It isn’t unusual for our dinner conversation to turn to what a wholly sustainable life looks like. We can find ourselves treading a familiar path of logic: that the only way to avoid harming the natural world and other people is to escape the infrastructure and culture of the modern world; both can be so unkind. A truly sustainable life would be living off our own land, off the grid. Making and growing our own. Total retreat.
Yet this thought sits uncomfortably with us both. It doesn’t seem satisfactory that the only way to live honourably is to extract ourselves entirely from the fabric of society. People are relational, made for community. Connections are both vital for our own wellbeing and an opportunity to champion a culture change towards sustainable living. Retreat means a huge leap but in isolation. Engagement is slower change but with the possibility for a bigger scale. So, which is right?
I recently read Ruth Valerio’s book ‘Just Living’ – an exploration of community and consumerism in the 21st Century and a book for people just trying to do their best in ordinary situations. The book is based on Valerio’s PhD, and it’s easy to see that body of work behind it. Not just her extensive reading and learning, but the way she has lived with the topics and themes for years. The book touches on many things (ownership; the pressure to create our own identity; developing ‘ethical instincts’…) but there was one central idea that spoke into this tension that we’ve been wrestling with: the golden mean.
This is the idea that there is a middle line that we aim for with our lives. This is not an absolute centre, with every step that doesn’t land perfectly equating to failure. No, this is about tending towards the middle, and away from where your weakness lies. Withdrawing from harmful practices, and learning to engage positively.
Valerio talks about “a double movement of retreat and engagement”. We take a moment for ourselves to enable us to engage more easily. The breath in eases the breath out. The impact of this? Lives of co-dependency, not self-sufficiency. The ability to continue well, despite the sacrifice and challenges sometimes involved in choices that think beyond self-gratification to the impact on others. Retreat enables to engage with the natural world; just as important as acting in community with people. Standing on top of the peaks shrinks the sustainability challenge in our minds. Exploring our own freedom on a bike ride stirs us to see others find theirs.
I heard Valerio speak a few months ago and one particular phrase stayed with me: “Our lives look the same but scratch under the surface and we’ve done things very differently.” A just life is part of the fabric of the world, but made out of different material.
It isn’t either/or. It’s both/and.
We were exploring the abandoned workers’ houses beside an old quarry in North Wales. It was empty and eerie, beautiful and sad. We turned a corner, and – colourmatched to the surroundings – stood a dog. Positioned like it had always been there. Faithful to a master long gone. Obviously it wasn’t. Peer carefully and you can spot the dog owner’s rucksack in one of the house windows. But it was nice to imagine for a moment. Even where people have retreated from, a connection can still be found.
Today’s Soundtrack: Regina Spektor // Remember Us To Life