Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Living the dream

My main ambition in life is to escape from the rat race and lead a life that is sustainable. Ideally I would live in a smallholding that could generate its own power and provide enough food to survive independently. It's partly a moral choice, but also a selfish one as I'm fairly certain that life is going to become a lot harder unless our governments make some radical policy changes. I don't want to be dependent on a fragile infrastructure.

Does that sound alarmist? Perhaps, but I remember the petrol crisis of 2000 during which a Government agency predicted that if the supply chain was halted for more than two days, civil order would break down and a state of emergency would be declared. We have gone a long way from the nation that was virtually able to feed itself during the Second World War.

Therefore when a television series was made about a family trying to switch to an ecologically sustainable life, I had to watch it. 'It's Not Easy Being Green' featured the Strawbridge family, who swapped a happy life in a Worcestershire village to renovate a derelict Cornish farmhouse.

It was a very enjoyable series, but unless I have £600,000 to invest and an entourage of specialists to assist me in my engineering and horticultural projects, I'm not sure how relevant the programme is to most people. However, what did inspire me was not the green politics but the Strawbridge family themselves. Whilst I accept that television sanitises everything, it was quite clear that the Strawbridges were a happy family. Normally reality television leaves me feeling depressed about the human condition, but every member of the Strawbridge family was so likeable that I ended up feeling very inadequate.

I tried to imagine my family emulating the Strawbridges, but all I could see was my wife complaining about the cold and my sons saying how bored they were without Game Boy. The Strawbridges seemed to have an endless supply of friends who thought nothing of giving up a couple of weeks to help them build a water wheel. I can't think of anyone I know who could spare more than a day. I want to be Dick Strawbridge.

Further disilutionment set in when I read about the Brithdir Mawr eco-village in Pembrokeshire. For years I had imagined that this was the gold standard in sustainable living and thought that it would look something like this:

But the reality is quite different. Instead of cutting-edge high-tech, low-impact design, we have something that is more Steptoe and Son...

The loo is al fresco

And here is the interior...

I don't wish to seem disparaging about Brithdir Mawr and I know that this dwelling isn't representative of the whole settlement, but if we are going to convert mainstream society to the cause of sustainable living, this isn't the way to do it. To be fair to the occupants pictured here, they never set out to publicise their activities. On the contrary, they minded their own business and as far as the authorities were concerned, didn't exist until a series of satellite photos alerted Pembrokeshire County Council to the presence of unauthorised dwellings.

We desperately need a model that ordinary people can follow. Not a £600,000 farmhouse or a £600 teepee, but a solution that will convince the ordinary person in the street that it makes sense to change.


Gonçalo Veiga said...

This is one of my personal dreams... When I have the money and the time and the chance to do it, I will buy a small parcel of land and build a house and plant a small vegetable area... It's still a remote dream and, especially now, that I'm about to get into a "real job" it looks a bit more distant... I feel that too...

On the other hand, like happened with Hesse's Siddhartha's son, I'm aware that I can't make people take my choices for theirs...

Hopefully one day I'll achieve this dream.

Gonçalo Veiga said...

P.S. Check out this community...


Tell me if you find it interesting... I've been pretty curious about it and now because of your post I just remembered it.

Steerforth said...

At a superficial glance it looks quite attractive, but I'm not sure about the quasi-religious practices. It seems like a benign cult.

Also, when I see the phrase 'sacred dance' I imagine lots of very serious people doing very silly dancing.

I like the idea of living in a community that has a 'green' ethos, so I will try and find out more about these people.

Thanks for the link.

Gonçalo Veiga said...

Yeah, I will have to agree with you on that. The religion/cult/sect deal is what really turns me off about them.

On a superfical level, everything else, from the internal money currency, green ecological community and alike are the real interesting motives to check it out.

You need to be a Darmanhur citizenship to live there or something. It's quite a complex community. I wonder if in order to be accepted you get brainwashed... you know what I mean: that you can't question their ideals or leadership.

Anyway, thought you might want to check it. :)

Gonçalo Veiga said...

*to get a (Darmanhur citizenship)

Susan Hill said...

People used to live like that. They had to. It was incredibly hard, they had no energy for anything but physical slog day in day out just to sustain life,.they got ill and suffered and died young. They had no arts, no social life, no entertainment, no books, no pictures or conversations. Life was simply grind grind grind. Lonely. Hard. Painful. Short. Is that what you really really want. A sweet couple I knew went to Wales 30 years ago to do the self-sufficiency thing half way up a mountain. It lasted 2 years, They returned, wrecked, poor, disillusioned, ill - and aboput to divorce. Civilisation saved them. Think about it.

Steerforth said...

I wouldn't want to return to the days of subsistence living, but I don't belive it's an either or choice. We can use technolgy to achieve a level of self-sufficiency without becoming enslaved by the drudgery of the past.

To return to the theme of Ladybird books, I recently read 'What to Look Out For in Winter' and realised how disconnected I had become from the rhythm of the seasons. Perhaps I am romanticising, but if I had to list the ten happiest experiences of my life they all revolved around very simple things.

I take your point about the couple who went to Wales. I knew of someone (an actor I think) who decided to do a 'real' job and became a gardener. He was utterly miserable.

Anonymous said...

I am very much with you on this matter, I try to find ways to make the leap and although it does not seem to be easy and obvious, it certainly is far from impossible. The typical cliché of the post-hippy community miserably living of the goat cheese they produce and the couple of potatoes they grow may well be very reductive.
Also the idea that throughout the very long history of mankind all rural dwellers all over the world had dire lives is far fetched to say the least but quite common in our present-day, western, urban civilization.
In my opinion -and after researching the subject a little- the key resides in creating a "community of craftsmen" where everyone would have some knowledge in a specific field and be willing to share it with the other members. You could be good with computers, your friend could be a gifted mechanic, your wife good with animals... Someone who grew up in a farm would be of great value.
You and the people who'd decided to do it with you could beforehand take up courses of pottery, masonry, knitting, spinning... A good cook would be priceless! So would be a good musician...
So I guess it must be tough for a single family to give it a try but a bunch of committed people would make it a lot more realistic. Financially it would certainly make a huge different: buying a piece of land between twelve is not the same as buying it on your own. Plus you get to choose your neighbours!
Although I am not Spanish I live in Spain and there are many self-sufficient or partially self-sufficient communities here. They seem organized and successful.
I was very surprised to see how alive and organized the movement is when I started to look into it last autumn.
There are age-old, affordable engineering techniques in all civilizations that in these days of global information do come together and are improved.
Personally, I have worked as a carpenter for three years and am now looking for ways to learn the craft of traditional post&beam construction. My goal is to do what men have done for hundreds of thousands of years: to use what is on your land (trees in this case) to build your own house.
Good luck.

elementus said...

You are quite right Steerforth in saying that the £600,000 house being far out of the majority of people's reach. I don't think I would be able to save that much in my lifetime simply because of the pressures of society. The Strawbridges have a unique deal going on in England but that is not to say that their way of life is out of anyone's reach.

My current aim is to get away from the burdens and pressures of society and create a commune in a foreign country where land is far cheaper than in England, the climate is hotter which makes self sufficient green power a realistic target. I certainly don't want to be in a cult but I do want to live with like minded people who want to change their way of life and stop butchering our planet.

Self sustained living requires some adaptation and you are correct about the skills needed, I am looking into taking a pottery course and making clothing on a loom, cooking practically does itself and it would be great to learn new things for a specific purpose. The housing won't be so difficult as referencing cultures from all over the past and present shows it can easily be done (not the steptoe and son house), Living quaters aren't a problem and a longhouse, like the vikings, tribes in Africa, Asia and South America, are ideal for communal activities.

I don't think I could live without the technological perks of our society but because my choice of a hot country in Asia I wouldn't have to. Solar Power has come a long way in the last 10 years and they have even started selling panels and wind turbines at B&Q. A wood burning furnace/generator would provide hot water.

All it takes is enough people to be interested in taking the step with me. The local community are also part of my plan, through barter their local community would benefit and possibly a small amount of income could be generated by selling excess produce.

I will have a website running soon giving people information and hopefully get some feedback on the interest and will know how feasible my dreams are in reality. Away from the rat race and living a life of meaning is what I hope for.

Hawthorn said...

Hi - nice blog entry. I too share your dreams of getting some land, building a house, becoming largely self-sufficient and 'escaping' mainstream society for the reasons you mention and other too.

The difference between your vision of an eco house and the one at Brithdir Mawr is that the latter has virtually no eco footprint, whereas the other one needs sawn timber, double-glazed units, etc etc. It's not that there is anything wrong with your vision, it's just that to get it, you need much of the things you are trying to escape from.

However, if asked the question as to which dwelling I would rather inhabit - yours looks more comfortable and certainly requires less maintenance.

Depending on how society evolves to face the new challenges, I think your vision of an eco-home is more likely to become the norm, although in the *very* long term, house like the one at Brithdir may become commonplace.

Also bear in mind that the guy who built/owns the roundhouse at Brithdir has very little capital - it cost him around £3000 to build - there was no option for him to build a £100,000 sparkling eco-house. For him (Tony Wrench), his house is an appropriate development for his circumstances.

Final thing I'll say is that it is probably better to live in a small community as 'many hands make light work' and there are bound to be things some people are better at than others.

Phew - thanks again for making a post that hit a nerve with me.


Anonymous said...

My husband Steve and I were thrust into living a more sustainable life when my father died a year and a half ago and left us 4 acres 50km away from the rest of the world. People have such idyllic visions of life in the country but much like Barbara from "The Good Life" I often feel overwhelmed by the amount of planning, work and sheer effort that it takes to merely get everything to run with a degree of continuity. This property was run down, neglected and we are still dealing with tidying it up. As penniless students, we have to use our brains to work out how to effect change with the bare minimum of cash and this throws another spanner in the "sustainable" works as alternative energy sources, large water tanks and grey water recycling units are all prohibitively expensive. Agreed, we are in an enviable position in being able to have a degree of hands on food production (hens and veggies etc.) but it isn't an easy life and most idealistic city/town dwellers would find it a massive change from what they are used to. We study from home and can spend most of our days out in the gardens, hacking back jungles of blackberries and banana passionfruit that are threatening to envelop the district. I have NO idea how you could work AND do this.