Should everyone do what I’ve done, jack in their job, run from the city to the hills and build an off-the-grid mud empire for themselves? Would it be more or less sustainable? Could humanity survive without cities? Where, after all, would we squash these ever mushrooming plagues of people?
It is widely promulgated that without cities there simply wouldn’t be enough land space for us all. Out of curiosity, I began to research a little on how much usable surface area of the planet there was for each individual. It's not easy to uncover a straight answer to that, and it depends whether the research includes the entire Earth's surface, forests, deserts or cities themselves. According to this study back in 2005 we all had a little over 5 acres of earth surface each. Huntington Funds puts the figure closer to just over 1.5 acres per head. WorldWatch calculates it as only 0.5 acres per capita. Feeling claustrophobic yet?
There is much debate about how much land each human needs to survive. Somewhere between 5 – 10 acres is a figure that sprouts up fairly regularly, thought let's be honest, far too many of these theoreticians are hypothesizing from a swivel chair in a city of a suburb. I am not self-sufficient (is such a thing possible?) but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t starve if push came to shove, and I haven’t even touched ¾ of my 2 acre plot. The issue isn’t so much land space as what we’re doing with it. Ask me to choose between 100 hectares of desert and an acre of fertile soil with a wellspring, there’s no debate. I’d go for the latter. Far more crucial than metres squared, is clean water, healthy soil and healthy bio-systems, hence my ambivalence vis-à-vis cities.
When you live with your arse in the dirt, when your meals sprout primarily from your garden, when your life is dictated by the seasons and the sun rather than a Rolex, a different type of awareness evolves. The impact of everything you do to your land is obvious, and you reap what you sow very quickly. The trouble with the urban sprawl is that while it might not take up as much physical space per capita, its population is divorced from the consequences of its actions. If city folk pollute a river it doesn’t impact them directly, because they can still throw a bottle of Evian in their supermarket trolley. If they waste insane amounts of energy why care as long as there is the cash to foot the bill? Why ever bother with a composting toilet? The crap is flushed away somewhere else. And therein lies the problem. A city’s mess doesn’t end at its asphalt fringes. If we take stock of the bigger picture, the waste, energy and water consumed by cities decimate large swathes of resources.
And yet . . . Am I saying we should all live off-the-grid?
From the outside it looks as though the soundest option would be permaculture-based sustainable communities with food stuff, materials and resources shared, but . . . but . . . I’m still hesitant. There is a tendency, when folk escape from ‘civilisation’, to turn pristine nature into exactly that which they were running away from. Rural off-the-grid life and the world of the city are two vastly different realities, and some never adapt. Houses are generally built too big, nature’s gifts are bulldozed out of existence before they are even noticed, the quiet unpeopled hours weigh heavily on those of naturally social bent, the lack of distraction bores others. City dwellers moving to the country for the first time are like refugees finding themselves in a foreign land with a language they don’t speak. It takes time to adjust, and some never do. And perhaps they were never meant to.
But isn’t the aim of this blog to convince everyone to join my club and be like me, build a whopping great muddy community? Isn’t that what we should do?
The idea that we 'should' be doing something, is all too human. Wild cyclamen and buzzards know nothing of what they should do. They do whatever they like, can, or have to, at any given moment. So why do I write this blog? Why spend a day each month banging the keys of my laptop and spouting my earthy crap? Let it be known; I have no interest in convincing anyone to do anything, converting people is the territory of religions and dogma. Actual living is the art of the soul, and everyone does it differently.
To accept yourself, to love and believe in your talents, to follow only that which brings you joy is nature’s way. Contented, self-fulfilled people generally consume less than their miserable or desensitised counterparts left with little else to do but stuff the holes inside them with noise and instant gratification. The more complete you are, the more you realise the outside simply can’t bring you what you most desire. It’s inner peace and happiness we need more of, not off-the-grid homes or communities, because both pollution and ecology start in the mind and the heart, and just like everything else in the natural world, they grow naturally out from there.
Would I say this if I were starving, or without a stump of wood to throw at the fire? Probably not. But In that case, I wouldn't be throwing out half a refrigerator of food every week, nor buying palm oil products nor draining the national grid. I'd be on my knees kissing the dirt like it was the Goddess of Nourishment instead.
Atulya K Bingham
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