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Choosing Voluntary Poverty

I have read several articles recently from a variety of sources about green living, reducing footprints, and sustainability. Most recently and perhaps most sadly, I read that 2014 was the hottest year on record. None of the articles, however, have mentioned one of the greatest ways, in my opinion, of creating positive change in the world. Voluntary Poverty is a far more fundamental and effective way to decrease consumption and impact while increasing connection and improving life all around. Our family of four lives on about $7,000 a year (less this year) and our lives are more enjoyable, fuller, richer, healthier, more inspiring to others, and more interesting to ourselves. (Note: for comparison, the poverty level as set by the government for a family of four is around $22,000). This is nothing new of course; sages and mystics have been sharing the joys and even the necessity of voluntary poverty and simplicity for eons. This article is simply my two cents as a modern day American.

Katy in the $30 greenhouse.jpg

Voluntary Poverty Has to Be a Choice

Being poor, for most folks, is truly awful. But that is very different from choosing voluntary poverty. Voluntary Poverty needs to be a lifestyle choice rooted in care for the earth and each other with a great awareness of our serious global challenges and our roles in causing them. And, voluntary poverty is for those of us in a position to choose it. For example, my wife and I are white, well-educated, healthy, American citizens who were raised in loving families. In every way in this time and place we have the world at our fingertips - we were born on third base. And, because we know what our American corporate and consumerist lifestyles do to people on the other side of the tracks - be they in our country or, more commonly these days, abroad - we feel a responsibility to choose another path that is as life-affirming and as sustainable as we can make it while still remaining connected and participating in our native culture.

When I bring up voluntary poverty in groups and talks there is often an uncomfortable stirring among the participants. This is to be expected as we have all been raised in a culture of scarcity, where we are expected to be go-getters and not go-givers, where the “American Dream” and our entire cultural myth rests of the pursuit of wealth, comfort, and satisfaction through stuff. Listen to the news and it is plain as day: being a good American means being a good, active consumer. Many others have told how we’ve gotten here much better than I can. What I can offer is what we do as one family in response to the destructive systems all around us.

Creating Contexts

One of the most helpful tools at our disposal is creating contexts or environments that support how we want to live in the world. This is a huge step in that every time you can alter your environment, your foundations, a context, in your life, you no longer have to rely on willpower to push your way towards a life of greater authenticity. Here’s an example I’ve used before: We live without electricity. It doesn’t come into our home. Our meter has been removed. We have created an environment that starts at zero electricity. Why we do this is, on the one hand, to withdraw support from Big Energy (think coal mining, acid rain, oil tankers, wealth inequality, and so on) as well as limit the amount of cheap electric consumer goods (made in China, out of plastic…) that we’d inevitably welcome if our outlets supplied the juice. On the other hand, we are moving towards more and deeper connection with ourselves and with nature and spirit (the seasons, our natural biorhythms, light and dark, long rests in winter, time outside, plants and animals…). Living this way is so lovely I generally choke-up about it when I share this with others. Oh, and we also don’t have an electricity bill. So, without the switch and the plug right there calling me to use them, I don’t. Just by preventing electricity from entering our home we have brought our lives so much more in alignment with our values. For us this means a huge increase in our quality of life and a much lower impact on our precious earth.

The same is true, more so even because it is so foundational, for choosing Voluntary Poverty as a context. We purposefully do not make much money. We could - we’re both college educated and beyond with a variety of skills and long and successful job histories – but we don’t. With our limited bills, money for our gardens and animal care, home upkeep and improvement, educational opportunities, clothes and stuff for our children, transportation (gas if we borrow a car, the occasional bus and train fares…), bike tires, gifts, books…we make and use a little below $7,000 a year. By having less money to live on (and no savings), a host of feedback loops kick into motion. Here’s a list:

• We are more creative with our use of resources. We cannot run to Home Depot every time we need a part so we Scavenge for them, cultivate patience with projects, ask around and rethink, reduce, reuse, and recycle creating greater connections at each step.
• We are healthier. We bike, we garden, we don’t stress over jobs, we eat organic food, we play, we cultivate our hobbies, we live much more in tune with the seasons (no electricity), we live more slowly, use the light from beeswax candles, and on and on…
• We are wealthy in time. We have taken up instruments, developed our craftsmanship from pottery to natural building and permaculture. We also spend a lot of time with our kids!
• We are connected in our community. We are free to do our “work” and host community dinners, help neighbors start gardens, offer art classes for kids, make murals, orchestrate community improvement projects, distribute food and clothing, host workshops…We also have a network around our home that can help tend our place (gardens, animals) when we are away. It’s also amazing what shows up when you are available to receive, use, and share it: our little Be the Change project gives away over $200,000 worth of clothing each year from donations from the Common Threads program of the Patagonia company.
• We support the Gift Economy. Everyone loves to share their gifts and once the gift snowball gets rolling it keeps getting bigger and faster.
• We are home a lot! This means time with our kids, with my wife, our neighbors, friends, and folks who drop in. It means connection with land and seasons, too, at a local and personal level.
• We live more sustainably. Less consumption, more food growing, increased soil health and better habitat, less travel, passive solar heating and lighting, masonry wood heater, solar oven, locally-sourced wood, great use of salvaged materials, natural building and renovations using local clay and sand, greywater system, composting, great use of the urban the waste stream…
• Our lifestyles are less supportive of war. Very little of the money we generate goes to the government because we don’t pay income tax. There are estimates that the US government spends nearly half of every tax dollar on war (source: War Resisters League). Also, we use a very small amount of fossil fuels (in motors, from electricity generation, from consumer activity and stuff getting transported to us…) which are so linked to war.
• We are less supportive of extractive capitalism and the inherent inequalities it supports.
• We ask for help as we need it which connects us to neighbors and friends and encourages the gift economy.
• We are freer! We also unschool our kids so can take off on vacations or visits throughout the year.

This is a radical step that is hard to start but, year-by-year, less challenging to maintain. Speaking from experience, it has great rewards that far surpass the material rewards of lots of income. 

If you choose this path, good luck and keep in touch.  It’s nice to have a supportive tribe in such an endeavor.

Kyle Chandler-Isacksen runs the “Be the Change Project” with his wife and two young sons in Reno, Nevada. BTC is an urban homestead and learning center dedicated to service and simplicity and rooted I integral nonviolence. They were honored as one of Mother Earth News’ Homesteads of the Year in 2013. Check out their upcoming three-week cob/natural building workshop at House Alive!


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doug
8/25/2015 7:25:53 AM

(posting to get future email notifications)


rawone
2/23/2015 11:45:15 AM

What a wonderful article. I just had a couple questions. First thing that came to mind for me is where do you live? Did you buy a piece of property and pay it off before you chose this lifestyle? Most folks rent or mortgage is going to be way over the $7000 you live on a year. Were you blessed with someone letting you homestead on their land of did you inherit a piece of property? My property taxes alone are $3000 a year just to put this in perspective :) I believe we must all strive to bring back the home economy where all ages of the family live on the same piece of land and help each other out with all that needs to be done. It worked for thousands of years and is still done in many places today!


newbeginnings
2/23/2015 8:52:30 AM

We were older before we started down this path, so still have a house and land payment, and a host of medical bills for one child who was born with medical issues. I don't know if we'll ever see the day you describe, although we enjoy bits and pieces of it now, including having tremendous amounts of time for our family. Here's a critical question for us. We live where temperatures are near or over 100 for long periods, with humidity and mosquitos to match. We chose to stay in this area because of the "family" we have built here. We cannot figure out how to afford to go off grid for this area, and be able to keep people and food cool enough. We know pioneers did it, but we can't afford to re-build to take advantage of cross breezes (which honestly don't exist in August, and sometimes in July and September as well.) We barely get by, as many of our resources have been going into animal care as we rebuild our soil, hoping to build permaculture forests for our animals. In the meantime, we've lost many animals to parasites, and weather related conditions. We've built pallet barns, but lost several babies due to an unexpected freeze last year. This year, we stacked hay bales around the outside of some of the barns, but did use a heat lamp in one for our tiny newborns. Between our house and land payments, our animals, and other day to day expenses, it's hard to get ahead enough to re-configure our well, or to build strong enough solar to air condition our home (if we turn off the a/c in the summer, the mold levels soar--we tried that one year). Our house is not large, and was actually designed to be energy star efficient, in terms of it's insulation factor, it's natural lighting, and it's design for taking advantage of cross breezes. Still, we do use electricity. We've learned to cut that need, but not eliminate it. Some of our children are completely on board with what we're doing. At least one is not. Where we live, what we are doing is not even understood, much less respected or desired, by most. There are days we wonder whether the efforts are worth it, if it means creating a child who has become very money focused as a reaction against what we're doing (and the criticism this child has endured because of our choices). Every now and then, we see a glimmer of hope, as this child makes positive comments and decisions that reflect a deeper understanding of our decisions. As a side note, we also have huge CPS issues here, and we've been told we cannot foster children here without making significant lifestyle changes, so I'm sure going off grid would end that option. We have a huge need here to help foster children, so again, we are really torn between 2 worlds. There are times when we are accused of, and actually feel very selfish for the amount of time spent doing what we're doing, when there is such a huge need to help foster kids, help the homeless, etc... where we live. We'll see where we end up on the spectrum. In the meantime, we thank you for your article. If you have any ideas how to go further off grid where we live, on very limited resources (which you understand), please let us know. Thanks so much!


ozarkgypsy
1/29/2015 1:48:26 PM

Groovy article indeed. Too bad more people can't live a more simple life. I have found it costs more to work full time than what it's worth. So many people work just to 'scrape by'. If you have to 'scrape by' then why not live more simple, at least you'll have more time to do what you want to do.


christmasfairy
1/28/2015 9:17:36 AM

I only make the amount above a year as a substitute teacher.I pay my taxes,because the tax man will find you if you do not even claim the only dollar you made for the last 12 years.{I know.I've been audited before by the state.} We are in "voluntary" poverty by merely existing. I wish this family well, but in my area of the country the Department of Human Welfare would be on the door to take my children if we turned off the electric meter.


doug
1/28/2015 6:46:03 AM

Simone, I appreciate your response to my concern. I know a big part of choosing this lifestyle is about networking for supplies and talent-sharing. Note that my concern isn't about someone who is 65 or even 95 but still going strong (the pediatrician from my childhood still gets around just fine at 93). It isn't about old age. It is about the 40 or 60 or 80 year old who physically can't do the jobs necessary to be self-reliant due to injury or true old age decline. Saying that "connections and a network of support that serves the weakest as well as the strongest" is what will support everyone when they get to that point is an extreme gamble and even naive. This isn't just about not having the strength to garden, what if you can't feed yourself or dress yourself? You can't rely on your neighbors or friends or family to devote that kind of time - for years - when they are already spending all of their days for their own survival (we are only talking about those that live the lifestyle described in this article). As I said before, this leaves you depending on modern social safety nets, or on people that have modern jobs (or have retired from one), and that immediately renders all of your years of self-sustaining lifestyle as completely unsustainable. . . . . What we need is a lifestyle answer that solves THIS problem too.


jaceyln
1/26/2015 2:05:03 PM

I came upon your article during a time when it brought me a sense of inspiration as I have had to ponder transforming my environment to live a "back-to-the-basics" lifestyle. While I am highly educated and have had a long career in years past because I had relocated to another state I have been seriously underemployed. As a result, a back-to-the-basics lifestyle is being forced upon me. Initially, it was like a shocker because I would never fathom on living on less than $45,000. I had to change my diet by focusing more on greens, beans, brown rice, and all the other good stuff for the body because I could not afford the heavy beef, steaks, and sugar-fested junk food. Consumption of gas and electricity decreased. I don't drive as much because can't afford to go to many places but as a result I've been more productive in woodworking, sewing, soap-making, and gardening. It feels absolutely wonderful to know how to make my own dresses, pants, pajamas,and such. Self-reliance is a good for humanity and is a concept that would help benefit society and perhaps move it to a more Utopian society where all peoples equally benefit from the system.


simone
1/24/2015 7:51:10 AM

I seem to have drifted into Voluntary Poverty without having thought about it. Besides the not living with electricity (we are totally off the grid but have a full solar array), our lifestyle is very much like yours. We are privileged enough to have a farm to live on, but my passion for recycling and a mania against waste in any form has dictated my non-consumerist outlook. Doug, I understand your concerns about What To Do When You're Too Old, but a lot of Voluntary Poverty has to do with making connections and a network of support that serves the weakest as well as the strongest. The Western mores that dictate that the oldsters are useless is a crying shame - my mum worked jolly hard all her life. Now its time for her relax, and I'm happy to give her that space. Its called respect.


zumaji
1/23/2015 7:25:32 AM

This is such a great article! I am totally on board but haven't read about other people doing this. Fact is, I still spend a lot of time "trying to survive" and being critical for not having much money or savings so it's very inspiring to hear that this is a choice you've made! I feel better about my situation already! Thank you!


keith
1/22/2015 11:01:18 AM

Congrats, real Americans happy and free. Your family is an inspiration.


doug
1/22/2015 9:22:36 AM

I applaud most of your lifestyle implementation, but there is one item you need to consider. Your survival depends on your own good health. Eventually age or (possibly sooner) injury will prevent you from providing for your own survival. Past generations solved this problem by having large families that followed a social contract where the elderly were cared for, although that often wasn't for very long. Groups like Monks have a similar "retirement plan". You could have 15 children but I doubt you will nor should they have that particular burden. Modern society solved this problem by allowing individuals to build enough personal wealth to last, and providing last-resort safety nets like Social Security and Medicaid. Since you say you have the ability (education, social position) to make more money I think you should, with the single goal of saving it for your own golden years. . If your plan is to rely on society's safety nets, then ultimately your plan is unsustainable and you have failed in your goal to create a low footprint. The only sustainable lifestyle is one that every individual can rely on for their whole life. Relying on input (taxes) from others in society to create those safety nets means others can not live the same lifestyle you currently live. . When I have considered downsizing my own lifestyle this is the one ethical stumbling block I always get caught on. I *will* provide for my own survival and the only way I can see doing that is to keep making enough money that I can save enough to live on later.