Today’s society is undoubtedly becoming a collective of sustainably minded individuals. Despite widespread awareness that governments and high-emitting corporations are the biggest players in the game of reducing climate change impacts, many of us also know that individual level action poses an essential role in the workings of conscious co-existence. Taking personal steps to a more sustainable lifestyle not only has a positive effect on the environment (however small), but it also equates to something much bigger – building communities that are more mindfully connected to resources and production. It may be down to the powers that be to incite change on a macro level – but adjusting our lifestyles to a more sustainable model sets the precedent for following generations to thrive.
The birth of individual sustainability came down hard and fast in the past decade, fronted by ecological alarm bells reaching a higher pitch. It picked up strong momentum, particularly among younger cohorts, to implement lifestyle choices that can make a difference to the destruction we’re faced with. As social phenomena often do, it also manifested by way of a number of ‘sustainable buzzwords’ – veganism, slow fashion, recycling, etc. This is understandable – a focus on specific key strategies helps people to break down an eco-conscious lifestyle into small and manageable steps.
Behind these commonly implemented lifestyle switches, however, I fear we are side-stepping a crucial part of sustainable living – manual skills. When you pare back the curtains of large-scale initiatives and endless green rhetoric, sustainability is the ability to sustain oneself; be it as an individual or as a community. Deciding to eat a more plant-based diet or cutting down on unnecessary purchases are unquestionably worthy efforts – ones I have myself implemented with an urgent desire to play my part. Yet, I couldn’t help but notice a discrepancy between my newfound eco habits and what I believe it means to truly live sustainably.
I would only buy clothes from second-hand or slow fashion sources, yet I would still replace end-of-life garments rather than repair them. I eat less animal products but have yet to utilise my own garden space to attempt to grow some veggies. Like most, I have wholeheartedly lacked the initiative to attempt my own household repair projects, create DIY solutions to everyday hitches or, simply, to not jump at the chance to outsource each of life’s obstacles that I could single-handedly solve if I gave it the time. Even in our greenest of eras, we are still proving to be a convenience-savvy bunch when it comes to manual work. Replacement tends to win out against repair when such an abundance of sustainable replacement options awaits us. And you may ask – what harm? We surely escaped our parents’ epoch to be rid of patched up frocks and time-consuming domestic tasks. I’m not entirely opposed to such a sentiment, yet I worry we have taken the romanticisation of ‘not having to do the work ourselves’ a little bit too far and, in the process, are losing a connection to the resources we are striving to safeguard.
Observably, manual skills are a drag to our technologically trendy generation. We have evolved to approve of work carried out in the intellectual realm – on computers and in digital domains. Higher level education and ‘stable’ office jobs are growing in demand against their more physical occupational counterparts. Productivity is glorified whilst extra time devoted to mending old belongings or tending to a greenhouse is undesirable. The issue lies somewhere between the lines. Modernity and its growing denunciation of manual skills has, at least in part, led us to climate breakdown. Having a soft spot for convenience is what drives us further away from self-sustenance and further afield for imported goods, processed foods, carbon-emitting companies. The more we do for ourselves, the less pressure is felt on our precious planet.
Moreover, the act of engaging with manual work fosters a vital connection with the land. When one chooses to take their two hands and devote them to a task, they become mindfully aware of our relationship with the earth and its resources. This is a point that is often grossly underestimated in regard to any social issue – our collective psyche. If we perceive that most of life’s needs should be catered to by the market, however ‘green’ that market is becoming, we are still fuelling a damaging capitalistic model.
Yes – there are farmers, builders and craftspeople whose occupation it is to cater to our manual needs. There is no necessity for each individual to set up a homestead and be solely responsible for their human upkeep. But, as we gravitate further into being a society of administrators and intellectuals whilst the catastrophic effects of climate change threaten our current ways of living, will we cope with the new physical frontiers presented to us? Will the next generation of CEOs and tech gurus be equipped to provide for themselves if food and shelter become scarce commodities?
I am not attempting to get a kick out of dystopian prospects, rather to pose a question of whether newer generations are progressing in some areas yet depreciating in others. Manual skills are integral for forming a society that is resilient in the face of climate breakdown. If we want to thank modern technology for one thing, we may appreciate and utilise the social platforms that bring us unending tutorials, tips and communities of self-sufficiency. The desire to take up knitting, woodwork or gardening is but a series of tiktoks away.
I believe we must shift our perception of valuable work to include the humbler occupations of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations – food cultivation, construction, material craftwork. While many of today’s youth may not cast high value on such skills, they are essential to living in harmony with the earth.