Review: “Stepping Lightly – Simplicity For People And The Planet” by Mark A. Burch

Review by Sheila Havard

Book: “Stepping Lightly – Simplicity For People And The Planet” by Mark A. Burch

Mark Burch was the Quaker Studies lecturer at Canadian Yearly Meeting this year and his topic was simplicity. He is an author, educator and group facilitator who has practised simple living since the 1960s. He is a fellow of the Simplicity Institute. Stepping Lightly is one of five books he has written on voluntary simplicity.

Mark came to Winnipeg Quakers in Winnipeg through simplicity, but it could equally well have happened the other way round. Simplicity can lead to spirituality or vice versa.

This article does not purport to be a review of the book, but highlights some aspects of simplicity.

I am sure that Friends are fully aware of the ecological consequences of the Western world’s obsession with acquiring “stuff”. It violates every testament espoused by Quakers: competition for resources is disruptive of peace; acquisition by the rich denies the poor their due, etc. Consumerism is the very opposite of the stewardship of the earth to which the Bible calls us.

Mark argues that mindfulness plays a central role in resisting the temptation to acquire. Once we have figured out what we really value, we can ignore the rest. Going further, we can “dejunk” (in his lectures he introduces us to the word “cumber” in this respect). These two steps towards simplicity are liberating in that they free us up for what is really important: human relationships rather than things, the animate rather than the inanimate. Simplicity is conducive to calm and contentment, contrary to the claims of consumerism that “stuff” makes one happy. Mark and his wife are both strongly involved in the community gardening movement for community is a key ingredient in Mark’s concept of simplicity. Happiness is derived more from relationships than from goods.

Simplicity also involves a degree of self-reliance: picking a tomato in one’s own backyard is so much more direct and ecologically friendly than driving to the store to buy one shipped from California. Taking a responsible preventive approach to your health is far preferable to relying on the medical system to “rescue” you when you get sick.

A perhaps less widely known aspect of simplicity relates to time. The consumer approach stresses quantity: the more we pack into our day, the better. The practice of voluntary simplicity involves a shift in focus to stress selectivity and quality.

Simplicity is not self-denial, returning to the 19th century or imitating Thoreau. It does not necessarily exclude technology, but is selective in its choice and use.

These simple but radical steps can be taken by any individual, any time; they are not conditional on any kind of group action. Voluntary simplicity can be a statement of solidarity with the poor, a protest. But, above all, it is a means – never an end in itself – which presents us with a blank page, free of “cumber”.

Some of my favourite quotes:

“To construct an entire social and economic system on the cyclical and deliberate generation of artificial desires, their temporary satisfaction and then re-stimulation, is, in a word, lunacy. Yet this is the ‘miracle’ of consumerism.” (Page 29)

“Consumerism is a system that links the desires of those without awareness to the actions of those without scruples to produce destruction without precedent”. (Page 75)

(After a series of calculations): “To realize the goal of a typical North American consumer lifestyle for everyone on Earth would require four extra planets at the present time.” (Page 79)

“Voluntary simplicity is a very simple way to address the rapid depletion of world resources. Anyone can understand it. Everyone can apply it. It can be ‘geared’ to each person’s way of life, family responsibilities and geographic location… It costs nothing.” (Page 81)

(Re “dejunking”): “We trip over this junk, insure it, maintain larger than needed houses to shelter it, pay for security services to keep it from being stolen, fret over its safety, curse over its oppressive effects on our emotions and activities, search through it to find what we really need to get on with our lives… and at last relegate it to the landfill.” (Page 83-4)

“The decision to forgo consumption is the most direct, effective, immediate and ‘market-sensitive’ step that an individual or group can take toward ecological stewardship.” (Page 89)

“Material things are not evil… but they are treacherous because they can become objects of craving and attachment…” (Page 93)

“For the modern economist… standard of living [is measured by] the amount of annual consumption, assuming… that a man who consumers more is ‘better off’ than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational. Since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain a maximum of well-being with a minimum of consumption. (E. Schumacher: Small is Beautiful)

Sheila Havard
595 Elginfield Rd, RR4
Thedford ON  N0M2N0

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