Could you live without technology?
The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology, Mark Boyle, Oneworld.
Mark Boyle once wrote a book called The Moneyless Man and now he’s taken it a step further, becoming technologyless man. He recalls how a few years back he was working at an organic food supermarket and when walking down an aisle was suddenly struck by the fact that he was surrounded by ‘wall-to-wall plastic’. Despite good intentions, some of our attempts at green living are tokenistic, and he wondered what it would be like to do it properly, to go offline and off-grid. Technology is ubiquitous – as he says, even a pencil is still a form of technology – but he decided to forego the obvious modern technologies – plastics, petrol, chemicals and electricity – those conveniences that take a major toll ecologically – and see where that led him.
Instead, inspired by Henry David Thoreau and Wendell Berry, he builds a cabin in the woods for himself and his free-spirited and tolerant girlfriend, and this book, which developed from a column he contributed to the Guardian, describes their year living off the (very local) land, eating their own vegies, fruit and eggs, fishing, chopping wood and shovelling manure. He has an enviable, robust purpose and energy (probably from all the healthy food he’s eating) as well as a typically Irish community spirit and spiced-language sense of humour.
People tell him he’s mad living apart from ‘civilisation’ (read: rat-race, debt, social media pressure, pollution). Publicists tell him he’s missing out on valuable interaction with his readers and promotional opportunities by not being online. ‘So be it,’ he says. And, after a while, living his life (and even reading about it) makes one think, rather, that it is the modern world that is mad, with, he says, its sameness, busyness and ‘purposelessness’ (not to mention unsustainability). Unsurprisingly, his new lifestyle gives him a different perspective on the oddities of modernity. He rarely sees advertising and is surprised, when he comes across it, at how incongruous it seems in a rural setting. He notes that a neighbour spends most of the day on his tractor, doing his work without his feet touching the ground.
Alternatively, Boyle’s lifestyle makes him attuned to the land in the same way, he recalls, that walking barefoot through the bush makes one step differently. Friends and acquaintances are surprised, even outraged, by the modern conveniences he has lost, but, he wonders, why are they not outraged at the loss of elements of the natural world?
He says he now gets his sense of self-esteem from what money he doesn’t have to spend, rather than how much money he makes. He describes being content, rather than merely happy or excited. But this is not just about self-sufficiency. As well as leaving a toxic modernity behind, he is also reliant on neighbours, as, he notes, people were in the past. Part of his desire to get back to basics is that he wanted ‘intimacy, friendship and community’.
At one point he says that fishing is about learning the river, which could stand as a metaphor for a much-needed, more holistic understanding of human dependency, both on the human and non-human world. In her recent book The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes that we need to look around rather than simply ahead. There are alternatives, as Boyle shows, to industrial ‘progress’ ending in calamity. The usual response to tales like Boyles’ is that not everyone can run off to the woods, especially in a house we’ve built ourselves. Then again, we can’t all be Olympians or celebrity chefs either, but these people can inspire us to better our fitness or cooking skills, and likewise Boyle can inspire us in various ways and to varying degrees. I probably won’t give up my electric guitar, hot showers and coffee at the local Greek café anytime soon, but I am certainly thinking harder about how to I can avoid wall-to-wall plastic.
Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com