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Simple Living Works!

Original version: Simple Living Struggles & Solutions

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SIMPLE LIVING WORKS! [Simple Living Struggles & Solutions]

Gerald Iversen, Alternatives for Simple Living, 1995-2007

[Put on old ripped shirt.] I really appreciate the opportunity to give this talk because it gives me a chance to wear my favorite shirt. Stylish don't you think? This is what a lot of people think of when they think of "simple living". Yeah! I get to wear my favorite old shirt, my favorite old shoes [show shoes], grow a few tomatoes, Life is good!

Well, I would like to give you a little different of simple living. It's called Voluntary Simplicity. It's called VOLUNTARY Simplicity because we have a choice. We can continue living -- by world standards -- pretty extravagant lives. Or we can choose to live more simply. . . in a world where 2/3 of the people live simply INvoluntarily. They have no choice.

In case you're thinking, "Oh boy. This guy has come here to dump guilt on me," I want to declare this room for the next hour to be a no guilt zone. OK?


Voluntary Simplicity is based on five life standards. And I hope you will indulge an old guy and repeat them after me as we go through them. OK? [Put on Justice shirt.]

The first life standard is Do Justice. (Do Justice) Let's use this definition. Do Justice means that we strive to use only our fair share of the earth's resources. (Laugh) We know that is not the way it is. Here we have 20% of the world's population -- over a billion people -- scarcely know where their next meal is coming from, they have only the clothes on their back, they have virtually no medical support, and their only transportation is their own two feet. A billion people! Then we have a larger group -- about 60% of the people of the earth's population. These folks eat regularly but simply, they have some medical care, they have several suits of clothes and they get to ride the bus. And then we have the final 20% of the Earth's population. These are the folks that we fondly refer to as the privileged people of the Earth. These folks have plenty to eat. They have more clothes than they know what to do with. They have a pretty good medical system. And they get to drive their own cars. And, of course, this group is US! Almost everybody in the US, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.

Please understand that my dear Rita is a fourth grade school teacher. She says, "Gerald you have to give them a quiz." So here your first quiz question. Let's combine the first two groups and compare 80% of the world's population to us on the subject of Do Justice. What would you guess? On an average day what percentage of the Earth's resources is used by 80% and what percentage is used by us? What would you guess, maybe 50 - 50. Right! Jo Ellen gets the gold star. That's right, you just reverse the numbers -- 80% of the people will use 20% of the Earth's resources and 20% -- that's us -- uses 80%. Now I'm not suggesting that the things should all be the same. We're never going to be all equal in this life. But this situation is not fair at all. That's why we ask people to live simply that others may simply live.

The second life standard: Learning from the World Community. [Put on Kenyan shirt.] This means, that maybe, just maybe, we don't know everything there is to know about everything. There are many things we can learn from the non-industrial world. We can learn about medicine from people we used to call witch doctors. We can learn about the importance of extended family. We can learn about music. Bishop Muzarewa [moo-zah-REY-wah] visited us recently from Africa and he said, "White Folks, those are the people who can sing and not move at the same time." Yes, we have a lot we can learn about praising God with our whole being from our brothers and sisters around the world.


We can also learn about nice clothes. Isn't this a lovely shirt? My daughter Elysha gave it to me when she served in the Peace Corps in Kenya. I wear it for two reasons. First as a symbolic gesture to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the world. Wouldn't it be great if our church choirs wore clothes like this instead of sterile choir robes? I was a Minister of Music for 25 years, so I know about sterile choir robes.

Second, I wear it to promote Fair Trade. You may have heard of Fair Trade coffee and Fair Trade tea and [with an ecstatic look on your face] now Fair Trade chocolate. I l-o-v-e Fair Trade Chocolate.

We practice Fair Trade for two basic reasons. First, to make sure that farmers and artisans in non-industrial countries get a fair price for their goods. And secondly, to EDUCATE US. Through Fair Trade we learn from the world community. [end ADD]

But there is something else about this learning from the world community. We need to get people out of the house. We need to encourage people to go on reverse missions. To go on retreats to other parts of the world because when they come back they are much more likely to be open to simple living. Why? Because now they have something to compare themselves with instead of just their next door neighbors. Whether it's building houses in Tijuana, or visiting Haiti, or Africa, they come back changed! So let's do what we can to get Americans out of their little boxes.

[ Read 10 Tips to Escape the Stifling Comfort Zone. ]

The third life standard: Cherish the Natural Order. To me it is summarized in Genesis 2:15, where it says, "God put humans in the garden to take care of it." We have a pretty good recycling program in our town. I hope you do too. But, you know what? Recycling is irrelevant! Recycling is of so little consequence if we don't take the next step. To close the loop, to use products made of recycled materials. It could be recycled office paper. . . our church bulletins. We need to print them on recycled paper and say so. Printed on recycled paper. That is a testimonial to the congregation that we are trying to take at least some small steps. But there is also recycled paper towels, even recycled toilet paper. . . I didn't say reclaimed toilet paper. But there are some other kinds of things too. If you are going to add something on to your house or your church, please consider using recycled plastic lumber. It lasts a long time, and it's much better then using virgin timber.

The fourth life standard: Nurture People, Not Things. We are world class nurturers of things. Many of us will go into debt to get this precious, precious object. We will dust that sucker for decades. We will rent storage units so no one steals our stuff. We are world class nurturers of stuff. On the other hand, I heard a statistic recently that if very disconcerting. I'd like you to guess, in the US how much time now does the average dad spend with the average kid on an average day? How many minutes would you guess? [guesses] How about three minutes a day?! So we're trying to help in this dilemma by asking families to take a pledge that they will not let school, they will not let sports, they will not let jobs, they will not let the church keep our family from having at least five meals a week together. Now for most of you like me who are over 50 think back. Where was it that most of the education happened in the household? At the supper table. Where was it that most of the values were passed in the household? At the supper table. So we're trying to help to bring some of that back. Nurture people not things.

The fifth life standard: Nonconform Freely. [Put on Hawaian shirt.] I was raised in the 60's. You know, the hippie era. Well, sorry to disappoint you, that's not what this is about at all. This is about developing spiritual resistance to commercial messages that try to get us to buy things that we don't need. In the advertising industry, there is a technical, scientific term for each time we are exposed to a commercial message. And that term is a HIT. So, I want you to guess how many hits does the average American experience on an average day? Before you guess, I want to put this in context. I have heard there are now some grocery stores when you push your cart down the aisle, there are ads on the floor in front of you. There are some places now when you get your groceries, they have TV monitors on your cart selling you products as you go down the aisles. As you walk down the mall, all these colors, all these slogans all these things are calling out to you, "Buy me. Collect me. You deserve me." So you have the big ads -- the billboards and TV commercials -- and you have the little ads -- commercial logos (swishes) and jingles. So, in this context, how many hits do you guess the average American experiences on the average day? Would you guess 2,000? You're almost barely luke warm. 10,000? You're getting warmer. 15,000 yes, you're very close -- 16,000 hits a day. And you think Not Me! That's because we have become so desensitized to all these messages. We are swimming in commercial soup.

Into this situation comes a little non-profit organization called Alternatives for Simple Living. [Put Alternatives logo atop display.]


Alternatives has been around for over 35 years and I would like to tell you a little bit about its mission. It's three-fold. Alternatives for Simple Living. . . equipping people of faith -- that's you and me -- first of all, to challenge consumerism. Challenge consumerism. Consumerism. That's our national religion! It tells us every day that you will find happiness and meaning in life though stuff. That thing you bought, it didn't work for you. Oh, I'm so sorry. Here try this instead. That didn't work? Here, try this instead. The purpose of most commercial advertising is to keep the customers perpetually dissatisfied. . . so they will continue to fill their own personal spiritual voids with stuff.

We tell a different story. We will find happiness and meaning in life through relationships. There are four basic relationships. The first one is with ourselves, getting to know ourselves honestly in a culture that is full of self deception. The second is our relationship with our friends and colleagues. . . people here in the church, people we work with, our relatives, and hopefully a few brothers and sisters around the globe. The third relationship is with God's creation. Being good stewards of the soil, the air, the water, as well as the animals and plants. And the fourth, the most important one, of course, is our relationship with God. Those relationships will give us happiness and meaning in life. Stuff gives us a thrill when we get something new. But over the long haul it disappoints. That's the first part of our mission. To equip people of faith to challenge consumerism.

The second one is to equip people of faith to Live Justly. Live Justly. We've already talked about doing justice but I would like to make an important distinction between charity and justice because some people get charity and justice mixed up. They think they are the same thing. Charity is when we give our money and our time to help meet people's short time needs or to work for worthwhile causes. Very important work. This is not a put down of charity at all. It's just different. Justice is when we work to change the system that makes charity necessary. There are three basic ways that we can work for justice. The first one is to work to change political policies. I've heard a rumor -- have you heard the same one? -- that there are a few policies in this country that can stand changing. The second one is to work to change corporate procedures. We can do that by applauding those corporations that are beginning to work for the sustainability of the Earth and we can decry those businesses that continue to gobble up the Earth. Even boycott them! But let's focus on the third. That's to look at our own life styles because all things are connected. Our buying decisions do have an impact on people around the world. So the third one is what we focus on primarily at Alternatives. That's a little about the difference between Charity and Justice. But I would really like to give you a crass example. Pastor, maybe you've heard this example, "OK, pastor, I'll give a hundred dollars for that poor soul over there in Africa but don't talk to me about my car."

The third part of Alternatives' mission is to equip people of faith to Celebrate Responsibly. . . Celebrate Responsibly. Quiz time. What does the average American wedding cost today? $23,000, you're getting close. $25,000, you're getting closer. It's $27,850. It's because of that that Alternatives produced this little book a while back -- the Alternative Wedding Book. And thanks to some of our volunteers it has been updated recently. The point of this is to help brides and grooms and their parents and their pastor with two things -- first, an attitude change that it's OK to have a simpler wedding, and second with nuts and bolts ideas about how to go about doing that. This book is 125 pages. The average issue of Bride's magazine is 900 pages. So, you can see what we are up against. That's our mission statement -- equipping people of faith challenge consumerism, live justly and celebrate responsibly.

Now how in the world could a little organization like Alternatives get their arms around a mission like that? Well, that's coming up in the third half of the program. I'm going to give you a chance later to ask some questions or if you would share some tips or some ideas on how you have simplified your life. Or, since we have two pastors here, we are receiving confessions. So you can be thinking about that.


I'll be handing out little slips of recycled paper and if you want to hear from us -- and we'd really like to keep in touch with you -- please write your names, address and email address.

While you're doing that, I'm going to give away some door prizes. [hand to forehead]. I'm thinking of a number between 1 and 100. You think of a number too but don't tell me. OK, who was thinking of 35 or a number near 35?

We have a winner of "Stories and Songs of Simple Living" book and audio CD. One of our goals is to get people to read to each other. This book of short tales is appropriate for an intergenerational group. And the CD is great for listening in the car.

Our runner-up prize is The Anytime Game. First we put out The Christmas Game, which encourages people to talk to each other and resist the temptation to watch TV at family gatherings. Young people get to share their dreams and older folks their memories. This is not Trivia Pursuit. There are no right or wrong answers. So, the Christmas Game is played at . . . and The Anytime Game is played . . .

[later] If you want to be a volunteer, write "volunteer" on your sign up sheet.

[later] Although I cannot sell my display copies, if you want any of the resources here on the display table, I will send them to you when I get home and not charge you any shipping. Just add the titles to your sign-up sheet. [end ADD]


Alternatives has services to benefit you, your church, your community, people around the globe and our planet. The first one is that we produce our own resources -- at least two resources a year. One of them is called The Good Life. We produced this Vacation Bible School curriculum a few years ago. And it includes 25 Christian social justice songs and these songs are on a CD so the kids can take the CDs home and teach the songs to their family and hopefully listen to the songs in the car instead of listening to so much pop music. So there is a benefit besides the Vacation Bible School curriculum itself.

And then for the last 20 years Alternatives has been producing a booklet fresh and new every year. The purpose of this little book is at Christmas time is to give people two things. First of all an attitude adjustment that it's OK to have a simpler Christmas and secondly, here's how you can start to do it. It's called "Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?" and I have copies here to give to you in appreciation for you coming tonight.

Secondly we gather together resources from other places resources that focus on our mission. We just don't sell anything to anybody for any reason. Everything we sell focuses on our mission. We put out a master catalog once a year. Some of you get this already. And then we publish a little supplement each quarter that has the resources from other publishers. Believe me, we are really, really picky.

Our third service is our website -- SimpleLivingWorks.org. On our website we have three primary services. The first one is an eStore where you can buy resources just like the ones in the catalog. In case you're thinking, "what is this guy doing going around peddling books?" we also have hundreds of free resources on our website in the archives for you to use and share. Now the third part of our website is our blog. Most of you probably know what a blog is. That's a web log where I show the faces and the ideas of lots of people I've met all over the country. You just never know whose face is going to show up on on our website. [Take pictures] It's amazing. So I hope that you from time to time go on to our website SimpleLivingWorks.org. It's a dynamic home page -- there's something new there every day. (For example right now "Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?" is there. Starting on December 2nd we'll have a daily Advent Calendar.) In Lent we'll have a daily Lenten calendar. In addition it has a thought for the day. I hope you'll log on from time to time. Living simply is not easy. And so what we try to do is support each other.

Our next service is called The Simpler Living Community Network. We have over 850 volunteers from coast to coast who stand ready to give a talk or to help with alternative events like Christmas Giving Fairs or to help with workshops. The most popular workshop is Unplug the Christmas Machine. We publish the resource guide for this and it has helped a lot of people. What's nice about this is it's not faith based. You can offer this workshop for anyone in your community that celebrates Christmas in any form or fashion. So if you would like someone to come to your church, club or school to give a talk or workshop let us know and we will give you some names of some volunteers. Or you can volunteer. So if you would like to be a member of the Simpler Living Community Network there's no cost of obligation just let us know and, if you're called upon to help, you don't have to reinvent the wheel because we already have a volunteer bible called Simple Living 101. It includes talks, workshop ideas, discussion outlines. So that's our Simpler Living Community Network.

I'd like to talk about a couple of subjects and then we'll turn the time over to you for your ideas, questions and confessions.

How do you influence other people? That's a tough one. We don't like to be told how to live and we are pretty reluctant to tell other people how to live. We focus on two aspects. The first one is baby steps, baby steps, persistent baby steps. If you try to change the way your family celebrates Christmas in one year you will probably be excommunicated. It may take a decade, it may take a generation to simplify your family's Christmas celebrations. Persistent baby steps.

And the second is teachable moments. Teachable moments are times when people are open to new ideas. They are looking for suggestions. They are probably in a large or small crisis. Did you know that January 10th is national teachable moment day? And why? Because that's when the Christmas credit card bills come in. I've gotten calls in January. "Uh, Mr. Iversen, uh, I don't know what that was we celebrated last month but it can never happen again." Teachable moment! Ding, ding, ding, ding. What I'm asking is that you as caring, concerned people continue to develop simple living habits in your own lives that you can share with others with integrity at teachable moments. What I'm hearing is people -- especially young adults -- don't want cheap advise. "Now this is what you should do." Rather, ideas shared at teachable moments out of a life of integrity, habits that you actually live, can be received. Those are two primary principles -- baby steps and teachable moments.


I want to thank you very much for your attention and now I would like to hear from you. I would like to hear any ideas, tips, questions, even confessions. Here is how this works. If you don't talk I will. I'll be taking notes, but I promise, I do not work for the CIA.

Audience Member: I work with our Sunday School children often and I was wondering what are some tips that you would have that we on the church school staff could put in affect with our kids or what you see children respond to in this whole thinking living with simplicity.

Reply: The Vacation Bible School curriculum that we talked about earlier takes these five life standards and puts them on the level for children and then incorporates a lot of music.

We also have some curricular material for Advent graded at all levels. Study/action guides deal with issues like what about Santa Claus? How do we create our perfect Christmas? Those kinds resources are available on our website in the archives for your use.

Audience Member: I think our children took on the Heifer Project in a big way. They were presented with the project buying an animal, part of an animal talked about the cost of the chickens and ducks. Do you know what they wanted to buy? A heifer and they did so. . .

Reply: We have found that children respond very well to things like animals. Some very creative teachers and parents include the children by making puzzles. The children put together these puzzles to see what kind of animal you're going to be giving away that particular year. Or the children are involved in selecting the animals that are to be given away in that particular year.

Audience Member: In our country the economy is such a big issue, and I'm wondering if many, many people observed simple living -- cut down on consumerism -- what will happen to the economy? Will there be some negative effect from that?

Reply: I'm really glad you asked that because I get asked this question a lot. Will simple living change our economy? Yes! In a very positive way. Some people think that because simple living is counter cultural that it is anti-business. That's not true at all. Simple Living is pro-business. We look at business a little differently. Now most corporations look at business in term of how much profit they can make this particular quarter. We take what is called the triple bottom line. That includes profit. Profit is good. But there are two other bottom lines we have to look at. The second "p" is the people involved. That's where the whole issue of sweatshops comes up. Are the people who are making these goods being treated fairly? And the third "p" -- the third bottom-line -- is the planet. Are these practices sustainable? There is a bazillion dollars to be made in saving the planet. This will lead to increased employment and profitability but it is going to take some serious changing of our infrastructure. And we see some very hopeful signs that this is happening right now.

Audience Member: I have a confession. My eldest son and wife who live in Florida they are very environmentalists and they use recycled paper towels, and paper and recycled greeting cards, he has a Florida certified lawn which some of the neighbors aren't too happy with. They use cloth napkins, so forth. When they come to visit we always use cloth napkins and we don't have any paper towels in the house and so I have a guilty feeling when I'm being extravagant with paper napkins. They have solar heat. Their hot water and everything is solar they make me feel kind of little

Reply: So here is a very good example where our generations are helping each other do we have a lot of wisdom with older folks? We have a lot of the energy from the younger folks we're having to rethink a lot of things. It's really a nice example. Thank you!



Now how does this organization continue to exist? We really depend on memberships. For 35 bucks you can be a simple liver. Understand I worked for public radio for 18 years, so you know there has to be membership levels, right? So you have $35, $50, $100, $250. Then we have one time memberships. Life members for $1,000 which can be paid in any way you like. For a couple it could be $1500. And then we have the very big one -- 2500 bucks. We wanted to call that our "eternal" membership. We thought that was a little presumptuous so we call it our perpetual membership and you can will it to your children if you like. So that is a little bit about how we in business. Memberships, donations, grants, and also the sale of our own resources and others as well. I thank you very much for your attention, comments and questions. Remember to live simply that others may simply live.


The Earth Dome

Now I would like to tell you a little bit about the Dome. The Earth Dome is Alternatives Inter Galactic Headquarters in the greater metropolitan city of Sergeant Bluff, Iowa. Try to get the picture. There is this big brown lump rising up out of the Earth right across the street from Tan World, Dairy Queen, and Block Busters. It's sort of like putting simple living right in their faces. . . know what I mean.

We have five environmental demonstration projects. I'll tell you about them very briefly. The first one is that we use good old-fashioned solar panels. It's old technology and it works like a miracle. It can be zero outside -- and it's zero outside quite a bit here -- yet at 10:00 in the morning if the sun is shining those panels will click on and pump warm air into the dome.

The second one is that we are growing a windbreak of evergreens around the north and northwest side of our lot. Why? Why would we want to make that kind of investment when they won't be mature for 15 years? Because when they are mature they can cut down our winter heating bills by up to 30% by deflecting the arctic winds away from the building. The third project is that we are growing indigenous prairie grasses on our little lot. . . called buffalo grass. And what is nice about it is that it controls its own height. Why would that be important? You don't have to mow it. It's not just a matter of being lazy. We've learned that if we use an average of our power mower for an hour mowing our average American lawn that produces as much pollution as if we drove our average American car a hundred miles. Because these little beasts they are not regulated and there are millions of them. We want to give people Alternatives to having a nice looking place without polluting.

The third thing is that we are growing organic vegetables in compost in raised beds made of recycled plastic lumber. Get the picture here. We have a big one here that we call the mommy bed and then we have a little one here and that we call the baby bed. Our hope is that we can introduce children to growing vegetables in compost.

And our fifth project is collecting rainwater. So the rainwater falls on the Dome and goes underneath to what us old people call a cistern. And then we pump that water out to water our trees and to flush our toilets. We don't need drinking water to flush our toilets. In the average American household over half our drinking water goes down our toilets. So that's a little bit about the Earth Dome. And about Cherish the Natural Order.

Simple Living Pledges

Thank you for confirming that Simplifying is a challenge. But it's so rewarding to get that burden of stuff off our shoulders. I'd like to share something that Rita and I have been doing. About five years ago we were looking forward to retirement in ten years and so we made a pledge to each other that we would reduce our possessions by 10% a year for 10 years. When you do the math, you end up with 30% of what you started with because you are always reducing each year with a smaller amount. (If you don't understand the math I'll explain it to you later.) We have a whole variety of ways to accomplish that goal. Rita is especially fond of clothes. So we have the one-for-one rule -- for every one thing that comes into the house one thing needs to go out. Well, with Rita's clothing, sometimes we have to enforce the two-for-one rule in order to keep that 10% reduction each year. We are urging you to take the long view and plan ahead. I've talked to so many people who upon retirement or when they have to move out of and into smaller quarters, say to me, "I've been saving all these things for my kids for 30 years and now they don't want it." We've made a pledge that we will not leave a whole bunch of stuff for our kids to attend to.


Copyright Creative Commons
(Originally 2008 ALTERNATIVES for Simple Living, 1973-2011)
Gerald Iversen, National Coordinator, 1995-2007
Founder, 2011, Simple Living Works!

"Equipping people of faith to challenge consumerism, live justly and celebrate responsibly"

page updated 9 September 2013

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