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Voluntary Simplicity and the Triple Bottom Line: An Interview with Duane Elgin

| Wednesday February 17th, 2010 | 3 Comments

Author Duane Elgin challenges his readers to give up the trappings of modern life (snuggies, melon ballers and all the other gadgets we can’t live without) in favor of a deeper form of satisfaction. His book Voluntary Simplicity has been much loved by those who find solace in the simpler path and much maligned by those who call followers mildly cultish and obsessive in their asceticism. First published in 1981, the book has recently been re-vamped with the modern sustainability movement in mind.

Elgin sums up the societal shifts of the last 30 years with the simplest of anecdotes: he’s gone from being introduced as the “MBA who has gone bad” to being introduced as “the MBA who has gone green.” MBAs no longer have to be singly focused on money to utilize their learning. We know all about that here at 3p, so we checked in with Elgin to ask him a few questions about the voluntary simplicity movement and how it relates to the triple bottom line

3p: How did your business education influence your development of  the theory of voluntary simplicity?

DE: In my business education (at the Wharton Business School in the late 60s), I saw the single-minded focus on materialism and money.  This was so pervasive that it conflicted with other learning (a second Master’s degree in “economic history”) which showed that current levels and patterns of growth were unsustainable

3p: Can the principles of voluntary simplicity by applied to business operations as well? If so, how?

DE: A core principle of simplicity discussed in my book is “ephemeralization” which means to progressively lighten the impact of our lives on the ecology and, at the same time, to progressively do ever more with ever less.  Instead of the heavy handed approach of gross materialism, this is an approach that celebrates an aesthetic simplicity.

3p: Is it possible to believe in capitalism and/or GDP and voluntary simplicity at the same time?

DE: The problem is not with economic growth per se.  We have at least four billion persons living in poverty on this planet.  What is needed is consciously planned growth that provides billions with the basics and, simultaneously, lightens the ecological load or footprint upon the Earth by people living in developed nations.  What is required is to seek our enlightened self-interest which is to work for a healthy Earth that can sustain humanity for the long-range future.

3p: What’s missing from the triple bottom line?

DE: In addition to the triple bottom line (people, planet, profit), I suggest we add a fourth factor: “purpose.”  To have a strong relationship among the factors of “people, planet, and profit,” requires a larger context of purpose within which they relate.  What is the purpose of economic growth?  Are we no more than consumers seeking to be entertained and comforted?  Or are we also citizens of the Earth and the cosmos on a much larger journey of discovery and awakening than is expressed by shallow consumerism?


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  • lauriesanford

    I'm curious whether or not Mr.Elgin feels that his life has accomplished his stated goal, 4 ps, adding purpose to people,planet and profits. Has his notion (and possibly actions) of voluntary simplicity helped others in our global community or our cosmos, from his POV? I ask because as someone who has previously engaged in these life style choices and now does not, I find that my positive impact on our global community is greater with my greater lifestyle than it was with my own limitations on my lifestyle.

  • lauriesanford

    I'm curious whether or not Mr.Elgin feels that his life has accomplished his stated goal, 4 ps, adding purpose to people,planet and profits. Has his notion (and possibly actions) of voluntary simplicity helped others in our global community or our cosmos, from his POV? I ask because as someone who has previously engaged in these life style choices and now does not, I find that my positive impact on our global community is greater with my greater lifestyle than it was with my own limitations on my lifestyle.

  • http://hubpages.com/hub/Enrolled-Agent-Training-Made-Easy KeithTax

    If capitalism is the best economic model, then there is room for the simple living movement within the economy, regardless of GDP. If a few more folks had followed the simple lifestyle we would not be in the current economic mess we are in now.