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DOWNSHIFTING

Intro — Geraldine Doogue:

Hello and welcome to Compass. I’m Geraldine Doogue. Tonight a look at a shift in values that’s having a pro­found impact on the lives of many or­dinary Australians. It’s called ‘down­shifting’ or ‘voluntary simplicity’, where people choose to live on less income, to live more simply. A survey released last year by the Australia In­stitute in Canberra indicates 23% of Australian adults have chosen to downshift in the last 10 years. That’s almost a quarter of the population, and they’re not just drop-outs who’ve decided to quit mainstream society — it’s a movement across the board, rep­resenting the full range of age, income and social background. Tonight we meet some downshifters, and academ­ics who are studying these quiet revo­lutionaries who are rejecting a frantic consumerist lifestyle.

Narr:Clive Hamilton commis­sioned The Australia Institute Survey Into Downshifting. He found 35% of downshifters said lack of time with family was why they decided to change their lives. They recognize that overwork and absentee parents have caused a neglect of children. They don’t want to miss out on their children growing up. This was by far the most common reason for down­shifting.

Jim McKnight, Head of Psy­chology Dept, Uni of Western Syd­ney:One of the main reasons for be­ing downshifted is most people would suddenly discover the value of friends or family. So a very big motivation is to regain somehow a sense of com­munity with the family, friends and neighbours and broader community.

Dick Newman: When I was a banker I didn’t have sufficient time to be with the boys. Mondays to Fri­days hardly saw them. And on the weekends I didn’t feel like doing too much. The weekend was required to relax. And much as you may love small children it’s difficult to relax with them, and it’s difficult to enjoy them.

Narr:When Dick Newman quit the bank the family moved to Maleny, an hour north of Brisbane, where he used to work. Now Debby works two days at the pub’s bottle shop, Dick does tutoring and other volunteer work at his sons’ school, and picks them up every afternoon.

Dick Newman:If you’re going to drop your income to about 25% of what you were earning, you obvi­ously have to accept that consumer­ism is a thing of the past. You can’t obviously escape consumerism to­tally, but the ability to just go out and buy bright shiny objects when you feel like it, that had to go. And that suited me anyway.

Clive Hamilton:Well, many downshifters have been through a pe­riod where they question at quite a deep level the purpose of their lives. I mean it’s a crisis of meaning for many people. There’s something missing, there’s some emptiness inside.

James Arvanitakis:My life before was very different to what it is now. An average day was a 12 hour day. And it was a very sort of macho driven lifestyle where it was all about trying to make as much money as you could.

Narr:Till his big change five years ago, James Arvanitakis was on a six figure salary in the finance in­dustry. But gradually he developed a deep sense of dissatisfaction.

James Arvanitakis: I think first of all there was a sense that even though I was very successful materi­alistically and financially and career wise, I had this empty feeling inside me. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what it was. The sec­ond thing that happened was I actu­ally decided that I needed a bit of a break from work because it was so highly stressed. So I ended taking a year off and doing a bit of travelling.

Narr:While overseas James decided to leave the finance industry. When he returned he did voluntary work for a number of community or­ganizations, and he had to move his beautiful house overlooking the beach.

James Arvanitakis: I’m actu­ally earning about 20% of what I did. I can’t go to extravagant restaurants now. But I can have a great bowl of noodles for like $6 or $7 and be happy. I think you can still have all these, you don’t have to give up everything to have a simpler life. It’s about what’s important and try and balance that a lot more.

My life now is a lot more bal­anced in the things that I do. So I ac­tually take time to make sure that I stay healthy that includes spending time down at the beach running and swimming. I spend more time with friends and family. But I still work hard. It’s not walking away from so­ciety. It’s about actually looking at society in a different way. So in many ways what drives my life at the moment is balance, it’s not just work and success and material gain.

Narr:For a few years James was director of Aidwatch, a non­profit watchdog on Australia’s over­seas aid. He still does volunteer work for Aidwatch. He also has a scholar­ship to do his doctorate and he tutors part time.

James Arvanitakis:In contrast now I have this really strong sense of fulfillment with what I do. And it’s not necessarily a vow of poverty. The work that I do now is based around issues of human rights both in Aus­tralia and internationally. I worked on indigenous issues, on promoting refugee rights. That is about the pro­motion of issues of hope and a sense of community and dignity. They’re the issues that we need balance in our lives and our society and get rid of that sense of emptiness.



Clive Hamilton:Quite a sub­stantial proportion of the downshifters said I did it for my health. And sometimes it’s a chronic condition such as stress or tension or depres­sion that they’re trying to overcome. A smallish proportion of people gave as their reason for downshifting a de­sire to live a less materialistic life­style or a desire to live a more envi­ronmentally friendly lifestyle. And we’ve lumped these together and called these people post materialists. They are the people who are most likely to do the seachange.

Jim McKnight:One of the big themes of voluntary simplicity is where it intersects with the alterna­tive lifestyles and making a light footprint on the planet. And it’s very important for a lot of people that they live lives that are not going to ruin their grandchildren’s future.

Narr:After the Harwoods left the Philippines, where Andrew work­ed in the mining industry, they came back to Maleny in Queensland. An­drew grew up here on a dairy farm, and since his return, they’ve become involved in sustainable timber pro­duction.

Andrew Harwood:This area was originally a rainforest and probably about a hundred years ago or so the area was cleared for dairy farming. Since then we’ve had two or three owners. My grandfather picked the property up about 80 years ago. And I’ve got seven acres of planta­tion trees here. When growing plan­tation trees you have to be thinking a long-term strategy, but I’m happy to wait for the benefits.

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Sharon Harwood:My whole life now is very simple, and it’s less focused on myself and more about embracing others and about learning about myself and how I can be a bet­ter contributor in my community, and of course in my family. My family is just so much more important to me than I could ever imagine.

Narr:The question for the fu­ture is how far the downshifting movement will grow, or whether it’ll remain just a sizeable minority who seek a more balanced life.

James Arvanitakis: First of all I’d like to say that the word down­shifting indicates that you’re going down. I think it should actually be right shifting, it’s about trying to find that balance. I think this trend is go­ing to grow. People just need a little bit more confidence to go down that path.

Clive Hamilton:And so in a way these people are quite revolution­aries because whilst they often don’t see themselves that way, they really are challenging the fundamental prin­ciples of consumer capitalism. I think that downshifting represents a really fundamental social change. I mean if only two or three per cent of people were doing it, it would be a fringe ac­tivity. But when a quarter of the Aus­tralian population is doing it and there are similar figures for the US and some European countries, I think this repre­sents something really quite radical.

Geraldine Doogue: Yes maybe quite radical. The Australia Institute research faced some controversy when it was first released particularly around the issue of how downshifters funded themselves and whether they were bludgers on society. Indeed the Institute has just completed a follow up report and it’s due to be released in a week’s time. So look out for those results.

Adaptedfrom ABC in house


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