As I am sitting here looking out at my bougainvillea covered courtyard in our newly rented town house in a small town in Mallorca, Spain, I feel overwhelmed with calmness. I have spent the past ten days house hunting, unpacking our (six, six!) suitcases, and equipping our new house with necessities that were missing – like kitchenware, bedsheets and towels and a few pieces of furniture… and now suddenly, it feels like a home. Yes, it would be nice with some more curtains, and no we haven’t yet hung our pictures on the walls, and yes we could do with a few more lamps and some more comfortable chairs etc. But, the house is now liveable. Well, even more than liveable. It is rather comfortable and homely – as well as charming and quirky.
Limiting one’s personal belongings to a minimum of clothes, books, toys (if kids are involved) and personal ornaments that have an “instant home-effect” makes moving around the world fairly easy. But in order to live a nomadic lifestyle, and hence enjoy the freedom of being able to pull up stakes, owning a minimum of things is not quite enough. One needs to be ok with some crucial factors: 1) that working alone most of the time is the norm 2) that things might not always turn out the way that you imagined (generally they actually don’t), 3) that convenience is one’s enemy, well at least if living sustainably is a goal, because it tends to make one go down the quick-fix consumer path, and that 4) that you leave everything and everyone well-known behind, and that in the beginning you may feel lonely.
Living a nomadic life in a sustainable and responsible manner does not involve convenience or smoothness; rather, it is a celebration of “life being in flux” (as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus so eloquently put is thousands of years ago), of adaptability, and of the fact that deliberately inviting a degree of “hardship” into one’s life can be extremely nourishing and edifying.
Responsible nomadic living furthermore involves knowing how to quickly “plug in” in the sense that one understands what is needed in order to be able to work, cook, wash clothes, get around etc. And it furthermore involves trusting that communities are everywhere and that it is only a matter of time before one will find one to embrace and get involved in.
In my upcoming book on Anti-trend, I describe the most sustainable way of life as resilient and heavy. Pursuing lightness and convenience generally leads to unsustainable decisions, both in relation to consumption and in relation to lifestyle-choices. This being said, engaging in a nomadic lifestyle is of course far from the only way of living sustainably. However, as sustainable nomadic living is the theme of this article, it is important to point out that when moving around the world with one’s family it is very easy to fall into the trap of filling one’s new home with cheap mass-produced goods, as so much new stuff is needed – and needed urgently.
The most sustainable purchases if one needs a lot of new things quickly are secondhand items as well as new things that are aesthetically nourishing (as such items are generally kept for longer and maintained more carefully, and potentially easily sold on as secondhand goods). Both of these elements involve tactility, roughness and wholesome colour combinations.
The current consensus appears to be that improvements and progress are the equivalent of making things more comfortable, smoother, and more convenient by minimising friction and heaviness. Nevertheless, sustainable improvements could and should ideally mean something entirely different. Improvements should increase the tactile experience and foster a tangible bond between object and owner, or they should challenge the user’s senses and mind and induce more nourishing heaviness, or they should encourage the user to repair and maintain the object or perhaps even to share it with others, or they should activate the user and engage her in communal or sustainable actions.
Before designing yet another slightly better, slightly more convenient, slightly more streamlined, slightly easier to use version of a phone, a chair, a jacket, or a washing up bowl for that matter, the sustainable designer should question the very inclination for this task, by asking herself the following question: What can legitimise designing something new; are minor improvements or increased convenience a good enough reason? Can you, literally and metaphorically speaking, legitimise replacing your entire kitchen because you want new cupboards that don’t make any noise when you close them (and because you cannot solely change the cupboards, since kitchen elements typically don’t mix and match like Lego), and because the new countertop has a skinnier surface than your old one? Can that in any way be a legitimate reason to improve one’s belongings in a world with scarce resources? And, does today’s common consumer really need more convenience? Is allowing for and even encouraging increased lethargy and laziness by making repairs next to impossible (and replacements easier and cheaper and even doable online), by introducing yet another way of unlocking a phone or a computer or starting a tv-series streaming-service without having to move a finger (literally; writing and getting out of one’s chair seem to have become redundant activities), by introducing more unsustainable fleetingness; by smart-phoning and smart-homing everything and focusing on accessibility and user-friendliness above all really necessary?
By insisting on convenience and accessibility we have deprived ourselves from “getting our hands dirty”, from rawness and wildness, from edifying hardship, from sensuously nourishing analogue experiences, and from the slow and satisfying act of having to learn to navigate and manage something new, to maintain and repair our belongings and to make food from scratch. But we are forgetting that a balanced life, a life worth sustaining and maintaining, a life that is justifiable and authentic consists of a balancing act. A balancing act that is not unlike that of the golden mean that the Greek philosopher Aristotle explored millenniums ago, which encourages living a good life worth maintaining by balancing between extremes. For example, according to Aristotle the virtue of courage is the middle way between cowardliness and recklessness or foolhardiness. Henceforth, both exaggeration and neglect will be destructive for building up strength. Human beings must uphold a balance, just like nature, argues Aristotle.
If we transfer Aristotle’s ancient wisdom to the art of sustainable living, and hence assess a sustainable life as the balancing point between two extremes, it is fundamental to initially ask: what are the extremes to be avoided? Streamlined convenience as one extreme and complete withdrawal from society as the other? Sensuous deprivation as opposed to an overload of aesthetic challenges? Overconsumption of trendy, insignificant knick-knacks at the one end of the scale and convulsively collecting and storing stuff at the other? Buying closed, static things that are inflexible and contain a linear development towards degeneration as the one extreme and investing in objects that are overly open and characterised by complete shapelessness as the other. Or, smoothness and firmness by all means at the one end of the scale and sloppiness and disorder at the other?
I have come to the realisation that nomadic, sustainable and responsible living is a balancing act between instantly reestablishing an entire home (involving immediately purchasing an overload of mass-produced items) and living out of a suitcase for an extended period of time. It is a balancing act between quick-fix solutions and slow indecisiveness. And it involves an ability to view home as a mindset rather than a place.