Can Radical Simplicity Save Us?

The systems we take for granted to deliver everything from TVs to apple pie are much more vulnerable than we think. Radical simplicity is the solution.

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Everywhere around us, things seem to be getting more and more complex. And it’s not good for our health or for the planet.

Whether it’s 35 different choices in the water aisle (!) at the grocery store, or the new need for “smartphones” to organize every detail of our totally overwhelmed lives, or the gazillion forms you have to fill out to pay for medical care or to maintain your farm’s organic certification, we seem to be increasingly burdened as a society by overchoice, micromanagement, and unnecessarily convoluted bureaucracies.

When the continuous operation of a system relies on a long and complex chain of crucial suppliers and resources, all running smoothly, that’s pretty much a textbook example of an unsustainable system.

Put another way, the systems we take for granted to deliver everything from plasma-screen TVs to food and fresh water are significantly more vulnerable than we may think.

According to Keith Farnish, author of Time’s Up: An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis:

“We have been sold The Complexity Myth: the idea that something is only good if it is a product of a complex set of processes, in order that it (or we) can be controlled. We are kept in check by this idea and do not question it because we have forgotten how to live simply; we have been brainwashed to love the world of the complex, and as a result we are prepared to defend the thing that is causing the collapse of the natural world, and our own basic humanity.”

To put it bluntly, we’ve become so utterly dependent on highly complex machinery, bureaucratic social structures and byzantine systems to provide for nearly every aspect of our living, that if a crisis happened (like extreme weather, diminishing groundwater, or running out of oil), we’d be up the proverbial “Sh*t’s Creek.”

I mean, would you be prepared if you lost electricity or water to your home for more than a week?

The alternative: Radical Simplification

Simplicity is Sustainability

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”

—Albert Einstein

From greater health to greater happiness, simplification has so many benefits that it would not be possible to list them all here in detail. But here are four benefits that I think capture the essence of simplicity, and destroy the myth that complexity is a good or acceptable thing.


1) Simplicity requires less energy

This is self-evident, for the fewer stages there are in any process, the less energy will be consumed overall. You could argue that heating a house with a load of wood and a hole in the ceiling is more energy-intensive than a combination gas boiler, but—setting aside the difference between renewable versus non-renewable forms of energy—in order to manufacture the combination gas boiler in the first place requires a similar number of processes as to manufacture a television.

If you want more efficient heating, building a rocket stove from a few aluminum cans or cinder blocks is relatively far simpler. In addition, the more stages involved in anything, the less accountability is possible, and thus the more opportunity for energy waste.

2) Simplicity is connected

Following on from the previous point, accountability isn’t really about economics, it is about knowledge. If I were to buy a cord of wood that had originated from a forest far away, then it would have had to pass through a number of stages to get from the source to the user: the felling of the trees; the sawing and preparation of the timber; the movement to the port and subsequent transportation by sea and/or land to the point at which it is available to me, or at least the person who gets it to me.

Through these different stages I have progressively lost connection with the origin of the wood; I have no sight of the trees, I cannot feel the soil, I cannot smell the air where the tree once stood. I do not care. That is the way of the civilized. Compare this to a person who cuts her own wood from a tree she felled, and uses it to build a shelter. In other words, people connected to their resources do not poop where they eat.

3) Simplicity is stable

As Thomas Homer-Dixon described so vividly in The Upside Of Down, complex societies are inherently unstable, for they rely on a multitude of different stages and processes connected by an equally complex set of linkages, any one of which can be critical to the efficient operation of the system as a whole. Bring down a major power line to a processing plant, shut down a distribution computer, or blockade a port, and the whole dependent system may break down, particularly one that is already under stress, as so many systems are in the just-in-time economy.

If you grow your own food, or ideally are a member of a local community of growers, then you may be vulnerable to seasonal aberrations or pests, but so long as you do it right then your food supply is safe, and not subject to the hazards of complexity.

4) Simplicity is democratic

Complexity is used to enforce the systems of control that the Culture of Empire uses to keep us subjects of that culture. One man with a sword can control perhaps half a dozen people without swords; one man with an agenda and a military establishment under his control can control entire nations.

Within a cooperative society, a simple society working on egalitarian principles, no one can wield power without challenge. You have a say, as does everyone, for there can be no ivory towers or impregnable fortresses in the simple society—you need complexity to build them.

According to Farnish, the mindset that brought us the equation “civilization = better living = mind-boggling complexity” is flawed and should be reconsidered in a 21st-century world of diminishing resources.

“Unless we are prepared to once again embrace the simple then we have no future as a species…except, perhaps those few remaining people who still live simply.”

Put another way, if “the end of the world as we know it” came tomorrow (and with climate change, it just might come much sooner than we think), who would fare better: the people in the world who are living in simple, cooperative agrarian villages, or the people in the world living in modern, industrial cities?

Get Real Simple.

There is no singular correct way to simplify our complex way of living. The challenge is to add a bit of radical simplicity and self-sufficiency to your life every chance you get. This means putting as few steps between you and what you need to be healthy and happy as possible.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Plant an organic vegetable garden, or yardshare with a neighbor and harvest more together.
  • Grow fruit or nut trees.
  • Raise some backyard chickens.
  • Get rid of your TV, and in its place, take up something useful like making homemade yogurt, homebrewing beer, beekeeping, quilting, etc.
  • Do any of the above with children.
  • Join or start a Transition Community.
  • Cloth diaper. Hang your clothes to dry outside.
  • Install a composting toilet, solar system, wood stove, etc. Get “off the grid” to the extent you can.
  • Quit eating foods that come in cans, bags and boxes.
  • Buy local as often as possible, especially local food.
  • Barter and share instead of buying whenever possible.
  • Make your own house cleaners and toiletries.
  • Commit to walking or biking everywhere you can.
  • Try to buy nothing new for a year—except food, toiletries, socks and underwear. You may buy second-hand or do swapping, when needed.
  • Join or start a food co-op, CSA or a credit union (or all three!).
  • Get involved in political issues that affect your natural resources. Dangerous corporate practices like fracking, mountaintop removal, GMOs, and the like threaten our ability to survive for generations to come.

What are you doing to radically simplify your life this year?

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32 thoughts on “Can Radical Simplicity Save Us?”

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  1. Katherine @ Green Thickies

    Wow, so inspiring. I’d love to live like that, off the grid and not wasting so much money. I’m on a slow path towards it and at some point in my life I hope it all comes together. Thanks for giving me so much to think about.
    I would love it if you would share this with my blog hop that I co-host with 2 other bloggers called Healthy Vegan Fridays:

    You can link up from Friday to Tuesday. I’m sure our readers would love to read this too!

    Have a great day!

    Katherine 🙂

  2. Fantastic article! I totally agree with you completely. We have a local movement here in the Branson area called Homegrown Missouri and our efforts are right in line with all the things you described. Local food. Local economy. Building community. I strive for a simple life that I can understand and create for myself without the help of massive institutions and government entities… It is vitally important and totally badass that so many other folks are realizing this too! Simplicity is best. 🙂

  3. You have some great tips there. I would love to have my own garden and fruit and nut trees one day… Thanks for sharing at A Humble Bumble 🙂

  4. Organic Aspirations (@becki_lewis)

    Thank you so much for sharing this on Eco Kids! What an amazing list to challenge me! I would LOVE to stop using foods that come in boxes and bags. I know that it’s do-able, but I’m not quite there yet. Thank you for bringing things into focus!

  5. Rebecca @ Natural Mothers Network

    Hi Dawn,
    I am featuring this post tomorrow. Thank you for sharing and delighted you popped by Seasonal Celebration Wednesday.Rebecca @ Natural Mothers Network x

  6. Thanks so much for linking up to Eco-Kids Tuesday. I featured your post this week!

  7. Kresha @ Nourishing Joy

    I love the practical list of ideas at the end. Simplicity, sustainability, and building community are indeed essential parts of living a REAL life. 🙂

    Thanks so much for sharing it in this week’s Thank Goodness It’s Monday carnival. I’ve pinned it on our “Thank Goodness It’s Monday” Pinterest page, too, so our readers will see it there as well. 🙂

    Kresha from

  8. I love what you’re saying! I hate how hard it is to accomplish. Don’t get me wrong, I am always psyched to learn how to be more self reliant. Hence the towering stacks of canned food in my apartment. In fact I do a lot of things on your list. One of the things that overwhelms me is how many things I want to do that are illegal and controlled by government and bureaucracy.
    I want to build and live in a tiny home (under 400 sq feet). This is basically still illegal. If I do get some land somewhere and build the home, my composting toilet is illegal. Even if I have one anyway I still have to spend thousands building a septic system that I don’t want because that is the law! In most states I am not allowed to sell my home canned food as a business. So it is frustrating to be building this great set of skills and find most of them illegal to use and become less dependent on government. It often takes a lot of money to comply with regulations. Anyway not to put a damper on this idea but practically I’m not even allowed to have an herb planter on my fire escape so…

  9. Thanks, Dawn…Awesome post and resultant conversation…!
    There’s a great book entitled “Radical Simplicity” about the awakening and life simplification of the author, Jim Merkle, an ex-employee of the military-industrial complex turned locavore/activist . His journey to simplicity defines radical and is an inspiration to us all…Highly recommended!!!

  10. Just found you on Thrifty Thursdays and am following you now. Several of these steps we have already taken but others…we have yet to meet the challenge. However, you’ve inspired me to keep getting more radical – thank you. Let me know if you would like to guest post on Mumtopia.

  11. Wonderful! I especially like the list of ways to get started living a more simple life! Please consider sharing this with us at Eco-Kids Tuesday.

  12. What a wonderful post! I have been trying to get my family to as low an impact as possible. What I find difficult is having one foot in the formal economy still, while I am trying to make all of these changes. We grow a garden, have our own chickens for eggs, have CSA shares in the summer and winter and buy as much locally produced food as possible. We only have one car, which my husband uses to drive to work. Where we struggle is in buying “things.” We rarely shop, but sometimes we do end up buying stuff and it is a lot harder to find everything we need locally, then it is to just drive to a big box store. Hence not shopping very often. I convince my husband to build a lot of things we seem to need, and we are able to source wood locally. Things on my list would be to get a new chimney so we can install our wood stove, and continuing to get rid of everything in our house that is just collecting dust.

  13. I love simple. Also try to buy local. Support your neighbor’s business. I also believe in buying used items. Reuse and repurpose is motto! Thanks for linking up another thought provoking post Dawn 🙂

  14. Visiting via Titus 2sday. This is such a great article! Simplicity really is the way to go. I know that when we live simpler that we are happier and more satisfied with our life. I often think that the more you have the more you want, which leads to dissatifaction with your life. Thanks for the reminder! I’d love to invite you to come by and share this blog post on my blog hop, Get Real Frugal Friday!

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Susan! Once our basic needs are met, more stuff doesn’t seem to make us any happier, and the increasing complexity in our lives seems to only make us more and more unhappy. The simpler life seems to be a much more fulfilling one, in addition to being sustainable.

  15. Excellent post! In the spirit of “eat locally”, I would like to add: Try to work locally. We waste a lot of carbon emissions on commuting. Push for telecommuting if you can: even part-time telecommuting will save you on time, gas and stress.

  16. Love this idea. I’ve been slowly coming around to a simpler life, but a bit of “radical” might do me good. Saving this in Evernote to read again and again.

  17. Christine @ these light footsteps

    Yes! This is so true!
    We are the ones who need to create change and show that an alternative, more fulfilling, and sustainable way of life is possible and DESIRABLE! It is the way of the future. (And really it’s likely to be the only way in the future!)
    Thanks for this.

    1. We can simplify on our own terms, or have our lives simplified for us by circumstance. I personally choose the former. 🙂

  18. Thanks Dawn for this informative and thought-provoking post. I especially liked the link on Transition communities. Never heard of them before.
    I’ll include a link to my blog and pictures of trees ready to be cut up for firewood. Hope you like it.

  19. Hi Dawn

    This is the myth created by governments to disempower people – that individuals are only responsible for a minority of emissions; but the thing it, who buys the stuff that causes the cargo ships to be used, who uses the electricity that causes the power plant emissions, who buys the paper and palm oil that causes the deforestation – the only thing that’s directly out of our control is war; and that doesn’t have to happen if we stop believing the myths of Empire.

    You are far more powerful than you realise.

    1. Brilliant.

      Which brings us back around to why doing things to foster greater personal and community self-sufficiency is so important.

      Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom.

  20. Thanks for reposting this – I liked your development of the ideas; and I’m not surprised it can be taken in all sorts of directions as it’s such an obvious concept: simple is good.

    I would only take issue with your last point: “Write to your local and federal legislators and demand strong and swift action on climate change and renewable energy in your community.” This is out of kilter with all the other (good) tips, for it suggests that the behemothic, and complex, systems of government are for the good. Local, representative, consensus-based decision-making is a good thing: we don’t have that. They work for corporations, not us.



    1. Keith,

      Thanks so much for commenting!! I actually agree with you completely about how governments (especially federal) work for corporations, not us. However, given that most pollution is created by corporate activities (e.g. just 16 cargo ships emit more sulfur dioxide than all the cars in the world!) and given that governments are supposed to work for us, I’m not sure what else we can do to create change in this realm!!

      Though incongruous with the rest of the list, sometimes lobbying (or protesting) the government works, especially at a local level. However, doing so shouldn’t be at the expense of putting most of our energies into rebuilding vibrant, self-sufficient, low-carbon communities. For I believe that is truly the only thing that can sustain us.


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