Back to Basics: Living with "Voluntary Simplicity"
Other voluntary simplicity advocates are seeing similar results. "This past year, more than 100,000 people have expressed interest in the tenets of simple living," says Carol Holst, cofounder of Simple Living America, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit that offers advice for people looking to "find the satisfaction of enough."
"We take the stand that you can be fulfilled without things," says Holst. "Once you reach that conclusion for yourself, life really changes. What used to seem empty and futile becomes joyful and exciting."
She reiterates that this is voluntary simplicity. "Listen, if there was something I really wanted, I'd do it," says Holst. "No guilt. Ed Begley Jr. jokes about how this movement isn't about living under a rock in Topanga. It's about feeling satisfied, not deprived. About filling up, not emptying out. Our approach is to empower the individual. There isn't any finger-wagging. This isn't a high bar. It can vary greatly, depending on your needs. Maybe you stop watching television. Maybe you join a gardening club."
Or maybe, like Kristen, you flush your whole past down the composting toilet.
The Simple Living Institute's Econ Farm is a five-acre parcel in the central Florida woods, about 40 minutes from Walt Disney World. A marshy woodland thick with mangroves, moss, and wild ferns, it's named after the Econolockhatchee River, which flows through the land. This is where Tia and Terry Meer help spread the simple living gospel. The couple has just finished building a 1,024-square-foot log cabin, where they intend to become as close to self-sufficient as possible. Harvesting rainwater and solar power. Eating food they farm on the property and bass they catch in the river. The Meers already grow a lot of what they consume. "The first thing we did was put in 50 blueberry bushes," says Terry, a lithe, apple-cheeked blond who smiles as he talks. "Then orange, lemon, and lime trees."
Terry, 34, and Tia, 29, met in college in Florida and formed an instant bond. After graduation they moved to Hawaii, where Tia, who was raised on a family farm in Pennsylvania, became a gardening consultant while Terry designed solar-energy systems. They ate papaya picked from trees, biked to Waikiki Beach, and "had a very simple island life," Terry says.
In a way, the Meers have re-created a version of that life in central Florida. They built the cabin from a kit. Costing only $50,000, it is a no-frills square structure held aloft by stilts and built of sustainable materials, with shelves and counters found on Craigslist or at the local "freecycle" site. They don't use air-conditioning, yet the space remains cool and breezy.
"Our next-door neighbor pays $400 a month for electricity," says Tia. "Our bill is about $30." Their grocery bill is equally lean, about $100 a month (which may explain why they look as fit as greyhounds).
The Meers do not own a television. They have reduced their possessions to what can fit comfortably in a few duffel bags. They ask for nothing at Christmas. "I grew up on a houseboat," says Terry. "On a boat you really see how little you need very quickly. Everything has a purpose. There isn't space for anything else."
Yet in the quest for less, compromises have to be made. The couple wanted to run their appliances on solar power. But since the county required them to install electricity in order to get a certificate of occupancy, they spent their budget to meet the mandate and plan to convert to solar later. "We weren't allowed to be off the grid," Tia says. "We couldn't use our own water exclusively. We had to clear more trees than we wanted. It was disheartening. It conflicted with the whole concept of the house."