The fading light bathes the sand dunes in molten tones. As I look to the fiery spectacle I notice my shadow, elongated and narrowing at my head as it reaches towards the dunes. I can’t remember the last time I noticed my shadow. Its seems a thing of childhood, slower times without screens and a head too full of thoughts of the past, the future, anytime but the present moment. Our bodily shadows extend our presence out onto the land around in a fleeting and intangible manner.
In contrast our high energy lifestyles and abundant luxuries cast long toxic shadows that have very real repercussions. These luxuries make us cosseted and deny us the chance to test our limits and so express fully what we are capable of. Like domesticated animals we are a diminished version of what we could be. And there is so much externalised harm built into every aspect of our comfort, from the sweatshop worker making the clothes we wear, the destruction of land to mine minerals that make up this computer I type on, to the brutalisation of the animals that we eat. This externalisation is a form of violence towards the distant other and the earth, based on the notion of the superiority of the Western way of life and its right to do whatever it takes to maintain and promulgate itself.
Tyson Yunkaporta, in his brilliant exploration of what Indigenous knowledge systems can offer to the field of sustainability, notes that all societies involve violence, that it is an unavoidable part of life. As he writes “If you live a life without violence you are living an illusion, outsourcing your conflict to unseen powers and detonating it in areas beyond your living space. Most of the southern hemisphere is receiving that outsourced violence to supply what you need for the clean, technological, peaceful spaces of your existence.”
How violence is contained and harnessed differs cultures. Western societies have built complicated systems that conveniently externalise most of the overt violence away from middle and upper classes. We can never create a world without shadows, without violence but I would rather aim for one where these shadows are not so disproportionately borne by some. Not to mention that increasingly these shadows are reaching out to cover us all, as the repercussions of our thoughtless greed destabilises global life support systems.
Restraining the greed of Western societies does not need to equate to a poorer way of life. Just the opposite in fact. We may be sated on rich foods and material things but what of our basic needs for health giving food and herbs, security of true connection to community and land and freedom to express our gifts? The loss of these is an impoverishment that all the shiny plastic baubles cannot compensate. I love being able to walk out into my garden and pick half a dozen different greens and flowers to make a salad with for a meal. The freshness of the food and my connection with the plants is nourishing in a way that food purchased in a shop can never be. Clean air, fresh water and health giving food are necessities. While swimming pools and supermarkets overflowing with plastic wrapped food are not. Yet clean air, fresh water and health giving foods are much more scare in urban areas than swimming pools and supermarkets.
Time with loved ones are priceless, but so often we work long hours to earn money to buy things and forgo time with friends and family. Those who juggle several jobs just to pay rent and put food on the table have little choice, but what of the lawyer, doctor or engineer working 50 hour weeks and owning several cars, a mansion plus a holiday home crammed full of stuff who has no time to have dinner with the family. I used to work a full time office job which I would now not willingly go back to. It certainly is not easy juggling casual jobs and not having surplus money, but there is something that feels so right about having space to create, to wonder, to really look within and begin to find myself. It certainly is a privilege that I am so very grateful for.
Then there is all the rubbish piled up in mounds of waste. I recently did a tour of the waste disposal facilities in my city and was astounded by the gigantic shed with rubbish piled high which we were told was just one days worth of rubbish that was being sorted through before going to landfill. How is it that we produce so much easily disposed of stuff? I would rather have a few well crafted possessions, things of true beauty, than a house crammed full of stuff. Things that I value and keep, instead of tossing out when the newer, shiner, louder gizmo comes out in the shop.
A system that continues to pillage and exploit large parts of the globe cannot be part of a more sustainable world. Basing our actions and systems in respect and care for all beings will generate radically different solutions and possibilities than the false promises of a growth economy and techno-utopias. Green consumerism with its promises of a low carbon footprint, but still based on a distant exploited workers and destruction of the earth for raw materials is simply a continuation of our current outsourced violence. It is not the regenerative, enlivening ways that are possible if we remember our interconnectedness and see the worth in the slower, simpler life.
To notice our shadows, our outsourced violence, is facet of the necessary journey of unlearning that will allow us to emerge into more healthy and joyful ways of being that benefits the whole planet, not just the privileged few.