In some of our discussions on pantheism, Kenny pointed out that some of environmentalism is really a repressed desire to return to a simpler way of life. Lauren also sent on an article that described how some fans of Avatar were actually suffering from depression after seeing the movie, because they felt like their own lives could never have the beautiful richness and simplicity of the Na'vi in the film.
I have some mixed reactions to this sort of back-to-the-land nostalgia for a simple way of life. As with much nostalgia for the past, it is a longing for something that never existed in the first place. David McCullough made this clear in a recent lecture: "There never was a simpler time. The colonists in the 1700's needed to know a vast array of skills to survive." The perils that threatened their very lives – disease, weather, wild animals, Indian raids – made their lives chaotic, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and anything but simple. They had to work extremely hard to enjoy even the most meager of comforts. Technology, it turns out, removes complexity as much as it generates it.
What people are longing for is not simplicity per se, but connection to something that feels real and significant. A side effect of our recent technological advances is that it is vastly more possible to live without direct interaction with a community of people. Our economic transactions are automated and anonymous; we hardly ever know the person who sells us our food and clothing, much less the person who made them. We are often far removed from the people who benefit from our own work; lots of corporate worker-bees spend their entire careers without ever meeting a customer. Our entertainments used to be primarily social – singing, dancing, playing music, playing games were all done with other people. Now all those things can be done alone, and usually are. The net result is we feel supremely disconnected from everything in our world. Our actions have little visible purpose, our roles are interchangeable, our human interactions shallow and unremarkable.
So, what the homesteader achieves, and the rest of us often lack, is a tangible and immediate relationship to their environment. If you build your own house, make your own clothes, grow your own food, and even create your own entertainments, you can literally surround yourself in the fruits of your labor. You literally eat, sleep, and breathe your accomplishments. And if you trade the products of your labor with others, you have the satisfaction of knowing your customers, since they are usually your neighbors. Pride in craftsmanship takes on huge significance when your family, friends, and community are counting on the quality of your work.
Of course, even a modern American can experience all these things. Even a cube-dweller can take pride in his code. It's just that the "simpler" life makes it all so much more tangible, concrete, and inescapable. The homesteader lives in the knowledge that everything they do matters, both to themselves and the people they love. We don't need to be rescued from complexity -- just complacency.
I love how you captured the essence of the desire for simplicity. I grew up on the end of a rural timeline where people still got together in each others homes for sing-alongs. Now I write code, and only get to sing-along at the occasional family reunion. But I'm looking for ways to hold onto the richness of that life while plowing bravely forward in this modern time.
Thanks for your comments! I should say, with a few more years to reflect on it, that the sing-along is far from dead. If you care to find it, you can find groups in almost any musical tradition in your backyard. (Heck, there's a group that does Georgian (as in Russian Georgia) folk songs in Durham.) The only difference is that now you have to go find it; it will not find you.