Trying to live sustainably in the 21st century is something of a minefield. We live in late capitalist hell and every purchase or decision made often comes with a hefty carbon footprint, or price tag. It’s exhausting and discouraging. No I don’t have time to hand-milk oats, and no I don’t have $500 for an ethically made, sustainable hand-beaded dress from Reformation.
There’s no easy answer to these struggles. Of course, we can try our best to source sustainably—consuming less, eating local and thrifting, etc. But unless one lives off the grid and doesn’t participate in capitalist society, no one can claim to be perfectly ethical.
Hell, even in 1760 no one was perfectly ethical. Any product from that time period likely involved slavery, and classism and racism was definitely worse—at least in Western society. However, there is one major difference. The industrial revolution hadn’t happened yet. That meant carbon emissions were still low, and we hadn’t yet torn the Earth’s ecology a new one with industrial activity.
Sorry to be incredibly depressing, but being alive in 1760 was probably the last time Western society could be said to be truly sustainable. Spoiler alert, I am not caucasian, so if I had been born in that time period I would definitely not be residing in Western society. However, I am now part of the large Asian diaspora in the Anglosphere, so my current lifestyle can be said to be a continuation of Western traditions. Specifically, a continuation of the working class or peasantry traditions. In that spirit, I decided to live like a 1760s English peasant for a day.
This obviously came with a few challenges. The first was getting dressed in the morning. Like most people, I didn’t have easy access to petticoats, stays and 16th century gowns. However, a cursory Google search told me that most clothes were made out of wool or linen, and shoes were made of leather. Lo and behold, these fabrics are still around in the 21st century, and I had some in my wardrobe. Like most people, I am not fabulously wealthy, so the more expensive and rare fabrics of the time like silk and cotton were out of the question. I had a rummage through my things.
I had a pair of linen trousers (albeit lined with polyester and kitted with a zip and plastic buttons), a wide range of thrifted woolen jumpers, and a pair of Doc Marten Jadons. So I’m soft-boy hipster trash, don’t come for me. Unfortunately I didn’t own linen underwear, so I had to go commando. This wasn’t terribly comfortable, and led to some chafing, but the first step was complete, and it was easier than I’d anticipated. There was no need to bother with makeup, as I didn’t fancy putting rat poison on my face. So far, so good.
The problems began when I realised that most dairy products would have been made by hand. Handcrafted cheese and unpasteurised milk is now considered artisanal, and I didn’t have $20 lying around to buy those ingredients. Also, coffee wouldn’t have been available for a peasant like me. I’d have to live with the caffeine-withdrawal induced brain fog for the day. My morning vape? Also out of the question. It was a rough day for my flatmates, let’s just say that.
I’m usually naughty and skip breakfast, but without my coffee, I needed some replacement fuel for the morning. Luckily, my flatmate works at a wholefoods store and often brings back free bread, which is handmade. I decided this was acceptable, and I had two plain bits of bread for breakfast.
I planned the day for a Sunday, so I was able to head to the local Farmers Market to buy some produce. I felt it would be the closest thing to a local market in the 1700s, and it was a blessedly short 20 minute walk. There, I procured some vegetables and a few eggs for lunch and dinner later on.
I took my time, swinging past my local community garden in Kingsland to get some free kale and spinach to add to my meal. By the time I got home, it was lunch-time. After a quick meal of pan-cooked veggies and a fried egg on bread, I was ready to get to work.
Living like it was 1760 meant I had to stay off my laptop and phone for the day, so I had a free pass to ignore my uni work. On the flip side, this left me with almost nothing to do. I didn’t have cows to milk or a vegetable garden to tend, and what else did 16th century women do?
I decided to work on some sewing projects I had abandoned in the corner of my closet.
Luckily, I don’t have the faintest clue how to use a sewing machine, so that was not an issue for me. I happily passed all of an hour hand-stitching some thrifted finds on the porch. For maximum accuracy I used a single stitch method that a YouTube video had once told me was common back in the day.
After that, I read a novel for an hour, even though a peasant in 1760 would probably have been illiterate.
Then, I hand-scrubbed the floor in my kitchen. This sounds drastic, but it was probably akin to the housework lower-class women did back then. My flat’s floor had also not been cleaned for over a year, and there were mysterious black globs in some areas. I used water, lemon, baking soda and an old rag. It was surprisingly efficient, though I did go over it with a mop and disinfectant the next day.
Then, it was dinnertime. I made the same meal that I did for lunch. It was getting dark outside, but electricity was out of the question, so I lit some candles. This was a very inefficient source of light, and I burnt my hand on the edge of the pan as a result. Afterward, I tried to do more uni readings by candlelight, but gave up after developing a headache.
I’ll be honest—I didn’t last the whole day. I had a headache from using candles as a source of light, I was grouchy from the lack of nicotine, and I felt sweaty and gross without a shower or a toothbrush. I gave in and did my usual night-time routine, treating myself to some Netflix before bed.
What did I learn from this experience? Nothing that I didn’t already know—namely, it was impossible to make completely sustainable decisions. It’s not 1760 anymore. I had running water and an electrically powered stove. I also had to use the toilets, and I eventually cracked and had a shower. All of these things come with environmental consequences, and what’s more, they’re now necessities. From the production of the house I lived in, to the polyester lining of my pants, to the plastic bucket that I used for the floor—none of the materials I had were free from the environmentally destructive industrial capitalist machine of the 21st century.
In the end, all we can do is be mindful of the ways in which we consume. Take that walk to the local market, turn off the lights when you’re not in the room, eat more vegetables, and probably drink less coffee.
As individuals, we can’t get around all the structural changes that have happened in society since the industrial revolution.
But at least now we have showers and toothpaste.