October 20, 2011
|Photo by David Noe|
With great wit and charisma, Winter Park Institute Presidential Fellow David Shi (pronounced Shy) spoke Tuesday evening about the supposed revival of thrift and simplicity in contemporary American society. A full house of WPI aficionados listened intently, often nodding in agreement, as Shi, the author of The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture, wove a web of historical and cultural insights about America’s love/hate relationship to simple living. Any audience members believing that recent examples of thriftiness prompted by the Great Recession will lead to a permanent commitment to simpler living were disappointed.
“No society in the world consumes as much per person per year as we do,” Shi said, who used words like “freewheeling,” “free spending” and “debt-dependent” to describe America’s “runaway consumer culture” of the last 30 years. He demonstrated how the pursuit of happiness had over the past 200 years been transformed into the pursuit of possessions. Today, he noted, Americans are bombarded by daily messages from marketers and advertisers to shop and spend as if their very lives depended on it.
But Shi was quick to point out that Americans on average are not any happier as a result of their spending binge. In fact, as household incomes and national spending have risen through the decades, overall satisfaction with life has not. And while the “chastening effect of the Great Recession” has certainly engendered some people to practice “enlightened restraint,” he also cited statistics to show that, on the whole, Americans of means are spending again at their historically high rates.
“Americans in large numbers have never embraced simplicity for long periods of time,” Shi noted. "Since the 17th century, people have repeatedly espoused the merits of simple living, only to become enmeshed in the culture of consumption."
While Shi’s presentation was anchored in empirical data and infused with commonsense, he expressed the hope that more Americans as a result of the Great Recession will come to see simpler living not as a particular standard of living but instead as a distinctive state of mind that promotes more conscientious consumption and greater reflection about what we value most.
"Simpler living," he explained, "can be much more than an anachronism, fad or eccentricity. It doesn’t require a rural homestead or a monastic regimen or a faddish preference for L.L. Bean boots, trail mix, and alfalfa sprouts. Yes, it can even be practiced in Winter Park,” he joked. “Mindful simplicity encourages us to be more conscious and conscientious about the making and spending of money and time. It means restraining our material desires and regaining control of our calendars so as to nourish higher priorities."
Tuesday’s WPI event officially kicks off the former Furman president’s six-month fellowship at Rollins College. While on campus, Shi will be visiting undergraduate classes, collaborating with faculty and administrators on the organization of a symposium on sustainability in higher education, and working on two of his own writing projects including completing the ninth edition of the textbook, America: a Narrative History.
For more information about upcoming Winter Park Institute events, visit www.rollins.edu/wpi/.