple living adherents. Opposition to war has led some to a form of tax resistance in which they reduce their tax liability by taking up a simple living lifestyle.
People who practice simple living have diverse views on the role of technology. Some simple living adherents, such as Kirkpatrick Sale, are strong critics of technology, while others see the Internet as a key component of simple living in the future, including the reduction of an individual's carbon footprint through telecommuting and less reliance on paper. Voluntary simplicity may include high-tech components — indeed computers, Internet, photovoltaic arrays, wind and water turbines, and a variety of other cutting-edge technologies can be used to make a simple lifestyle within mainstream culture easier and more sustainable.
The idea of food miles, the number of miles a given item of food or its ingredients has travelled between the farm and the table, is used by simple living advocates to argue for locally grown food. This is now gaining mainstream acceptance.
Advertising is criticised for encouraging a consumerist mentality. Many advocates of voluntary simplicity tend to agree that cutting out, or cutting down on, television viewing is a key ingredient in simple living. Some see the Internet, podcasting, community radio or pirate radio as viable alternatives.
A reference point for this new economics can be found in James Robertson's A New Economics of Sustainable Development, and the work of thinkers and activists, who participate in his Working for a Sane Alternative network and program. According to Robertson, the shift to sustainability is likely to require a widespread shift of emphasis from raising incomes to reducing costs.
The principles of the new economics, as set out by Robertson, are the following: