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Is Simplicity Political?

Teresa Carey Words 38 Comments

Living aboard a boat has never been solely about sailing for me. In my hopes it has always persisted as an avenue for diving fully into a new and uncertain way of life and by doing so, perhaps encounter my own ideology. I turned to the sea to look for an answer to some of the unease I felt when I first began exploring my country as an adult.

“A person who is going to make a fruitful inquiry into the question of the best political arrangement must first set out clearly what the most choiceworthy life is. For if that is unclear, the best political arrangement must also be unclear.”-Aristotle

My exploration of Simple Living has gone deeper than reducing stuff, spending less, and living in a small space. It is more than just enjoying nature, or taking time to smell the roses. It is not my manner to run up the flag hailyard any political party, presidential candidate, or policy. But, with all the friction in today’s political and social discourse, I find that I must view it from a simplicity perspective.

Simple living is not separate from politics. In fact, an interest in simple living has often been central to political discussion. Ben Franklin, The Nearings, Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, Gandhi, and Jimmy Carter are all examples of people who have inspired me toward simplicity, but have also brought that same discussion to politics.

“If we are seriously looking for approaches that will actually change the lived experience of mainstream life in this country, we have to go well beyond personal economies….we have to change social policies.” –Jerome Segal

When exploring a new ideology, the personal experience is always at the nucleus. I began by purging myself of my excess things, and fitting the rest aboard a boat. From that starting point, I changed the way I engaged in many other aspects of life; the books I read, the food I ate, where I shopped, even how I vacationed. And all the while I was creating a set of ideals around my lifestyle aboard Daphne.

At some point, I began to look beyond myself at how these values harmonize with the collective values of American culture. For simplicity to be possible to me, it must also be possible for other Americans who desire that path. It isn’t easy to live simply in today’s culture. I wonder if Simplicity needs to be more on the minds of our political leaders in order for it to thrive as a viable and sustainable option for most Americans. I took the opportunity during my TED talk to briefly introduce Simplicity in the context of America’s current public sector because I often question its practicality today.

I’ve heard it said that it takes a community to raise a child and prepared him for adulthood. It would seem the same would apply for nurturing a way of life and making its success possible for those that desire it.


Comments 38

  1. Paul

    We are in “phase1”, of our journey to achieve simple living. Sold the house, sold our stuff, which you’ve probably heard many times, from many people. We live on our boat in the summer, and our tiny apartment in the heart of the city in the winter months. Soon, we will shed even more, and float our way down the coast for the winter, and back up in the summer. Living simply, for us, means freedom. Freedom from the typical American lifestyle, which is a consuming lifestyle. We are looking forward to this new way of life. However, there are some things that can trip us up along the way.

    When you ask if simplicity is political, the first thing that comes to mind is health care. Our health care costs are partially covered by our employer. This makes it affordable. When we are working part time, finding jobs here and there to keep our lives afloat comfortable, we will have this huge health care cost weighing us down. Tough to be free, knowing you need to maintain this insurance. So is simplicity political? Absolutely.

    Imagine the freedom, knowing that wherever you traveled, you would have free or affordable health care. Imagine if only a fraction of the the trillions of dollars our government spends on weaponry, well above and beyond defense of this nation, could go to caring for the health of it’s people. In my opinion, socialized medicine in this country would radically change our lifestyles. For us, we would have left sooner. We would have raised our children on a boat, we would have been more mobile, not trapped in our jobs for the benefits. I could go on about the impact this could have, but living simply would have been easier with a safety net, knowing the kids would be covered for the inevitable ear infections, immunizations, etc. Knowing that if my finger got jammed in the winch, I could get treated. If the boom whacked me in the head I would not go bankrupt trying to pay for the cracked skull repair.

    For us, simplicity is political, and we petition our representatives (some would call it badgering) regularly on the health care issue.

    Very good post. It gets my brain working 🙂

  2. Pen

    I hear you on the health insurance and how that can be a huge block and/or “dictator” of how one runs one’s life. I’m not saying this in reaction to you, because you said “free or reasonable,” but am instead just thinking out loud.

    I like good healthcare. I don’t expect it to be free. BUT, two main things bother me:

    1) Access to health care (or, health insurance) can be difficult and is often tied to an employer. So (as you mentioned), I might not be able to find health insurance (thence, affordable care) if I change employers, work part time, or try to start my own business. And if I do find it, it might be more expensive on my own.

    In the past, when I’ve questioned “why have it tied to my employer,” people have said “well, it’s a group, and groups help to even things out for the insuror.” Okay, but why THAT group. What about the group that is US citizens? Residents of a given state? etc.

    I have friends who hail from countries with more health-care assurance (UK, Canada, and others) and their whole outlook on life, traveling, trying things, changing things (business or otherwise) is completely different than mine. At first, they kind of laughed at me/were bewildered; after seeing how it all “works,” they are no longer doing that, and are simply thankful to have what they do.

    2) Profits going to the insurance companies, not to the doctor or the people who are developing/testing medicines and treatments.

    As I said above, I don’t MIND paying for health care. Tax me, sell me some sort of “vouchers” or whatever needs to be done, but let’s not have insurance companies playing games and raking in the profits. Where I used to work we would have to change companies almost annually. Apparently what happens is the insurance company starts the employer off with a more reasonable rate, and then jacks it up the second year, figuring you will move on and they can avoid future claims (<—- or something like that; I don't totally understand it, but it sure makes life difficult when you have to change plans constantly. Of course that's when you are lucky enough to HAVE one.)


    Just to add insult to injury, when I was looking for an individual policy a few years ago, I found that if I read the fine print, almost all of the companies forbade leaving the country (US) for more than two weeks. That makes it a bit hard to travel. I was able to take out an expat type policy, but that demanded that I be out of the country at least 6 months per year, so that's not useful for everyone (also, I have no idea how well it worked; I never had to make use of it).

    I know that every method of setting up a health care system has its minusses, and I know the US has great health care (if you can afford it), which (probably?) requires some profit incentive somewhere. But I have to wonder when our health care is so good that wealthy people from other countries come here to avail themselves of it, and yet a huge percentage of our own people aren't insured (can't get insurance?) and can't afford it.

    So yeah, does seem political ;D

  3. Katt

    Having lived aboard my entire adult life, I’ve taken the philosophy of simply living to heart early on in my life as a departure from the mainstream material driven suburban life I grew up in. Core in my beliefs is a desire to live debt free, within my means. Working online for myself along with a PT job I fit into the ‘low income’ bracket, yet I still manage to put aside savings, take extended trips abroad and have far more free time to pursue my interests then most. I don’t hire out boat work but have learned to DIY. This has garnered me mechanical skills not often seen in a female. This lifestyle impacts a lot of my choices, from my fashion sense haha to the partner I pick. As I get older, health insurance is more of a worry as I don’t have it but all of these are sacrifices I’ve been willing to make for my freedom, however this is not something I see as the norm.

    You make a great point here:

    “At some point, I began to look beyond myself at how these values harmonize with the collective values of American culture. For simplicity to be possible to me, it must also be possible for other Americans who desire that path. It isn’t easy to live simply in today’s culture. I wonder if Simplicity needs to be more on the minds of our political leaders in order for it to thrive as a viable and sustainable option for most Americans.”

    It is difficult to live simply in today’s world. I love the water and sailing, and find this lifestyle suitable to me but if it wasn’t I don’t know how easily it’d be to find a lifestyle in which to live so simply. I don’t find that the majority of Americans embracing the values of simple living. Most often I see people striving for bigger houses, bigger cars, latest gadgets, etc…

    I worry that living aboard may at some point be outlawed and can’t help but notice how live aboards are looked down upon in some communities and is against the law in some places. There is a contrast clash between those who come down to their pristine washed and waxed yacht for the occasional sail vs. those living full time year round on their boat surviving on a modest budget. Or being pushed out of an anchorage somewhere because it disturbs the view of a megamillion dollar mansion. You don’t have to be a genius to know that those with money get a greater voice in American politics. As the economy weakens and as the gap widens between rich and poor more Americans will need to downsize, I only hope this will bring about a greater desire to embrace simple living.

  4. Katt

    I should also add that not only is simple living an economically advantageous choice for me but one also one closely linked to my environmental/political philosophy of treading lightly on the planet. The two go hand in hand.

  5. Peter

    I think politics plays a role in every decision and lifestyle choice we make unfortunately, even when it comes to choosing a life of cruising and sailing the world and giving up a lot to make that happen.

    But I think it’s very hard and ineffective to count on our so-called political leaders to encourage simple living and change the consumption culture of a country. I think the best way to change a culture is for private citizens like you to set an example and show people what a great life you can have by living simply. The best thing political leaders can do is NOT mess that up by passing stupid laws that hurt your ability to live that way (i.e. banning liveaboards or jacking up and distorting health insurance rates).

    Personally a huge draw for me with sailing and cruising has been the fact that you are so self sufficient in many ways. Where else can I generate my own power (even water in some cases) and travel the world with nothing but the wind to propel me forward? For me the appeal comes less from living simply than from living a more independent and free life. The last thing I want is my politicians coming in and finding a way to mess that up 🙂

    1. Post

      Unfortunately, I cannot be a model for how great simple living is. I live without a lot of necessities that others couldn’t do without. I don’t have health insurance, a reliable job, a house, I don’t own a car (but I do share one right now), community, even a shower. Even living without a car is difficult or impossible in many places in the US. I don’t think it is necessary for political leaders to encourage simple living, just make it a viable option. People will choose it if it interests them or when they don’t have any other choice. I don’t have a problem co-existing with people who do not like simple living. Each person should have a right to choose their own lifestyle. However, I do think its important and possible for our political leaders to encourage policy that makes simplicity a realistic option. In the past, the structures that our government created have encouraged our current way of life, our degree of consumption has been made possible, etc. So, it could be expected that the opposite could happen. However, you are right in that they do find a way to mess things up! I wouldn’t want them to pass laws like some of the ones you suggested. A few years ago I was offered a job in Savannah and nearly accepted until I learned that it is illegal to live on a boat in Georgia. Since when can the government determine what is a suitable dwelling?! Crazy.

      1. Peter

        Agree about lawmakers making simplicity an option, there are definitely a lot of laws and societal norms that prevent that from being as easy it should be.

        I live in Savannah at the moment, and I can tell you they did recently change that law, but even before that, it was almost impossible to enforce. I definitely know a few people here and there that stretched the terms of that live aboard law. That being said, who wants to live in a state that makes you feel like a criminal all the time, even if no one’s getting in trouble? Thanks again for the post

  6. Mike

    As folks subscribing to the “Small House Movement” have found, many laws and bylaws interfere with living the simple life. While you can live aboard a boat with very litlle “liveable” space, most places will not permit you to build and live in a 100 sq.ft. home no matter how well designed. Big house = big municipal tax bills, small house = small bill, the calculus of living small and simple is a threat to the current economic models of the western world. Bucking the trend can be frustrating but thanks to brave folks like yourself, there are alternative lifestyle models out there that we can look to emulate should we so choose.

    Heard you sold “Daphne”. How do you feel now that you’ve taken that big plunge?

  7. Warren Palmer

    Following your voyages on your website has been interesting and entertaining. Inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing, I lived the “simple life” for a decade prior to attending graduate school and becoming an economics professor. Someday with children grown and launched into the world, life will become “simpler” once again, but even the Amish cannot escape the complexity of the modern economy and neither will I, even as I tend my garden, go bicycle tripping or sail my small boat. Almost every object and service we use is the result directly and indirectly of a complex and complicated social process of production involving workers and organizations all over the globe. The rich complexity of modern economies affords some of us the choice of simpler living, or is it the illusion of simplicity? How do you reconcile the pursuit of simplicity and writing about it via this extraordinarily complicated and enriching world of networks, and computers?

    1. Post

      You are absolutely right in that we cannot escape the complexity of the modern economy. But I never believed that simple living means “easy” or “not complicated.”

      Even Helen and Scott Nearing lived a complicated life, full of challenges. I lived on a farm for several years and it isn’t easy!

      But is this really about my computer? If I didn’t have a computer, would you ask how I reconcile having a propane stove, or bicycle, or watch?

      To answer your question, I have a computer because I like to write, learn filmmaking, and stay connected to my Grammy and niece. These things enrich my life. I do not have running water, a TV, or central heating. At this point, they are not necessary to enrich my life. Although, someday I might change my mind.

      Its only about choices. Simplicity is unique and personal. It is as varied as the people who explore it.

      Thank you for your comment. It is interesting the complex networks our world is made up of. Did you perhaps also become an Economics Professor as a result of Scott Nearing’s writing? He was certainly an inspiration and great thinker.


  8. joey

    Just a story about the government – a certain agency needed receptacles and data jacks in their oversight trailer . They ended up asking me (the person, company, they are regulating) to do it “because”, they simply said, “we are too bureaucratic”. I wonder if I would get in trouble for specifying the agency.

  9. glenn packer

    Simplicity does not require dramatic action.
    Simply stop consuming as much as you can.
    You will find it really requires very little money to get by.
    Now this level will vary depending on “needs” but its all relative.
    I used to require a lot of spending to keep me going.
    Mostly because high stress/paying job allow it and you feel you “deserve it”
    Consumption sends you down the slippery slope.

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