. Henry David Thoreau 150th anniversary | London Progressive Journal
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Henry David Thoreau 150th anniversary

Sat 28th Apr 2012

The importance of the man who told us all we must listen to the world and march to a different drummer is greater now than the day he died 150 years ago in May 1862.

The human and environmental train wreck of the modern world probably wouldn’t shock Henry David Thoreau if he were resurrected today. He saw it coming. His works including Walden – arguably his best known – are still influencing the modern world, with even scientists using notes taken from that book to help explain climate change (1).

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears however measured or far away.” This famous statement from Walden encapsulates the notion that while most people live regimented, orthodox lives, there are those who live outside the norm, rejecting the status quo and going back to first principles. Daniel Suelo has lived in caves in Utah since 2000 and is the subject of Mark Sundeen’s The Man Who Quit Money. (2).

Thoreau was a professional man, a surveyor by trade, and yes he did nip home to his mum’s for meals occasionally, but his two years and two months spent in solitude with nature represents his willingness to try an alternative way of life. Thoreau promoted the notion of sustainable living – in every sense.
With unemployment at its highest for 17 years in the UK (3) we’re told that economies must grow. Buried in advertising so we buy more, we’re also buried in debt. Our need for consumption in the developed world is accelerating global warming (4) and global madness, yet nearly one billion people on the planet still live in poverty and hunger. (5).

In the UK the economy is still on the rocks (6), many people’s wages are being cut, few can afford to get on the housing ladder, the average house price is now more than five times average income (7). All this in one of the world’s 10 biggest economies. And there is strong evidence that wealth, wealth disparity and the reckless and ceaseless desire to be rich are making us ill. (8) We need to start searching for alternative ways of living. Thoreau’s Walden experience was an experiment in Connecticut where he was not afraid to try and establish a set of new ideals. Forget seeking a promotion/raise/advantage/victory. Humans are like the combatants in Walden’s battle of the ants, with Thoreau observing and likening a clash between two ant colonies to that of human conflict. No winners, just a lot of corpses and wounded survivors. (9).

Thoreau showed you can live sustainably with small amounts of cash. No need for materialism either: “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” (10).

The average 40-hour working week takes far more of our time than we may realise. Before putting a shift in you have to get up, dressed, fed and then get to work. You do your shift then have to get home again. Eat, sleep, and repeat. There’s not much humanity in modern life. This disturbance to our biological rhythms (11) could be directly figured to Thoreau’s different drummer appeal, with pace not just being speed but rhythm too (12). We need to have respect for ourselves as well as our surroundings.

Thoreau set the example that we can live without doing what we’re told to do. The things we’re told make us happy are clearly failing, we must change our ways of living if we want to feel fulfilled.

The recent United Nations survey of happiness could pave the way. Redefining our notion of growth using Gross National Happiness (GNH) (13) is in keeping with Thoreau’s teachings of sustainability and is respectful of our biological rhythms. But there’s danger that we still think we can hunt for happiness and pin it down. Thoreau, as ever, took his time to measure it differently. “Happiness is like a butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” (14).



1) Thoreau’s Walden used by Guardian
2) Daniel Suelo – The Man Who Quit Money
3) UK unemployment
4) Global warming
5) World poverty and hunger
6) Unstable economy
7) House prices
8) Why wanting to be rich is a form of mental illness – Huffington Post, 12 April
9) Battle of the Ants – Walden
10) Thoreau on simple life
11) Biological rhythms
12) Pace is not just speed but rhythm
13) Gross National Happiness
14) Thoreau on happiness
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