Simple Living… with a Sense of Humor: Warren Johnson’s Muddling Toward Frugality

Editor’s note: This review is our contribution to Eco-Libris’ Green Books Campaign 2010. Eco-Libris arranged for a free review copy from Easton Studio Press.

The new edition of Warren Johnson's Muddling Toward Frugality
The new edition of Warren Johnson's Muddling Toward Frugality

We Americans like our simple, direct, and confident statements — just think of “Yes We Can!” or “Reload!” — so a title like Muddling Toward Frugality (affiliate link)Β may not immediately grab a book browser’s eye. Novelist Edward Abbey noted as much in his preface to the book’s original 1978 edition, claiming it “generates no sex appeal whatsoever.” Abbey, however, also noted that he really liked this book, and that the title was perfect for it. Thirty-two years later, a new edition of Warren Johnson’s treatise on “A New Social Logic for a Sustainable World” probably still won’t create best-seller status… but, as in the late seventies, Muddling Toward Frugality is an important work still very relevant to the times in which we live.

I initially thought I’d be reading another book on frugal living… a “how-to” on the the simple life. To some degree, that is the case, but this isn’t Mother Earth News. Rather, now-retired geography professor Johnson focuses on resource depletion… and the necessary changes dwindling amounts of fossil fuels will bring about in how we live on the planet. Johnson believes that higher prices for energy, and the products and activities it makes possible, will create the necessity for simplifying and localizing out lifestyles… environmental limitations will make anything else too expensive. We’ll have to make the best of what we have… which he argues is the original definition of frugality.

Simple Living without the Stoicism

However, Johnson doesn’t approach this from a “doom and gloom” perspective; in fact, just the opposite. He argues that, when faced with challenges, the typical Euro-American response involves invoking a “tragic” perspective: that is, we want to stand firm, fight hard, and perhaps even fail while fighting according to our beliefs and principles. But he believes that the way change and adaptation comes about is more in the comic vein (in the classical sense): we manage to survive by doing what little we can, and Β “muddlingthrough.” If you’ve ever read or seen a performance of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, you understand the concept.

Now, you might get the idea that Johnson’s saying that we should just hang on and hope for the best; that’s not exactly true. He does, however, think that a shift to a more sustainable lifestyle won’t come through large-scale efforts, but, rather, through individuals and groups playing with simple living, and finding what works for them… and “what works” won’t involve major self-sacrifice, but rather lifestyles that maintain joy, happiness, and satisfaction. People will take a hard look at the world, realize that the ways they’ve lived just don’t work anymore because of the economic challenges created, and muddle forward to ways of life more in tune with those realities. In his vision, small communities will eventually replace large ones, and self-sufficiency will happen not through noble acts of rejecting unsustainable ways of life… but because it’s an easier way to survive.

Johnson practices what he preaches in his narrative: it definitely muddles. He throws out an idea, then considers its alternative, then maybe brings in another concept…. and tries to reconcile them all at some point. The style can be fun; it can also get a little wearisome with some of the more technical chapters (especially since they’re addressing technological challenges from a ’70s perspective). The trick to reading and enjoying the 2010 edition doesn’t involve looking for detailed answers to large issues of global economics and politics, but rather buying into the “muddling” concept while reading… and enjoying his ability to find connections in a wide array of topics: ecological history, myth and religion, agricultural science, economic theory, and much more.

Still, the book has a lot to offer in terms of framing contemporary economic and environmental challenges… it’s amazing (and a little disheartening) to see how many challenges from 1978 are still very relevant today. Perhaps we’re already muddling… or perhaps it’s time to start. Either way, Muddling Toward Frugality is one of those books, like Ishmael perhaps, that will have you thinking about the world in quite different ways once you put it down… and perhaps not feeling nearly as hopeless about the state of the world as you did when you picked it up.

The 2010 edition of Muddling Toward Frugality is FSC and Ancient Forest Friendly certified.

Ready to start your own muddle towards a simpler life? We can help… check out our current listing of gardening supplies, bikes, and renewable energy products

  1. mbc

    Sounds like an interesting read – I’ve more one for ‘muddling’ my way to a solution than being grand and direct – I like little steps … the safest way to get to the outcome you want, rather and an unitended one…

    Tricky book to get hold of in the UK (only used copies on Amazon)…


  2. Susan

    This looks like a great book. One of the things The topic makes me think about is the importance of the first step. A lot of people think there is no point to small steps toward sustainability in your personal life, but I think they are overlooking the importance of just getting started, and how small steps often lead to more steps, and bigger steps. So, sorting the recycling led to thinking about packaging and how much waste we produce, and composting, which led to gardening, which makes me think about the sustainability of more and more daily choices. Converting your entire life to sustainable practices is overwhelming to most people, but adding just one more thingdoesnt seem too difficult when you space the changes out over time.

  3. Peter

    This book is more relevant today than it was for the 1970’s when I first read it in graduate school. As you re- read it – you can relate to the changes that had occured than and are in full force and effect today – even more so. Perhaps there has not been anything written as comprehensive since – real eye opener. Gives you a feeling as to what you should be looking for, not in the stars or news reports – but what is happening now in 2011 all around us – comes more into focus more relevant today. As our resourses become more scarce, oil prices climbing, high unemployment, tight government budgets – this book was written for today as it was a forseer of the future in the 1970’s. THank you Warren for your insight. I would really like to know more about how the issues of today have effected your outlook – manufacturing spent off to China, unstable energy prices, political fighting in protecting energy companies with tax breaks to name a few. Perhaps someone can direct me to further readings.

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