’Because we kept moving, albeit slowly, home was everywhere we went’
It was when humans stopped being nomadic that we became estranged from our environment. And that brought with it an obsession with growth, suspicions and damaging addictions
By Felix Marquardt
Most of us moderns think we know what home is and therefore think we know what homelessness is too. I wonder whether we genuinely understand either.
It’s time to recognise that our fate hinges more on changing our behaviour than changing our technology
I am an addict in recovery. I had my last drink, my last cigarette, my last joint and my last line of cocaine on the eve of Saint Patrick’s day 2014. In my case, as in the case of many others, active addiction was about denial. It wasn’t until the very end of my using that I began considering the possibility that I was an addict. Even when I came to admitting it, I saw myself as a high-functioning addict. I lived in an expensive apartment, had a good job, lived the high life. It took several years before I realised that addiction had made me homeless.
I come from a very privileged milieu and I don’t want to trivialise homelessness, nor be condescending. There is a kind of long-term, grinding homelessness that I haven’t experienced. I never lived in an abandoned building, the skeleton of a car or under a bridge. I hope I never have to. But there came a point when my addiction got me thrown out of my flat for making too much noise, being an overall nuisance and chronically late on rent. I ended up couch surfing for several months and, here and there, as the number of friends willing to put me up for a night or two dwindled, sleeping in Parisian parks after sunrise after drinking and drugging all night long.
Out of money, out of options and out of sorts, I ended up restarting a relationship with an ex with whom I probably wouldn’t have got back together had I not found myself in that situation. The best indication I have of that is that having cleaned up my act and managed to stay sober and clean six months thanks in no small part to her generosity and hospitality, I broke up with her as soon as I was able to stand on my own two feet and move out (and went straight back to using and drinking).
Reflecting on this admittedly benign experience of homelessness and its link with my addiction while writing a book on nomadism has allowed me to think of the broader feeling of estrangement that has become such an integral part of the modern human condition. Addiction involves many things (including self-centredness, denial, avoidance, immaturity) but is also about homelessness and disconnection.
One of the roots of both the word “nomad” and the word “economy” is the ancient Greek word “nomós”: the place of pasturage or pasture. Only by extension is nomadism about “nomás”, the act of wandering said pasture. My book makes the case that our modern understanding of the word nomadism as being fundamentally and primarily about mobility is misguided. Nomadism is about place and connection to place, to the land and its creatures. From the pasture and the place, the ancient Greeks derived the concept of home. The original meaning of “economy” (“oikonomós”) was “management of the house and household”. Recovery from addiction, too, is about connection to others, to place, to the land and its creatures.
One of the tricky things about addiction is that knowledge and willpower are about as effective in dealing with it as they are to cure diabetes or cancer. Long after my drinking and drugging got out of hand, I was eventually able to see that this was jeopardising my social standing, my career and my relations with my loved ones. Did knowledge of this in any way allow me to stop smoking insane amounts of weed or sticking copious amounts of white powder up my nose?
The pandemic is allowing a growing number of us to come to terms with the oxymoronic nature of the phrase “green economy”. The notion that the best predictor of a person, a household, a company or a country’s carbon footprint is how much money they spend is belatedly sinking in for a growing number of us. Less can be more. It’s in the zeitgeist and in the resonance of the movie Nomadland. So is the fact that humanity’s carbon footprint has never decreased year on year, not just since the industrial revolution but since we first started planting seeds. Three decades of increasingly alarming reports from the experts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change haven’t dented this trend.
Isn’t it time that we consider the possibility that our civilisation might be in the throes of active addiction? And if so, that the beginning of the process that eventually led to our present condition as a civilisation of addicts to carbon, extraction, growth, consumption and, well, more (more drugs, more booze, more sex, more speed, more carbs, more sugar, more “friends”, more travel, more likes/validation, more stuff) might have been kicked into high gear by our going from an overwhelmingly nomadic to an overwhelmingly sedentary culture? Until that moment, home was wherever we were. Because we kept moving, albeit slowly, home was everywhere we went.
In a letter to one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Carl Jung described the craving for alcohol “as the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God”. Another useful way of thinking of addiction more generally might be as a longing for home, a misguided attempt to reclaim our place as a part of the great Metabolism.
We tend to think that the origins of our contemporary troubles, from climate breakdown to rampant inequality, date back to the Industrial Revolution. This is questionable both from a thermodynamic and a social perspective. The break that came with the agricultural revolution and the concentration of solar energy/carbon into grain was arguably far more important in terms of its ramifications, as it led to our invention of writing and many other things we rightly treasure, as well as the emergence of the first states, armies, social classes – and slaves.
But something else, even more profound, happened also. We relinquished our nomadic worldview and became self-obsessed.
It started the fantasy of separation and planted the seed of othering in us and, in the process, turned us into creatures out of context. In an essay entitled Exile, the Chilean novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño describes Adam and Eve as the first exiles on record. He goes on to ask: “Can it be that we’re all exiles? Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?” There is a rich tradition of seeing the parable of Adam and Eve as a metaphor for the trauma of sedentism. It makes sense: sedentary life estranged us from ourselves, from each other and from the rest of the Metabolism we moderns so clumsily call “nature” as if we weren’t part of it. This tragic myopia of ours and the sense of disconnect that goes with it have become defining features of our age.
Addiction looms when the gap between who we think we are and the reality of who we have become becomes too glaring – and jarring. Think of the phrase “the global economy” in light of the above-mentioned etymology. Isn’t it time we acknowledge the insanity of calling “management of the household” the act of burning our household – the earth – to the ground?
Which brings us back to home(lessness), (dis)connection, addiction and recovery. Modern culture and the people who run the world tell us that more science, more innovation, more data and more technology are going to allow us to respond in a healthy way to climate breakdown and the myriad other entangled crises we face. Sitting atop the pyramidal metastasising superorganism we call “global system” or “global economy”, they are arguably the furthest from homelessness and destitution. But because they spend the most money in a world that is still 80 per cent fossil-fuelled (and in which more coal will be burnt in 2022 than in 2021, as in every new year since we started burning coal), they are actually contributing the most to making the earth uninhabitable and in so doing, to making us all homeless. If we have indeed become a civilisation of addicts, they are about as credible and legitimate in convening and leading the intervention that is so urgently called for as the people with the best heroin on an opiates-ravaged street block. The time has come to recognise that our fate hinges more on changing our behaviour than on changing our technology. And that we have more to learn from people like Chief Ninawa Inu Huni Kui of the Huni Kui people of the Amazon than we do from Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk.
Indigenous peoples have been reduced to 4 per cent of the human population through an ongoing, centuries-old process that we moderns are still reluctant to call genocide. But they are still the custodians of 80 per cent of the world’s dwindling biodiversity. Their ancestral practices and connection to the land and the creatures are infused with the maturity, sobriety, discernment, accountability, propriety, humility and wisdom we so sorely lack. It is time we turn to these practices for inspiration, just like addicts in recovery can rely on the wisdom and practices of those they call old-timers.
These practices are a blessing that we would be well inspired to show reverence for and refrain from the modern tendency of consuming indigenous peoples, knowledge and culture. And instead, to have reciprocity at heart. The modern mind has a long tradition of romanticising Indigenous peoples (who are as flawed as the rest of us) and their cultures while associating them with our common past. But this is not as much about our common past as it is about our common present and future.
Indigenous people of the Amazon are currently under violent threat from the Bolsonaro administration. They need us and it is high time we step up, own up, clean up, grow up, wake up and show up for them. Only then will we be able to close the 10,000-year parenthesis of alienation that began when we relinquished our nomadic world view. Only then will we begin to find our way home.
Felix Marquardt is the author of The New Nomads (Simon & Schuster) and the host of the Black Elephant (blcklphnt.com) podcast
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