Stepping Lightly — Reviews

Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet

By Mark A. Burch. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2000.

224 pages, paperback. US$15.95 / Can$18.95. ISBN 0-86571-423-1

Reviewed by: Paul G. Chamberlain, The Trumpeter, 2002.  ISSN 0832-6193

(Paul G. Chamberlain teaches in the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Victoria. His research focuses on landscape, literature, and mystic place. During the summer he bombs forest fires in Canada’s boreal forests.)

Aristotle once asked a simple question—what is the Good Life? In the Nicomachean Ethics he concludes that it is not possible without wealth. But what is meant by wealth? In Stepping Lightly, Mark Burch, a freelance educator, writer, and a workshop facilitator from Winnipeg, attempts to answer this question. He puts forward the case that our consumer culture is driven by advertising, a “breeder reactor” that encourages us to live beyond our means in an attempt to buy happiness. Although Burch flirts with the idea that our hunger for materialism might be part of a survival imperative—an antidote to death even—he emphasizes that the consumer culture can never really lead to contentment, because it doesn’t satisfy our most important needs. Equally pressing, it is not globally sustainable. “Inner wealth,” by contrast, is about a higher level of consciousness that promotes love, meaning, and a sense of connectedness to the world around us by adopting another idea close to the heart of ancient philosophers, the Golden Mean. By implementing a lifestyle of “voluntary simplicity,” Burch argues, we can not only cure ourselves—healing a spiritual wound that misdirects desire—but we can also heal our home, the Earth.

In Stepping Lightly, Burch proceeds in three steps. He begins by telling us what voluntary simplicity means. It’s not just about reducing waste, recycling, and simplifying our lives; it’s about seeing ourselves as part of a web of life that interconnects us with family, community, and the Earth. But it’s also about developing an ethical attitude to the choices that we make. Part of his definition hinges upon the idea of non-violent insurrection, a concept whose roots he traces back to civil disobedience in the works of Tolstoy, Thoreau, and Gandhi.

Next, Burch looks at the reasons why we need to adopt voluntary simplicity. In keeping with the metaphorical title of Stepping Lightly, Burch points out that most of us have an ecological footprint bigger than a Sasquatch. Expansion of our bioregions is fuelled by consumerism; such growth is unsustainable on a large scale. But on a more personal level, voluntary simplicity can also teach us “what is important” in our daily lives, leading to a sense of personal enrichment.

Finally, Stepping Lightly describes how voluntary simplicity can be achieved. Here Burch invites the reader to step back from materialism, and take a step forward to heal the Earth. Each one of us is the product of countless acts of love. Healing the world begins by healing ourselves. It begins with “mindfulness,” a self-reflective attitude derived from activities like yoga, art, and dance that enable us to pay attention to one thing at a time. By projecting our mindfulness into the world, reducing waste, “de-junking” and practicing conservation become second nature to us, and as bartering, co-ops, and community shared agriculture thrive, Burch articulates a world in which business “re-engineers” itself by becoming part of society rather than trying to manipulate it.

Stepping Lightly is a lucid, articulate, and well-organized book that addresses crucial issues for our time. The sections on what, why, and how are divided into chapters, and several of these are further divided into subsections, all of which are easy to follow. More visual material might have been included in the book, such as graphs, tables, or even cartoons; however, the boxes in the margins are particularly useful devices for highlighting important points within the text. The bibliography is adequate, although a little short, and pagination errors were evident in the index.

Burch has delved deeply into history. Locke, Descartes, Zen, and the philosophy of civil disobedience figure prominently in his book, but followers of the Deep Ecology movement will be disappointed that he has by-passed a rich collection of work that could have enhanced his thesis.

In many ways, the what and the why of Stepping Lightly are the strongest parts of the book; the how is by far the longest section, but it is also the most challenging to articulate. At the outset, Burch emphasizes that his vision of the future is not anti-technology, but many of his ideas challenge conventional economic thinking to such an extent that they need to be more thoroughly fleshed out. Burch devotes only nine pages of his text to addressing the impact of voluntary simplicity on the economy, admitting that he is not an economist. Ultimately, it will be up to the readers of Stepping Lightly to decide precisely how to implement ideas expressed in this book at the grassroots level. And perhaps that is as it should be.

Aristotle confessed at the end of his life in a letter written on the island of Chalcis to Antipater that “[t]he more I am by myself, and alone, the fonder I have become of myths.” Myths contain eternal truths. Perhaps Aristotle had come to appreciate the true meaning of wealth at the end of his life—the Good Life. Mark Burch too has come to the end of a long journey. There is much soul searching in this book, and it does make a sincere attempt to bridge the gap between individual responsibility and collective action. While many of the ideas will be familiar to practitioners of the Environmental Movement—even the term “voluntary simplicity” is coined from Richard Gregg’s article in the Visva-Bharati Quarterly in 1936—Stepping Lightly weaves together so many interrelated strands in such a thought-provoking way that it will appeal to a wide range of readers.

Copyright retained by author(s). Used here with permission.


Stepping Lightly – Simplicity For People And The Planet

by Mark A. Burch

Review by Sheila Havard, Coldstream Friends (Quakers), 2015. Accessed at:

Mark Burch was the Quaker Studies lecturer at Canadian Yearly Meeting this year and his topic was simplicity. He is an author, educator and group facilitator who has practised simple living since the 1960s. He is a fellow of the Simplicity Institute. Stepping Lightly is one of five books he has written on voluntary simplicity.

Mark came to Winnipeg Quakers in Winnipeg through simplicity, but it could equally well have happened the other way round. Simplicity can lead to spirituality or vice versa.

This article does not purport to be a review of the book, but highlights some aspects of simplicity.

I am sure that Friends are fully aware of the ecological consequences of the Western world’s obsession with acquiring “stuff”. It violates every testament espoused by Quakers: competition for resources is disruptive of peace; acquisition by the rich denies the poor their due, etc. Consumerism is the very opposite of the stewardship of the earth to which the Bible calls us.

Mark argues that mindfulness plays a central role in resisting the temptation to acquire. Once we have figured out what we really value, we can ignore the rest. Going further, we can “dejunk” (in his lectures he introduces us to the word “cumber” in this respect). These two steps towards simplicity are liberating in that they free us up for what is really important: human relationships rather than things, the animate rather than the inanimate. Simplicity is conducive to calm and contentment, contrary to the claims of consumerism that “stuff” makes one happy. Mark and his wife are both strongly involved in the community gardening movement for community is a key ingredient in Mark’s concept of simplicity. Happiness is derived more from relationships than from goods.

Simplicity also involves a degree of self-reliance: picking a tomato in one’s own backyard is so much more direct and ecologically friendly than driving to the store to buy one shipped from California. Taking a responsible preventive approach to your health is far preferable to relying on the medical system to “rescue” you when you get sick.

A perhaps less widely known aspect of simplicity relates to time. The consumer approach stresses quantity: the more we pack into our day, the better. The practice of voluntary simplicity involves a shift in focus to stress selectivity and quality.

Simplicity is not self-denial, returning to the 19th century or imitating Thoreau. It does not necessarily exclude technology, but is selective in its choice and use.

These simple but radical steps can be taken by any individual, any time; they are not conditional on any kind of group action. Voluntary simplicity can be a statement of solidarity with the poor, a protest. But, above all, it is a means – never an end in itself – which presents us with a blank page, free of “cumber”.

Some of my favourite quotes:

“To construct an entire social and economic system on the cyclical and deliberate generation of artificial desires, their temporary satisfaction and then re-stimulation, is, in a word, lunacy. Yet this is the ‘miracle’ of consumerism.” (Page 29)

“Consumerism is a system that links the desires of those without awareness to the actions of those without scruples to produce destruction without precedent”. (Page 75)

(After a series of calculations): “To realize the goal of a typical North American consumer lifestyle for everyone on Earth would require four extra planets at the present time.” (Page 79)

“Voluntary simplicity is a very simple way to address the rapid depletion of world resources. Anyone can understand it. Everyone can apply it. It can be ‘geared’ to each person’s way of life, family responsibilities and geographic location… It costs nothing.” (Page 81)

(Re “dejunking”): “We trip over this junk, insure it, maintain larger than needed houses to shelter it, pay for security services to keep it from being stolen, fret over its safety, curse over its oppressive effects on our emotions and activities, search through it to find what we really need to get on with our lives… and at last relegate it to the landfill.” (Page 83-4)

“The decision to forgo consumption is the most direct, effective, immediate and ‘market-sensitive’ step that an individual or group can take toward ecological stewardship.” (Page 89)

“Material things are not evil… but they are treacherous because they can become objects of craving and attachment…” (Page 93)

“For the modern economist… standard of living [is measured by] the amount of annual consumption, assuming… that a man who consumers more is ‘better off’ than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational. Since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain a maximum of well-being with a minimum of consumption. (E. Schumacher: Small is Beautiful)


Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet.

by Mark A. Burch

“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.”

Reviewed by: David McConkey, Brandon Sun, 28 November 2008.

Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the PlanetpastedGraphic.png is by Mark Burch. Burch currently lives in Winnipeg, but he lived in Brandon for a number of years. [correction — 25 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.” [correction — The term “voluntary simplicity” was introduced by Richard Gregg in 1936.]  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. [correction — 10 years as a psychotherapist.] 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. [correction — Stepping Lightly is published by New Society Publishers on Gabriola Island, British Columbia.] 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.


Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet

by Mark A. Burch

Spells out the meanings of voluntary simplicity.

Review by: Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

Although the term voluntary simplicity was first coined by Richard Gregg, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, it can be traced back to the lives of Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, and monks around the world. Duane Elgin who wrote a very popular book on the subject defined it as “a way of life which is outwardly simple and inwardly rich.”

Mark Burch is author of Simplicity: Stories and Exercises for Developing Unimaginable Wealth. A freelance writer, speaker, workshop leader, and teacher of college courses on voluntary simplicity, he has practiced simple living since the 1960s. At the outset, Burch notes: “The attraction of simplicity is mysterious because it draws us in a completely opposite direction from where most of the world seems to be going: away from conspicuous display, accumulation, egoism, and public visibility — toward a life more silent, humble, and transparent than anything known to the extroverted culture of consumerism.”

The author sees voluntary simplicity as “a social movement, a spiritual sensibility, an aesthetic, and a practice of livelihood.” In this substantive and soul-stirring book, Burch discusses some of the characteristics of this way of life as related to self, family and community, the environment, and spirituality. The most poignant section is the one in which Burch spells out how to practice simplicity. Here he covers the challenges of cultivating mindfulness, knowing when enough is enough, right livelihood, time and money, the economy, and equity.

A special bonus is a page listing websites on voluntary simplicity and an annotated bibliography on the subject. Here’s a final thought on voluntary simplicity by Burch: “Discerning how much is enough also involves placing our personal consumption of things in the context of environmental sustainability, social justice, and inter-generational equity. In this realm, we move beyond considerations of what may be expedient or comfortable in terms of our individual lives and consider ourselves to be part of a much larger whole.”


By Midwest Book Review on March 19, 2001

Format: Paperback

In Stepping Lightly: Simplicity For People And The Planet, Mark Burch writes in an engaging and “reader friendly” style about the meaning, purpose, and necessity of voluntary simplicity in one’s life personal lifestyle and the value of simplicity for individual and collective efforts to create a more sustainable planet and society. Burch persuasively argues for a thoughtful corse of living which requires “cultivating mindfulness” and personal authenticity, as well as balancing livelihood with an intentional and conscious approach to daily life. Stepping Lightly is informative and inspiring reading for anyone seeking a personal, more ecologically friendly, and satisfying lifestyle for themselves, their families, and their communities.


By Amazon Customer on November 13, 2001

Format: Paperback

This book is a great introduction to the voluntary simplicity movement, why it evolved, why it is spreading so fast and why yo should live a simpler and more “mindful” life. It does not have specific step-by-step advice, but intelligent arguments and lots of facts on the current state of civilization and the simplicity movement. It is a very enjoyable read and very thought provoking. Thank you Mr Burch!

If you want great practical advice to complement this book, get The Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs.