Elephants In The Garden And Other Stories Of Simplicity

June 3, 2004

A herd of hungry elephants thunders into a poor farming village in Africa. They march through the compound, ravaging the crops, stuffing themselves with the very stuff the farmers need to live. And when they are done, they tromp away to their next meal, leaving the tiny ruined humans to try and survive as best they can.

Oh well, we might say. Sad story. But they are elephants, after all. Of course they're hungry -- they're enormous. They're at the top of the food chain. They have to eat more than their share.

But do they? Is it good for anyone -- elephants included -- to be this hungry?

Consumerism and American Culture

Let's begin with some uncomfortable truths: America represents just 5 percent of the world's population. That is, only one out of every 20 people on Earth is an American. Oh, but we are a hungry little person. We consume one-fourth of the world's resources. We eat 17 percent of the world's timber. We excrete an elephant's share of greenhouse gases. According to the most-recent US Statistical Abstract, compiled by the Census Bureau, we throw away 232 million tons of garbage a year. In fact, Americans spend more on trash bags to get rid of our excess than 90 of the world's nations spend on everything they purchase -- food, durable goods, health care -- everything.

And how are we paying for all of this? More than 40 percent of American families spend more money than they earn. The Statistical Abstract projects that in 2005, Americans will owe $985 billion on their credit cards alone. To keep up with our lifestyles, too many of us work too many hours, take a second mortgage on our homes and still we discover that we don't have enough.

We already have accumulated more stuff than anyone else on Earth. Are we the happiest nation on Earth because of what we've been given? Is our faith stronger? Are we better adjusted, less fearful, more content?

No. Something is terribly wrong in America, and our staggering rates of obesity, depression, teen pregnancy, violence and suicide are symptoms of a larger problem.
It's time we made a change in our priorities, pursued a different path. One suggestion is what is known as voluntary simplicity.

People who practice voluntary simplicity make buying decisions based on what they truly need rather than what advertisers say they need. They replace the almighty dollar as the god of their daily lives with a life centered on family, friendship and faith. In their buying choices, they try to live in harmony with the environment and with other people.

I used to live the American dream: a new house in suburbia, a new car, maxed-out credit cards. But before I even knew what it was called, two Baylor experiences started me on the path to voluntary simplicity.

Africa, Thoreau and Hard Questions

Ten years ago, my Baylor colleague Blake Burleson took me as a faculty member on the Baylor in Africa program. It changed my life. For five weeks, I was part of a culture that disdained deadlines, treated distance as something better measured by stories than maps and believed that "I" actually meant "we."

When we stayed with villagers in the hills of northwest Kenya, it was simultaneously the most challenging and most illuminating experience of my life to that point. Some of our students went a little crazy, I think. Maybe I did, too, because what I discovered seemed crazy to me. These members of the Bukusu tribe, certainly among the world's poorest people, were some of the most joyful people I had ever met.

It made no sense. They possessed fewer clothes than I carried in my backpack, lived in crumbling houses of mud and wood and cooked over open fires. I was raised to give my nickels and dimes to the Lottie Moon Christmas Fund for such people. But here was my new Bukusu friend Douglas Wanyama. He didn't have a library or a Palm Pilot or the complete second season of The Sopranos. But he had something better.

He had a smile on his face. How could this be?

When you start asking questions, sometimes there's no stopping them. Each seemed to lead to another. Had stuff ever made me happy? No. Did the idea of pursuing more stuff make me happy? No. In fact, as I contemplated catalogs and shopping malls and credit card statements, it made me feel sad. Empty. The kind of feelings that make Americans want to go out and buy more stuff.

So I turned to the Bible, examined what it had to say about wealth and acquisition. It had a lot to say. Here is the merest sample:

"Consider the lilies of the field," Jesus said. "They toil not; neither do they sow. And yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these."

"The love of money is the root of all evil," Paul said.

"I will not accept your gifts and offerings," Amos said, speaking for God. "Not until you realize that being chosen is not a privilege; it is an obligation."

Of those "to whom much is given, much is expected."

But how much is expected? Well, that question can be asked in this way: How much do I really need?

Every time I teach American literature, I use Henry David Thoreau's classic book Walden. But in fall 1994, just back from Africa, I did not teach the book; the book taught me.

What is truly necessary to life? Thoreau asks. Our work and commerce, the hustle and hurry of our lives, the goods we lay up for ourselves, the mansions in which we shelter ourselves? No. Simplify, simplify, simplify, Thoreau advised, and he threw his paperweight out the window as an object lesson. Slow down. Reflect. Open your door and your heart to the natural world. Don't be afraid to march to the beat of a different drummer.

Even now, Walden is a countercultural slap to our consumer society. "What do you want us to do?" my students invariably ask. "It's not like we can go off and live in a shack in the woods like Thoreau did."

I'm not suggesting they do such a thing. Thoreau wasn't either. But, like Jesus, I think Thoreau was offering up a parable from his life's example: A life lived in voluntary simplicity may be more fulfilling than a life lived according to society's standards. Better for you, better for those you love, better for the larger world.


Perhaps you're starting to imagine how a simpler life might work for you and your family. But how is it better for the larger world, you might ask. What possible difference do my decisions make?

A lot more than you know. For example, in the last 10 years, news sources from the LA Times to Reuters to the Christian social justice magazine The Other Side have chronicled the labor practices of contractors making products for Disney, the American icon described by the National Labor Commission as one of the "greediest sweat shop abusers" in the world. Had you ever stopped to consider that the item of Disney apparel you're taking to the check-out stand was made by a woman in a sweatshop in Bangladesh who was beaten and threatened during her 15-hour work shift? That she earned a nickel in wages for that shirt for which you are about to pay $40? And that in the process of making even this simple choice, ordinary Americans like you and me have become unwitting supporters of oppression and injustice?

Probably not. These aren't stories we often hear from the mainstream media. They aren't stories we even want to hear. But it is, nonetheless, an important part of the concept of voluntary simplicity. Voluntary simplicity is about spending less, about reducing, reusing and recycling to walk more lightly on the planet we share with the other 95 percent of human beings. But it also has to do with recognizing that today our simplest consumer choices may have a moral dimension.

It takes effort to be a conscious consumer (see sidebar of resources). If you're like me, the thought of examining your purchase of a pair of socks may be enough to make you slap your hands to your face and scream like Macaulay Culkin in the movie "Home Alone." But don't despair. It is still, as that quintessential American capitalist Benjamin Franklin said, possible to do well and do good.

By buying "Fair Trade" coffee, for example, you can be assured that coffee pickers in Latin America are paid a living wage for their labor. By refusing to patronize the many stores selling goods made with child or sweatshop labor, you can send a message to retailers that you aren't willing to sacrifice women and children on the altar of convenience. By shopping in a thrift or consignment store or buying a used car, you save money and natural resources. Even through something as simple as paying a little more for organic produce, you can keep pesticides and chemical fertilizers off your food, out of our water and away from the workers who picked that produce.

Simplicity can help bond friends and family. Sustainable living can help us treat our resources with respect so this planet can welcome our children and their children. A life focused on family, God and community is rich in delight. And voluntary simplicity can be an important part of a spiritual practice: This is God's wealth. I try to keep only what I truly need and give the rest away.

It may be a disturbing thing to discover that there are people beneath our feet; it certainly was for me. But I'm encouraged beyond measure by this -- that with patience and concentration, even elephants can learn to walk more lightly.