Living sustainably in London is tough. Consider the very act of eating, for example. You run down to Tesco and decide you’re going to make a vegan curry, so you pick up some carrots, potatoes, onions, peas, and spinach. All of it—absolutely every vegetable—comes in a non-recyclable plastic bag.
Socializing isn’t much better. You get invited round for drinks and dinner at your friend’s house in Chelsea, but you live in Hampstead. That’s going to be a good one hour journey there, and another hour back, whether it’s by tube or taxi. Don’t even get me started on the social pressures. London, like most cities, is a town of tribes, and to fit in with one, there are specific semiotic signals you must provide; your style of dress, choice (or lack) of car, handbag, haircut and even your postcode are all instantly assessed by others to determine if you’ll get that job, private club membership or date. It’s a subtle form of gatekeeping to which even the most steely-willed of individualists are subject. Frankly, it’s exhausting.
Sure, life in a big city can initially be an exhilarating challenge, if you’re up for it; you can perceive it as a game of ‘race to the top.’ How high can you go? But at some point, you realize that challenge comes with a social, environmental and personal cost. Or at least it did for me.
I had reached a peak in my career; I was living in my own house in a beautiful neighborhood in the best area of a ‘global capital.’ I knew a lot of influential people. I was earning good money. But it never really felt right.
Am I Happy?
One day, I asked myself, ‘What makes me happy?’ The answer? Nature. Animals. Fresh air. Spending time with friends and family. Cooking fresh food. Contributing to and feeling a part of my community. Having a sense of control over my life. Challenging myself creatively.
It was then that I examined how I was living.
The closest thing I had to nature was the highly manicured park near my house. I couldn’t commit to having animals— even the tiniest pet—because I had to travel so much. Almost all the food I ate was packaged, even ‘fresh’ fruit and veg. While I was friends with a few of my neighbors, the vast majority of people surrounding my house were strangers, despite my having lived there for over a decade. The few times I got active in my community—to block a train route and major significant apartment construction—the Council refused to listen to the people and instead decided in favor of the more lucrative development plans. I felt small and powerless and spiritually lost.
One day, I went to Peru on holiday. The hotel was in a tiny, rural area just before Machu Picchu. It was surrounded by rolling green hills, peppered with ancient, mysterious ruins, and inhabited by sustenance farmers and animals of all sorts. I fell in love with the place.
Today, my life is entirely different. I live in that wee village with my cat—the first pet I’ve had since I was a child. I wake up to cocks crowing, cows mooing and birds singing. I grow most of my own food, and I’m delighted that there is little to no plastic to be seen at all in our local ‘market,’ which is mainly indigenous women selling vegetables and fruits from a blanket they’ve spread on the floor. I have made friends with all of my neighbors and sit on the Board of the local orphanage, where I also volunteer several times a week.
There’s a term used in the valley that guides life here: Ayni. It means something like: Today I help you, tomorrow you help me. It’s about reciprocity, but not in cold, economic terms. A better definition of ayni could be the exchange of energy between humans, nature and the universe. For example, if a human waters a tree, the tree uses that water to transform carbon dioxide into oxygen. In return, we humans convert oxygen back into carbon dioxide for use by the tree. If we tend to a tree, the tree provides us with shade and fruit.
Ayni is about as good a definition of sustainable living as I can think of, and following this guideline as a base for my daily activities has infused me with a profound sense of peace and satisfaction that I’ve never experienced before.