Or is it?
It depends on what you mean by ‘simple’. The trouble is that simple (leaving aside simple-minded for a minute) can mean both uncomplicated, and humble, lowly, basic. The two are not necessarily the same.
I’ve had the opportunity to think about this a lot lately. With all this rain stopping play, and just about anything else for that matter, thinking has been one of the few activities that didn’t involve getting wet (provided the yurts weren’t leaking), even if getting bogged down could be just as much an occasional hazard.
It’s become almost de rigeur to criticise modern society as if the entire edifice is the source of all the planet’s woes, and the only answer to its patent lack of sustainability is to ‘downshift’ and return to a life of simplicity and self-sufficiency. But simplicity and a self-sufficient lifestyle, though often associated with each other in our minds, are in many ways oxymoronic.
Human lives are necessarily complex, even at the most basic level. We don’t grasp our food with tooth and/or claw and consume it raw. We aren’t equipped to live out in all weathers in our bare skins in any but the more tropical climates. And we long ago discovered that cooperating with each other, dividing labour and assigning different tasks to different groups, was easily the most simple, efficient, productive, useful and pleasant way of going about things.
So which is the more simple? Thousands of people fetching water from nearby streams (presuming there are any), carrying it in limited quantities to where it will be used, having the presence of mind to store extra amounts of drinking quality for when a sudden downpour turns the stream into a muddy torrent or when summer drought dries it up, squabbling over access rights to it, or who gets priority in times of shortage, etc, etc … or thousands of people turning on a tap while a handful maintain the admittedly complex infrastructure behind the constant and reasonably equitable supply of clean and drinkable water? Simple as in humble, basic? The former. Simple as in uncomplicated? Collectively, the latter.
Yes, yes, yes, there’s the whole argument about chemical treatment and the effect on the environment of damming rivers, etc, etc, but these are problems of scale rather than principle. There is a level at which collective effort is vastly more simple and efficient than multiple individual replication of the same task.
So from one perspective, your typical ‘modern’ western life, enmeshed as it is in society, is extraordinarily simple: get up in the morning, go perform your allotted task, receive energy tokens in exchange, exchange energy tokens for the tasks performed for you by others, stress about whether you’ve got enough energy tokens for your needs, relieve said stress by spending more energy tokens on mass forms of entertainment, go to sleep. It’s so simple you don’t even have to think very much.
Compare this with a life where you’re required to become proficient in a huge variety of skills just to survive, undertake any number of different tasks at the drop of a hat or a turn in the weather, use your brain, think, devise alternatives to the standard mass distractions to fill such play time as you have left, and all the while still having to stress about the sufficiency or otherwise of energy tokens. Not very simple at all. Extraordinarily complex, in fact, even if humble and basic.
So what are those of us pursuing ‘the simple life’ pursuing? Humility or lack of complexity? Clearly it can’t be the latter, because our lives are far from simple in comparison to the simplicity available to us through collective effort. And with all the self-righteousness this community is awash with, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking it clearly can’t be the former either.
That same casual observer might also be forgiven for thinking we’re just a bunch of ‘outsiders’, contrarians and wheel-reinventors who will do the opposite to everyone else just for the sake of it regardless …
I can’t speak for anyone else of course, but for me it’s about finding the balance. The collective efficiencies have gone too far. They are no longer efficient because they’re on too large a scale. They are no longer sustainable. So it’s the balance between collective efficiency/simplicity and planetary sustainability. The balance between the collective and the individual: between mindlessly going along with group thinking and thinking for ourselves; discerning the intelligent from the unintelligently simple-minded. The balance between too much and too little.
It’s about respect and reverence for the Earth, for others, for self – the principles of permaculture: Earth care, people care, fair share. And somewhere in there it’s the recognition that life is a process, not a thing; an ongoing dynamic response to ever-changing circumstances, not a fixed one-size-fits-all recipe to be carved in stone and followed by all. That there are no ‘answers’; just individual and collective processes of discovery in which everyone plays their unique part.
So am I about to give up on the complexities of this ‘simple’ life already and return to ‘civilisation’? Not a bit of it. But I’m going to take a very pragmatic and, I hope, intelligent approach to it, recognising when the simplicity lies to a greater extent in collective effort rather than individual.
Finally it’s stopped raining for a while! Firewood to cut …