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  • Writer's pictureAlex Toogood

Generativity: Aspiring beyond Self-Sufficiency

This article has been written for the forthcoming collection of essays by Diggers and Dreamers on low-impact communal living. For their publications see here.

One response to the many ills of modernity is to opt out and seek instead a low-impact or self-sufficient lifestyle. This article explores what possibilities may lie outside of the low-impact vs consumerist polarity, and how we may move towards them.

“…I live my life in widening circles

that reach out across the world…”

Rainer Maria Rilke

A good few years ago I was fed up with the lifestyle options being presented to me as a privileged citizen of the global north. In response I quit my job, packed a rucksack, and hitchhiked my way to the Caucus Mountains in an attempt to divest myself of all that is wrong with modern life. That attempt didn’t completely succeed, and my ensuing journey has been exploring various other ‘alternative’ lifestyle choices. Perhaps the best fit, for me for now, is Tinkers Bubble, where I currently live. Since the early 90s, this place has been home to an off-grid, low-impact community. The seven humans who currently live here attempt to live sustainably on 40 acres of Somerset woodland, orchard, and pasture, without using fossil fuels on the land. We grow fruit and vegetables, press apple juice for sale, and run a small forestry business. We build and repair our own houses, milk our own cow, and very occasionally make our own clothes.

Tinkers Bubble is, in some beautiful ways, idyllic. It also asks a lot of us – an appropriate, and for the most part willingly paid, price for stepping outside of modernity’s conveniences. From this context it becomes self-evident that lifestyles of extraordinary consumerism, as embodied in the modern West, are damaging to our physical and spiritual wellbeing, and to the wellbeing of our non-human relations. In response, a low-impact lifestyle can feel necessary, but also like a cascade of compromises: am I willing to grow my own grain and process it by hand? Go without fresh fruit for much of the year? Divest from globalised supply chains? Never use a car? Each of us will have different answers, and different questions, but what becomes clear as we get into the nitty-gritty of it, is that a completely self-sufficient life very quickly vanishes over the utopian horizon.

There are three types of response to this that occur to me (because it suits me, for this article, for there to be three: other truths are available). We might be (and fairly frequently are) tempted to jack it all in and return to ‘normal’, as our idyll gets mashed by the cold mechanics of reality and we are left holding the husks of our dreams. If that sounds a bit bleak and cynical, we might prefer to double-down on our aspirations and apply ourselves to forging our own nails, retting our own fibres, and rendering our own candles. In low-impact community, we live the tension and dance between these two options. Much could be said about that exploration as we find what is feasible in our daily lives, but for this article it is a third option which interests us. What would happen if we stepped out of the binary that exists between consumerism and low-impact living? What has that polarity blinded us to, and what possibilities do we find when we look beyond it?

Before I have a go at answering those questions, it is worth reflecting on why we so often forget to ask them. Modernity, along with encouraging consumerism, also encourages polarised choice-making (this or that) and value hierarchies (this better than that). This would be limiting enough, but the choices available are also limited by what is intelligible (we can understand) and possible (we can make happen/achieve) within the framework of modernity. For those of us educated in the modern West, and invested to some extent in its structures, it is easy to forget that there are realms of possibility that exist outside of these options. This is partly because we make sense of the world through lenses that are already familiar to us: if I expect something to be either low-impact or consumerist, I may miss out on it being something else entirely. It is this ‘something other’ that we so desperately need, where our familiar boundaries become queered, and reality breaks through. We are not looking for new categories: we are looking for completely unexpected orbits.

In an attempt to enter orbit together, it may be helpful to look at what both consumerism and low-impact lifestyles have in common. To my mind, both assume that the individual has some form of free choice over their actions. In a neo-liberal free market we are free to express our choices based on socially-endorsed desires. There is no drawback to this consumption because we are dissociated from the impacts of our choices, and so choice is seen as an inherent good. In response to the (hopefully familiar) horrors of this, we may instead choose to disinvest – we may head for the mountains, or the forests, or the communes and live a low-impact life. We may choose to make our impact on the world small, to fit it into the box of our ideals.

But we are not here to be small. We are not here to minimise our impact on the world. There is a different kind of work to be done.

As we enter into that work we will open ourselves to larger responsibilities. Franz Dolp put it this way:

“Loving the world is not enough.

We must learn to heal it.”

To learn how to heal, we will have to learn also the particular pain of our various woundings. For us to respond well to that pain, for our medicine to take effect, we need both personal and communal maturity. We must learn how to respond from a place of entangled accountability. That response arises as I discover myself as a creature in the world. I relinquish my separation and discover that I am entangled in a vast weave of social and ecological relationships. It is not possible for us to remove our entanglement by stepping away. The world is still here, still woven of the same stuff.

From the perspective of this web of entanglement, neither consumerism nor self-sufficiency are viable choices – what remains for me is participation. Life itself is this participation. This is a new kind of permissiveness: nothing is left out. Life bubbles along, containing everything.

If nothing is left out, questions about how to grow my own food merge into questions about land access, and economic and political privilege, which open out into histories and complicities in exploitation and colonialism. This demands of us a new kind of responsibility – for us to enter this relational world healthily we must hold ourselves accountable to it. I must examine the question: how is my choice to live in a low-impact community a result of my social privileges, and how do I perpetuate these privileges for myself and others? To put it another way; who am I abandoning when I choose to live off-grid? Where are we leaving the impacts of our choices and habits unacknowledged? I must learn to see the suffering embedded in privilege, which allows me to be here, comfortable and well-fed, living my low-impact life.

I ask questions such as: whose labour has provided me with this food? This laptop? These clothes? What landscapes have supported, and been distorted by, their production? Even whilst living a low-impact life, those questions will probably carry us down long paths, from supermarket staff, to truck drivers and farmers and oil & gas refineries, and then out into the financial, political and material frameworks that make these possible. Keep going: this path carries us further. What of the pollinators, the soil, the rain? What are our choices of consumption doing to these worlds?

Very quickly we run into our human-centrism, our limited capacity to understand (in a felt-sense – intellectually is not enough) the ramifications of our entangled choices. What is left out is what is made invisible by our culture, whether that be across race or class or a myriad other divisions, or it be the humans who provide and clean up after our privileges, or the insects and unglamorous ecologies who allow ecosystems to thrive. It takes effort to become aware of these worlds.

It is daunting, and painful, and confusing, to really give ourselves to this enquiry. Aiming to be ‘self-sufficient’ can be a way of creating certainty, a way of avoiding the complexity of these questions. We can attach to a particular idea of what we are doing, and use that idea to hold a sense of identity and forward direction. The knowing we build around this can mean that we don’t deal with the parts of us that inhabit a much bigger and confusing world than we can cope with. But for every crack that appears in the edifice of our modernity-infused lives, another shift becomes possible, another route to wiggle through opens up. To close this article I want to offer one such re-frame.

As I’ve said, self-sufficiency, or living low-impact, as a response to consumerism does not feel like a big enough ideal for this work. What it does offer us is an opportunity to reciprocate in many of the relationships on which we depend. Our world becomes local. If I wish to grow vegetables, I must give my labour to tending to the soil ecosystem. If I want milk or butter, I must spend time caring for cows. And if I want planning permission, I’m probably best off cultivating a good relationship with my neighbours and local Council. And, conversely, if I use fossil fuels, or invest in globalised supply chains, there is no way for me to take responsibility for the impacts of that: the ripples are too dispersed, too un-relatable. So: what if we start with those responsibilities? What if we start by asking, who (and what) am I accountable to/for today, and how can I serve that? These questions lead me to a low-impact, socially-conscious lifestyle. It can be tempting to evangelise this lifestyle, but our job is not to dwell on the answers, but to do as Rilke suggests and live the questions, so that one day we may live ourselves into new answers. For now, those answers will not be easy to express or even understand, because our way of making sense of the world is built on a limited understanding. So it is questions that have a lived response, rather than an intellectual one, which may serve us best.

One of the key questions that I am often with is: how can I live regeneratively? Instead of living low-impact, how can the impact I have on the world create ripples? How do I cascade into the world? For example: I have chosen to grow much of my own food, but this is just a starting point: what I do from there determines the vitality of my world. I choose to interplant, to include wild patches, flowers and a pond in my vegetable garden. Weeds flourish, and I bend myself to the desires of insects, and the gladness of soil. I could justify this with some logical reasons and frame it as a Permaculture Design. But it feels better to acknowledge that I don’t really know what purposes are served – the ecosystem is too vast and diverse to fit within those kinds of ideas. This is life, rioting through time. It is floral, and cretaceous, and dankly mycelial. It is joyous, and the life of each hoverfly is a jewel, whether I notice it or not.

Our social ecosystems can be touched by these places too. It can (and should) change us, to experience this messy overlap of agriculture and gardening. To inhabit land like this is to tangle and undo our preconceptions of what it is to be humans, to reconfigure our assumptions about who we are and what we want to do. Hopefully, this creates space for something fresh to emerge.

For that freshness to flourish, for the ripples to continue widening, we need communities geared towards emergence and risk rather than control and familiarity. For many people arriving at Tinkers Bubble, or first encountering other low-impact projects, these communities can be that exciting space – we fracture the familiar and offer different possibilities. And yet living here turns this world into ‘normal’, and closes our possibilities back down around us as we amass responsibilities and habits. It requires a concerted and sustained effort to undo this familiarity, and remember our holy work to act regeneratively. Then the threads of emergence can be woven from our landed lives here, and braid themselves into something bigger. I don’t start out knowing where I am going. ‘Low-impact’ is not a destination – it is a guess, a pointing finger, a set of images to dance with. It is a context I find myself in – a place to ask questions, and be changed by the asking. Like the caterpillar, I weave my chrysalis, and dissolve.

The thoughts in this article have been heavily influenced by the work of the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective, the book Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira Andreotti, and the writing of Bayo Akomolafe.

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