In a March 19th article in The Guardian, Mark Boyle wrote about the lessons he has learned from a year spent living entirely without technology. A week earlier in The New York Times, Sam Dolnik profiled a different kind of digital hermit, Eric Hagerman, a man he called with suitable appreciation “the most ignorant man in America.” Hagerman has gone 16 months without listening to any news or current events whatsoever.
Each of these experiments provide interesting lessons for the times in which we live. They are grist, I am inclined to think, for the Anthropocene mill.
Boyle went cold turkey from the internet, his laptop, his phone, his TV and his washing machine. The plan was to “get his soul back.” Part of getting his soul back, he determined, was to become more “intimate with his locale.” He planned to do this by living Thoreau-like in a backwoods cabin.
His motives were partly environmental and partly rooted in a quest for a more reliable grounding. As well as lamenting the environmental cost of the materials mined and processed to sustain the digital lives most of us lead, Boyle observed that the internet also destroys the experience of place by severing people from the physical reality that is closest to them (the one right outside their door).
Since giving up electronics, instead of spending his days making a living, Boyle observes that he now spends his days living. He denies that he is forced into a “simple life” now that he goes without electricity and gadgets. To the contrary, he finds his life quite complex given that he has cut himself off from light switches, the easy Googling of information, and instant phone access to friends and family.
He reports that he is deeply satisfied with daily encounters that bring him face to face with the “raw ingredients of life, to be dealt with immediately and directly, with no middlemen to complicate and confuse the matter.” Life takes on an entirely new character. “Simple,” he says, “but complex.”
A month before Mark Boyle voluntarily severed himself from technology, Erik Hagerman voluntarily cut himself off entirely from the news. He was shaken by the results of the 2016 US election and he decided to avoid learning anything about what happened to America after November 8th, 2016 as a form of self-preservation. To maintain this news blockade he religiously avoids television, radio, newspapers, and social media. Dolnik calls Hagerman’s experiment “the D.I.Y. version of moving to Canada.”
When Hagerman meets with friends and family, they are under instruction not to discuss any current events. When he participates in his morning ritual of a triple latté and scone at a nearby coffee shop, he often finds himself wearing noise-cancelling headphones to avoid picking up any snippets of conversation emanating from the other tables.
The result, Dolnik points out, is that Hagerman has become “shockingly uninformed” about what is going on in the world around him. He is as ignorant as anyone could hope to be.
Like Boyle, Hagerman has found rich rewards in his choices. Obviously elements of it are inconvenient, not least for social reasons. Yet the removal of a bunch of informational clutter from his day seems to involve very little loss. Overall, he says, he is “emotionally healthier than [he’s] ever felt.”
Both men’s experiments have brought moments of self-doubt. Hagerman sometimes worries that he is burying his head in the sand and becoming a “crappy citizen.” To compensate, he plans to use his savings to restore forty-five acres of nearby abandoned industrial land that he will donate as a public park when the time comes.
For his part, Boyle worries that the path he has embarked upon is elitist, one not available to everyone in the world without significant ecological cost. Seven and a half billion people can’t all retreat to cabins in the woods. But Boyle points out he is no more confident about the sustainability of everyone living resource-intensive lives hooked up to modern technology than he is about his own choices.
To most of us, the lives that these two men have chosen are no more than fables. They bear little relation to what seem to be our own options, even if they contain some interesting lessons. We might smile and be impressed with the tenacity of the two men but it won’t be long before we get back on our smartphones to look for the next informational byte to amuse us.
The lesson that I want to draw from these two stories is one I wish to apply to the idea of the Anthropocene (the so-called age of humans). It is a lesson about the denial of inevitability.
You see, the Anthropocene comes packaged with a big set of assumptions about what its advocates think simply has to come next. Now that all of the earth has been touched by human activity, Anthropocene thinkers suggest that it is simply unavoidable for humans to take a more active managerial role with the planet.
It used to be that nature could look after itself. Its independence from us, Bill McKibben pointed out in a prophetic book in 1989, was its meaning.
With nature no longer independent from us due to global climate change, industrial pollution, and the never-ending reshuffling and extinguishing of species worldwide, the option of leaving it alone is said to be moot. Humans must, say many Anthropocene thinkers, take up the reins and deliberately manage all of earth’s systems for the goods they deem most important. Nature’s autonomy is nothing but a fast receding memory.
This can look like a convincing story, one that starts with an apparently sober and realistic assessment of what is going on around us. There is a giant bandwagon moving in a certain direction, the story tells us, and we need to get on it.
But that is not what Boyle and Hagerman decided. For them, no bandwagon is big enough or compelling enough that it has to be joined.
There is an alternative to the Anthropocene juggernaut. It is an unlikely one and it needs no small measure of courage to buck the trend to rediscover it. Just as Boyle and Hagerman refused to be swept up and carried away in a sea of digital information, so could we refuse to be swept up in the narrative of earth systems management that dominates a good deal of Anthropocene thinking.
We could recognize nature’s continuing independence from us and seek to enhance or restore it where possible. We could cherish the power and independence of the non-human when we witness it in the lives of wild animals, in ongoing geophysical processes such as sedimentation and erosion, and in self-managing biological phenomena such as speciation, photosynthesis, and decay. We could see and learn again to appreciate a world that is often utterly indifferent to our goals.
By paying close attention to the range of forces that stand quite contentedly apart from us, we can reacquaint ourselves with something powerfully real and gain a foothold from which to resist the desire to manage everything.
These days this is definitely the harder path. One is told that it is nostalgic or even ignorant to long for elements of the Holocene past. But as the lives of the two modern-day hermits teaches us, being out of step with the contemporary crowd brings rewards that are only available to those who have the courage to jump.
Cabin photo by Randen Pederson Tablet photo by Marco Verch