Digital Nomadism, Sustainability & Place-based Living

For some time I dreamed of travelling the world as a digital nomad, here defined as someone that is able to live anywhere through the combination of digital skills and a good enough Internet connection. Not only was the thought of being able to live and work anywhere I wanted extremely (seemingly) desirable, but at the time I was finishing high school and in my early university years there were numerous prophets evangelising said lifestyle, chief among them Tim Ferriss, the lifestyle design guru and author of “The Four-hour Work Week”. My career path that was to enable this lifestyle was software engineering; in fact I was able to work remotely from Japan for 2 weeks at one point, as well as live in Prague for 4 months with the core engineering team of our company having been in London.

No automatic alt text available.
Waterfall training (Takigyo) in Japan

I am extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel extensively and live on four continents growing up. I still have a list of places and cultures I would love to experience, including trekking in Shikoku, skiing in Hokkaido, sailing along the Norwegian coastline and dining at Fäviken in northern Sweden. There is no doubt in my mind that travel has shaped who I have become and is a core part of the human experience – I wish everyone on this planet had the opportunity for slow, extensive travel at some points along their lifepath.

Having said that, I believe the ability for a privileged few to design exclusive lifestyles, of which I had begun to do and would in my opinion include digital nomadism, is not a part of an equitable and sustainable future. The main reason this lifestyle is currently available is due to too-cheap aviation, with zero disincentives. Without government or supranational intervention, it is up to individuals to realise the true costs of living in a way that has an adverse impact on the health of the planet, and which will never be accessible to everyone; anyone that is considering such a lifestyle has by definition bountiful access to information that will show this to be the case, and thus I believe they have a moral obligation to reconsider.

Luckily, I don’t think the loss of digital nomadism would be negative overall. I personally found there to be a certain emptiness to living in such a way. When you constantly move, you diminish (or potentially sever) your connection to people and place, and you have to invest energy to (re)build those connections anew. This takes time. We’re privileged now in that we can to some extent maintain virtual connections with people all around the world, although this clearly isn’t as powerful as face-to-face interaction, hence Facebook’s fruitless obsession with virtual reality; we also have nowhere near the same ability to maintain a relationship with a place that we have left behind, albeit in our hearts and minds. The psycho-physical-spiritual daily reality of that place is lost to us. There are innumerable connections and experiences that will never come to pass unless you stay in a place long enough. An example from my life was training in Japanese swordsmanship and yoga in London for 3 years while I was working in tech; staying put and participating in this activity with (mostly) the same people every week opened up opportunities to travel to Serbia, Holy Isle (Scotland) and Japan.

Image may contain: 7 people
Training in Serbia

I believe a sustainable future will rely on us interacting more intimately with the places around us, staying in them for significant stretches of time, which is what has bought me on my journey to Rancho Mastatal in Costa Rica for a full year; the longest I’ve been away so far was a week. Place-based living has its challenges, but I think it is undoubtedly the model on which we should base our vision of the future. I’m also hopeful that there is a beautiful middle-ground that may include interspersed interludes of vagabonding by mode of feet/bike/sail between periods spent living in place.

Pura vida.

Flexitarianism

DISCLAIMER: These are my thoughts and experiences on what can be a deeply cultural, charged and personal topic: diet. There is a lot we don’t know, especially when it comes to what a sustainable diet is. For one, most studies have been centred in high-income Western countries (Jones et al., 2016); it’s also still largely unclear exactly what a “healthy diet” should consist of, nevertheless what a truly sustainable society would look like. Integrating all of these concepts is an enormous challenge.

“Defining what represents a macro-nutritionally balanced diet remains an open question and a high priority in nutrition research.” (Song et al., 2016)


Before coming to the Ranch, I had been vegetarian for about a year and a half, predominantly for environmental reasons. Currently, I would probably classify as a “flexitarian” or “ethical omnivore”, as are most of the denizens here, with the majority of the diet being plant-based. Ideally ~95% of our calories would come from plants, due to extensive research on the health, longevity and environmental benefits of eating a predominantly plant-based diet (1, 2, 3). A 95:5 plant to meat ratio is manifest in all of the Blue Zones (4), examples being Okinawa & Sardinia, where people live the longest and most healthful lives in the world. Allow me to explain how I came to this decision and why I’m sticking with it for now…

My original swap to vegetarianism was influenced by my desire to live “more sustainably”, and healthily, as it is for many people now. I saw the documentary film “Cowspiracy” (bear with me) and this initiated my research into food and agriculture, which carried over into my environmental sustainability degree. It was also enough to shift one of my fundamental behavioural patterns – my diet. It was a little tough going at first,  but I soon found that I didn’t miss eating meat much at all. I felt a bit better about myself, “knowing” that I wasn’t contributing as much to global warming, as my research indicated that changing one’s diet can be one of the most impactful ways of reducing your carbon footprint (Aleksandrowicz et al., 2016)…


Fast forward to May 2017, when I travelled to Ridgedale Permaculture farm in Sweden for my Permaculture Design Course with Richard Perkins. Richard is a proud meat-eater, being particularly fond of freshly line-caught fish, properly cured bacon & sausages, and a nice, juicy steak from locally reared, regeneratively farmed livestock, as viewers of his Youtube channel will know. He was keen to point out that there are in fact “no ecosystems on this planet that exist without animals driving the nutrient cycling” (Perkins, 2016). Ecosystems depend on the cycling of nutrients (and minerals) in order to function, and these nutrients can be accumulated, dispersed and concentrated by animals in such a way as to benefit the whole.

One beautiful example of this is the salmon of British Columbia, that feed the bears, eagles, forests and pretty much everything else that lives there with nitrogen and other accumulated minerals from the ocean when they return to their spawning grounds. Another was the Great Plains of North America, where tens of millions of bison roamed. These prairie lands were extraordinarily diverse habitats for a multitude of co-evolved flora & fauna, micro and macroscopic. Now they have predominantly been turned into endless fields of corn, wheat and soybeans, using fossil-fuel powered machinery and chemicals to maximise profit whilst depleting soil of not only its nutrients, contributing to erosion and nitrogen runoff, but its life too.


Regenerative Agriculture aims to work differently. The challenge is to maintain healthy yields and livelihoods whilst simultaneously enriching soil, biodiversity and ecosystems and improving the system’s ability to regenerate itself. Through various mechanisms, we can actually draw down carbon from the atmosphere and store it in soils and vegetation. What’s more, animals can help achieve this goal. Grazing animals such as bison co-evolved with grasses (which are extremely efficient sunlight accumulators, astronomically more so than our photovoltaic panels), such that massive herds would graze through perennial grasses whilst defecating and trampling the remnants down to create a mulch that left the soil covered, before moving on. The grasses would get a natural fertiliser boost but wouldn’t be eaten down completely, which meant that they could grow back and not have to deplete their soil nutrient reserves. Over time, this kind of rotational grazing, especially when well-managed, can build significant amounts of soil. At Ridgedale, they have employed it, along with other techniques such as Keyline Design, to build over 6 inches of soil in just four seasons. There is even a project called Pleistocene Park in northern Siberia that hopes to repopulate the Mammoth Steppe, which historically supported one of the largest densities of herbivores in history and could function as a massive carbon sink. Surely we need animals as a part of our (agri)culture, then?


Well, you might point out that ruminant animals like cows and sheep that we are now cultivating in extremely large numbers produce methane as a part of their digestion, a greenhouse gas with ~30 times more “global warming potential” than CO2. Greenhouse gas accountancy is a complex topic and there is still significant debate as to whether the sequestered carbon pays off the methane produced during the lifecycle of the animal (see Garnett et al., 2017 & P.P.S.); that said, it’s also possible that the earth historically supported much larger numbers of herbivores, many of which were likely driven extinct by humans thus contributing to ecosystem disruption, as discussed in Sapiens and elsewhere (7, 8).

Another common argument is that eating animals is calorically inefficient when we could eat what we feed them. I would say this is a partially valid point in that animals, especially cattle, often need more land and water to produce than their plant-based counterparts, but it’s less valid when discussing purely grass-fed animals whose rumens are evolutionarily designed to digest grass, which most of us humans obviously don’t do very well; this suggests that if you want to obtain food from a parcel of land that wants to be grassland, you could force it to be not grassland, or you could manage and eat animals that are designed to live in and perpetuate that ecosystem. The Sustainable Food Trust goes so far as to say “the only sustainable way to obtain food from grassland is to graze it with ruminants”, which does sound a bit extreme especially considering that rabbits and geese are just two examples of non-ruminants that can be grass-fed. Livestock especially are getting a lot of bad rap due to the significant environmental damages of deforestation for pasture (an example of forcing an ecosystem to be something it doesn’t want to be) and their methane and nitrous oxide emissions (Steinfield, 2006; Stoll-Kleemann, 2015; many others).

Whilst not negligible, I’m concerned that many of the livestock systems under scrutiny aren’t representative of best-practice regenerative methods and that there is definitely the problem of reducing a living creature to the efficiency metric of its greenhouse gas emissions per kg of meat without considering all of its other beneficial functions and services; this metric has led people to the conclusion that “landless systems” or feedlots are better for the environment (Garnett et al., 2017), despite animal welfare being known to be abysmal and where wastes are concentrated and rarely dealt with properly. These factors go against the principles of regenerative agriculture and thus wouldn’t be allowed to continue; yes, grass-fed cows and other ruminants require more land, but we could limit the amount of land devoted to raising them and thereby reduce the total stock and consumption. In this manner, by allowing animals and ecosystems to express their true functions and behaviours according to the co-evolutionary properties of the animals and their environments, it might be possible for humans to yield ethically sound animal-derived food that positively contributes to the whole-earth system.


There are also a few points I would like to discuss with regards to plant-based (especially vegan) diets. Vegetables and whole grains, which form the staples of most healthful plant-based diets, as well as fruits and nuts, obviously take some amount of energy to produce, thus we need to consider where this energy or fertility comes from. We also need to consider where the dietary fat, protein and vitamin B12 will come from (amongst other nutrients/minerals) when meat is abstained from completely; I believe it is possible to meet your protein needs on a plant-based diet (Ranganathan et al., 2016), but doing so in the dead of winter in a temperature climate in a sustainable manner might be more difficult (are the Inuits an unsustainable people?)

Even the “most sustainable”farming methods I am aware of (which may or may not be organic certified) acknowledge that the inputs to grow food ultimately have to come from biological nitrogen fixation, conversion via animals, or inorganic elements (chemicals). For example, compost is vital to almost all organic, traditional and regenerative farms, and often incorporates animal manure, which adds additional nitrogen and biology to the soil and ultimately to the plants. The only exceptions I can think of to this would be Jean-Pain compost (which uses only wood chips and water) and Masanobu Fukuoka style rice and winter wheat cultivation, where the straw from the previous crop was left on the field as mulch and nutrients. Even the ancient and incredibly successful Meso-american Chinampas systems, as well as the rice cultivating nations of China, South Korea and Japan, have utilised ferti-irrigation techniques comprised predominantly of the wastes of fish as nutrients. Thus, since no sustainable farming methods can use inorganic chemicals derived from fossil fuels, most consumers that eat a purely plant-based diet are still deriving their nutrients from (the functioning and inclusion of) animals… Perhaps the question then becomes can, should and how would we integrate animals into our farming systems without eating them?


I’m still considering the implications of these questions and my position on the frequency and type of my animal consumption. We’ve had four “Pig Parties” in the four months I’ve been here at the Ranch, and chicken about once a week on average, all of which was reared and slaughtered locally in Mastatal. This corresponds pretty well to a 95:5 plant:meat ratio (see P.P.P.S.). For the first of the two pigs I visited the farm where it lived, died and bore witness to how it was processed; for the second we had an intro on how to properly butcher a pig. I think this is a crucial missing link for the majority of meat consumers and we need to continue building awareness of the realities of industrial slaughterhouses. Both of the animals I visited lived outdoors in tropical home gardens, feeding on bananas and other food scraps, although I’ve now been told it’s likely they were fed some concentrated feed. Pigs will eat just about anything, including chickens – they are probably the ultimate organic material recycling animal. Feeding farm animals to other farm animals is illegal in many parts of the world, but we need to always be searching for ways to turn “waste” into food, and pigs are one effective way of doing so. They in turn provide manure to feed back into the ecosystem and, when the time is right, are themselves converted into protein, fat and flavour for dozens of people for multiple meals. They can also provide piglets so that the system can continue, perhaps indefinitely. Without pigs in this system, you would have to replace the dietary protein and fat, which in our climate would likely come from more annual beans and palm oil from cleared forest land, as well as find another method of recycling the food scraps (vermi-compost is great, but doesn’t provide food in return).


Based on this discussion, I would like to present my initial take on a scale to classify diets based on their ability to be sustained, from best to worst:

  1. Local regenerative
  2. Local organic certified
  3. Non-local regenerative
  4. Non-local organic certified (many vegetarians/vegans in cities)
  5. Local conventional
  6. Non-local conventional (most consumers)

Where locality is on a scale from hyper-local (within 5km), to local (within 50km), to regional (within 250km), to non-local (further than 250km). Another important variable that goes hand-in-hand with locality is seasonality. Thus a checklist for regenerative dietary choices might be something like:

  1. Is it local? (as the crow flies to place of origin): <=5km — <=50km — <=250km — >250km — Don’t know
    1. Does it come from your garden, your nearest farmer, your nearest market, or another country?
  2. Is it in season?: Yes — No — Don’t know
    1. Are you regularly eating avocado, chocolate or coffee in winter in a temperate climate? What can you eat and drink locally and seasonally to replace imported goods you habitually desire?
    2. Are you consuming fermented foods and beverages? The Japanese have one of the strongest food cultures (called Washoku 和食) and longest lived people in the world, and 5/6 of their staple food ingredients are fermented foods. Fermentation is not only extremely beneficial for your health, but ties in beautifully with preserving the abundance of the harvest.
  3. Was it produced regeneratively?
    1. Did it build soil and/or sequester carbon?: Yes — No — Don’t know
    2. Did its production support local farmer(s)/community? Yes — No — Don’t know
    3. Did it use no chemicals and no or very little fossil-fuel powered machinery in its production? Yes — No — Don’t know

It is my guess that many consumers would tick No or Don’t Know for every field, whilst falling into the worst category (non-local conventional). We need to shift first from ignorance to awareness before we can shift to understanding and action – behavioural change is flipping hard! All I can say right now is the link between diet and planetary health is crucial in navigating our transition towards a sustainable prosperity.


Let me be clear: plant-based diets are absolutely a big part of the solution, and there are many cases (including the average Western diet) where meat consumption should be reduced, but nevertheless animals aren’t the enemy. Vegans, vegetarians and ethical omnivores have a common enemy, and that is industrial agriculture (especially feedlots, which are completely awful). Meat in moderation, i.e. Meat Mondays as opposed to Meatless Mondays, may be a way forward for many people, rather than jumping straight to 100% plant-based diets based on quinoa and avocados shipped in from someplace slightly more exotic. I think this better follows the Transition Ethic that Rob Hopkins thoroughly emphasises via the Transition Network, by meeting people where they’re at – there is an irrepressible demand for meat due to complex sociocultural factors that will take time to shift away from, but if we can make ethical compromises that simultaneously shift mindsets, we will be well on our way to a more symbiotic relationship between humans and Nature.

May The Triforce (Plants, Animals and Fungi!) Be With You!


P.S. Follow the debate here, and here.

P.P.S. For the adventurous you can read my Regenerative Agriculture Brief and explore the references there too!

P.P.P.S. Three meals a day with chicken for 52 meals and pork for 12 meals in a year = (365*3-(52+12))/(365*3)*100 = 94.2%.


References, a.k.a. some of the things I’ve read:

Beans

We eat a lot of beans (frijoles) here at the farm; pretty much every day, in fact. The most common variations are boiled/stewed, refried (molidos), or with rice (pinto), and they accompany all sorts of dishes from burritos to soups.

On our second day here at the Rancho we got the chance to go help a local farmer, Chepo, with his bean harvest. We drove out due South-ish in the red truck that has been on the farm since the beginning.

Nadav & Niles

Looking out towards Parque Nacional La Cangreja, Chepo’s field lay on a fairly steep, mostly treeless slope. It is and has been common practice to clear forests for annual agriculture or livestock.

He and a friend/colleague were laying out some of the beans to dry as we arrived.

With a bunch of sacks, our hands and feet and some much appreciated cloud cover we split into two groups; one scouring the hillside for bean plants to pull up (roots and all) to hand back to the lot of us to strip the beans and bag them.

Unfortunately, the practice of pulling out the whole plant without leaving any residues to decompose, or adding any additional material (such as compost), can leave hillsides such as this nutrient-depleted and eroded. Soil should never be left bare, and hillsides should usually either have trees (whose roots soak up and store water, preventing erosion), or be terraced if they are to be cultivated. This is definitely easier said then done, especially in as hilly a country as Costa Rica!

On the right-hand side, you can see a portion of hillside that was recently harvested and left bare.
It can be fairly time-consuming to strip the beans from its plant.

Chepo
A few sacks worth…

Later back at the Ranch, we de-hulled the seeds from their pods and they were set out to dry in the sun.

Currently I’m working on getting some perennial beans, the Winged Bean (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), planted. It’s obvious advantage as a perennial as opposed to an annual would be that in the ideal case it would yield for multiple years before having to be re-planted.

Bed prep – three bags of almost vermi-compost, a thin layer of biochar, a scattering of rice hulls and banana leaves for mulch.

I’ve recently completed the bamboo trellis, and will be planting half the beans in the dry season and half just before the start of the wet season (around mid-April), as an experiment and due to a tip from one of the locals (supposedly they explode with growth with the coming of the rains).

I’ll write a follow-up post on the success of this project, from garden to kitchen, as well as expand on the differences between annual and perennial agricultures and why the latter may be beneficial for combating climate change (especially in the tropics where things can grow year round!).

Tripod lashing
“90 degree” 1-1 lashing

Into the Jungle

So I’m here in Costa Rica at Rancho Mastatal, sitting in my little hut known as The Goat Barn/House, a.k.a. The Pink Palace (because the lime plaster turned out pinker than intended). It sits overlooking the “Banana Bowl”, a verdant little valley that is one of the agroforestry spaces. My roommate (Nadav) and I have our own little jackfruit tree that is starting to bear, with some ginormous clumping bamboo just beyond. It has rained a fair amount since we’ve been here, which is abnormal for the end of January, but the transition to the hot dry season is now well underway. Luckily, we spend much of our time in shade under shelter or forest canopy, so the heat is tolerable. Waterfall trips help, too. All of the buildings are open, and showers and loos are mostly separate structures, so life is very much outdoors here, sharing this lush green space with bugs, birds, spiders and deadly venomous snakes like the Fer-de-lance. The day starts at dawn, and typically starts to wind down after dinner (oftentimes with a cup of hooch). Meals are at 8am, 1pm and 6:30pm, and a lot of work goes into making delicious, nutritious meals for a big group of people (as well as cleaning up after them)!

Us apprentices (Niles, Sam, Marissa, Denise, Nadav and Kate from bottom-left going round clockwise) de-shelling beans on day two (sorry for the blur!)

These first two weeks have been our orientation phase, settling into life here in the jungle in this small community that pulses with the energies of visitors and residents alike. As apprentices, we have been getting up to speed with daily Life Skills and Food Skills, which rotate each month, of which I am responsible for Solar Star and Balm, respectively. The former involves a few chores around the main building, including filling up the lard bottle in the kitchen, putting the towels out to dry, making Tapa Dulce (cane sugar syrup), sharpening knives and grinding coffee – the last of which is definitely engendering an appreciation for the effort involved in preparing a drug on which 20+ people depend on each day! Balm involves making fermented sodas from water kefir, which we learnt how to do with Laura, one of the core team members, during our fermentation crash course. It’s similar to kombucha, but has a different colony of bacteria and yeast. Fermentation happens really quickly here – the sodas get fizzy in just a day, and the home-brew takes about 2-3 weeks! The other food skills are corn nixtamalization, pasteurising milk, feeding the dairy kefir, making dosas from beans and rice, making vinegar, and pickling vegetables. We’ve also learnt how to process jackfruit, cinnamon, and sacha inchi.

A butterfly of the genus Morpho (probably species peleides) feasting on some jackfruit.

We’ve been spending time with core team members getting more familiar with the main focuses and projects here, which included tours of the wood shop, zone one garden, orchards, and a natural building primer. We’ve now got a real taste of what the year ahead holds, and opportunities abound – we will get to try everything and decide where we want to focus our efforts later on. Some projects include improving the composting system in zone one, building adobe bricks for a new outdoor shower, and plastering one or more of the structures (perhaps with the Japanese techniques we will learn in March). There are constantly things to get involved in here, and already Nic and Benito have rebuilt one of the main gates with a beautiful metal frame and Pilon wood, and two others have started rebuilding one of the rocket stoves.

On the agriculture side of things, there is plenty of work to be done in improving both production as well as the farm to table pipeline, understanding how “new” or unusual foods (like the Sacha Inchi nut or Jackfruit) may be incorporated into the system, from planting to harvesting to processing to cooking. Soil tests are being carried out, and there’s a microscope here which we plan to examine the soil microbiology with. As a Permaculture site and somewhere where teaching is a major priority, I would love to see more food, especially perennials, coming from the farm – we’re still quite dependent on rice and beans here, like many of the locals, both of which are annual crops that need the land to be cleared and can deplete the soil over time. There are some trees already planted, such as the Malabar Chestnut, that could offer solutions in this regard, and experimentation is very much a core component here. I will write a more thorough post about our bean day field trip soon, exploring these issues in more detail.

Dendrobates auratus at The Hankey.

Tonight we have our first large group arriving for the Emergency Medical Training course, and it’ll be busy for the next few months. Next week we’re starting our Work Parties, where we’ll be getting sweaty doing things that need doing. I’m looking forward to sharing more of the happenings of jungle and Rancho Mastatal life with you, and discussing in much more depth what it means to (try to) live as sustainably as possible whilst navigating many of the compromises that arise.

Some cool things I’ve seen so far:

  • Black-mandibled Toucan
  • Blue-crowned Motmot
  • Golden-headed Tanager
  • Crested Guan
  • (Dead) Coral Snake
  • Huge trails of leaf-cutter ants
  • Poison Dart Frog
Dendrobates auratus at The Hankey.

Best things I’ve eaten so far:

  • Jackfruit (raw and as ice cream)
  • Local artisan chocolate from Finca La Iguana
  • Fried plantain with cheese
  • Bananas, pineapple and papaya like no other
  • Sacha Inchi nuts (roasted)
  • Heart of Palm
  • Moringa
  • Homemade burritos
  • Starfruit is pretty tasty too =)

Why?

Why am I writing this blog?

This past year I’ve come to appreciate much more the benefits and importance of sharing. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be accepted as an Apprentice at Rancho Mastatal in Costa Rica for 2018, a premier impact centre for sustainability education including topics such as Permaculture, agroforestry, natural building and fermentation; this blog is here to document and share this experience, as well as everything else I’ve learnt so far about climate change and what we can do about it.

Join me here and/or perhaps in person at one of the upcoming workshops!

Pura vida.