Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

A simple life | Uma vida simples

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 …

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  1. michelle January 12, 2010

    interesting musings..the rain is good for this I think.i agree with what you say..finding the balance between the collective and the individual is a complex task but one which may lead the peoples of this planet to a better care ..people care..
    We as a race need to re remember our skills in terms of looking after ourselves and each other and our natural resources ,our planet…but we can also chose to use what has already been invented to assist us in this.we can go it alone or we can share our skills and remove the need for vast amounts of cash to fund our lifestyles.I’m not keen on joining groups that have meetings/regulations..too much talk not much action..but I want the simple life without becoming more of a simpleton i will be involved with groups where the ultimate focus is on sharing skills.. I will also continue to linger in the civilised world a bit but hopefully maintain a foot in the more simple and complex world of self sufficiency . a bit of both …see you soon…if you don’t get washed down your terrace!

  2. Rick January 13, 2010

    i think you are right in asserting that there is nothing simple about self sufficiency, however, what there is, is the opportunity to reach out and try and grasp with your own hands the things that govern us. that doesn’t mean that you are the master of your own destiny, it only means that you have the opportunity to attempt to govern it. it gives you the opportunity to learn a range of skills that you wouldn’t ever have the need or reason to learn, that just might be of of more than physical benefit to you. it is vastly more complex creating your own systems, learning the requisite skills and gaining the necessary knowledge to put any of these systems in place.

    this life is very much like building a house, there are very many things that have to be put in place to make it happen, and the success or failure of it is visually very evident. it is made easier if looked at in terms of what do i need to do today? and being aware that grid tie-ins may not just be necessary but could even be beneficial.

    it is simple only in terms of its lack of involvement with others, and whilst that may sound isolationist, it doesn’t have to be, and can just be about removing your dependance.

    anyway, nice article, very thought provoking.

  3. janis January 13, 2010

    Wyxx! Spot on, m’dear…. all that being waterlogged hasn’t dampened your intelligence one whit, not that I think anything could. As usual, you are putting shared/synchronistic thoughts to words admirably. Balance is the key, isn’t it? I’m looking at this increasing polarization on so many levels, and see perhaps a split coming, or maybe the flip on the mobius strip? I’m pondering this upcoming grand square, parts already in place, and seeing the increasing pressure to breakdown of old corrupt systems. But is that all? Nah. Many seem to be missing it, but there is an alternative modality emerging, and you are embodying and living it. Looking to Neptune returning to its discovery degree after 160 years takes the lead in showing what is needed before being ready – now! to start to integrate the newly discovered planetary members of our solar system. After the collective herd consciousness of the ancient planets up thru Saturn, the discovery of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto heralded the era of individuality, starting with the industrial revolution. Well, we’ve gone too far into separation, dissociation, competition, and dualistic vision and projections all around. Neptune in the lead here does not ask us to forgo our individuality (Uranus in mutual reception would nix that!) but calls for an awakening of unitary consciousness, of connectivity, the realization that we are all as cells of this same Earthbody – and the awakening of compassion, interdependence, relatedness, and responsibility. yes, balance! All my love to you and best wishes, hen! love, rbyxx

  4. Rick January 13, 2010

    now having had some time to think about your post, i’d like to add the following.

    on one level trying to be self sufficient is about self determinism, and the sliding scale of freedom from dependence on outsourced service providers, but on a whole other level it is about something else entirely, more fundamental, a change of perspective, and an ability to be responsive and adaptive.

    the algonquin have no word for time, they have the concept and notion of the passage of one moment into another, and a lexicon of words several times greater than the english language, but no specific word for time, because for them it is relational and doesn’t exist outside of other things as an abstract concept. for them, many things are both relative and relational.

    what living in a remote, often seemingly hostile, and tenuous environment encourages is a different understanding of things. a non dualisitc world view. where things are not necessarily black or white, or for that matter black and white, but where they might be not only but also.

    this is something i liked about living in a very remote area of northern canada with the anishinabe. when you don’t have the resources to achieve the things you want, you have to look around you, and adapt to your requirements, both the things that are available and your perception of need.

    the closer you can live to your environment, the more sensitive you are to it, the more in tune with everything you are, and the more capable you are able to respond sympathetically. what that means is that you can find around you all that you really need. you just need to know what you are looking for, what is there, how you are going to use it, and then be able to do it.

    living in an urbanized environment in the west actively prevents you from being this way. in the west there is the notion that you can only go forward, it is what drives people as well as business. it is an environment where you are so enmeshed in the lives of everyone else. your window of opportunity for living outside of this paradigm is tiny because of how it could conceivably impact on someone else’s. you are actively discouraged from anything other than linear thought.

    however, frequently a straight line is not the answer.

    when you live in a remote and tenuous environment, it forces you to reassess things. the further away from the notion of civilization you can get, the easier it is to perceive what is important. the five basic necessities of life, food, water, shelter, warmth and clothing; sometimes one is the answer to the other. and often they are not easy to obtain nor to maintain the supply of.

    anything after that, is about the relative level of comfort. what is important is to change your way of of thinking. mind like water, those who have zen would say.

    it can be as simple or complicated as you care to envision it, it just depends on what you want.

    what trying to be self sufficient gives you, is the opportunity to live a fiscally reduced life style, one where you are the primary provider of some or perhaps even all the essential things that you need, often, though only on the most basic of levels.

    it is a way of life that helps you to understand the relative importance of things, where you can learn to accept less, instead of the £250,000 shelter, the £25,000 shelter, or £2,500, or £250, or £25 shelter or less.

    when you can reassess what is important and adapt to the environment in which you find yourself so many other possibilities open themselves up. this is the key, to be responsive rather than reactive, to adapt rather than to stay immovable.

    when you can adapt with your environment, you are given the opportunity to do more than survive, you get to flourish. this is the same with living in a seemingly difficult place, or living with what many would see as difficulty. it is as you perceive it. it is in your response to it as to how difficult it will be. the harder it is the more opportunity you are being given to adapt and thrive, to learn and understand.

    the more you are able to adapt, the more you can grow, the more expansive your understanding, the greater your capabilities.

    although, it may cause conflict amongst those whom you may share your life, who may not be as willing to undergo what they perceive as ordeals. it is as important to be aware of their requirements as any need to extend your own capabilities. everything is relative and relational, but to stay stuck in the mud is to die.

  5. Quinta do Vale January 13, 2010

    With you 100% Rick! Many of the things you’ve talked about are exactly what motivated me personally to pursue this lifestyle. Is it simple? No! But it’s much more about living, really living, rather than existing in some half-somnolent robotic state dutifully swallowing everything that someone else has pre-digested and served you in convenient bite-size chunks. It’s about a conscious, aware existence. Not an easy path to pursue, but for me there’s no choice.

  6. sophie January 18, 2010

    “when you don’t have the resources to achieve the things you want, you have to look around you, and adapt your requirements”

    YES! we need to regain the ability and willingness to adapt our (perceived) requirements to fit with what’s available / sustainable :(

  7. mike January 20, 2010

    its like sophie and rick’s comments: what is best adapted to our own circumstances?

    and as for economy of motion, it has to be cheaper to accumulate water first-hand, where thats possible. once that home water system is installed life will get easier… and the quality is almost always better, closer to home. like cooking in versus eating out.

  8. sophie January 20, 2010

    and we shouldn’t be thinking only about how locally we get things, but what happens to them afterwards? i love that our water (and the food we grow) returns to the earth almost exactly where it came out of it. i think we should consider that the resources/things we use are “borrowed” rather than “taken” – that way we are more likely to use them responsibly – and return them!

  9. Sue January 23, 2010

    Sitting in Sarah’s warm house, sheltering from the arctic and snowy wastes outside (actually the snow and frost mostly disappeared about 5 days ago) I thought I would catch up with the goings on in Portugal. Suffice to say I admire you greatly but I am very pleased to say that when we had a foot of snow and -20c temps outside, I was able to turn up my heating and sit in the relative warmth with my (not homemade) glass of wine and watch reruns of ,the vicar of Dibley’ amd ‘Top Gear’. Glad to hear you are enjoying yourself. We miss you back here!! I do have to say that my water is fresh out of the ground and my septic tank does a pretty good job too!

  10. Quinta do Vale January 23, 2010

    The trouble with that scenario is that it’s not sustainable. Oil takes a few hundred thousand years to form and we (collectively) have guzzled up the entire planet’s recoverable resources mostly inside a single century. Sooner or later it’s going to run out. Ain’t going to do no good sticking our heads in the sand on that one … especially if winters like this are going to become more common.

    No problems guzzling last year’s vintage of collectively-produced vinho tinto. Plenty more where that came from, and not bad central heating either. Which reminds me … vines to prune …

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