The Good Life is a fiction
Caution: may contain narratives of infrastructural superdependence.
A couple of summers ago I was at the Uncivilisation festival, listening to a serene yet earnest poet explain the methods and merits of the all-but-vanished crofting lifestyle to a crowd of people in search of an alternative to the slow-motion trainwreck of Western consumerism.
Lifestyle is the wrong word, really, because “style” implies choice. Crofting emerged as a desperate communitarian response to the Highland Clearances, a way of sustaining a deracinated and poor community on whatever hardscrabble land they could convince someone to lease them; there was no choice involved, any more than the guy rummaging through the bins out front of Maccy D’s is making a choice. It was croft or die, basically; even emigration meant paying for your own boat ticket.
While it was cheering to see Home Counties Guardianista types taking an interest in living more lightly upon the Earth in ways beyond slight alterations to their weekly purchasing choices, the poet’s presentation left grit between my teeth; leaving aside the unintended romanticisation of structural rural poverty, not to mention the array of mid-tier motor vehicles in the carpark of the festival site, it was a classic case of Hairshirt Green utopianism.
The British romance with the unspoiled countryside (itself a pernicious yet tenacious amalgam of counterfactual mythologies) is the stuff of gentle stereotypes, and the dream of the little cottage in the country has been a middle class standard since there was a middle class to dream it: the serene repose of a simpler, slower life in harmony with nature. The iteration of that dream which includes agricultural self-sufficiency was lampooned in the hugely popular mid-70s UK television series The Good Life; no surprise, then, that socioeconomic conditions reminiscent of that era have reinvigorated that dream. The motive is pure, and rooted in the important recognition that one’s lifestyle takes more than it returns… but it is warped by the underlying Puritanical operating system of middle class consciousness. It is an admission of ecological sin, and a desire to expiate such; a bit of righteous suffering and hard work (but not too much!) to wash away the guilt.
But there’s no denying that the crofter’s footprint is smaller than that of pretty much any other British lifeway… so, why not croft? Why not turn tail on our technologies, and all the wrongs which they have wrought? Why not return to the land and re-embrace the honest yet virtuous toil of our forebears?
Here’s three reasons.
1 ) Subsistence farming was (and still is, for billions of people all over the planet) a pretty miserable way to live.
If you’re reading this, you almost certainly have no idea just how much physical labour it would take to feed yourself by your own hand. This is the pious mythology of the Protestant work ethic: the notion that labour is somehow dignified or ennobling, which frees the more class-conscious bourgeoisie to idealise and romanticise the lives of those further down the hierarchy of industrialised society, just as the poet did with the crofters. There is nothing ennobling about spending every daylit minute in constant repetitive back-breaking motion; this is the reason that labour-saving technologies are enthusiastically adopted by those who can newly afford them. If you believe otherwise, by all means, go plough your noble furrow; you will harm no one else by doing so. But before you can do that, you need to solve the second problem.
2 ) There’s not enough land to go around.
If you’ve got yourself a nice little nest-egg, and you can afford to cash it in for a wee cottage and a few acres of land, good for you; I wouldn’t discourage you from doing it, either, because it’d probably be a lighter lifestyle than you’re living now. But the structural and global nature of our existential threats — climate change, resource depletion, inequity, and so forth — mean that at best you’d be engaging in a sort of privileged propaganda-of-the-deed, demonstrating an approach whose limited effectiveness is completely undermined by its inaccessibility to the majority.
There is no realistic road-map to the deurbanisation and detechnologisation of the entire human species — at least not within a timeframe or death-rate cap which would make it worth attempting.
If anything, urbanisation is the most effective prophylactic response we’ve yet evolved to our overexploitation of the ecosystems in which we are always already embedded; if anything, we should probably be encouraging it, if only because urban population pressure will immamentise the much-needed post-capitalist renegotiation of the social contract.
(But bear in mind that’ll be a messy, desperate and blood-on-the-floor kind of process, whenever it finally happens — which is a good reason to start thinking about it early.)
But this isn’t simply a political issue, even though the problematic notions of property and usury are arguably the foundations of what we think of as civilisation. Even if you could wave a magic wand and provide all ~7bn newly-egalitarianised global citizens a patch of land on which to support themselves, you’d still be screwed.
3 ) The local is invisibly and perpetually sustained by the global.
Agriculture seems pretty simple in principle: plant stuff, tend stuff, harvest stuff, rinse and repeat. All the tech and machinery just makes it a bit easier and faster, right? Well, yes, to an extent; the most visible aspects of mechanised farming are its labour-saving or labour-scaling devices. But as suggested above, labour-saving devices trap us into becoming dependent on them, and this is as true of the farmer as it is of the housewife.
We offload physical effort onto our technologies, but are hence increasingly obliged to engage in other forms of labour in order to sustain the infrastuctures on which those technologies depend; the increasing interdependencies of infrastructure act as multipliers of technological effectiveness, but as they do so they push us further out onto the brittle, skinny branches of the technological path-dependency tree.
For example: to run a tractor, you need diesel, which in turn requires the entire Byzantine global supply chain of the petrochemical industry (not to mention the global military-industrial complex with which it is locked in a seemingly inextricable symbiotic embrace); the electronic components in the tractor’s GPS required small but crucial quantities of the increasingly well-named rare earth metals, plus copper, aluminium, and a whole bunch of other interestingly toxic or inaccessible things; ideas, materials and various forms of energy are collected, processed, distributed and harnessed in countless complex and unseen ways before you can observe them manifest as a tractor ploughing a field. So if you’re really going back to the land, you can’t use any of that stuff, because in doing so you are extending your footprint far beyond your little croft. Perhaps you can find a local blacksmith with whom to barter for some basic tools — but where did he get those pigs of iron from, hmm? Whence came the hardwood of the handles, the coal that fuels the forge? How was it gathered, transported?
The problem here is infrastructure — or, more accurately, the illegibility thereof. I’ve unpacked this idea at greater length already, but for now it suffices to say that infrastructure is as old as argriculture, perhaps even as old as civilisation itself, and as such is one of the great unquestioned assumptions of our lives. You can perform an analysis much like the one I just performed on the tractor on pretty much anything and everything you touch and see in your everyday life — and I recommend you do so, even if just as an occasional exercise, because you will be equipping yourself with a pragmatic wisdom for the troubled years to come. It’s the antidote to Milton Friedman’s libertopian magical thinking about pencils: the market thinks about resources, capital and labour so you don’t have to!
The market makes infrastructure illegible, because everyone’s a sucker for a good magic trick, and who wants to think about where pencils come from?
In order for you to not need to know where pencils come from, many hundreds or thousands of people — hell, maybe even more — have to know a very great deal about where pencils come from. You pay the market price for a pencil because that is the cost of the pencil being Someone Else’s Problem.
But the infrastructural gotcha doesn’t just restrict you from using labour-saving devices; agriculture is even more deeply tied into global supply chains and economic flows than that. Centuries of selective breeding and, more recently, genetic engineering, have produced seed stock for growing plants that resist pests, that yield more or better fruits or seeds, that grow taller and stronger and more tightly, more times per year. But those breeds may be dependent on fertilisers, which are a product of the international chemical industry; they may require more water per hectare than is available in the immediate area, and which must be piped from elsewhere; they may need to be grown in specialist greenhouses with energy-hungry climate control systems, or to be shipped to an optimal market via one or more transport infratructures; they may require chilling or freezing before they make it to the consumer’s household, where they may require further chilling or freezing. In short, the agricultural yield of a plot of land is amplified hugely by the technological multipliers of global infrastructure; remove the influence of that infrastructure, and the yield drops spectacularly, to a point where there is nowhere near enough arable land on the surface of this planet to feed all the people currently living on it.
This is why we can’t go backwards, any more than we can keep running blindly forwards.
To detechnologise and deurbanise the human species and return to its mythological and romanticised agrarian roots, it would be necessary for the vast majority of the human species to die in a very short period of time. Ironically enough, this may well be exactly what comes to pass if we cannot solve the existential crises which solutionism and hairshirt primitivism alike both claim to and fail to address. Over-optimised and hyper-cybernetic systems running at capacity are prone to sudden phase changes and cascading chain-reaction failures; if solutionism simply kicks that can a bit further down the road, then primitivism chooses to pretend it never drank anything that came from a can. Both positions suffer from the same terminal lack of reflexivity that eats like a cancer at the heart of contemporary political discourse: a desperate denialist refusal to consider the wider context from which these problems have emerged.
If I was to sum up what the Viridian Movement meant to me in practical terms, I’d say it taught me that the answer to bad technology is neither more technology or no technology, but better technology.
More technology is our current solutionist paradigm: if cars pollute, then we’ll make electric cars that displace the pollution somewhere we can’t see it; if cars kill people and clog cities, then we’ll add expert systems and automation to them, so that the roads can handle even more traffic than ever before. More technology has been our approach since the industrial revolution; it’s the approach that has bequeathed us rising global temperatures, psychotic emergent behaviours in stock markets, increasing alienation from our labour, from our world, from each other.
But no technology is pure reactionism, a refusal to acknowledge technology’s role in making your life something other than three score years and change of relentless, thankless labour. No technology is the cry of those who are, unwittingly, more dependent upon technology than anyone else; it is not a cry you will hear in squats, townships and refugee camps, but in leafy suburbs and expensively pristine tourist destinations. No technology is the cry of unchecked privilege, of bleeding-heart middle-class liberalism, of sublimated Puritan guilt manifesting as Protestant condescension, of ignorance mistaking itself for concern.
And better technology?
The first step toward better technology is to make a clear distinction between better technology and more technology.
The second is to realise that better technology doesn’t necessarily mean thinking about what a technology does or how it does it, but about why you wanted the technology in the first place, and what you definitely don’t want it to do; to start and finish every design or strategy by resituating it in its contexts, local and global alike.
The third step toward better technology is to realise that all technologies are effectively hyperspecialised extensions of our infrastructures; to not further obscure and occlude the supply chains and networks in which our lives are embedded, but to expose them, celebrate them, admire and fear and reimagine them; to recognise the role of infrastructure as the sole mediator between our species and the environment which both sustains and threatens us, and as the ultimate arbiter of our civilisational futurity.
The way out is through.