On a good day, my strange lifestyle is a semi-successful attempt to boycott the worst bits of ecocidal consumer capitalism. And at this time of year, more people than usual ask me why I bother.
That’s probably because more people than usual notice it. Normally very much off the radar as far as most people I know are concerned, at Christmas the whole political extremist thing surfaces in polite society like a hippy-communist submarine – “how’s the Christmas shopping going?” “I don’t do any”, et cetera.
So. Why am I so cynical/miserable/judgemental/extreme/anti-fun/generally intent on making life more difficult for myself than it needs to be?
It all starts with an inconvenient fundamentalist belief in the essential worth of everything alive. There is no-one, no group of people, who it’s ok to sit by and let starve. There’s no category of human being who we can just leave to be shredded by warfare, pulverised by drought, disease, systemic injustice and oppression, and/or the criminal absurdity of present-day wealth and resource distribution.
We all enter the world in the same way – miraculous bits of space-matter arbitrarily spasmed into existence, the result of the strangest, most staggeringly improbable cosmic accident in the history of everything. And everyone matters.
For that reason, it’s inexpressibly horrific that, right now, on this planet, millions suffer. They suffer despite living in a world that’s materially bountiful, and despite being part of a species reaching the peak of its technological advancement and problem-solving ingenuity. They live at a time when civilisation could bulldoze the obstacles to mass human flourishing, demolishing phenomena that have blighted lives for hundreds of thousands of years – starvation, drought, poverty, many types of disease. But civilisation doesn’t. We don’t.
Instead of providing enough to everyone, we’ve focused our efforts on giving one bit of the world a lifestyle so apocalyptically stupid it risks destroying the species – while offering token gestures and empty humanitarian platitudes to the billions of people suffering elsewhere, who we’ve all basically been conditioned to think aren’t worth worrying about.
And this is why I live the way I live. Those people do matter. The planet matters. And I’m not going to cheerily go about my life helping prop up the system behind all that globe-wracking misery and environmental destruction – at least not in any way I can possibly avoid.
In fact, I’m going to do absolutely everything within my laughably limited capacity as an individual human being to bring it down, and replace it with something better. And until such a time when there aren’t people needlessly suffering and dying and we’re not mindlessly wreaking ecological devastation, I’ll think about it every day – the crushed lives, the ruined futures, the whole horrible species-shaming shebang.
Which is all very easy to say. So what does it mean in practice? I buy as little as possible, and own as few material possessions as possible. Wherever I can, I boycott big corporations and buy from local traders (although I still say fuck it and go to Tescos more than I should). I don’t drive a car, walk wherever I can, get public transport where I can’t. I don’t fly, or even travel all that far at all, and am in the process of drastically cutting back on the amount of meat I eat – something I’ve got no intention of preaching about, having been an enthusiastic carnivore for years, but have started doing after learning that slashing your meat intake is the best way to cut your carbon footprint.
I try and help other people as much as I can. That’s everything from getting my workmate a sandwich when she’s especially snowed under, to striving to give away as much of my income as possible. I attempt to squeeze any personal indulgences (mostly music-related, the occasional curry, gym fees and the like) out of a strictly limited budget, and give anything left over after food, rent and a bit of savings away – to political campaign groups, charities (yes, very often corporate-capitalist sticking plasters, but the difference between life and death for millions of people), the foodbank, just people in need I meet day-to-day, and so on.
I do everything I can to raise awareness of the general disastrousness of the Western way of life, and promote democratic, egalitarian, ecologically-sound alternatives to it. A huge chunk of my spare time goes on researching politics, economics, capitalism, the environment and the like, and writing about it here.
And almost as a strange sort of irreligious religious practice, I try and live with a constant awareness of the suffering of my fellow human beings.
It’s the one aspect of my lifestyle that baffles practically everyone, and has seen me variously labelled an ‘atheist monk’ and a ‘far-left doomsday preacher’. It’s especially confusing for people who know me, because I’m not a miserable person – I’m quite cheery, friendly, good-humoured. I like people. That’s the whole point. But I don’t do celebration – birthdays, parties, anything like that (well, if I like the person enough, I’ll show my face for a bit). I want everyone alive to have a happy life, but in a world full of preventable misery, I think there’s such a thing as being too happy – being too wrapped in your own life, and too detached from the ongoing incomprehensible suffering that the societies we live in could step in and stop if they really wanted to.
I’m very aware that all this makes no difference at all to the lives of starving African children and Syrian war-orphans and homeless junkies in the alleyways of London – and that, really, there’s a 99.9% likelihood that everything I try and do in the political realm will fail. And equally, I know that this kind of lifestyle is completely out of reach for most people. I’m lucky, I’ve got no dependants, I can get by on a bit less than I earn, I live somewhere public transport is just about good enough to not need a car. People obviously have to make their own compromises in this life. There’s no shame in that whatsoever. But I refuse to be blasé about what should be the central focus of every society on earth. I would rather live my life trying and failing to make the world a bit more equitable, sustainable and humane than just sitting by and doing nothing while millions starve.
And to further elucidate that point, I call upon the ghost of the late Johnny Cash, with a song that, despite including gubbins about Jesus I don’t believe in, still expresses it all more succinctly and eloquently than I ever could.
Whatever way you choose to live your life, I wish you a safe, interesting and reasonably enjoyable 2016.
And for more cod-philosophical ramblings about irreligious morality, have a nose through my Radical Atheism series