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.

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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.

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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.