Narratives of Sustainable Living in the 21st Century

Rendezvous with the Brits, Belgians, Dutch, Danes and Norwegians

A Journey’s End

I have come full circle: the process of learning from others, listening to their stories, and breaking down insularity by stepping into their lives is a direct path to sustainable living. It would seem that the three tasks I set out to accomplish two weeks ago have contained the answers all along! Who’d have guessed?

The method promotes three essential values: open-mindedness, appetite for learning, and willingness to share. When traveling with an open mind, one learns to relish novel experience and knowledge, further reinvigorating one’s desire for learning. By frequently exercising these first two values, one ultimately takes up the third: the Couch Surfer’s relay of give and take. The value of sharing gets instilled the moment the baton gets handed from one person to the next. It is a logical response, no more than an act of gratitude inspired by the narrative of another. All of these personal exchanges build off one another in one big bubble bath of intellectual expansion. Every fresh story is a window into another world, inspiring one to dissolve past preconceptions and redefine identity. Suddenly the narrative becomes more than just a means for discovery; it becomes the very sustenance of the sustainable life. Which is… what now?

By practicing these values during my brief time on the road, I have managed to exchange more stories than I could have ever imagined. I have spoken to Bulgarians, Brits, Dutch, Danes, Hungarians, Israelis, Norwegians and pseudo-Swedes, all of who have fueled my understanding of what it takes to live sustainably in the 21st century. From the individual all the way to the collective voice of an entire nation, these narratives have demonstrated that the sustainable life begins with one simple lesson: empathy.

Sustainability is more than a matter of cutting back on energy consumption, eating healthy, and restricting firearm access. It is the summation of empathic practices and attitudes often entrenched in culture that allows a community or even an entire nation to enjoy its natural right to be happy. It is celebration of basic necessity in life and the strengthening of community through collective willingness to share. When social mores outweigh individual interests then the sustainable life is apt to thrive, and with it, a smile that strings beaming narratives together like lights on a Christmas tree. However, my understanding of these mores would be weak without the many rich personal stories I’ve collected during my travels through the Nordic countries. The narrative has been my golden ticket to better grasping the nuances to these peoples’ perspectives and values that comprise the very life of sustainable living. It has served as a parallel journey to the one I embarked on roughly two weeks ago. My feet may be able to take me all around the crust of the earth, but only my mind can discover its core.

Alas, I have come to my homestretch in this fond relay of shared laughs and deep discussions. I have entitled it Narratives of Sustainable Living in the 21st Century, but a title alone could never capture the beauty of the people I met along the way. I am forever grateful for them all. In a way, my own journey has become a chapter in itself: Will’s Narrative of Sustainable Traveling in the 21st Century, or something like that. I spent my time spending and consuming little, while listening and writing lots. In honor of Craig, I even stayed true to the path of least of resistance (at least when my carefully planned out itinerary gave me permission to do so.) Now my adventures have come to an end, so it is time that I fulfill my final responsibility. With my own story in hand, I pass the baton off to you.

Takk!

Liselot (Ghent, Belgium), Peter (Dutch), Kathleen and Johann (Leuven, Belgium), Lucy (Switzerland), Jamaar Powe-Fischetti (Brussels, Belgium), Anne Marie (Netherlands), Tom (Dutch), Thomas (Dutch), Michael (Leeds, England), Craig Jones (Bournemouth, England), Charles (Hungary), Emil (Bulgaria), Lene Verner Hansen (Christiania, Denmark), Cecilie Boll (Samsø, Denmark), Pia Bjerre (Aarhus, Denmark), Erlend Eidhamar (Kristiansand, Norway), Thomas and Lea (Oslo, Norway), Stian Espnes Øvstebø (Bergen, Norway), Reto (Switzerland), Mia (Israel)

Advertisements

Mia

Mia is twenty-two. She spent two years teaching Israeli history and culture to young military recruits back in her home country. I had been following harrowing stories of ongoing rocket strikes in Israel, launched by Hamas as aggressive repudiation of Egypt’s truce proposal. I had always understood the conflict in terms of black and white, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims. Mia shattered my conception of this struggle; it is far more complex than a simple land dispute between two fundamentally different religious groups. The story is convoluted by spectrums of belief, tensions within both circles of faith that reinforce the seemingly inevitable: no geopolitical settlement will be arriving any time soon.

I do not intend to launch into this subject, for it runs wide and deep with discussion. Nonetheless, Mia opened my eyes to an ongoing reality that defies everything I have grown confident with in life. My family lives peacefully in Sewanee, a little bubble of paradise nestled cozily on the Cumberland Plateau. Mia’s family lives in the center of Israel, a red zone for impending rocket threats that send her parents underground twice daily. We have Starbucks; they have bomb shelters. The incessant social strife and risk of sudden attack is unfathomable to me. I can only feel fortunate that my own home remains undaunted by social insecurity and endless violence.

The connection between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Narratives of Sustainable Living in the 21st Century is not immediately obvious. However, Mia – like Craig, Emil and others I’ve encountered – wields the answers to these questions I’ve been asking all along. What does it mean to live sustainably in the modern era? And how does storytelling bring one closer to understanding its quintessence? Our exchange of thoughts seemed deeply relevant to these questions. I held firm to this realization, committing it to memory as we continued on with our conversation. In a matter of minutes we had leapt from Gaza to Bergen. Nothing brings you into the present like a plateful of Norwegian smoked salmon. Norway jumped to center focus.

Ever since it discovered oil in the North Sea, Norway has become one of the richest countries in the world. However, rather than squandering its resource the Norwegian government has established a state oil company that pumps petroleum revenue through a pension fund back into its social system without lowering taxes. As a result, Norway now has one of the most robust welfare states in the world, covering health services, education, and sustainable infrastructure. Sure, you may have to pay extra on income, alcohol, and gasoline but heck, the social benefits are killer. Like in Denmark and Sweden, students pay nothing to enroll in one of the best school systems in the world.

Norway’s prudent and sustainable usage of its natural resource has bolstered its economy, granting the country the ability to invest in the health and security of its people. As a result economic disparity is practically nonexistent, and with it, so is a highly stratified social bracket. Fantastic living conditions on top of the peoples’ collective willingness to contribute to the social good have instilled class humility into the minds of Norway’s citizens. The politician respects the bus driver who respects the banker who respects the shopkeeper. One’s job does not come with rank or status; instead it is perceived simply as a necessary means to leading a free life. Don’t get me wrong, Norwegians work hard, but unlike us Americans, they work to live and not vice versa. They dive into vacation with faces beaming and pockets filled with krone bills that work wonders internationally.

If classes did exist then everyone would probably be somewhere in the middle, willfully contributing to a social security net that catches those who slip off the edge. The homeless truly have a chance to be happy, unlike in the US where the American dream is a fallacy of opportunity travestied by a system that secures the rich at the expense of the poor. As I’ve mentioned, the Norwegians do not suffer from vast economic disparity; the wealthy few are not programmed to selfishly abandon their society because society has taught them otherwise. In a society centered on sharing, the good life reigns and with it so does another narrative of sustainable living in the 21t century. To live happily is to live sustainably.

In Norway people are happy, and it’s not just because of all that smoked salmon and brown cheese. The system just allows for a greater degree of satisfaction in life because those basic necessities – food, water, shelter, and clean air – seem to be valued most. When these fundamentals are accounted for, ecological consciousness pervades common practice and policy, teaching people to become stewards of their local land. While cities like Bergen and Oslo are growing, the people’s love for their natural environment will forever prevent urbanization from bleeding suburbia into the nearby valleys and mountains. Growth is contained because the natural world is treasured. It’s as simple as that. Visit the mystical Fjords; flanked by towering cliffs and moss-covered slopes, the land invokes scenes from a fairytale, sucking you into its beauty. Any community that treasures its forests will foster a culture of sustainability, minimizing impact through reliance on local foods, green energy, and stringent development regulations. The pattern continues: the greener the land, the happier the people. We have a lot to learn from these Norwegian folk.

Just yesterday, four Palestinian children were killed in Gaza by an Israeli rocket strike. Mia longs for a day when a truce can be sustained and Palestine can settle peacefully as a sovereign nation. Her family is on the liberal side of the Jewish tradition. They recognize the importance of granting Palestine independence, but they’re wary of the more fervent Israelis whose animosity towards their Islamic neighbors remains entrenched in their extremist communities and government regime. The struggle is relentless because both sides are in the wrong. Religious intolerance will not permit the sustainability of any political resolution; if never has and it never will. Mia made it clear that indoctrination must be combated with open education. Younger generations have to be taught to think independently, to question longstanding tradition and consider the negative effects it can have on one’s neighbors.

Open-mindedness squelches insularity and intolerance by allowing knowledge to flow freely. The solution to religious war is no different from the path our own nation must take if our society is to grow sustainably into the 21st century. We have to accept alternative ways of thinking, even if it goes against some of our most deeply rooted values. In the end citizens and public officials of the US face the same underlying challenge as those wrapped up in religious conflicts around the world. We must listen to the stories of others. We must learn from our neighbors and honor their ways of living. Heck, maybe even give it a try ourselves. Every ounce of knowledge we absorb from different people is another step towards discovering the good life. And as Mia and I concluded: Norway is not a bad place to start.

A Community of Couches

Erlend dreams of Dylan. It was Saturday night in Kristiansand and Dylan was performing just down the road from the Aladdin Kino where a dozen young artists were hosting a creative performance fundraiser for orphaned children in Ghana. My host, however, had taken to the streets with his guitar as Dylan fans poured out of the auditorium, bumbling and buzzing around with liquor on their breaths, faces glowing. He bounced around belting out familiar lyrics as strangers gathered, dancing, hugging; some wrapping their arms around Erlend, tugging at his flannel, admiring his feathered cap, requesting their favorites but satisfied by any hint of song. Nothing draws people in like the simple phenomenon of music. He swung his instrument with pride and passion; stone sober but high on life. Everyone loved him. Erlend dreams of Dylan.

The road attracts people of all wondrous sorts. You can never expect whom you’ll run into or the kinds of couches you’ll be sleeping on. Based on the conversations I’ve had with members of the Couch Surfing community, a few conclusions can be drawn. Though they are tenuous at best. 

Many of the younger surfers you’ll find, especially those in their low to mid twenties, are the free spirited, pseudo-Beat Generated down to earth type. The kind that grew up innocently in the comforts of the bourgeois, never questioning and always embracing that middle class milieu until some blend of literature, puberty, and peer pressure taught them to think otherwise. Dressed in drab but concealing credit cards in their pockets, they go off into the world, unattached to the possessions they once held most dear. Their religion is uncertainty and their nemesis is convention. Sex and substance are valued for novel experience though approached with a bit more moderation than in previous generations. Nature is good, so is spirituality, human connection, and all things apocalyptic. On the contrary, everything society has taught them to fear is now evidence of a corrupt and unjust social order. The real enemy is the business bureaucrat or religious conservative, the paragon of all things in opposition to their free-flowing way of life. However they inevitably settle, returning to school, falling in love, or recoiling to their parent’s basement until some glimpse of realistic opportunity presents itself. 

Another kind of person you’ll find is that same kid however ten years later, having taken one of the three aforementioned directions in life. He seems mellower and more grounded. Adventures have softened; now you’re the surfer and he’s the host. He’s a good friend, both sincere and fun to be around. His personality blends right into the third: the abandoned extrovert. You know the type, the young graduate or elderly eccentric who craves human interaction and views CS as a convenient means of achieving it. (A small percentage intends to get a little closer than others.) This group spans all ages, and it too washes over into an array of yet even more Couch Surfing species. 

The remainder of the CS crowd is by far the largest, covering all types and occasionally melding qualities of those mentioned above. All the hosts I have encountered thus far fall under this last category. They are all so strikingly different that any semblance of a stereotype crumbles before them. Ranging twenty-four to forty, they are language tutors, software designers, street musicians, drama directors, journalists, commune owners, and business managers. It is impossible to anticipate whom you’ll meet next.

Regardless of personalities, occupations, and living arrangements nearly all of the CS community is bonded by one characteristic: they are all willing to share. Everyone I have met agrees that the typical Couch Surfer exhibits a certain open-mindedness towards the world, recognizing the value of engaging diverse peoples no matter how brief their length of stay. No real Couch Surfer wants to be a freeloader, though the free bed and food comes as a nice bonus. Still, most people who host have surfed in the past and understand this trade off, making situations quite congenial and rarely awkward. People want to help because they have been in your position. Surfing begets sharing, sharing begets hosting, and hosting further strengthens the community by passing on the virtues of CS to yet another wave of novice surfers.

After obtaining for-profit status in 2011, CS has been growing rapidly ever since. The decision has sparked quite a bit of backlash from the original core CS community who claim that its spirit has faded. CS gatherings have deadened and growing numbers have made the network more susceptible to insincere and abusive users. Nevertheless, there are thousands of genuine Couch Surfers in the world who take its principles to heart, and new ones join every day. You just have to be patient. By carefully researching potential hosts, reading all of their references, and maybe even contacting a few, you can’t go wrong. That extra thirty minutes of profile scrutiny will likely lead to several days of enlightening conversation, scrumptious food, and spontaneous friendship. You will also discover more room in your budget to tack on another adventure or two. The exchange is priceless.

Is CS for everyone? At this point in its development, Couch Surfing would not be so ideal for clueless teenagers, full-fledged families, or elderly couples. Then again, if the host were no different, then what’s the issue? The CS community is growing, and with it, its variety of members. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were already families with young kids willing to host other families for a night or two during their vacation abroad. If used correctly, CS serves to redefine and reinvigorate one’s travels. There is no better way to dissolve insularity and see the world.

The best way to experience another culture is to enter its home, share its meals, and listen to its stories. Even if you’re traveling within your own country or state, CS will work its wonders. All across the globe, people are willing to share. You just have to a little faith in the goodness of others. No sooner you enter this realm, you too will become a proud participant in the Couch Surfer’s relay of give and take.

Viking Gold

The crimson sun dipped over the horizon as I sat down to fresh flounder and a glass of red wine. “A week of apples and cheap bread has earned me this privilege,” at least that’s what I kept telling myself after the bill rolled around… My salad offered a small sampling of the Samsø gardens: snap peas, olives black and green, oregano, lettuce, carrots and tomato. No, not a tomato, something more: a juicy explosion of the divine, sending me for a euphoric trip through novel dimensions of flavor. I asked the cook where the food originated, and she explained that the fish had been caught that afternoon in Ballen harbor just opposite Sælvig to the west. Then she pointed to little yellow rooftop that stood out across the bay, “All the vegetables come from those gardens. They were picked this afternoon.” No wonder they tasted like god.

Perhaps the pinnacle narrative of sustainable living in the developed world is being lived out right here on Samsø Island, a hidden jewel of rich land nestled in the middle of the Kattegat. 

I “joined” the Green Tour of Samsø’s Energy Academy – a modest gray building lined with solar panels on the exterior. On the inside, flat screens showcased the academy’s accomplishments and current involvements in sustainability. The tour was in Danish, so the tour guide was nice enough to have me on board for free. Cecilie recently finished a degree in politics and will be starting a three-year masters program in Aarhus, the first semester of which she’ll spend at Columbia University, taking classes on international relations and gender studies in global development. All in all, she seemed like the perfect fit for her internship at the Energy Academy, not to mention an auspicious candidate for joining Denmark’s future efforts towards a greener economy. It all boils down to politics, even in Denmark (as I soon learned.) She seemed to have already gotten a firm handle on the place despite having been there for only a week. I was impressed.

The Samsø project started in 1997 after Denmark’s minister of the environment made a promise at Kyoto (unbeknownst to the Danish government) that Denmark would make 20% of the country’s energy production renewable dependent by 2006. Realizing the burden of expectation he had just placed on his own shoulders, he set out to jumpstart his country’s transition away from fossil fuels, beginning with a little competitive spirit. A contest was started that awarded the community with the best plan for becoming 100% energy self-sufficient by 2007. The Ministry hoped to demonstrate how adaptation to climate change through nontraditional sustainable practice could support a local economy without sacrificing the comforts of modern living. The top project would win funding from the Danish Energy Authority and set the national precedent for a greener future. So thus sprung Samsø, a traditionally conservative island once known solely for its potatoes, now suddenly the frontrunner of Denmark’s R&D in green energy. 

In 1997, the island was suffering financially so preexisting discontent amongst the island’s population cast an attitude of indifference towards the prospect of wind power installation. Yet Soren Hermansen, the project director and visionary, was determined to prove to Samsø’s residents that renewal energy was more about environmental conscientiousness; it was about future investment, revival, and rethinking community. To foster a little communal spirit, Hermansen encouraged the people of Samsø to invest in turbine construction, offering shares as low as 1000 krone. Initially people were skeptical, but then investment returns started flowing as energy production surged, and everyone quickly jumped aboard the renewable energy bandwagon. To Hermansen’s bemusement, people became wrapped up in the prestige of installing the best home systems, including geothermal, solar, and small-scale wind.

Today, Samsø is an inspiration to countries like Japan and the US. With the help of 21 turbines, 11 on land and 10 off the coast, the island produces 100% of the electricity it consumes, exporting an astounding 60% of its total supply. Its net surplus of green energy production gives the island a negative carbon footprint, despite continued oil consumption by vehicles and home furnaces. Furthermore, local farmers produce nearly all the food consumed by the island. There’s no place like Samsø.

The Energy Academy is located on the island’s Southeast coast in a town called Ballen. The area was once a gathering point for Viking traders. Now the Academy is attempting to rekindle that role as a hub for international convergence. Though, what was once one man’s prospect for mercantile opportunity has now become another man’s chance of spreading his ideas across the world. Hermansen has managed to convince an island that wind alone can fuel a society, and he continues to inspire governments and institutions through his travels and lectures. “I have become part of the world because I am part of this project. Success is worth nothing if you cannot share it,” he says. Now the larger question remains: will Denmark join in? It all boils down to politics. There are 179 representative of Danish parliament and over 3000 fossil fuel lobbyists. You don’t have to be a genius to understand why Denmark is no leader in renewable energy production. In fact, it has the forty-fifth highest carbon footprint per capita in the world, largely due to its minute population and remarkably high tax on renewable energy production.

Samsø is surely a beacon for the future of sustainable development, demonstrating that a circular economy is indeed possible, and with it, a society enriched with quality living. It just takes a little faith and patience. Nonetheless, Denmark is reluctant to give the project any attention, despite the positive recognition it has received from the EU and countries like the US and Japan. 

By 2030, Samsø plans to become the first developed society to completely remove itself from the fossil fuel market. Every car will be electric and all oil-fired boilers will be replaced by eco-heat, solar hear plants and heat pumps. In many ways, the island has become a symbol for Denmark’s future economy. Still, corporate interest and political discrepancy have postponed the spreading of Samsø’s success to the broader mainland. We Americans shouldn’t have a hard time understanding Denmark’s dilemma. 

While Samsø’s Energy Academy has already received attention from major news sources like Times, Ecowatch, and Huffington Post, this is just the beginning. Samsø is striving for the ideal and getting pretty darn close to achieving it. As the little island continues to set new milestones, I suggest that everyone buy a ferry ticket and go see it for themselves. Alongside its extraordinary developments in sustainability, the island itself is quite the marvel. Rent a bike and traverse its vibrant landscape. There’s nothing more spectacular than catching a sunset off the northernmost tip where flowers abound and azure seas sparkle like Viking treasure. 

Emil

“There is a red, green and blue block. I live in blue block,” his deep voice crackled over Skype in broken but intelligible English. Easy enough, whatever that meant. Two hours later, my iPhone struck midnight, the rain picked up, and after taking a couple wrong turns, I finally found the housing complex – not even close to where my bearings had originally placed it. Alas, I had arrived, but there was a bit of a problem: every building had red green and blue blocks, and there were at least sixty buildings. I eventually resorted to tracking down a map, which luckily I found just outside the perimeter road. I knew the building number but the buildings weren’t actually numbered, so I figured I’d be sleeping in the grass with all the rabbits. But then I saw them: two little silver figures, perhaps no taller than a half dollar, planted between two doors on the backside of a red and blue facade. There was no green. However inconspicuous, there it was: the number 52. 

There are critical moments in life that have the power to send you spinning in the most wayward and even dangerous directions if you’re not careful. That second – as I stood there before the dark frame of Emil’s apartment door, somewhere in the outskirts of Copenhagen, feet numb from sweltering blisters, and not the slightest clue of what was soon to follow – was one of those moments. He was the one host I had deliberately avoided, for he had contacted me in response to my host request, a somewhat unusual gesture of generosity that immediately sounded my inner alarm. I checked his page but there was no picture, no information, and so overall little reason to put much faith in his offer. All I had was that one message, directing me to call if I decided to follow through. Though one piece of information did exist. Beneath his login ID Emil123 read the word “Bulgarian.” I was intrigued, so I called. Two hours later I found myself standing outside of his apartment. I knocked.

“Um um um, what can I get you?” Emil scurried about, determined to offer me some glimpse or taste of traditional Bulgarian culture. It was already 1:00 in the morning, Germany had just demoralized Brazil, and I realized I had made a huge mistake. I had showed up practically unannounced in the wee hours of the morning, leaving little room for conversation, little room to redeem myself for my inconsiderate and improper use of Couch Surfing. I felt horrible. Fatigue had been my only motive. I had dropped the baton in the Couch Surfer’s relay of give and take, story for story. I felt as if I were using Emil for his couch, and he seemed to think the same. Still, he was determined, “Cancel your plans for tomorrow! I’ll go to work. You go see more of the city, and then we can rejoin and cook up a Bulgarian feast. And we can keep talking!” It was 3:00 AM, and our conversation was just getting started, but I had to resist his offer. He understood. I crashed. We woke up three hours later and then went our ways. 

People are good. That is something my friend Dyanna has always told me. You just have to show a little faith, and let it guide you into the lives of others.

I had asked Emil to describe Bulgaria in several words. I will never forget his answer. “Mmm… corruption, poverty, Rakia… and family. Family is everything. Not just your relatives but your neighbors too. Unlike you people, we share everything! It is not unusual to take a meal to your neighbor and share it. It is not unusual to do these things in Bulgaria, and now I am living here where nothing is shared. I’ve lived here seven years and have not once talked to the people living just behind these walls.” His frustration seemed to be directed at his apartment community, not the Danish people at large. Nevertheless, I got the impression that family life is exceedingly important in Bulgarian custom, perhaps even more so than it is in Denmark. A successful socialist system does not necessarily lead to the propagation of strong family units. However it does promote a sense of community that brings more benefits on a wider scale. There was a reason why Emil was living in Copenhagen and not in his home country. I didn’t bring it up.

When Emil was just a boy, his father ran off with another woman to start a new life in Russia. He hasn’t heard from him since. His mother has died, and all he has left is his brother who currently works in Bulgaria running taxis. He lives alone with little attachment to Denmark except for his job, which he takes with immense pride. He manages truck driver tests, working hard in order to save up and make time for his travels. He lives to travel and see the world. Hearing him speak so passionately about it was inspiring. “l guess that is why I host Couch Surfers, I crave that thrill of being on the road. If I can’t travel myself, I’ll just bring the travelers to me.” Then his eyes widened, “Or maybe it is because that is what I miss most about Bulgaria, that we share everything. Couch Surfing allows me to keep that part of my culture alive in this place.”

If you put a little faith in others, you may end up meeting some of the most extraordinary folk. Emil was not usual. He seemed like a bit of a savant. After all, he was a master of nine languages, claiming that ever since he was a child he could just pick one up as if it were as simple as learning the recorder or reading a storybook. His genius was evinced by that subtle impatience of someone who becomes too easily bored of conversation, too ready to brush you aside if you don’t have something new or challenging to say. Or maybe that is just one of the unfortunate repercussions of living the life of a globetrotter; you’ve seen so much of the world that novel experience becomes difficult to come by.

I kept my wits about me and was determined not to let up. I felt bad for showing up late, and I was beginning to get a deep sense that Emil was someone I could learn a lot from. Despite his subtle idiosyncrasies, he was kindhearted and easy to get along with. He was also a bit old fashioned, which accounted for his blank CS profile. I offered to help him fix it up a bit, but he refused. “I know I am a good guy. People just have to trust.” He puts a lot of faith in others, though as a result, doesn’t get many surfers. He craves company and realizes he could easily attract more by spicing up his Couch Surfing profile, which currently reads “40 Year Old Bulgarian Male.” Though he would never abandon his principle. I admit it’s a bit silly, but I guess I’m lucky that I summed up the courage to take that step into the unknown. Had I resisted, past questions would have remained unanswered, and Narratives of Sustainable Living in the 21st Century would have forever remained incomplete. 

Charles

While hitchhiking, attitude is crucial. When someone scoffs, avoids eye contact, or mutters something blatantly rude, you just brush it off and keep smiling. Always smile. Persistent friendliness builds an aura of positivity around you that keeps growing and growing. “When you smile, the person passing you can’t help but smile, and then others notice the effect you’re having on people and the vibe grows even more.” 

After about forty minutes of cheery faces and good vibes, a friendly middle-aged man approached us. Charles happened to be heading back home to Sweden via Kolding and Copenhagen, so we hopped in and the journey began.

Charles works on air conditioner systems on Shell oilrigs. I couldn’t help but laugh when he admitted that his own car ventilation system was broken and had no idea how to repair it. (To his credit, he really did know how to fix it, but he’s the kind of guy who embraces a little chagrin for the sake of a good laugh. We got along swimmingly.)

We hadn’t driven ten kilometers before Charles started raving about Sweden and the many perks of its society and culture. He generalized all the good facets of Swedish living, the gist of which went something like, “Sweden has a very good system, socially and economically. I pay heavy taxes, but health and hospitals are completely covered, roads are very good, and education is free!” (I told him the price of US tuition for one semester and his reaction was hysterical, even Craig looked aghast.) 

Charles explained how everyone in Sweden speaks good English: janitors and street cleaners, children of migrant workers, or really anyone who was fortunate enough to have been brought up through Sweden’s education system. All are guaranteed to become proficient in English because schooling begins at age five and never slackens up. Unlike in Germany, where even desk assistants in the rail stations and airports often have trouble communicating in English, every Swede can talk to you without blunder, demonstrating clear proficiency and mastery of the language. The Swedish government is clearly proactive in its efforts toward protecting and empowering its people, but it couldn’t do so without taxpayers who understand and embrace a bit of socialism… a beautiful thing if not abused. For this reason, alcohol, oil, and cigarettes are taxed highest, pumping good revenue back into the social welfare state. The end result? Charles summed it up, “Sweden is just a great place to be.” 

We cross the Denmark border. “Denmark has 5 million people and 25 million pigs. But the bacon in Denmark is not very good… because all the best meat gets shipped to England!” 

Along with the Swedes’ ubiquitous love for nature and music, Charles notes his favorite aspect of Swedish culture: the word “you.” No matter what position in society, everyone addresses everyone else by “you.” This subtle colloquialism is vocal proof that the Swedes see one another as equals despite skin color, ethnicity, living conditions, or income. Obviously prejudice and racial profiling are pervasive across the planet; however, the “you” culture hints that the success of a Swede is far less dependent on external forces like socio-economics, skin color, and sexuality, than it is on innate characteristics like diligence and intelligence. Strip away societal barriers, and suddenly everyone has a greater chance of earning a decent living. Swedish society strives to leave no individual behind. The system is beautiful. Granted a small homogenous country like Sweden is impossible to compare to a more complex society like the US. Nevertheless, lessons can be learned from the Swedes. I would adjust the subtitle to my blog; however, Charles isn’t technically a Swede. He’s Hungarian. Hungarian? Who’d have guessed!

Strong education, minimal prejudice and inequality – both seemed compatible with the sustainable life. Our conversation transitioned into the inevitable: gun rights. Although it may seem a bit disconnected, gun rights have more to do with sustainable living than you would think. To put it frankly, a society that fosters a close kinship with firearms is not sustainable. While horrific accidents are inevitable, one cannot help but wonder whether the occurrence of such events is truly unavoidable when guns get tossed around in the marketplace like tinker toys. A free man should have the right to own a firearm, but the unusually high incidence of shootings in the states indicates that something has gone amiss. It’s not an overstatement to say that in some states individuals have been granted the license to kill. Both Craig and Charles were appalled when I explained basic gun owner rights. Stand Your Ground laws in states like Florida particularly caught their attention. I told them that stories of shootings get posted nearly every week.  What I perceived as a sad yet ordinary component to the American life seemed inconceivable to Craig and Charles. Insularity in the states has surely sent us spiraling in the wrong direction.

In Hungary the process of obtaining a firearm is arduous, involving interviews and endless paperwork. In Sweden, gun owners are checked up on randomly to make sure all restrictions and regulations are being followed. Patrols can show up unannounced to a gun owner’s house. Gun cabinets are opened and examined to make sure everything is stored properly and that there is no overstock of ammunition or rifles, which are limited to two. Only rifles built solely for hunting game are acceptable. A gun that in anyway resembles an assault weapon is illegal. Any failure in compliance can result in loss of license and substantial fines. In Denmark it is also very difficult to buy a gun. The same goes for the UK. For instance if you’re a Brit and you want to shoot a weapon, you have to join a shooting club. However, in order to be admitted you have to be recommended by a current member and pass several years of testing before you’re permitted to shoot at your leisure at the club’s facilities. Even then you cannot own a gun; you have to rent it.

In countries like Denmark, Sweden, and the UK, children are brought up in societies where weaponry is not part of the everyday and ordinary, where silencers are not advertised on massive interstate billboards, and where the police officers carry sticks instead of firearms. In England the police is understood to be a “service” to the people, not a “force” out to get them. The titles speak for themselves. In general the north European mentality surrounding gun rights reflects a deeper appreciation for life. There seems to be a common understanding that no liberty outweighs the right to live, even though the right to bear arms poses no direct or immediate threat to any individual’s life per se. Their attitude towards gun ownership is firm evidence that the sustainable life has nothing to do with guns, or if anything at all, then only when utmost precaution and stringent regulation is applied. Any narrative of sustainable living in the 21st century is incomplete without taking into account similar considerations. 

I gazed out the window: not a single billboard in sight. Wind turbines spun freely across the horizon. Open fields spread continuously beyond strips of basalt highway, speckled with white and black stone brought over from the Swedish mountains. Clouds drifted high above, crisscrossing like jet trails, tossed around, spread thin and swirled like fresh cream poured into a steaming cup of coffee. A majestic sky reigned over endless golden farmland. Its vastness invoked deep, uplifting thoughts that lifted me up like a bunch of balloons though the car window, up, up, and away.

Craig

Sunshine Superman crackles out of the Starbucks stereo system at the Köbenhavn Centrum. I look out the window – gray and drizzly, not quite Donovan’s image, but nonetheless my thoughts emanate warmth leftover from a sunny day on the road. Hitchhiking from Hamburg took less time than I would have expected, not least because I had extraordinary company along the way. Good Vibrations starts to play, the perfect cue for a little reflection:

Craig stands on the curb holding up a sign we proudly pieced together with a strip of cardboard and black sharpie. “Kolding” (pronounced “Cullen”) was scribed out in large block lettering beneath which I placed cursory sketches of the US and UK flags. Dressed in a colorful plaid button down and well-kept jeans, the guy comes straight out of an L.L. Bean catalogue or even a Hollywood set. Blend the facial structures of Liam Neeson and Brad Pit with the added flair of unwavering sincerity and kindness, and there stands Craig Jones, once a banker now a farmer. He speaks modestly, super self-conscious of the sticky stereotypes often associated with his way of living. He farms, hitchhikes, and Couch Surfs. In summary, it sounds unsettling, unrealistic, and perhaps even a little crazy. Spend a moment with Craig and all of that will disappear. Suddenly you will realize that it is you who has been missing the beat all along. You might just become the crazy one.

For the last three years Craig has been WWOOFing around the world. He lives a non-materialistic life unfettered to wealth and possession. He embraces uncertainty because he believes the unknown is a goldmine for adventure, friendship, and intellectual growth. These values shine through in his method of travel. “Hitchhiking and Couch Surfing are all you need to get around,” he says. “It’s the best-kept secret.” He used to depend on planes, trains, and cars. Now he avoids them, especially planes. “The journey is what counts, not the destination.” I’ve heard that platitude many times, but hearing it from Craig made it really stick. (Maybe it was the Brad Pit vibe.) Obviously, he no longer owns a car. In 2013, a farmer in Greece gave Craig a bus for his journey back to Aarhus, but he gave it away. In Denmark biking is the main method of travel. In the streets bikes take priority over cars, and in cities like Aarhus, it is far faster to bike anyways. There is little need for a car, or a bus for that matter.

Craig explains that the good life on and off the road is about embracing the path of least resistance. Like a river, you just have to let it flow. He has learned to apply this principle to nearly all aspects of his life, endowing him with the ability to turn an obstacle into opportunity, disaster into good fortune. His unusually positive attitude proved contagious, and soon enough the both of us were bouncing around bright thoughts all the way to Denmark.

The path of least resistance is a rejection of the self for the sake of another, a direct route to empathic and compassionate modes of thinking. Let’s take veganism for example. The vegan diet is an act of protest, a staunch statement that serves to get people thinking about what they consume. It is a practice we should all respect and attempt to learn from. However, veganism often leads to self-serving behavior that defeats the value of ecological consciousness it claims to uphold. For instance, let’s say you’re a vegan, and not the type with health-related dietary restrictions. You’re traveling on the road with a group of starving friends and suddenly run into an old hotdog vendor. Everyone jumps for joy at the sudden arrival of food. You’ve come to a dilemma. Should you quibble or just eat the hotdog? Your friends are happy to finally have a meal. The vendor is happy to make an earning; after all, it is his vocation. The path of least resistance tells you to keep quiet and eat the dog. Otherwise, your personal interests would complicate an otherwise opportune and jovial moment.

Ecological consciousness demands acute sensitivity to not just food but also the people around you. Sometimes the act of joining in on the camaraderie and helping an old man pay his bills outweighs whatever principles you hold most dear. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t open up to others about your philosophy, for veganism is an admirable practice and deserves recognition. Though if you turn yourself into a living, breathing principle, your presence can become an inconvenience – an obstruction to the path of least resistance. You suddenly stop being human. Just think of what happened to Javert…

I admit; I stole that entirely from Craig. And yea… I’m a big fan. He eats a vegetarian diet 95% of the time, leaving the remainder 5% for moments like the one described above. “It’s a buffer I create for myself to make room for the occasional hotdog or bratwurst. When you’re on the road, you just have to be open minded and receptive to what people have to offer.” He is not a strict vegetarian. He also eats meat from wild animals that had been hunted down in their element. He thinks about every meal, considering not just the food but the social context too. Jones embodies the sustainable life. He just gets it.

At its core, sustainable living is a celebration of basic necessity, placing the greatest value on water, food, shelter, oxygen… and sharing. During the economic downturn of 2008, Craig watched the market value of his house fluctuate. Then the thought occurred to him – the brick and mortar never changed. “It’s a complete illusion,” he laughed. After six years of working in the financial sector, he decided to move on. He abandoned his life in the UK to join World Opportunities in Organic Farming. “There was a moment in Greece last year when I realize I hadn’t a dime to my name, and it felt wonderful.”

The developed market presents a delusion of true value by distancing the consumer from the producer, whereas historical methods like bartering do just the opposite. They bring both parties together. They replace the words “consumer” and “producer” with actual human beings expressing real interests and needs. As a result, both learn to better appreciate the richness of a simple good like a potato or article of clothing. What was once an anonymous transaction becomes a personal exchange. Reveal the face behind an object and suddenly it takes on an entirely different meaning. Value becomes less susceptible to intangible market forces controlled by the selfish elite, redefining itself in tangible terms of time, energy and effort, with stories attached. There are communities all over the world that use local produce as currency, such as those in the Pyrenees where Craig spent several months on a farm rotation. Food is gold. I don’t propose that all modern marketeers drop their careers and start growing gardens in order to support local communities. Though that wouldn’t be such a bad idea…

The “goodness” in life is so incredibly obvious that it appears too simple and silly to be true. We become so wrapped up in our own material possessions, becoming more and more convinced that more is the sole route to prosperity and happiness. “It’s a circle of I and my,” Craig explains. “Everyone thinks that way.” Modern capitalist society, especially in the States, teaches us to be self-centered. If you start filling your life with things like cars, money, and touristy photographs you began to think of value in terms of those possessions. We all do it because we all force it upon one another. What seems like a secure route to “the good life,” is really a queen’s arms race between the people’s market and the laws of nature. The more people think they need, the more people have to produce to satiate that ever-growing appetite. More resources have to be consumed, and eventually the world strikes back in one swell swoop of climate apocalypse. OK, getting a little melodramatic here, but you get the point. There is greater value in the little things, like a shared meal, shared transport, or shared couch. The sustainable life is all about sharing. Sharing cuts back on this self-perpetuating cycle of more. It pops the bubble of “I and my.” If we can learn to share and show a little more empathy towards one another, we can eventually learn to take the path of least resistance with the world.

Craig is going back to school for three years to further his understanding of organic farming. In Denmark education is free. In fact, students get a monthly stipend of roughly 1000 krone to help cover living expenses. That’s why we don’t see many Danish folk studying abroad in the states, and also why Craig has chosen to stay in Aarhus. Once he has completed his degree, he wants to settle down and start his own farm, though he hasn’t yet decided on a location. Perhaps he will stick with Denmark or Norway, where his girlfriend currently works. The social systems are so strong in these countries that it would make little sense for him to move elsewhere. Regardless, through his travels he has become more and more convinced that he has chosen the right path. Poverty does not imply destitution. If one learns to value most those simple necessities of existence, a life of little becomes a life of luxury. 

Craig is an anomaly. There is no way to label him. He’s just Craig: a well-dressed, decent looking hitchhiker who has discovered what he wants out of life. I wanted to tag along for a while longer, but I was determined to visit Copenhagen. So I stuck east while Craig split off and continued north. I still haven’t decided if I made the right decision. I guess I’ll never know.