Warm sand enveloped our feet as we clambered clumsily up the dune. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt sand like this. Was this the biggest dune I’d ever climbed? Perhaps there was a time when I was a light-footed child, when I could run up one of these without noticing the strain on my body. The view at the top wasn’t exactly breathtaking; there was still some distance to the edge of the cliffs where we would see the beach, but as the wind whipped against our faces, and I began to appreciate the protection these dunes offered.
Further along the trail that carved through thickets of sea-plants, a well-hidden stairway led us onto a natural platform of a rock formation, with a final few concrete steps towards a quiet beach surprisingly devoid of people. Quiet, only in a manner of speaking, because the ocean was roaring like a beast, and the waves clapped onto the sand then hissed as they pulled back out. Here, one remembers that the ocean is truly one powerful animal—how narcissistic are we to think we rule the earth?
Here, on the western edge of the European continent, barely an hour outside of Lisbon, was a tiny piece of paradise. For the first time in many years, we chose to stay a few days at a resort for much-needed R&R, rather than dive headfirst into urban wilds to explore yet another city for our annual holiday. But this was no ordinary resort; there were only a little over a dozen rooms and a handful of villas available, and for that you pay a premium to be here.
It took seven years from vision to realisation, but everything was done with a view towards sustainability. Just about everything was recycled or reused, and the buildings were designed to be energy efficient. The decor was a mix of modern and rustic, punctuated by dried flowers, once fresh from the grounds, which the hotel staff charmingly dubbed “the garden”—a breathtaking, permaculture project on a grand scale, still in progress. It supplies the hotel’s restaurant with fresh vegetables, edible flowers and fruit. It’s not hard to see that this magical place attracted a certain type of visitor—I hesitate to use the word “tourist”, because there’s no “touristing” to be done here. It was a heavenly place to retreat to, to rest the mind and replenish the body, to fill one’s lungs with fresh, untainted ocean air, to eat good, healthful food right off the land. Here, you take time for what it is: an arbitrary, human construct.
We’d commandeered a particular table for breakfast in the mornings—the one in the far corner, where there wasn’t a view on the water, but where we could see a part of the garden, and talk without being much overheard. Every morning, a boyish young man, cap backwards, tanned by the sun and ocean wind, swaggered towards the hotel kitchen with a wooden box full of eggs, presumably from the chickens in the garden, or certainly somewhere nearby.
As beautiful and peaceful this place was, it occurred to me that I might go crazy if I stayed here too long. The isolation would get to me; if not, then that sure sense that a place like this shouldn’t exist—it was much too far removed from the complex reality of our world. Escape only made sense if you had something you wanted to escape from. And that might be my problem; I would never be able to do it on a clear conscience for any length of time.
Yet, a place like this needed to exist in order to prove that it could be done, that a human-scaled project of this kind could be sustainable. It must also mean that we’ve done a lot of things wrong in this world to get to this point—that this place exists in counterpoint to all the speed, scale and madness that modern capitalism has led us to believe is the status quo.
One evening at dinner, we met a young German couple who’d just married. She worked for a massive hotel chain, and expressed her incomprehension, even incredulity, that this tiny little resort of so few rooms could survive. The irony made me a little sad. How did humanity get to this point where bigger was better, always more, always faster; how was it possible that we produce and consume so much at scale, and justify it economically? At what cost?
In a published conversation called “The Accident of Art” with Sylvère Lotringer, Paul Virilio discussed his concept of the Museum of Accidents and alluded that it was our own arrogance that allowed us to continue to build bigger and faster at the expense of common-sense risk—and that we won’t stop until the price is too high.
Virilio said, rather matter-of-factly, “Take a thousand-seat airplane, that makes one thousand dead.” He then conducted a thought experiment and imagined out loud, “We have invented a flying super-island that can travel at hypersonic speeds. You can travel, for example, to Tokyo in two hours or even one hour, for one Euro. This island is so unheard-of that it has to be made into a mass phenomenon. So I will exaggerate the figures: rather than one thousand people, let’s say, for example, ten thousand. Do you take the risk?” He went on, “Progress in air transportation is a tolerable sacrifice until the day you tolerate it no longer. It is the same thing with nuclear energy. Now we are giving it up: the sacrifice is no longer tolerated. Ecologists are the only ones saying it. We are in a cumulative phenomenon that is in the process of creating an integral accident…”
In “The New Capitalist Manifesto”, Umair Haque provided an economic angle, “Twentieth-century capitalism’s cornerstones shift costs to and borrow benefits from people, communities, society, the natural world, or future generations. Both cost shifting and benefit borrowing are forms of economic harm that are unfair, nonconsensual, and often irreversible.”
In other words, in accepting the way we live now, we’ve created a profound, unnamed series of debts that extends far beyond our lifetime. Debts that are owed to our children, and their children, and the world they would live in.
The odd thing about a beach on the ocean was that there were no seashells—everything had been crushed into minuscule pieces. My eyes caught sight of a white plastic bottle wedged into the sand. I dug out my camera from our beach basket, and took this photo that you see at the top of this story. It was just as well I had the camera in my hand given what happened in the next moment: the rising wave I captured in the photo’s backdrop came crashing onto the shore, whooshing past my knees and everything else, drenching a couple of lazing sunbathers, who jumped up, squealing, grabbing their towels to stop those being swept away. We rescued our basket just in time, and I found my well-worn flip-flops wedged between some rocks several feet inland.
All this was never about saving the earth. It’s about doing justice to our own kind, for the humanity that comes after us. It is about being grateful and graceful to the planet that has sustained us for this long, respecting that symbiosis what we’d so vainly thought we could be independent of.
And perhaps that’s what bothered me so deeply about being here in this place. This place shouldn’t have been a retreat, a hidden corner of heaven—it shouldn’t have been special. This way of living should be our ordinary and our everyday, neatly tied to how we live and work, how we eat and breathe.