I do. I daydream a lot. While I love the fast-paced, always doing things, accessible life I live in London, I do spend much of my free time plotting to get away from the city. I love cycling through the city at night, surrounded by the bright lights and buzz of millions of people living together, but I also love standing by the sea, in silence, letting the waves wash over my feet.
I recently finished reading Naomi Klein’s book about the climate crisis, This Changes Everything. Part of the book was dedicated to exploring the ongoing ways that some communities continue to live a life that is connected to the Earth, which see our planet not as a resource, but as a source. The idea of growing and fishing for your own food and generally living a life that is not underpinned by plastic packaging and other people doing much of the work to create the substances that sustain me is deeply foreign to me and most of those around me.
I found myself wondering if I would like it. Would I like to live a quieter, more thoughtful, more at peace with the Earth kind of life?
I imagine living far away from any major city in a place that is truly still and quiet through the night. I imagine having a house that is actually mine. I imagine growing some food in the garden, or at least, knowing personally the person who grows my food down the road. We could get a dog without it having to mean a huge contortion of our city lives and schedules, as we try to keep a big, outdoor, adventurous creature happy in a small house surrounded by blocks of flats and almost no grass.
Anyone who knows me is probably laughing at the above paragraph. I am not really a salt of the Earth kind of person. I don’t love to cook because, while I do like to eat good food, I tend to feel like the amount of time it takes to make and clean up from a nice meal is not worth the ten minutes of especially nice tastes. As Jake made clear when I brought up this conversation, it would take a lot longer to grow the food we eat before we even started cooking, making the time investment even greater.
I agree that, right now, I don’t know if I’d truly be happy in a lower-energy life. But I wonder if I could be, if I let myself move past the expectations of achievement and consumption and novelty that dominate my social sphere. The future I see for myself is predicated on taking from the planet, even if it’s in a conscientious way. It’s eating good food that someone else has grown and occasionally made and it’s getting in carbon-spewing aeroplanes to go and eat, walk through and stay in places I don’t live. It’s depending on other people to provide the water, heat and clothes I use every day.
I have been wondering if part of the reason climate change and the corresponding economic and lifestyles change we need to make to combat it feel so enormous and foreign is because we are so fundamentally disconnected from the ways in which our lives are supported by the planet. Eating packaged food from a supermarket while living in a house surrounded by other human-made houses and using advanced technology doesn’t make you aware of how the Sun and the soil and all the amazing minerals and plants contributed to this terrifyingly convenient and cheap way of life.
I am so removed from this approach to the world. Most of the effort that goes into growing the food I eat and making it so that the water that comes out of my taps is safe, filtered and, uh, there at all is done by other people. Beautiful, untouched, natural places are places to visit, to pop in and enjoy before heading back to busy metropolises where pollution is a foregone conclusion. I wonder if that lack of connection and commitment to places where environmental damage and climate change is obvious contributes to our wider apathy. Much of the power, influence and money, especially from a policy perspective, is concentrated in the cities, places already mired by coal and devoid of wildlife and a place to plant your vegetables. These are also the places that have most felt the ‘benefits’ of extraction and fossil fuel usage, through better, cheaper, more convenient products and services. We see the benefits, have accepted some of the negatives (like pollution) and are able to keep the true, ongoing damage to otherwise pristine natural areas out of sight and out of mind because we don’t see the part of the Earth we call home degrading by the day. Consumerism is so baked into our metropolitan, modern way of life that it’s hard to imagine doing things another way.
For me, this idea lies at the crux of the question. It’s not whether I could pivot entirely to live a life removed from the consumerist matrix while living in London, working in finance and travelling regularly; it’s whether, with a total overhaul, I could be as happy – happier, even – with none of those things and a smaller carbon footprint to boot. I feel like I’m building a life that rests on a constant influx of new experiences: new countries, new trips, new restaurants, new books, new TV shows, new projects and new ideas, and for as long as I feel like I need these things, I will need the wheels of production to keep turning, on some level. But if I moved away, somewhere where passport stamps and West End shows and Central London flats didn’t hold currency, would everything be different?
I’m not talking about shunning the government, swearing off technology, refusing to step foot in a supermarket or anything that drastic. I also don’t want to underestimate the challenges that afflict communities with weaker ties to a country’s main institutions, or be glib about the fact that many people are not staying out of busy, wealthy cities by choice. It remains a privilege at all to live somewhere full of technology, modernity and opportunity. But as our many decades of rampant consumerism catch up with us, it seems prudent to talk about the different lives we could lead, lives that rely less on the constant mass-production of destructive, disposable items. I’m talking about being more connected to the planet, to the ways in which I take and give to the environment, and more connected to myself, just as I am, without feeling like constant mental, physical or intellectual motion is necessary for me to be interesting and valuable. I am happiest spending time with my family and friends, especially outside somewhere beautiful, preferably near the ocean. Maybe there’s a future where my time is spent more on this and less on making enough money to support a lifestyle that I’m not sure is truly fulfilling for anyone. Something to think about.