The landscape of the present-day United States bears but little resemblance to the land described by Henry David Thoreau in Walden; the nation today is crisscrossed with multilane interstates, pocked with shopping malls and big box retailers, and the American wilderness has largely carved into zones for suburban and exurban housing. It might be tempting for modern students to conclude that Thoreau has nothing to offer contemporary readers, since the land that he portrayed has changed so dramatically during the years since the publication of his literary magnum opus. Such a superficial dismissal of Walden is indicative of more than the usual undergraduate complaints about irrelevant classics; it suggests a national mindset that Thoreau’s ideas are incompatible with the modern American consumerist ideology. With this backdrop, a strong case can be made for the argument that Walden’s messages have even more relevance today than when Thoreau wrote the book; his advice of living simply – and simply living – takes on greater urgency in this era of fanatical consumption.
Thoreau believed that human beings did not require massive, palatial dwellings in order to live a healthy and joyful life; he decried the tendency to construct “for this world a family mansion, and for the next a family tomb.” His experimental home near Walden Pond reflected this philosophy, as it was largely constructed from second-hand materials. Thoreau built the house with an eye toward utility; there was virtually no wasted space, and every accoutrement had a useful function. At one point in the narrative, Thoreau considered the value of several rocks that once occupied a place on his desk:
I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.
Thoreau perhaps foresaw the present American obsession with expensive suburban homes, recognizing a growing demand for domiciles that did not simply provide protection from the elements. The typical modern three-bedroom urban bungalow – which dwarfs most of the dwellings from Thoreau’s era – is no longer seen as the ideal home that it once was in the post-World War II building frenzy. Consumers seek, and builders construct, extravagant structures on large lots, and this high-end focus is fed by a consumerist obsession with grandiosity and newness. In America the dominant belief is that excellent living can only be accomplished through ownership of a newly-built palace with acres of perfectly-manicured lawns.
This lifestyle, of course, cannot be maintained without a hefty income, and Americans are thus forced into the position of requiring high-wage employment to support their suburban estate. The manor cannot be preserved if its inhabitants do not work over half of their waking hours in slavish devotion to obtaining money; Thoreau presciently noted that “we may regard one third of that toil as the cost of their houses.” Thoreau suggested that this dilemma was evidence that “men have become tools of their tools.” The suburban house, then, rules over its residents, who must scurry about like so many worker ants to sustain it.
The culture of conspicuous and redundant consumption that has evolved in the United States pressures individuals to acquire luxurious possessions and to replace perfectly functional goods with those that are purportedly newer and improved. Thoreau noticed this phenomenon during his lifetime, declaring that the “childish and savage taste of men and women for new patterns keeps how many shaking and squinting through kaleidoscopes that they may discover the particular figure which this generation requires today. The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical.”
This neurotic consumerism further increases the pressure on people to work more, leaving less time for more enjoyable pursuits. The typical American worker annually toils away for two weeks’ worth of vacation time, the earning of which leaves him too exhausted to enjoy his respite; he hopes to live long enough to pass his twilight years sitting in a tattered chaise lounge watching shuffleboard on the activity deck of a Sunbelt retirement center. Thus, one toils countless hours during the prime of life to be rewarded with a few short moments when the physical ability to take pleasure in living is in rapid decline. Thoreau noted the absurdity of this philosophy, and extolled the virtues of simplicity:
In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one's self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial.
Life, in a society that worships possessions and acquisitiveness, could more accurately be described as drudgery. For a person trapped in the continuous cycle of consumption, there is precious little living; one cannot suddenly decide to spend time enjoying the natural world when there are financial obligations that loom, Leviathan-like, overhead. Thoreau argued that he had obtained a wealth – simple living- that had far greater significance than monetary gain:
Many a forenoon have I stolen away, preferring to spend thus the most valued part of the day;for I was rich, if not in money, in sunny hours and summer days, and spent them lavishly; nor do I regret that I did not waste more of them in the workshop or the teacher's desk.
In an era that had just recently lost the sobriquet of “frontier,” Thoreau recognized that the natural wilderness of the country was integral to the health and well-being of its human inhabitants. He argued that there is a certain restorative quality provided by nature, which he called the “tonic of wilderness.” Man, according to Thoreau, was inextricably linked to the world in which he lived, and that any attempt to divorce oneself from nature was an exercise in foolishness. This advice goes largely unheeded in an American society fixated on attempting to remove or control every last vestige of nature.
Corporations promote poisons to eliminate insects and rodents from our immediate surroundings, while convincing consumers that they are inadequate homeowners if any plant other than hybrid Kentucky bluegrass dares to push through their neatly-trimmed and herbicide-laden lawns. Human hair, which developed on the body over many millennia as a form of protection against the ultraviolet rays of summer and the chill of winter, is portrayed today as an undesirable trait – except on the top of the head – and thousands of products are marketed to eliminate this vital bodily component from our legs, backs, nostrils and ears. Finally, our desire to conquer nature has engendered in Americans a collective lack of concern for the environment; the very air that we breathe and the water that we drink have become fouled, and the possibility exists that we may so pollute and degrade the planet that human life may no longer continue.
As a journalist I once covered a municipal council meeting on the application filed by a corporation to amend the zoning laws in order to allow the company to build a controversial coking plant. Advocates for the facility argued that it would bring jobs and tax revenues to the city of Toledo, while opponents argued that the plant would produce toxins that could wreak havoc in an already-polluted regional watershed. I was most struck by a corporate supporter, who claimed that the environmentally-minded activists wanted everyone to “live like hermits in a shack, like Thoreau.”
Of course, Thoreau specifically warned readers that he was not advocating his extreme experiment in asceticism, admonishing that “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account.” He was demonstrating that it was possible to live in such a manner as did not require endless, senseless toil. The advocate for the coking plant constructed her argument with the false dilemma that we have only two choices: industrial development or a Neanderthalian subsistence. Unfortunately, many Americans subscribe to this corporate ideology, and fail to recognize that it is possible to find a middle ground that encourages responsible stewardship of the planet’s resources and a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity.
The act of living simply, unfortunately, requires a leap of faith on the part of the individual; members of the cult of consumerism are barraged with media messages exhorting them to worship the god of consumption. To preach against this religion is akin to cultural heresy; people who advocate a simpler lifestyle are viewed as lunatics or, even worse, Marxists.
Merely mentioning the idea that one might, say, trade in a car for a bicycle is enough to raise eyebrows (assuming that the person still has hair above their eyes, and that they have not been waxed or shaven in an attempt to meet the fashion ideal of a hairless human). Thoreau recognized that this belief is a precursor to change, and that a man who “has not faith, he will continue to live like the rest of the world, whatever company he is joined to.”
Perhaps we should not be too concerned with converting the mass of humanity to a simpler life, and should just live the ideal. Internal resistance in people cannot be overcome with an external force, and people must want to alter their behavior before change can occur. The example we set by living a simple life might be the best medicine for the consumptive disease that has infected the American body politic.
Living simply produces hidden benefits to followers, and not the least of these is one’s physical health. The stress of struggling to meet the financial burdens of a lifestyle of excessive consumption takes its toll on the human body; what for example, is the physical cost of a daily one-hour, one-way commute? In one calendar year, such work travel – which is not unusual in bigger cities – adds up to over 500 hours of time spent cramped in a shiny metal box breathing air laced with automobile exhaust. Simply living is perhaps the best advice that Thoreau offered; as a slave in the service of the consumer economy of the modern United States, a person has precious little time to enjoy living. Voluntary simplicity offers people an opportunity to reduce the amount of time spent in mindless acquisitiveness, and frees them for more rewarding pursuits.