Essay: Living Well and the Thoreau Legacy

Gordon Peters

This article is an attempt to consider whether the de-growth and indigenous knowledge movements of the current period resonate with Thoreau’s philosophy and practice of living.

For some time I have been engaged with the literature, and to some extent with the practice, of the perspectives on life coming out of Latin America and its indigenous movements in particular. These have emerged in the last ten years or so as significant challengers to the orthodoxies of development across the whole gamut of environment, society, politics and culture. Perhaps their best known manifestation is in the Bolivian government’s endorsement of an alternative approach to the abortive Copenhagen summit on climate change [Living Well as a response to the Global Crisis, 2010].

The concept of ‘Living well, but not better’ [‘buen vivir’ and ‘sumak kawsay’ in Spanish and in Quechua] has also been rendered as ‘pachakuti’ meaning the creation of a revolution in organizing time and space in the world. [Bob Thomson has written a useful summary of these currents for the Transnational Institute]*1.

The essence of living well does not translate easily in English since as soon as it is mentioned it more or less inevitably conjures up images of privileged consumption which is in fact the opposite of its intent: to live well [as envisaged in the indigenous Latin American literature] is to live harmoniously in interaction with other people and with the planet, in a kind of dynamic equilibrium which values respect for each other and for the living earth and counteracts the exploitation of many for the wealth accumulation of a few. There is however a huge gap between the vision [to which many now in the western world might sign up as a laudable aim] and the practice or ways of transforming daily life [which runs a large risk of being characterized as a romantic return to unattainable Elysian fields]. Perhaps invoking Thoreau here can help. My reading of Thoreau suggests that he was very much concerned with what it would be like to ‘live well’. He famously undertook what later 20th/21st century management and organization theorists would have called a ‘pilot project’, by creating his lived environment at Walden. The idea of a pilot project of course immediately sounds reductionist. That’s the point: modern and western developmental thinking will tend to reduce alternative conceptions and practices to manageable proportions and rules which allow them to absorb the idea and practice into the predominant paradigm.

Thoreau was clearly after a change in the paradigm. One of the concepts he espoused was hybridity. He talks about his half-wild and half-cultivated bean field [*2] which remains open to nature and where the edges are not even but allow the influx of plants and animals, and a view across the wider earth and air while he diligently grows and tends, and weeds, and is equally attentive to what is going on round about and above.Yet hybridity is an elusive concept: is it just all manner of mixings? Or does it take us along evolutionary or ‘development pathways’ of either mutation or super-breeding? That’s the kind of question they would ask on Newsnight, missing the point.

The point of Thoreau was to resist any such reductionism, or hegemonic thinking. He talks about his labour

yielding an instant and immeasurable crop’ while stating ‘it was no longer beans that I hoed, or I that hoed beans’ while ‘the nighthawk circled overhead in the sunny afternoons – for I sometimes made a day of it –like a mote in the eye, or in the heaven’s eye, falling from time to time with a swoop and a sound as if the heavens were rent, torn at last to very rags and tatters, and yet a seamless cope remained: small imps that fill the air and lay their eggs on the ground on barer sand or rocks on the tops of hills, where few have found them; graceful and slender like ripples caught up from the pond, as leaves are raised by the wind to float in the heavens; such kindredship in nature. The hawk is aerial brother of the wave which he sails over and surveys, those his perfect air-inflated wings answering to the elemental unfledged pinions of the sea. Or sometimes I watched a pair of hen-hawks circling high in the sky, alternately soaring and descending, approaching, and leaving one another, as if they were the embodiment of my own thoughts……or from under a rotten stumpy hoe turned up a sluggish portentous and outlandish salamander, a trace of Egypt and the Nile, yet our contemporary. When I paused to lean on my hoe, these sounds and sights I heard and saw anywhere in the row, a part of the inexhaustible entertainment which the country offers’.

I would suggest that the kindredship in nature, and the kindredship with nature, of which Thoreau writes is an openness to the mixture of work and enjoyment, along with harsh intrusions, which mirrors that of indigenous communities, and arguably any culture or way of living which has to, and decides to, resist the corporate maw.

One of the emerging concepts from the indigenous movements is that of interculturality. By this is understood a conscious striving to meet with other cultures on mutually respectful terms and to allow the natural and human values of each to mix and flourish, but to interrogate the demeaning, the discriminatory or the exploitative. This is quite different from the notion of multiculturalism which has been for awhile prevalent in much western thinking. It is more about hybridity and learning, not objectivising and tolerating. Interculturality is not ‘turning back the clock’ but recovering ‘the good’, the living well which may be embedded, or which may be lost or in danger of being lost, in any of the cultures which meet. This then can include both the ethical and the technical knowledge of advanced modern culture, but demand an alternative humility from it and challenge its incessant demand for growth and its consuming reproduction. Interculturality suggests a capacity to ask and reflect on the other, and the other asking and interacting or reflecting back. It would meet ‘head on’ the long preserved capacity in cultures and the strong tendency of hierarchies in control to preserve and perpetuate ‘otherness’.

And if there is one notion which comes across well from Thoreau’s writings it is that otherness is not something to be fenced off, to be so guarded against, to be put in line; but rather it is a mindful, open and attentive sense of being in nature, and with people as part of nature, which is the requisite foil to the fear of otherness, and if brought to bear on practical life will induce harmony. Harmony, like community, is a much-abused ‘apple pie’ notion. Yet it is evident from Thoreau that his harmony was not woolly or misty-eyed alone, but more all embracing of the differences and unexpectedness, including harsh realities of life and death, of trial and error which can mean sacrifice, of learning requiring humility. Thoreau’s practice was of demonstrating a way of living well and of being open to people coming and going, and encouraging a human balance with nature, which could be productive, not exploitative or degenerative of nature.

The intercultural aspirations of Latin American writers, and some academics and political activists who are rooted in the indigenous movements, do seem to echo Thoreau, and perhaps Emerson and Patrick Geddes too, in their fearlessness of failure and determination to seek harmony in a holistic nature composed together of people, work and place. There is an important difference in that they have unambiguously emerged in social and political challenges to the ruling orthodoxies of western development and to the elites in Latin America reproducing these characteristics [which it may be said they tended to do in even more exaggerated and exploitative ways than their European and north American counterparts]. And some of their proponents have influenced or become part of the alternatives to multinational power and big capital and big states now being played out in South America [notably Morales in Bolivia, but also Monica Chuji and Pablo Davalos in Ecuador as examples]*3. That this generates new conflicts of power within states is a result with many repercussions which are not for pursuing here. What I think is most interesting, in the context of geopoetics, is that ideas of living in harmony with nature and refusing to go for growth with all the attendant despoliation, uneven development and inequalities of wealth [what economists call ‘externalities’] which accompany that growth as intrinsic to it, are now at the core of thinking and acting of significant groups of people.

The living well movement does not seek a direct lineage with Thoreau as such, but it is there nonetheless. There are precursors within critiques of western civilization and of the exploitations within modernism which say strongly that we get trapped within our ‘development paradigm’, that  the real choice is to recover what is lost, be open to the other, and learn from the flux of things and people, not seek to direct them only one way. Social and political movements of course tend, or have tended, to be taken up within their own dimensions, and opposing neo-liberal and Marxist approaches are no exception to this. What is embryonically significant about living well is that it does cut across these distinctions and ready made approaches, and asks for a sensibility which encapsulates the employment of the mind, the body [as the site of what action happens and what is produced] and imagination of the natural, producing and replenishing world around. How the political and social implications are pursued will not be settled – may be unsettling often, or may be put to one side, but insofar as a geopoetic sensibility is there to develop mindfulness and awareness of the human in nature then it cannot only stay a matter for individuals. I think Thoreau would have agreed.

A connected aspect of Thoreau I want to incorporate here is his attention to technical know-how. Richard Sennet has in this century written in related manner on craftsmanship[*4]. The particular connection I am making is the problem many people have with de-growth [or the French decroissance, as the concept is more elaborated in that language][*5]. It sounds like romantic reversal and a going away from clever modern technology. But a refusal of incessant growth fuelled by technical capability — no matter what preponderance you give to the power of money — does not have to mean ‘de-teching’, to coin an ugly word. It can mean re-fashioning available technology to harmonious pursuits [Tim Berners Lee when he invented the world wide web did not want it to be a monetized vehicle at all, but a free for all to use creator and disseminator of information and knowledge].

What is really required is a re-enchantment with work and nature –[where the social radical Illich comes to mind [*6] — so that craft knowledge, including advanced IT, is put to re-balancing people, work and the place where they are. I find this sits well enough with Thoreau’s attention to his tools and their application, just as it sits with a sustainable matrix of land uses for a whole country or region [as the Bolivians are attempting].

The values of respect across boundaries, shared responsibility, working for a dynamic balance with nature, and the inchoate human value of fairness [the one which undeniably appears in almost all desired systems] are universals which I believe Thoreau espoused, and they are certainly at the core of the Latin American indigenous movements. Crafts from dry stone dyking to geographic information systems for small farmers are there for re-designing, re-constituting and restoring to the using people, and interestingly the web resource introduces a potential new universal of non-hierarchic ways of relating to work and life which might encourage ‘better’ organization of communities and ‘better’ interaction with earth and water.

References and notes:

1.    Bob Thomson on Climate and Capitalism in his article for the Transnational Institute:
This paper is a very useful resume of the different discourses which have emerged as challengers to the predominant western thinking on development and climate over the last few decades.

The work of post-colonialists, the New Economics Foundation, ecosocialists, entropy theorists, Jeremy Rifkin, James Lovelock, and Herman Daly on the Steady State Economy, and others are considered by Thomson as challenging the modern development paradigm, and neoliberalism in particular, but living well is credited more to the work of the indigenous movement, and the Bolivian peasant research and education centre, CIPCA, where its founder, Xavier Albo, a Catalan-Bolivian Jesuit, has interrogated the notion of decroissance [de-growth] –which has come from Europeans– and how it relates to living well. The text of Living well as a Response to the Global Crisis, mentioned above, is a policy statement in Spanish issued by the Bolivian Government Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2010, relating to its sponsorship of the post-Copenhagen world conference on climate change and the global crisis and is sub-titled: a manual for building the good life of our communities in the face of global crisis and probable collapse of western development models. There is an English address by the President, Evo Morales: ‘The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth’.

2.    Henry Thoreau: Walden [Dover Thrift], 1995

3.    Monica Chuji: Presentation to the International Forum on Interculturality and Development, Uribia, Colombia, May 2009 and
Pablo Davalos : Reflections on Sumak Kawsay [good living] and
Theories of Development, ALAI, August, 2008

4.    Richard Sennet: The Craftsman [Allen Lane], 2008

5.    Decroissance is discussed in  and in English more briefly in New Internationalist, July/August 2010 by Serge Latouche and Julio Godoy on Zero Growth [vive la decroissance]

6.    Ivan Illich: Tools for Conviviality – Social Questions [Marion Boyars] and Celebration of Awareness – A Call for Institutional Revolution [Penguin]