Migration to the cities of the world and declining respect for craftsmanship has distanced us from nature. When people no longer live close to nature or work with its resources, they lose respect for it. This has paved the way for thoughtless overconsumption and the perception that economic growth equals happiness.
The more we relate with our own hands (and heads) to natural resources, their scarcity and their vulnerability, the more we free ourselves from the market and from consumerism, writes university teacher and former shipbuilder Ole Busck.
By Ole Busck
Will the transition to a sustainable society require that we live close together in cities or that we spread out in smaller communities around in the country?
This is a question which divides those people who work with how we should organise our lives, work and communities in a post-growth society.
Typically, it is argued that issues of climate change associated with transport and scattered settlement means that we should move closer together in big cities.
But even though in a narrow sense there could be some truth to this, such an analysis is too materialistic.
Living in the countryside in small and closely knit communities, in close contact with nature and with the opportunity to grow one’s own vegetables and fruit, maybe keeping a few animals and – not forgetting – with room for a proper workshop, contains vital social and cultural qualities which are extremely important in the transition to sustainability.
Because people do not understand nature, when they isolate themselves from it, as happens in the big city. When you just get your consumer goods from a store, and have never tried to process nature’s resources, you have less respect for them. It becomes easier to just consume and throw away.
Happiness is to create
In that regard I learned some lessons when many years ago I built a house from straw bales, a house that still stands fully functional today. I no longer live in it, and I am not saying that we should all be living in in straw bale houses, but the experience of erecting a great place to live, with the use of just four basic materials – clay, wood, shells and straw – plus the efforts that oneself, friends and children put into it, was incredibly rewarding.
We developed a close relationship to the materials and their characteristics, and we experienced how far one can get with the use of our own hands, combined with a little help from professional craftsmen and others in the local area with relevant knowledge.
In my student days in the 1970s, we moved to the country and established communes in old country houses that we completely renovated into solid, good homes. There we also learned to grow our own vegetables. It was out of necessity – as students we couldn’t afford much else – but it made us appreciate fresh, high-quality produce for the kitchen.
It is absurd that we talk more and more about sustainability and transition, and that more and more people understand the need to say no to the demand for economic growth, market-driven globalisation, debt-creation and consumerism, while at the same time we keep clumping ourselves together in cities and leave the countryside and nature to an utterly unsustainable agricultural sector.
The price we pay is not only that we lose an immediate relationship with the land and nature, but also the experience of what we are actually able to create with our own hands. This is reflected in our relationship to craftsmanship.
Vocational education is not in high demand today. The dirtier one gets in a line of work, the less prestige it has, studies show, and although vocational education is praised by politicians, such schools are starved economically. A precondition for the kind of mentality-shift that the transition requires is to challenge those values and cultural habits that look down on craftsmanship.
Escape to the city
Already in 2007 the proportion of the world’s population living in cities exceeded that of people living in the country, and since then movement has continued rapidly in the same direction. The trend is the same for poor peasants in the Third World as it is for us in the rich countries, although the reasons are different.
At our end, it is the possibility of finding better paid work and greater consumption opportunities that attracts. In the Global South, it is the last resort for survival. The Earth, with all its diversity of resources is taken over by global corporations from rich countries, and the exploitation of poor nations’ human and material resources is the basis for a mad over-consumption in the rich part of the world.
But even though the flight to the city has different reasons here in the West and in the Third World, the separation from the soil, forest and water, as well as the separation from working with processing and using resources as a basis for existence, is equally harmful at both ends.
The poor lose not only their livelihood but also their connection with the land and natural resources, which sustained their culture. They lose identity and cultural roots and become socially disintegrated, as I have seen happen while working for a Danish NGO in Central America.
Although we in the rich countries are able to live amid material abundance due to exploitation, from a perspective of sustainable development it is just as harmful that we increasingly lose our understanding of natural processes and intimacy with natural resources and materials.
We forget that we ourselves are nature, and we leave the extraction and processing of resources to the global value chains of international corporations. In our part of the world, we just buy what we need – and then some – in one of the huge retail chains without having the slightest idea about the origin of the goods or how they came into being.
Challenging the growth paradigm
It is the requirement of economic growth that drives companies to deplete resources in poor countries and that drives politicians’ eager adjustments to make state and institutions competitive on the global market.
Through trade agreements and sanctification of the market, the rich countries’ production and service companies as well as conventional large-scale agriculture are favoured over locally based activities, including sustainable agriculture.
Therefore, an alternative vision of growth for individuals and communities has become a necessity that not only will give us a better, less stressful life with a cleaner environment in our part of the world, but will also give people in poor countries the right to and access to their own resources. Therefore ‘Degrowth’.
But what will it take for people in rich countries to renounce their belief in economic growth? For many it is the fear of losing their job that counts. We constantly hear that if the economy – and productivity – doesn’t keep growing, unemployment will.
At the same time, under the prevailing regimes of free trade and globalisation, it is not certain that high employment is created through continued economic growth. Only the richest few percent of the population appear to be benefitting from it.
The way forward must be to ensure employment for people under an alternative model that is committed to a sustainable transition with a focus on meeting societal needs for education, public infrastructure, institutions for care and sustainable agriculture. At the same time, growth based on local resources throughout the country will counter the unhealthy divide between urban and rural residents, which we see spreading in most rich countries.
A more practice oriented approach to life and a closer relationship to nature and the resources that surround us hold plenty of meaningful content that can offset the potential loss of consumption options entailed in reduced economic growth.
The possibility to live in smaller, local communities with the opportunity to produce food, housing and other needs from local resources, is an important element in the transition. As a skilled craftsman I have a background that enables me to work with materials, but surely a city dweller with no prior experience could learn to use tools just as accurately and powerfully and also gain insight into the characteristics of raw materials by attending a course of just a few months.
The more we relate to natural resources with our own hands (and heads), and to their scarcity and vulnerability, the more we free ourselves from the market and from consumerism.
We are led to believe that happiness is achieved by filling our homes with consumer goods. But isn’t it obvious that the joy of creativity is greater – complemented by the pleasure of having decent work, free of a productivity press in the private or public sector?
When we (re-)learn to use local resources, we no longer need economic growth, and we thereby also free the world’s poor from the resource plundering that deprives them of the basis for decent lives.
Ole Busck is Associate Professor at the Department of Planning at Aalborg University in Denmark and is a skilled shipbuilder. He contributed to the book ‘Life After Growth’, which has just been published in the Danish language by the publishing company, Hovedland.
The article was first published in Danish language in the newspaper Information on 8 December 2016. It has been translated to English and republished on climatesafety.info with permission from the author.
The photograph on top of this page shows a course in sustainable construction held in the ecological village Hallingelille, Ringsted in Denmark. Photo by Marius Nyheim.
Our future depends on our connection with the natural world
“Now, over half of us live in an urban environment. My home, too, is here – in the city of London. Looking down on this great metropolis, the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking. But it’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world. Yet, it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend. And it is, surely, our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.”
~ Sir David Attenborough