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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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