I began Arnie Cooper’s interview with Duane Elgin [“Peril and Promise,” August 2002] with enthusiasm, as I am very much drawn to the idea of paring down and living a life of simple pleasures. Also, I was curious to see what a man who had been on a presidential commission exploring population growth would have to say about how to deal with our burgeoning population and the ever increasing demands it places on our planet’s limited resources.
Reading the interview, however, I found nothing to satisfy my curiosity, only more questions. I’d like to know how Elgin justifies having three children while acknowledging the problem of overpopulation. Can life really be simple with three kids? How can he talk about reducing consumption while producing ever more consumers? What are we to think when even a man such as Elgin can’t say one child is enough?
I worked very late last night at my job at the power plant, supplying electricity for all those energy-gobbling air conditioners we New Englanders had turned on to beat the ninety-degree heat. After work, I walked into my house, cooled by one small window unit, to find my teenage daughter Frances and her friend Laura at the kitchen table.
“Your house feels so nice,” Laura said to me. “My house is unbearably hot.”
Her parents didn’t have air conditioning on principle, she said, and she went on to list the other rules of the house: fans off if the room is unoccupied; no paper plates, towels, or other disposables; pay the higher price for the more durable item; buy all organic food from the co-op; and so on — all rules that I wish I enforced at my own house.
Duane Elgin failed to stress how urgently we need to educate our children about mindful resource use. All the policies, civic groups, and energy-saving gadgets in the world won’t stop us from consuming the planet if we don’t instill the ethic of consciousness in our youth. We’ve got a long way to go if even Laura, whose family lives mindfully, clearly prefers my house to hers.
Like most counterculturists, Duane Elgin believes the Internet is an “appropriate technology” for sustaining a “simpler way of life.” Yet he must be aware of the real cost of using computers. Their production and disposal have serious environmental impacts. Adjusting our lives to match the frenetic pace of a computerized society causes psychological stress. And linking humanity’s very survival to centralized, complicated, unstable networks may have disastrous results.
Perhaps Elgin perceives a connection between computers and a life “rich with family, friends, community, creative work, and . . . conscious relationship with the world around us.” The only verifiable connection, however, is between computers and the exploitation of the earth’s resources and the extermination of many of its inhabitants.
Stephanie Mills’s “A Simpler Than Average Life” [August 2002] made me angry. Never having read a copy of Utne Reader, which hailed her as “one of the world’s leading visionaries” in 1996, I have to wonder what world they were talking about.
I think Mills has spent too much time away from her own species. I found myself reacting to her essay with thoughts like: Great! Here’s another rich kid playing poor! Or She’s burning the trees to keep warm!
Terms like “bioregional” and “voluntary simplicity” aren’t a part of my vocabulary (or that of anyone else I know). Mills seems to be part of an elitist group of people who take pride in referring to themselves as “countercultural” and letting the rest of us know how “good” they are (almost saintly) because they eat tofu, drink herbal tea, talk to bugs, listen to owls, and gaze at the stars — people of “superior consciousness.” My gut turned when she wrote of her husband “bringing home the tofu.” I don’t think her type should co-opt a good old working-class phrase like “bringing home the bacon.” (Yes, I eat it!)
People who choose her lifestyle are just copping out, because the real challenge lies in living among the “polluters and destroyers of the earth,” working with us, and educating us.
I did love it, though, when she said, “I seem to be having a good time on the eve of destruction.”
Stephanie Mills responds:
I regret that the excerpt from Epicurean Simplicity angered Ms. White. Within my limitations and predilections, I do my work with the best of intentions and hopes for a better world. This is no guarantee against striking someone as being a presumptuous countercultural elitist. My purview and my work are of course limited to my circumstances. At times my blind spots infuriate me as much as they did Ms. White.
Throughout the larger work, I was at pains not to claim any moral superiority or even great attainment in simple living. I also strove to acknowledge my privilege and to stress that involuntary simplicity, aka poverty, is unjust.
Among the points I try to make in the book is that, whoever we are and wherever and however we dwell, our mundane choices have physical, ecological, and therefore moral consequences. The inadvertent, sometimes inevitable harm we do to other beings by these choices calls for some ethical scrutiny and active response.
Not everyone gets to be a Jane Addams, Simone Weil, or Dorothy Day, working in cities or factories to make things better. Not everyone should. “Different roles for different souls,” says my friend Hazel Henderson. For my part, I am trying to do good work as a writer.
Stephanie Mills’s essay on living a simple life is a wonderful confirmation of my own experience. After reading Thomas Merton, I began to emulate his life in the monastery in Kentucky. I downsized and stopped driving three days a week. With no TV, radio, or newspapers, I can find total quiet here in the pine barrens of Long Island, an island with more than 7 million people.
Stripped to the bare necessities, life could not be more authentic. Each moment is a mindful, wonderful experience. The word recreation doesn’t have any meaning anymore. Pure quiet is recreation. Hanging out the wash, scrubbing the floor, washing the dishes — all offer opportunities for meditation and prayer. It is reassuring to know that others are choosing to live more authentically.
I was diagnosed with depressive mood disorder about twenty years ago. Since that time, my life has become stable. I have a steady job, a marriage that isn’t going to dissolve if I look at it funny, a beautiful daughter, and a few good friends. I still take my medication and am thankful for the sanity it allows me. I often ask, Is this all there is? But, hopefully, I remember to be grateful for all that I have.
I appreciated Carroll Susco’s honest account of her psychosis [“Stigmata,” August 2002]. I want to say to her, “It’s not just the neurotransmitters.” I have always believed that what we consider “crazy” is just a different kind of knowing. There is a place in the middle of the forehead that burns, that knows the inherent wisdom in all creation. As Carl Jung said, mental illness is a kind of gift, because it creates a desire to reach toward the divine.
For most of my life, I’ve felt out of step with the rest of the world — one of those people who just can’t get it right. I started off as a strange little kid and have not gotten better with age. I cry when I see roadkill. My vacation pictures don’t show the sights, but rather the play of light on some everyday object. I have an unrequited, concealed, fierce love for a man who works for me. I drink too much. I work in creative media and marketing, but I cannot relate to any of the products that my talents pitch. There are many days when I look at myself in the mirror, dressed for work, and think, Who are you, and why the hell are you wearing that get-up?
Your magazine has shown me that for all of my strangeness, I am not alone. You show the beauty, the wonder, and the dirty truth of the human spirit, and you always provide me with something to think about. Your April interview with Paul Hawken [“Down to Business,” by Renee Lertzman], in which he talked about wanting to teach people to see differently rather than change their way of thinking, spoke to the reasons why I went into my profession, and why, for all its shallowness, it still attracts me. I read Readers Write and meet the people I have looked for all my life — friends I have wanted but never found. You have convinced me to take a critical look at who I am. In my thirty-five years, nothing I have ever read has made me do these things.
The Sun is the greatest magazine that has ever existed. And I know, because I have read every magazine.
I had never heard of The Sun until a neighbor gave me a very worn collection that had been passed around from person to person for a couple of years. No one threw them away — they were that good.
Yours is the only magazine that I read cover to cover, every issue. I have never found another magazine that is worth reading that thoroughly. I can almost say your magazine is better than sex. It’s definitely better than sex with my last boyfriend, who would never have read The Sun. I am buying a subscription for my new boyfriend, who I know will fall in love with The Sun just the way I did. I think sex with him is going to be fabulous.