“Most of the ‘mine’ families lived only a few miles out from the town, but their self-sufficiency surrounded them like a moat. Their offspring could go from the cradle to the grave without having anything to do with the town other than attending its high school, placing weekly orders with the butcher and the grocer, and paying three visits to church – one for christening, one for marrying, one for burying.”
That’s from an essay by Nadine Gordimer, ‘A South African Childhood’, where she describes the mining town she grew up in. The mines came first, the towns around these mines followed. “The ‘mine’ people and the townspeople did not by any means constitute a homogenous population; they remained two well-defined groups”.
While this separation may seem odd for a village or a town, it is common in a city, almost a defining trait. You can spend an entire life in a city intermingling with only your ‘group’, barely interfacing with other sections of the city’s populace. The segregation begins early in life, with the day-care centres that cater to a certain class, and it grows as you move from school to university to a career: our institutions and the culture that surrounds them offer few opportunities to mingle with people vastly different from our own.
This is not a new insight. And the phenomenon itself, perhaps an emergent property of capitalism, isn’t new either. What struck me in the passage above was this: “their self-sufficiency surrounded them like a moat”.
For the privileged, this self-sufficiency is a defining feature of modern life. It came into focus, I felt, during the pandemic, in the way most of us managed to stay isolated and yet live reasonably well through it all. Everything – from groceries to medicines to furniture – could be ordered home, and the lack of friction in these transactions (made with a few clicks on your phone) created an illusion of self-sufficiency. We were still dependent on others, but those others were largely invisible.
The irony there lies in the fact that the same pandemic that prompted in some of us this feeling of self-sufficiency also underscored – through the virus that we played host to – our connection to the natural world. We are deeply connected to – and dependent on – others, both human and non-human. But surrounded by this illusory moat of self-sufficiency, we choose to forget this.