Thursday, March 23, 2006


Idea of simple life takes hold

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO — It began as a simple, or simply terrifying, pledge taken by a small group of friends feeling overwhelmed by all the things in their lives. Over a potluck dinner two years ago, they made a pact: Buy nothing new except food, medicine and toiletries for six months.

The effort lasted a year before falling victim to the demands of modern life. But the commercial craziness of the Christmas season brought the group back together a few months ago.

Only now they're not toiling in relative anonymity. A whiff of media interest over the past month has turned their tool-sharing, library-going, thrift-store-shopping band into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon with more than 700 members joining through their Yahoo website. Groups are meeting in Maine, Alabama, Texas, Oregon and Wisconsin, and satiated consumers in Japan and Brazil are making inquiries.

The original group named itself the Compact after the Mayflower Compact, a civil agreement that bound the Pilgrims to a life of higher purpose when they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

The goal of the members wasn't so much to save money, or even the environment, as much as it was to simplify their lives, says Rob Picciotto, a high school French teacher who attended that first potluck. "It saved us time because there was less time spent shopping. We still buy groceries and go to the drugstore, but we don't go to Target on a Saturday, which was a ritual before just to see what the sales were," he says.

It was Picciotto's partner, John Perry, employed in high-tech marketing, who initiated the reincarnation of the Compact, an effort that drew the attention of the San Francisco Chronicle. When an article hit the paper's website on Feb. 13, it became apparent that the Compact had tapped into a very deep stream of consumer discontent.

Today the Compact exists as several local potluck groups who meet to celebrate their successes (a free sewing machine from online Craig's List) and dilemmas (Do new keys count? What about makeup?). A national and several state-based Web discussion groups serve the same purpose electronically.

Joining is simple, says Julie Fitzpatrick, a third-grade teacher from Madison, Wis., who signed up on the Internet site the day she heard about it on the news. There's no ceremony involved. "You just say 'I'm going to do it,' " she says.

She has found being in the Compact helpful when she is invited to direct-sale events such as candle or Tupperware parties. "I can say, 'I'm sorry, I've taken a pledge.' So now I'm out of that circle."

Still, it's not easy to refrain from the great American pastime. The desire for new sunglasses was the downfall of Sarah Pelmas, a high school English teacher, when she joined the group two years ago.

"It was killing me," she says. Finally she broke down and bought a pair, stepping onto the "slippery slope" that brought her back into mainstream consumerism. "It was like vegetarians and bacon," she says: You can't just stop at a taste. But she re-enlisted in December.

Relatives taken aback

Not that the idea is embraced by everyone. In Chilliwack, British Columbia, Tira Brandon-Evans says that when she and her husband told friends they weren't going to exchange Christmas and birthday presents, they acted as if she'd suddenly developed a mental illness.

She jokes that from her friends' reactions, you would have thought she had announced plans to have a sex change or join a satanic cult.

The biggest challenge for San Franciscan Rachel Kesel was a camping trip, which "takes a lot of gear." But for a fall outing, the 25-year-old student called friends to borrow what she needed. It worked out great, "because it's so rare that you're using camping gear at the same time as everybody else."

Dorice Baty of Monett, Mo., says her family was forced into "involuntary simplicity" when her husband lost his job two years ago. The couple now get by on her salary as a substitute teacher. She likes sharing ideas on how to get by without buying with people in the Compact, whether rich or poor.

"If someone is wealthy and they're doing this, God bless them," she says. "If they've taken on the challenge, then I admire them as much as the people like me who are struggling."

But to many, the entire notion seems strange, even downright un-American. Compacters interviewed on the radio have been accused of wanting to destroy the country. Bloggers have attacked the idea as "conspicuous anti-consumerism" and "pretentious."

Compacter James Glines of Copperas Cove, Texas, says relatives have asked him, "How can you do that? Are you going to steal?"

But there's a strong history of frugality in the USA, says David Shi, president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and author of The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture. Religious groups such as the Shakers, the Mennonites, the Amish and some Quakers have long embraced the notion of living a simpler life. Writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau idealized it.

Shi says that for the past decade, Americans have been turning toward "therapeutic simplicity."

"It's a function of individuals beginning to feel a sense of crisis in their lives," Shi says. "The frenetic pace of our high-tech society, coupled with the barrage of seductive messages coming from our consumer culture, have reached a point that many people simply feel like they're about to self-destruct."

For Pelmas, it's about "avoiding the hysteria that seems to govern a lot of our consciousness right now around consumerism. It's the kind of craze where fathers are beating each other up to get the latest Nintendo for their kids. It strikes me as some strange kind of 21st-century spiritual lack."

It's not just her. Surveys done by Juliet Schor, a sociologist at Boston College who studies consumer society, have found that 81% of Americans say the country is too focused on shopping and spending, and 88% think it is too materialistic.

The Compacters are simply the most recent manifestation of a kind of underground mass movement, Schor says.

She studies the "downshifter movement" that began in the 1980s with people making choices about earning and spending less money so they could focus on the quality of their lives and their families, typically by working fewer hours or changing jobs.

A common thread

The Compact is not such a new idea.

In 2003, USA TODAY columnist Craig Wilson vowed to buy nothing but food, toiletries and gifts for a year. The column "had one of the largest reader responses ever. Thousands and thousands of readers e-mailed me," Wilson says.

Just this month saw publication of a whole book about a year without buying. Judith Levine had her own "no more" moment in 2004 and went on to write Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping.

There's even a glossy magazine called Real Simple that taps into the trend, although its focus is more on buying things to make life simpler rather than not buying things.

They're all onto something, says James Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "The research is overwhelmingly clear," he says. "The more materialistic you are, the less happy you are. We get happiness through love of others and sense of community. But we've been told by Madison Avenue that happiness can come through the mall."

For Glines, joining the Compact was about taming the need for the new. "I wanted ways to be frugal without cutting into my kids' happiness," he says.

But it's harder in central Texas than San Francisco, where thrift stores are hip, and people put on things like the "Really Really Free Market" at a park once a month. At that urban potluck picnic, people bring what they don't need and take what they do.

It's hard but not impossible, Glines found. Putting in a raised vegetable garden, he was stymied by a lack of nails. But new houses are going up all over the place in Copperas Cove. "I talked to some of the builders, and they had half clips of nails from nail guns they were just throwing away, and they said I could have them.

"I just popped them off, and there were my nails," he says.

For Pelmas, the Compact kept a lot of things out of her life but did bring in something very important — a husband.

She had met Matt Eddy, a high school science teacher, through friends several years before, but when she asked him out, he said no.

"Then a year later, he was having dinner with some friends, and they said, 'Oh, Sarah's part of this Compact where she doesn't buy anything new.' "

Eddy, with his great love of environmental science, instantly rethought his rejection. He called Pelmas, and as she puts it, "the rest was history."

They were married 18 months later. The couple just bought a 1920s house that they plan to bring up to snuff using only recycled materials.

After all, she says, "it's a used home."


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