This is part two of a six-part essay called Choosing restraint. You can read the whole essay here.
Some people do opt out.
In 2011, Andrea Hejlskov, her husband Jeppe Juul and their four children moved from the busy life in Copenhagen to live deep in the woods of northern Sweden. There they have built a log cabin from scratch, and live off the grid. No electricity, running water or central heating. But also without any bills, ads and distractions.
Their decision to make this drastic move arose from a frustration that their family wasn’t thriving with modern life. They felt a “nagging sense of discomfort” that neither adults nor children were happy living this way. So they decided to quit.
Living in the woods has been an intense learning experience. As Andrea explains:
You have to be able to provide heat and food for yourself. It is a fundamental approach to life. Life is more hardcore out here. Sometimes it storms, and sometimes it’s minus 30 degrees. It affects you.
Living in such an environment not only requires developing the skills necessary to sustain yourself. It also requires foresight and a certain toughness. If you fail to take something into account, you will face the direct consequences of that lack of foresight. So, you learn and adapt and take your bruises along the way.
But this immediate link between an action and its consequences is also incredibly rewarding, as Andrea notes:
It may sound pretty banal but it has had an incredibly positive effect on all of us that there’s meaning in every single thing we do. There is a clear chain of events, and you SEE the consequences of your labour. If you chop wood, you can cook. If you fetch water from the well, you can drink squash. Everything has a logical order.
It does sound like a banal point to emphasise, but it is also remarkable how far from modern life you have to be in order to notice it: Most of the time, we don’t see the consequences of our actions.
We live our lives in a way where the intimate connections between what we do and how we live have been severed. We don’t have to worry whether there’ll be water in the tap, heat in our radiators, electricity in our outlets, or food in the supermarket. Whether someone will take away our rubbish each week. We can take all of these things for granted. We don’t have to worry about the chain of events through which these things come about. We only have to worry about earning the money necessary to buy them.
This means that our chief responsibility has been reduced to just one thing: To earn money. Not to cut firewood, fetch water or grow vegetables. But to earn money. And that is a subtle, yet very important change in how we perceive what it means to be responsible.
When responsibility is reduced to your ability to earn money, it doesn’t really matter whether you earn your money through teaching, gardening, programming video games, waiting tables, building houses, trading stocks or selling guns. It doesn’t matter if you sit at work and twiddle your thumbs all day, as long as you get paid. You can still pay your bills. You will still have hot water and heat and food in your fridge. You are still responsible.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have any other kinds of responsibilities or that we can’t find any other meaning in the work we do apart from the economic incentive. Of course, most of us still do. And there is great meaning, purpose and responsibility in many lines of work such as teaching, medicine, counselling and physical labour where you can see the direct consquences of the work you do. The difference you make through your work.
But such meaning and purpose is immaterial and unquantifiable. It’s not how we are used to seeing responsibility defined in a society that tend to focus solely on our economic responsibilities. And in that economic perspective, all ways of earning money are equal. Which in turn means that all ways of earning money are equally valid — and thus equally unimportant. This makes it very easy for us to lose track of the logical order of things. There is no immediate link between the work you do and the rewards you receive. So we can only measure the importance of a given job by the amount of money we can earn doing it. If you make more money working in a bank will earn than if you are growing vegetables, it follows that working in a bank is more important.
Similarly, there’s no immediate link between the value of the things you buy and the chain of events that brought them to you. And so, it is easy just to take it all for granted. The water, the heat, the electricity, the food… We’ve never experienced life any other way. How could it be any different? It just seems like there’s an endless supply, so we feel no direct incentive to limit ourselves. We are surrounded by constant suggestions to indulge ourselves. Why would we ever choose restraint unless we were forced to do it?
Perhaps that is why so many people are so provoked by Andrea and her family’s decision to opt out: Because they have chosen restraint in such a drastic fashion.
Their critics focus on all the ways they are still connected to and dependent on society: How they’re still on the internet and on Facebook. How part of their income is from welfare benefits (the rest comes from Andrea’s work as a freelance writer). How they still depend on roads and hospitals and other infrastructure maintained and made possible through modern society. How they are spoiled children of a rampant welfare state. How they’re taking way too much for granted.
But really, it’s not about what Andrea and her family still take for granted. It’s really about us. They remind us of how vulnerable we all are. Of all the systems we depend on. Of all the chain of events that have to function like clockwork every day to make our lives possible. Of all the things that we take for granted. So, instead we focus on the things that make their way of life possible, on their continuing dependence on society, on us! Because we don’t like to think about the logical order of things. On where our water, heat, electricity and food comes from. On what life would be like without it.
And because of this, we don’t really pay attention to the things that Andrea and her family have learned since they moved to their cabin in the woods: How tough it is to give up all of our modern comforts. How honest and meaningful it is to be able to see the consequences of your labour. How aware you become as you grow more attuned to the changes in nature. And perhaps most of all: How much you depend on the people around you.
As Andrea reflects:
The local community is vital. I learned that last winter when our car broke down, we were snowed in, we didn’t have enough food and we were extremely exposed and afraid. Plus there were wolves outside. In the reality we live in now “other people” aren’t unimportant. I make a big effort to contribute to the local community and we make a priority of drinking coffee with people and building social relations. It’s something that I hadn’t expected would be a big part of my everyday life. Out here in the wild. Far away from everything and everybody.
In a way, it is remarkable that you have to move to the northern reaches of the Swedish wild, far away from everything, to realise how much we depend on each other. It is humbling. And very far from the typical Robinson Crusoe fantasies of being self-reliant somewhere on your own. As Andrea quietly concludes after describing how her neighbours helped her recover her car after an accident on a slippery winter road:
I don’t know what we would have done without them.