Around eleven p.m. the night before the winter solstice of 2016 I unplugged my laptop and turned off my phone for what I hoped would be forever. I had just put the finishing touches to a straw-bale cabin that I’d spent the summer building on the three-acre, half-wild smallholding where I live. The following morning I intended to begin a new life without modern technology. There would be no running water, no fossil fuels, no clock, no electricity or any of the things it powers: no washing machine, internet, phone, radio, or light bulb. I was not under the illusion that it was going to be a romantic, bucolic idyll, as it is sometimes portrayed to be. For one, I planned to live directly from the landscape around me without chainsaw, power tools, or tractor.
I woke up the next morning with mixed feelings. On the one hand I felt that sense of liberation that comes from paring things back to the raw ingredients of life, and no longer having bills; on the other, that sense of apprehension that comes with giving up everything you’ve ever known, in effect burning your bridges to modernity. Right then I had no idea if unplugging from the industrial world would mean I’d lose all touch with reality, or finally discover it.
Living without Money
Eight years earlier I had begun living without money in what was originally intended to be a one year experiment into what anthropologists call “gift culture.” I wanted to see if it were possible and, if it were, what it looked and felt like. This hadn’t been a light-hearted decision. With a background in economics and business, I came to the sobering conclusion that at the heart of our ecological, geopolitical, social, and cultural malaise was our extreme disconnection from the sources of what we consume. Money, I reasoned, allowed us to never have to come eye-to-eye with the consequences of our consumerist ways. The wider the degrees of separation, the more room for abuse.
But while renouncing money certainly helped me extricate myself from the jaws of rapacious capitalism, I hadn’t escaped industrialism. At the time I used solar panels, which powered some of the things only monetary, industrialized economies can provide: LEDs, a laptop, and gadgets of all sorts. I grew uncomfortable with this and slowly came to feel that it wasn’t just monetary economics and capitalism at the heart of the convergence of crises facing us. It was also industrialism.
I don’t write much these days about the reasons I have unplugged myself from industrial civilization. This is in part because, deep down, we know them too well already, and it’s not for want of information that we continue down that path. I could name a few: the mass extinction of species; resource wars; cultural imperialism; climate catastrophe; widespread surveillance; standardization; the colonization of wilderness and indigenous lands; the fragmentation of community; the automation of millions of jobs with the inevitable inequality, unemployment, and purposelessness that ensue (providing fertile ground for demagogues to take control); the stark decline in mental health; the rise in industrial-scale illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, autoimmune diseases and obesity; the tyranny of fast-paced, relentless communication; and the addictiveness of the hollow excitement (films, pornography, TV series, new products, celebrity gossip, dating websites, 24/7 news) that exists behind our screens, the goal of which seems to be the monetization of our distraction.
These concerns all still matter immensely. Yet, surprisingly, over time I found my reasons slowly change. They now have less to do with saving the world, and much more to do with savoring the world. The world needs savoring.
I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of life again. I wanted to feel the elements in their enormity, to strip away the nonsense and lick the bare bones of existence clean. I wanted to know intimacy, friendship, and community, and not just the things that pass for them. Instead of spending my life making a living, I wanted to make living my life.
Most of all, I wanted to be an animal, to be fully human. I wanted to feel cold and hunger and fear. I wanted to live, not merely exhibit the signs of life, and when the time came, to be ready to go off into the woods, calmly and clearly, and let the life there feed on my flesh, just as I had done on theirs. Crows eating out my eyes, a fox gnawing at my face, a feral dog chewing on my bones, a pine marten making good use of my leg meat. It only seemed fair.
At this point you’re probably thinking that here is someone with acute masochistic tendencies. I could hardly blame you. Strangely, the opposite is closer to the truth. Words like “giving up,” “living without,” and “quitting” are always in danger of sounding limiting and austere, drawing attention to the loss instead of what might be gained. Alcoholics are more likely to be described as “giving up the booze” than “gaining good health and relationships.” In my experience, loss and gain are an ongoing part of all of our lives. Choices are always being made whether we know it or not. Throughout most of my life, for reasons that made perfect sense, I chose money and machines, unconsciously choosing to live without the things they have replaced. The question concerning each of us, then, one we too seldom ask ourselves, is: What are we prepared to lose, and what do we want to gain, as we fumble our way through our short, precious lives?
This way of life I have now adopted is often called “the simple life,” but that’s entirely misleading. It’s actually quite complex, made up of a thousand simple things. By contrast, my old life in the city was quite simple, but made up of a thousand complex things, like smartphones and plug sockets and plastic. The innumerable technologies of industrial civilization are so complex they make our own lives simple.
Too simple. I, for one, got bored doing the same thing day in, day out, using complex technologies that, I suspected, made those who manufactured them bored too. That’s partially why I rejected them. With all the switches, buttons, websites, vehicles, devices, entertainment, apps, power tools, gizmos, service providers, comforts, and conveniences surrounding me, I found there was almost nothing left for me to do for myself; except, that is, to earn money to acquire all these things. So, as Kirkpatrick Sale wrote in Human Scale, my wish became “to complexify, not simplify.”
Would unplugging from the industrial world mean I’d lose all touch with reality, or finally discover it?
Living without running water, electricity, or machines, my life has certainly become more complex. Having no flush toilet, I start the day emptying the composting toilet into one of the composting bays, which in eighteen months’ time will be used to grow food. From there it’s off to the spring to fetch the day’s washing and drinking water. Along the way I meet and chat with neighbors. After that it could be any number of things: making cider, hauling logs from the forest, sawing and chopping them by hand, foraging plants and berries, manuring vegetable beds, planting trees, skinning a roadkill pheasant or deer, planting seeds, weeding the herb garden, washing in the lake, whittling a spoon. Or any of a hundred other things modernity had once done for me.
What I think people mean by “the simple life” is the uncomplicated essence of it all, and, yes, there is a timeless simplicity to it. I’ve found that when you peel off the plastic that industrial civilization vacuum-packs around you, what remains couldn’t be simpler. Healthy food. Something to be enthusiastic about. Fresh air. A sense of belonging and aliveness. Good water. Purpose. Intimacy. A vital and deep connection to life. The kind of things I did without for too many years.
Part of our longing is for a deeper sense of connection with other people. When I first decided to quit complex technologies, my biggest concern was that I’d cut myself off from my family, friends, and the rest of society. After all, that society is now organized through smartphones, websites, email, and social media. Yet the opposite has proven true. I now stay in touch with those I care about by letter, the writing of which provokes an entirely different quality of thought and expression than email or text. I’ve never been more social with my neighbors and those dear to me since giving up social media, and many people come and stay in the free hostel we host on our smallholding. Just as importantly, I’ve come to value quiet, reflective time with landscape and wildlife as much as time with people.
What I Eat
My relationship to food, and thus the world around me, has changed dramatically. When I lived without money, I was an animal rights activist, and strictly vegan for over a decade. These days I live from the landscape around me. Most dinners consist of the pike or trout I catch, the greens or berries I forage, the potatoes and vegetables and salads I grow, and any roadkill – mostly deer, pheasant, or pigeon – that I come across. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but I know where my food comes from, I know what it entails, and I’ve never been more aware that my own life depends upon the intimacy of my connection to this landscape.
That change wasn’t easy. I love wildlife, and so I take life with the reluctance of one who needs to eat. But I harm more life in the soil from one morning’s gardening than I do in a year’s fishing. While I’m as opposed to cruelty as ever, I no longer have a problem with death. Death is life, and nothing exists without it. The problem is scale, and the disconnection it confers. I also felt my previous, so-called vegan life wasn’t even vegan. Cars aren’t vegan. Phones aren’t vegan. Plastic isn’t vegan. Tubs of vitamins aren’t vegan. Protein bars, chickpeas, soya and hemp seeds – none of it is vegan, not really. It’s all the harvest of a political ideology that is causing the sixth mass extinction of species, one that is wiping out one habitat after the next and polluting the world around us, making the Earth uninhabitable for much of life – even ourselves.
Liberation from the Clock
When I quit modern technology, I also wanted to give up time. Obviously not seasonal time and the inescapable natural rhythm of day and night; I mean clock-time. I appreciate that this may sound fanciful, impractical, and odd, but it is at the heart of the way of life I want to lead. Reading Jay Griffiths’s deep exploration of time, Pip Pip, reinforced in my mind how recent the concept of clock-time is in human culture, and how essentially ideological and political it is. Clock-time is central to industry, mass production, specialized division of labor, economies of scale and standardization – basically everything I am trying to move away from. In her typical poetic prose, Griffiths calls Greenwich Mean Time the “meanest time of all.”
Instead of spending my life making a living, I wanted to make living my life.
As I have no clock, my relationship with time has changed dramatically. Things do take longer. There is no electric kettle to make my tea in three minutes, no supermarket to pop into for bread and pizza. But here’s the odd bit: I find myself with more time. Writing with a pencil, I can’t get distracted by clickbait or advertising. Life has a more relaxed pace, with less stress. I feel in tune not only with seasonal rhythms but also with my own body’s rhythm. Instead of an alarm clock, I wake up to the sounds of birds, and I’ve never slept better. If I want to drop everything and go hiking, I can. I am finally learning to “be here now.” There’s more diversity, less repetition. Mindfulness is no longer a spiritual luxury, but an economic necessity. While this may not be the most profitable career path, it’s good for my own bottom line: happiness.
Not everything has been easy – far from it. With no phone, there’s no more calling faraway family and friends, no text message to meet a mate at the pub. Washing crouched in an aluminum tub with a jug of water is as unromantic as it sounds. But I’ve learned that this way of life has its own pattern, with old, forgotten solutions. Instead of getting endless emails, text messages, and calls, I receive one or two letters a day, and these matter to me. Eventually I built an outdoor hot tub, and soaking under the stars with a glass of homemade blackberry wine is as romantic as it sounds.
I’ve never been more social with my neighbors and those dear to me since giving up social media.
I’ve found that when you say no to one thing, you are saying yes to another. Take music, for example. The day I rejected the immortalizing world of television, radio, and the internet, it was as if all the world-famous artists I loved died at once. No more Bowie or Joni Mitchell. There’s a strange sadness about that. But quitting electronic music prompted me to start going to live traditional music sessions, and I love that now. I’m even learning to play (badly) myself.
I don’t romanticize the past. But I don’t romanticize the future either. I’ve lived with tech and without, and I know which one brings me most peace and contentment. Aldo Leopold once said that “we all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness.” It’s all too easy to live a long time without having ever felt alive. In the unceasing tradeoff between comfort and that feeling of being fully alive, for most of my life I was failing to find the right balance. Now I want to feel all of the emotions and elements in their entirety. The rain, the joy, the wonder – all of it.