Live Well, Do Good

Learning to Step Lightly

Brandon Sun, November 15, 2008 - David McConkey

On Friday, November 28, “Buy Nothing Day” challenges us to stop spending for one day. A new book by a Manitoba author invites us to consider living more simply all the time.

Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet is by Mark Burch. Burch currently lives in Winnipeg, but he lived in Brandon for a number of years. 

Stepping Lightly is about the concept of “voluntary simplicity,” which means deliberately choosing to live with less. (Poverty, by contrast, is involuntary.) Implied by many philosophers for thousands of years, it has gained increasing currency in the last few decades.

The specific term “voluntary simplicity” was first used by U.S. researchers in the 1970s who were documenting a trend of people wanting to reduce the personal toll of the “rat race.” At the same time, more people were exploring living in harmony with the natural environment, then a relatively new idea.

Today, more and more are questioning the impact that our consumer lifestyle has on ourselves, our community, and the environment. Burch has done an excellent job in bringing together a diversity of ideas describing the “why” and “how” of simpler ways of living.

“People take up simpler living for a variety of reasons,” Burch states. “Stress is driving them to migraines or manias; there is no time in their lives for spouse or children; there is no energy for pleasure after meeting the demands of work; there is no opportunity to make a contribution to the community; personal health is being threatened by a lifestyle of perpetual motion; financial stress and oppressive debts haunt every moment.”

Simplicity, however, is not a single answer or destination, but a continuing process of discovery. Simplicity, Burch says, “involves directing progressively more time and energy toward pursuing non-material aspirations while providing for material needs as simply, directly, and efficiently as possible.”

Burch asserts that much of our consumer culture is based on impulse buying. A simple life is one where our choices are more purposeful – we decide what is really important to us and live our lives accordingly. As Burch points out, many of the things we especially value (relationships, learning, artistic pursuits, and more) are often surprisingly inexpensive. 

Simpler living is appealing not only to anyone who is tired of the all-too-present clutter in their lives, but also to a variety of other people. They include folks who are dislocated by economic crisis, concerned about environmental issues, leaving a mundane job to turn their passion into their livelihood, and retiring baby boomers and others who want to downsize.

Voluntary simplicity makes sense not only on a personal level, but also on a global one. The planet cannot absorb unlimited growth in consumption. Simply put, “stepping lightly” reduces our ecological footprint.

Living with less stuff is also perfectly in tune with “sustainable development,” which was first articulated in the 1980s and is now widely accepted.

“Sustainable development,” states the federal government, which endorses the concept, “integrates environmental, economic, and social considerations in ways that allow today’s needs to be met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

For inspiration and reflection, Mark Burch draws on 30 years experience as a psychotherapist as well as his obviously keen interest in spirituality. He delves deeply into the psychological and spiritual (Eastern, Western, and secular humanist) dimensions of a life that is less cluttered but more personally enriched. He also draws on a host of research studies, workshop discussions, and Internet forums.

Burch also effectively explores the more practical aspects of simple living and additional resources relating to personal, social, and environmental concerns. Among the selection of other intriguing books that Burch mentions are: Simple Abundance: a Daybook of Comfort and JoyThe Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental ChoicesHow to Live Without a Salary, and Do What you Love, The Money will Follow.

Burch has become an expert in a growing field of developing simpler lives and sustainable societies. He works with the Simplicity Practice and Resource Centre in Winnipeg, which conducts workshops on simplicity and is the publisher of Stepping Lightly. Among other publications by Burch is De-Junking: A Tool for Clutter Busting. He also teaches a course on voluntary simplicity at the University of Winnipeg.

As we are confronted by a tumbling stock market and the frantic Christmas shopping season, a simpler life can look more appealing. Now might be just the right time to open up to the idea.

* * * 

See also:

Simple Living on    (on

Tomorrow, Buy Nothing

Reflecting on Consumption

Live Well, Do Good

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