Recently I got very into Kate Humble’s television series Twice the Life for Half the Price. The premise is that families living in urban environments seek out a life in the country that delivers less of the stress of modern life and more of life on the land, for less money or at least relatively less for what they have in return. What distinguishes this programme from others about escaping to the country is that the lives they seek out are real and authentic country lives, rather than chocolate box versions bought out of their appreciated London assets and healthy pension pots. As a result the programme is both more accessible and more satisfying.
In her writing Kate continues to focus on practical realism (albeit wrapped in a snug duvet of her trademark kindness and positivity) as she seeks to understand different facets of living a “simpler life” and relate them to her own situation. As always the first hurdle with such books is to overcome the distinction between simple and easy. Simplicity is about a lower resource intensity, which in turn means a greater reliance on the self, both technically and physically. So a simpler life requires harder work, but the pay back is that the work has meaning. The second “myth” of a simpler life is, I believe, that of self-sufficiency, as everything I have learnt in my own small experiments is that a simpler, less resource intensive, lifestyle is absolutely reliant on other people in community.
Early on in the book the author visits Satish Kumar and he neatly sums up a key problem that we face as a society when he says: “It’s innate. It’s intrinsic to human nature. Our hands are made to make. But our society and the way we educate our children dismisses manual labour – it is only for those who have failed, who are not intellectually up to doing anything else. And because of this attitude, instead of being a society of makers we are a society of consumers, dependent on buying everything we need and easily swayed into buying so much we don’t.”
By the end, having visited a range of fascinating people all doing very different and creative things to move towards more sustainable and rewarding ways of living, she turns to an ancient voice to sum up her findings quoting Confucius (possibly internet meme Confucius rather than the actual person), “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” We are beholden to the notion of progress, but it seems that sometimes we don’t stop to question what that actually means. Too often progress is defined as bigger and more, but with a little more reflection we might learn to see that the progress we need now, having over-shot our limits to a catastrophic level, is smaller and less.
It is not just the ecological breakdown that we are witnessing that tells us we need to pause for a while and re-think. Rising mental health problems should also give us an indication that we are losing our way. Perhaps the biggest question though is how we manage to do that reflection and make those changes collectively. It feels like we have rarely been so divided as people, whether economically, socially or virtually any other potential line of difference you can think of. Are we capable of cohesive thought and action at this crucial time? Maybe that’s where smaller and less really comes to its own solution, through localised relationships and communities. When big has been the problem for so long, looking for the big solution is perhaps futile.
If that is the case then there is hope contained in this book. Groups of people across the globe are creatively carving out space for lifestyles that value both people and planet and may guide us to a more balanced relationship with the world. It can be depressing to watch news, hear politicians or become bogged down in the miasma of social media, so we have to manage our sources of information and the stories that we prioritise. In A Year of Living Simply Kate Humble tells some stories that are worth investing in and can help us to begin to plot a course for our own journey of experimentation.