Back to Basics: Living with "Voluntary Simplicity"
Tia and 11 other community members started the nonprofit Simple Living Institute in 2002. Its mission: "to provide cooperative education empowering individuals and organizations to be responsible stewards of their well-being and the environment." They hold workshops and educate people about organic gardening, worm composting, and alternative energy. The group has about 1,000 people on its e-mail list, and a recent Simple Living Kids' Festival saw 32 families racing around the Econ Farm, gleefully looking for raccoon tracks and snake skins.
"Economically, people are starting to understand the benefits," says Terry of the voluntary simplicity movement. "I had lost hope for a while there, to be honest. But now I see people coming around. They understand that if you don't have clean air or water or soil, money isn't worth a whole lot."
Over lunch at Tia's sister's vegan restaurant near downtown Orlando, I notice Tia's flawless skin and enviably radiant hair. I want to ask if showering with rainwater or eating homegrown grapefruit keeps her looking so fresh, but I don't want to appear superficial. So instead I ask her what voluntary simplicity means to her.
"I want to live in a way that preserves the Earth for future generations," she says, picking up a spinach leaf from her salad.
"We are making these choices consciously," Terry adds. "But I think in the future, people will have to make some of these choices whether they want to or not. I feel very good being able to go out into my garden and pick dinner or catch a fish. I don't have to spend money or time driving to a grocery store. Once you simplify and localize, you save so much. And in these troubled times, people see the logic of that approach."
Today Terry owns his own company, Alternative Concepts and Technology. He installs solar panels and makes $40,000 a year. Tia works in habitat restoration and makes $24,000. Their bills, including student loan payments, health insurance, and food, run about $1,500 a month.
"I've never liked money," says Terry. "I'm happier when I'm not spending it. I've never been motivated to make it. That's why we built our house ourselves. No mortgage. Our retirement is what we are doing: the location, the cabin, the fruit trees. They'll grow as we grow."
To Tia and Terry, the cabin represents the ultimate sovereignty, a true test of self-reliance, and a chance to spread the word. Kristen finds the whole visit inspirational, especially the talk of "humanure"—human waste recycled as compost. (That this portion of the conversation happened over lunch distressed no one but me.)
"It comes down to a personal philosophy," Terry tells Kristen as he crunches on an organic blue corn chip. "You don't need to have as much as you can get. People work 50 hours a week to afford all this stuff. But you end up with only an hour to spend with your kids or your wife. That's not living; it's living to work. I'd rather harvest sweet potatoes than work all day at a job I hate."
I ask the Meers if either one of them was ever tempted to buy an item they didn't need. They look at me with something akin to pity.
"I worked at a convenience store once," Terry offers helpfully. "That hurt."
"We drive a pickup truck," Tia says, head lowered. "Cars are our biggest vice."
"In the future, we're going to build a garage with solar panels on top so we can plug in an electric car," Terry adds quickly. "I mean, that's the long-term goal."