On homelessness

Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.

Wendell Berry, “The objective”

There are many people in the industrialised world who currently have no fixed address – some of them voluntarily, but most of them not. Exactly how many depends on who you believe. Government statistics will naturally understate the figures and homelessness charities will tend to overstate them, but either way it’s a lot.

This essay is not, however, about that problem, serious as it is. I’m talking about the decay of home as a concept in our culture: what home is, and why it matters. This may seem an odd thing to be worrying about at this juncture in human affairs, but I think its importance will become clear.

Human beings were originally hunter-gatherers, and we tend to imagine that this involved a kind of aimless meandering about in the hope of coming across something edible. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Being a successful hunter-gatherer means knowing your patch very, very well. You may move from place to place with the seasons, but you will know exactly where you’re going and why. Gaining this level of knowledge about a new territory is a slow process of trial and error, which is why it initially took a long time for people to spread out across the globe.

Some hunter-gatherers were able to be sedentary, if they were lucky enough to live in a place rich enough to support this on a year-round basis. We tend to forget this because agriculturalists have progressively turfed hunter-gatherers out of the good spots, and so modern exponents of that lifestyle are relegated to marginal areas such as deserts or the Arctic. Even in these areas, incidentally, people have still managed to find a living, which is one reason I am not worried about imminent human extinction.

But even nomads have a home region, and farmers are even more closely tied to a specific place. In farming communities, one would typically live and die in the same place, or at least the same area. This is much less usual in industrial culture. I don’t live in the town where I was born, and this is entirely normal. People move around, and are expected to move around. You leave home to study, and you move again for your career, certainly within your home country and often internationally. This is known as a flexible labour market, and we are told that it is good.

City living has historically relied on people moving in from the countryside, if only because cities were such unhealthy places that that was the only way to maintain the population, let alone increase it. We like to suppose that people did this because life in the cities was so much better than life in the country that people flocked there, but I’m not convinced by this argument. The original Industrial Revolution in England was able to attract workers largely because the Enclosures had made life much harder for the peasantry. It is a comparatively modern thing for the urban population to outnumber the rural.

Still, we don’t think about moving home as a big deal. I am going to argue that this is a mistake.

Having a home implies a long-term commitment to a particular place. That place might be quite a large area if you are a nomadic pastoralist roaming the steppes of central Asia, but the principle still holds. Now being committed to a place means that you are also committed to its long-term well-being, because you need it to carry on supplying you and your children and grandchildren with the necessities of life. Of course human beings will make mistakes, that’s a given, but you won’t deliberately pollute your groundwater or exhaust your soil or overfish your rivers.

If, on the other hand, you don’t live anywhere in particular, you don’t really care about any of this, and even if you do you may not have the necessary local knowledge to make good decisions. One of the long-term problems with US agriculture, dating back to the days of the Frontier, is the assumption that you can always move on and farm somewhere else. As a result, the US has seen topsoil erosion on an epic scale as well as general abuse of the land, to the extent that serious estimates suggest that farming will only be possible there for a few more decades.

The logical extension of the Frontier mindset is the Elon Musk school of thought whereby we solve all our problems by going to another planet. But of course even if Mars offered us a liveable world – which it really doesn’t; you can’t even breathe there, let alone grow food – we would soon destroy Mars too, unless we really and truly made it our home, as we are failing to do on our own planet.

This sort of thing is inevitable if nobody’s paying attention, if nobody’s home. It’s an attitude of mind as much as anything. To quote Derrick Jensen:

It’s no wonder we don’t defend the land where we live. We don’t live here. We live in television programs and movies and books and with celebrities and in heaven and by rules and laws and abstractions created by people far away and we live anywhere and everywhere except in our particular bodies on this particular land at this particular moment in these particular circumstances.

Derrick Jensen, Endgame, Vol. 2: Resistance

As the saying goes, what is not sustainable will not be sustained. The fact remains that we do all of us live in a particular place, and it we need to learn to treat that place as home. By which I mean we should treat it as if we will need it to carry on supplying us and our children and grandchildren with the necessities of life, because if we do that then maybe it will. Conversely, if nobody does that there will eventually be nowhere for anyone to live, apart from marginal places like deserts and the Arctic.

I don’t think that the notion of home is a difficult one. It’s one we have always had as a species; we are, after all, noticeably territorial. It seems to be commonplace amongst human beings in non-industrial cultures, and there are still some of us who value it, despite the tendency to treat home as if it were merely a parking-space.

For many of us, of course, that is what it largely is. We work somewhere else, we shop somewhere else, we holiday somewhere else. Our mental and emotional lives largely occur elsewhere. There is no sense of attachment to this particular spot. After all, in a few years we’ll probably be moving somewhere else, because somewhere else is always better than here. It’ll probably have the identical chain-stores and chain-restaurants and supermarkets, of course.

At some point, it seems to me, we each of us need to choose a home, to put down roots, and find a place in the world. To survive anywhere, you need to belong. Citizens of the industrial world belong anywhere and therefore belong nowhere. It’s up to each of us to change that. Over to you.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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