In the modern world, most of us live highly specialized lives. We generally assume that it is more efficient to trade our time for pay and then to pay other people for their time rather than doing things like growing food and making clothes ourselves.
But there is a movement that has started questioning these assumptions. Called “voluntary simplicity” by many of its adherents, this movement is about slowing down and reconnecting to food, communities and the natural environments we live in. While there are pockets across North America, the Anglican Journal contacted some loosely connected members of a particularly vibrant group in Winnipeg to learn more about their motivations for gearing down and living more simply.
DeLayne Toews works in construction and holds a degree in biblical and theological studies from the Canadian Mennonite University (CMU). He has always been skeptical about industrial systems. “Economically, socially and spiritually,” he explained, “I have had this suspicion that the more we interact with a capitalist system, the more we hurt ourselves and others.” He started becoming seriously interested in voluntary simplicity several years ago when he began volunteering at the Wiens Family Share Farm, a small co-operative outside of Winnipeg.
“Working on the vegetable farm, you start to observe everyday miracles happening in the way that ecosystems work,” Toews explained. “One of those miracles is how waste is converted back into nutrients…Our disgust for our own faeces and urine has led us to send these things as far away from us as possible, but we end up taking all of those nutrients coming through our bodies and depositing them in places that don’t need them, like Lake Winnipeg.”
Toews’ interest in farming led him to participate in creating the CMU Farm, a one-and-a-half-acre co-operative affair on the grounds of the CMU in Winnipeg, and his conviction that there are better ways to deal with human waste led him to build a simple composting toilet. With the support and patience of his roommates and landlord, he began turning human waste into manure to be used in his garden.
The toilet is a simple device: a wooden box contains a bucket. Instead of flushing, wood shavings are used to cover the waste, which masks any odours. When the bucket is full, it is emptied into a hole in the backyard and covered with a layer of soil. While he was very pleased with how the toilet worked, he admitted that many people would find it impractical. “It’s hard to do it as a tenant,” he acknowledged, laughing. “I was fortunate that my roommates were very open-minded about it.”
For Jen Regehr, however, simplicity is all about two things: food and relationships. Regehr manages Folio Café at CMU and runs Sam’s Place, a café owned by the Mennonite Central Committee. Hospitality and food are, for her, essential to the good life. “There is something about the dynamic when people gather around real food that has been prepared by someone they know,” she explained. “It includes an attitude of respect toward the food itself that I find really enhances my experience of the food.”
Regehr considers herself part of the “slow food” movement, a response to the rushed and often unhealthy way in which people approach food in modern urban contexts. Slow food emphasizes fresh, ethically sourced ingredients, careful, artisanal preparation and a more relational way of eating.
“There are a lot of people who, when they first come into a restaurant that is more driven by slow food and relationships, are a little surprised. They’re used to fast food. They’re used to customer service that is really based on anonymity,” she explained. “There is definitely a mixed response, but I find when people get past their surprise, they find it engaging in a different way and memorable.”
Not everyone comes to voluntary simplicity for the same reasons. Adam Klassen Bartel, who works as a cook, started changing his lifestyle because of environmental and social concerns. Criticizing what he perceived as a cultural desire for “perpetual growth,” he pointed out that “there are only so many natural resources, and most of them aren’t coming back. So what happens when we run out of them?”
In response to feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems his generation faces, Klassen Bartel started exploring voluntary simplicity. “When you start asking ‘How can I change the world?’-if you ask the question that way, you won’t be able to do anything. The world is too big; there are too many problems. What you can do is look at your own life.”
For Klassen Bartel, unplugging is important to maintaining perspective. “We are being bombarded by information all the time,” he said. “There is so much happening. It makes me anxious, and it just fills me up so much that I don’t actually have time to pull back and think. Simplicity, to me, is a way of focusing on the tasks that I’m doing, and actually trying to understand them.”
Speed is a common theme among many who are seeking to simplify their lives, and for Kenton Lobe, who teaches international development studies at CMU and is heavily involved in running the CMU farm, farming is an important corrective to the instantaneous nature of the industrialized world.
“When you’re farming,” he noted, “the mistakes that you make take a year to correct. If you screw something up, you could lose a whole crop. You learn that lesson really well, and you will have a whole year to think about it before you can take another crack at it.”
Lobe came to voluntary simplicity after working in the non-profit world for several years. “I had been working abstractly for a long time, and wanted to understand the concrete,” he explained. “Rather than talking about Bill Gates and soil fertility in Africa, I wanted to understand the nuts and bolts of soil.”
Lobe and his wife share the equivalent of a single full-time job, and are exploring other ways of gearing down. “We got rid of a car, and it was an opening of time in another way. Home-schooling our kids is exactly the same thing. There’s no more getting up and rushing around in the morning…All of these things open possibilities for imagining what time might look like in one’s world.”
Lobe knows that others might find his family’s lifestyle baffling, but going back has no appeal for him. “We can’t imagine stepping back into that flow-not because it’s some idyllic world that we’re living in, but because we’ve lost the capacity to cope with moving that fast happily.”