Category Archive 'Simplicity'

23 Apr 2010

The Simple Life

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Charles Edouard Delort, Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon Versailles Playing at Being a Shepherdess

Charlotte Allen explains how modern Puritan triumphalism manages to make simplicity the new luxury and distinction.

Hunting is usually taboo in the simplicity movement because it involves guns (hated by the professionally simple) and exploitation of animals (ditto). However, if you’re hunting boar in the upscale hills ringing the San Francisco Bay so as to furnish yourself a “locally grown” boar paté, as does Berkeley professor and simplicity movement guru Michael (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) Pollan, or perhaps to experience an “epiphany,” as another well-fixed Bay Area boar hunter recently told the New York Times, you’re doing a fine job of returning to the simple life. Indeed, the Times article was replete with quotations from portfolio managers, systems analysts, and graphic designers who have taken up shooting boar, deer, and bison in their spare time because it affords them a “primal connection” with the food on their plates and is also “carbon-neutral” (zero “food miles” if the deer you slay happened to have been munching the tulips in your backyard). But if you’re a laid-off lumber mill worker bagging possums in Eutaw Springs, S.C., because your main primal connection with food is that you don’t have much money to spend on it, you’re an unsophisticated redneck.

Simplicity movement people always seem to shell out more money than the not-so-simple, usually because the simple things they love always seem to cost more than the mass-produced versions. On a website called Passionate Homemaking that’s dedicated to making, among other things, your own cheese, your own beeswax candles, and your own underarm deodorant, you are also advised to cook with nothing but raw cultured butter from a mail-order outfit called Organic Pastures. The butter probably tastes great. It also costs $10.75 a pound – plus UPS shipping. At farmer’s markets, where those striving for simplicity like to browse with their cloth shopping bags, the organic, the locally grown, and the humanely raised come at a price: tomatoes at $4 a pound, bread at $8 a loaf, and $6 for a cup of “artisanal” gelato.

Wealthy and well-born people admiring – and sparing themselves no expense in convincing themselves that they’re cultivating – the virtues of humble folk is nothing new. Two millennia ago, Virgil, in his Georgics, heaped praise upon the tree pruners and beekeepers whom he likely could see toiling in the distance while he sipped wine on the veranda of his wealthy patron, Maecenas. Marie Antoinette liked to dress up as a shepherdess and hold court in her “rustic” cottage at the Petit Trianon. Other harbingers of today’s simplicity movement were the arts-and-crafts devotees of the early 1900s who filled their homes with handcrafted medieval-looking benches and the 1960s hippies whose minibuses and geodesic domes that enabled their gypsy lifestyles usually came courtesy of checks from their parents.

But it has been only in the last decade or so that the simplicity movement has come into its own, aligning itself not only with aesthetic style but also with power. Thanks to the government-backed war against obesity (fat people, conveniently, tend to belong to the polyester-clad, Big Mac-guzzling lower orders) and the “green” movement in its various save-the-planet manifestations, simplicity people can look down their noses at the not-so-simple with their low-rent tastes while also putting them on the moral defensive. Thus you have Michael Pollan, whose zero-impact ethic of food simplicity won’t let him eat anything not grown within one hundred miles of his Bay Area home, and preferably grown (or killed, milked, churned, or picked) himself. He bristles with outrage not only at McDonald’s burgers, Doritos, and grapes imported from Chile (foreign fruit destroys people’s “sense of place,” he writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) but even at Walmart’s announcement in 2006 that it would start stocking organic products at affordable prices. Walmart, like factory farms, SUVs, wide-screen TVs, and outlet malls, is usually anathema to the simplicity set, but here you would think the giga-chain would be doing poor people a favor by widening their access to healthy, less-fattening produce. Not as far as Pollan is concerned. Instead, as Reason magazine’s Katherine Mangu-Ward reported, Pollan worried on his blog that “Walmart’s version of cheap, industrialized organic food” might drive the boutique farms that served him and his locavore neighbors out of business. …

The problem with the simplicity movement isn’t simply that you’ve got to be rich to live simply. In their 2007 book Plenty, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, who had vowed to spend a year sticking to the 100-mile locavore eating radius (and, as freelance writers, had plenty of time to put together meals that lived up to this promise), discovered that they were spending $11 per jar on honey to substitute for $2.59 sugar and that one of their locally foraged dinners cost them $130 and more than a day to prepare. …

The problem with the simplicity movement is that its proponents mistake simplicity, which is an aesthetic lifestyle choice, for humility, which is a genuine virtue.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.


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