The Harmful Side of the ‘Modern Nomad’
Nomadism is an old way of life…
Nomadism refers to people who move from place to place, often seasonally or through a traditional route- and humans have a long history of it.
Thousands of years ago, prior to the domestication of animals and the development of agriculture people roamed the land in small, nomadic tribes. Their movement allowed them to hunt and glean from fertile lands. Nomadism was in a sense a way to stay attuned to nature and to its limitations on population density.
Eventually, humans did domesticate animals- we built cities and civilizations- we underwent a massive agricultural revolution. As a result many of us live in cities and are relatively disconnected from the land or its former carrying capacity.
A new reason for an old way
Most recently, many of our jobs have gone ‘virtual’. Many of us are permitted to work from wherever we’d like, allowing us to be economically secure while being footloose.
This is in ironic contrast to the original purpose for nomadism. We are able to be nomadic because we are so removed from the land and from nature based economies or products.
So should we be applauding the resurgence of an old way?
We can find many instagrams explaining the lifestyle of the ‘Modern Nomad’. It is a new, alternative trend, often practiced by those of higher income in the technology sector. It is a way of connecting to nature, exploring new cultures, limiting physical possessions and enjoying life.
Modern Nomadism has benefits and is clearly enjoyed by the individuals who practice it, but is it beneficial for the community? Is it a revolutionary or intrinsically beneficial way of living?
In my, likely unpopular, opinion: no
In fact, I think it disproportionately lends itself to being harmful.
The Modern Nomad is intrinsically disconnected from a place based community. That feels obvious, and applies to our ancestors. However, there is a key difference: today’s society is significantly more politically, socially and environmentally complex. Our ancestors moved between relatively similar ecosystems and took most of their social structures with them.
By contrast, today’s society moves at an extremely rapid pace and is quite ingrained and defined by location- being gone for three to six months is enough to break a shared context of experience with those in the community. Those who have tried to maintain long distance relationships for long periods of time, may relate. Any Floridian who has experienced the impact of ‘snow birds’ ritualistically vacationing, may relate.
Adding to this, many Modern Nomads move too quickly to learn the local language, study the local culture or learn local rituals. They obtain economic decision making power- which is often stronger than political power- in communities that they have not acculturated to. This creates a power imbalance with local communities, particularly for those going to locations with weaker economies or currencies.
So what if you do learn the local language, and study up on the culture, and are mindful of your social footprint?
Even in this situation there is a lack of accountability, and misalignment of incentives. Those who reside permanently in a location make decisions on a different time scale than those who have the intention and ability to leave. Think of the difference between home owner vs renter relationships to property. Taken to an extreme, if a country’s government collapses or the economy fails, Modern Nomads can move in times of crisis, while locals often must remain or obtain refugee status. Most recently this has occured with Covid- visitors can bring cases and return to their countries for medical care should they need it; meanwhile local communities are left with their strained medical systems.
For the sake of argumentation, let’s assume a best case scenario: that Modern Nomads decrease their impact on decision making in local communities. In the case that they visit and maintain the autonomy of locals, we are still left in a world of disengagement.
Cultural and economic impact aside, modern nomadism can be ‘unsustainable’. In a climate crisis, modern nomadism glorifies visiting remote areas (where life has a significantly higher carbon footprint) and utilizes carbon intensive transportation- a trip from New York to London alone will generate a ton of carbon. As boring as it may sound; living in a city and avoiding air travel is among the most impactful things we can do as individuals for CO2 reduction.
So is all tourism bad?
No. I actually love eco-tourism as a way of generating investment in local communities. The key difference is that tourism has significantly more boundaries and is regulated by the local community. Moreover it is assumed to be done in greater moderation to diminish impact.
So you’re anti-immigration? or pro-border?!
Nope. I am an immigrant. This is how I know just how many years it takes to become acculturated to a new location. If anything its a good example of how difficult it is to blend cultures. The United States has had Latin American immigrants for generations and the tensions still remain. The cultural and emotional work needed to create diverse and multi-cultural locations is a worthwhile, but time consuming endeavor.
Refugees are not often Modern Nomads, and Modern Nomads are not often refugees. Refugee crises often stem from people being in a place of political or economic instability; that’s the opposite of most Modern Nomads. We need to resolve the refugee crisis by and for refugees. Put frankly, I am angered when I hear people appropriate the fight against borders and immigration control that refugees lead to advocate for a Modern Nomad lifestyle. Traveling out of a place of desire is different from fleeing out of a place of necessity.
Well this is awkward, I love being a modern nomad…
That’s okay! Everyone chooses how to relate to this world and how to have an impact; I do things that are unsustainable or selfish all the time- including traveling! I think its preferable to brand Modern Nomadism as something that may be harmful, rather than turning a blind eye to its impact and re-branding it.
And there’s some stuff you can do…
This isn’t an all or nothing. You can bring your impact down if you like being multi-communal.
You can be mindful of how you impact decision making, governance and autonomy. You can learn the local culture. You can stay for years, instead of weeks or months. You can choose a second location that is geographically close, or culturally similar. You can reduce your travel footprint. You can reduce the amount of locations to increase your ability to form a relationship. You can build accountability to the places you visit. You can ask the local community how they’d like temporary visitors to relate to them.