To the Vanlife Community,
I find myself frequently contemplating the sustainability of my actions. And in a van, I feel at odds. On the one hand, my physical footprint on this earth can be reduced to the size of a Dodge Ram 1500 van. But on the other, my nomadic path is fueled by fossils and my scope is vaster than nature intended. I have to ask, am I leaving a legacy of a better planet, a better life, for my grandchildren?
I believe that in order to heal the earth, we must tangentially heal ourselves– and I believe that our endless, mindless consumption is a symptom of our sickness. I am no cornucopian, for I cannot see how always striving for more varied, more advanced, more complex, more valuable, more, is possible. And so when I began my vanlife journey nearly 5 years ago, I was after precisely the opposite: less. Not less living, but less of the ‘more;’ letting go of the stuff that clutters our lives to prevent us from living. Many of us choose vanlife for budget, for convenience, for freedom. But I also frequently hear echoes of the notion to live more with less.
And so at least, I think we are on the right path towards a sustainable future, even if our intentions are not yet fully realized. But we must keep going! Van Dwellers, I am calling on us to realize our environmental ethic, to reflect on our participatory role in our shared biotic community, and to act intentionally, purposefully, revolutionarily. We are not so separate from the scenery we drive through.
Since vanlife is so personal and variable, I propose we adopt an ethic that is relatable and flexible. The principles are as follows:
- Live simply so that others may simply live.
- Be where you are.
Every van dweller can meet these principles from where they are, and every van dweller can allow their ethic to evolve with time and practice. You cannot see the world in a day, just as you cannot become sustainable overnight. It needs constant attention and intention. So where should we begin?
Living simply is all about using what you have, and as an environmental ethic, it’s about using only what you need (I am not implying you should give up everything except food, water, and warmth, because you do need mental and physical health, too. But I am implying that while your favorite, frivolous dress may be justified, your 2nd, 3rd, and 4th favorites probably aren’t). The first step in realizing this principle comes from realizing the ecological truth that our individual life choices impact everyone– humans, animals, plants, and more– and then truly assessing the full impact of our choices. Start small and slow. You do not have to know the impact of everything at once, but begin somewhere you’ve already started and allow the habit to develop and evolve with time. It’s very likely that you are already living by this principle if you have intentionally chosen to own less stuff. So keep at it! You may also consider reducing your water and fossil fuel use (something you may have done naturally by moving to a small space), building (or re-building) with salvaged and used materials, breaking the habit of single-use plastic by keeping reusable alternatives handy (I mean, can you really justify a styrofoam to-go container when your house– full of dishes and containers, galore!– is in the parking lot?), and perhaps most radically, enjoying the little things life provides. Reading in a park, watching the sunrise, exploring a forest, napping on the beach, walking around a city– these are the things “living more with less” means to me.
Our second principle, ‘being where you are’ may seem obvious, but I find living in a van can actually isolate you from where you are. When I am travelling in my van, I am a mere visitor and in spite of feeling appreciative of all that each place offers, I still feel disconnected and separate. My mental setting is more about being on the road, but not being in [insert place here]. I find that there is a shift when I am able to stay in places longer, when I go from being a visitor to being a temporary member of that community. It is a gradual shift, but an important one, because as a member of the community you are in relationship with those people and that land. You become responsible for treating all members of what is now your community, with respect. And you work towards improving relationship with the people, the plants, the animals, the land, rather than ignoring it, knowing you are simply going to move on to the next community soon. The principle of ‘being where you are’ says that when and where you are going next should have no role in how you interact with the place you are right now. While this principle is primarily a way of thinking, it is much easier to make this mental shift when you allow yourself to travel slower, to park for longer periods of time and bike or walk where you are. Working, paid or otherwise, can also be a meaningful way to become a member of the community.
I feel that these principles for a vanlife environmental ethic are reasonable, however I recognize that we may not always have the luxury of traveling slowly. That is ok. It will be harder to shift to the mindset of being a part of the community when you are staying for a short time, but it is still possible and it is still important! Allow yourself to be truly present in the community, even when time is nagging. Say hello to your ‘neighbors’, whether they be animal or plant. And use the first principle to realize your how your choices affect this community. Van dwellers are not the only ones who impact a place, but we are often in a unique position to impact many more.
So, Van Dwellers, keep dreaming, keep thinking, and keep going. A more sustainable future is on our horizon.
“So throw away your baggage and go forward. There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. Lightly my darling, on tiptoes and no luggage, not even a sponge bag, completely unencumbered.
“Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.”
~Aldous Huxley, Island