Hello, thanks a lot for this timely and thought-provoking post.
I have thought a fair bit about this myself. I currently am in University and living in a city (Ottawa, Canada), and I strive for simple living as much as possible. For me this means that I have a relatively small room, I do not live or eat at all luxuriously and I try to avoid going out and spending a lot of money. (Of course, some of these factors are themselves necessities of the student life! But one might be surprised how many students drive themselves into further debt by wasteful spending)
You make a good point that the socio-economic contexts have largely changed. There has of course been a steady migration worldwide away from rural life and into the cities; Not many years ago (I believe around 2007?), humanity passed a significant marker: for the first time in our history more people were living in cities than on farms. Of course, in many countries, such as Canada and the United States, urban populations surpassed rural populations a very long time ago. And it looks to me like India is certainly no exception to this worldwide trend.
However, I have recently been reading the most recent book by Bill McKibben (he is a leading writer in the environmentalist movement in America), called Eaarth. This book is tremendously interesting, because many of the solutions he suggests for the current environmental/climate change crisis (which, by the way, he feels is a good deal more serious than almost anyone has acknowledged until very recently -- the latest data and such that he puts forward is quite shocking indeed) -- these solutions almost all mirror central Gandhian principles.
First and foremost, which is quite unusual for anyone publishing a book in the North American market today, perhaps needless to say, he argues that, even if we somehow are able to switch to all green energy sources, we simply cannot afford to continue growing our economy, if the planet is to remain liveable. This is bound to be a disturbing conclusion to many, as as we all know, our economies are generally based on the principle of constantly increasing production, consumption, and so growth. McKibben argues for a number of changes that the situation demands we make -- many of these can be summed up in the principle of simple living as you discuss. We must learn to make do with less. Gandhi's focus on aparigraha repeatedly came to mind for me as I was reading this!
Some of the more structural recommendations he has are that, rather than shipping food and products all over the world, we will need to make a shift to local markets. People will have to start consuming things produced close to home. This, of course, reminds one of Gandhi's emphasis too on swadeshi, and villages producing their own cloth and other products. It is very interesting to see how the very latest work in the environmental movement here calls for principles which were dear to Gandhi's own heart!
McKibben also discusses how smaller farms worked by hand are actually showing to be more efficient for land use, among many other advantages, as compared with the massive industrial farming that has become the norm in many parts of the world. He notes that in the past few years, though the movement has been small, a number of farmers in the U.S. have actually been moving back out of cities and to the farms! The same thing he notes happened in China after the economic crisis, when I believe something like 30 million peasants moved back out of cities and to the farms. For various reasons, he actually predicts that, if anything, a movement in this direction (from cities and back to farms -- a reversal of the trend which has continued for centuries) is what he sees as most likely to begin to occur in coming years.
And so maybe these shifting socio-economic realities you speak of are due to shift again -- maybe we will find greater proportions of the population moving back to small-farm life, where simple living perhaps comes more naturally than in our fast-moving cities!
Nowadays, there is not much difference between city-living and village life. Even villages are growing to adopt city lifestyles as educational institutions, industries and other development projects are taking place in country sides. It is a common sight these days that every home is accustomed with all types of technological devices like, refrigeration, cooling-heating equipments, computers, Television-Satellite connections, Un-interrupted power supplying equipments, and all-purpose mobile communications etc. This makes every home a small factory or laboratory kind of environment filled with all machineries.
In this juncture, the question of what is simple living is really a complicated one as it is more of contextual and personal. Person to person it varies and what one considers as simple may not be that simple for others.
As Max Cooper in his reply pointed out, every one strives for a simple life following some austerity measures avoiding lavish spending, luxury and posh style.
As a proof of history, Gandhian way of living is the simplest way of living. Gandhi believed "Simple Living" is the noblest and bravest way of living amid all chaos surrounding our life. It is important to observe our traditional life style which is natural and simple rather than try to put ourselves amid all modern day's complexities. His mode of "simple living" remains as a foolproof benchmark for an highly organized yet simple way meeting the basic requirements of the human kind. During his days of building the Sevagram Ashram, there did exist all kinds of amenities in the world but his' was an ideal society - ideal in social, economic and political aspects.
As far as an individual is concerned, a person living with minimum amenities for his own comforts is said to be simple living. Many great men like Einsten, Lincoln, Mandela led such a life as Gandhi said "Simplicity is the essence of Universality."
More thoughts on this topic from members would give a complete dimension.
some time back i read an interesting artilce on cashless living- with reference to mark boyle- http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2010/jun/02/mark-boyle-m...
recently i got a chance to meet mr.nammaalvaar, who in my personal opinion can be regarded as india's fukoka. just clad in a dhothi wore a shawl and had a turban. simple living is very closely related to sustainable economy. in this regard, larry baker gave us an idea of simple living by using the locally available materials for the construction of shelter, fukoka - gave us the idea to grow us our own food. simple living as an individual is far easier when compared to a family life. but through the ashram set ups gandhi has given a blue print on simple community living.
The "cashless living" article is very interesting indeed!
It does make one think -- if we all just grew a little of our own food, how much we could reduce the strain on the planet due to all the fuel needed to ship and transport food such long distances -- this is especially the case I believe in first world countries like Canada, U.S., England, etc., where much of our produce (especially at certain times of year) is imported from very far away lands.