Thinking about sustainable luxury

Richard Kool looking over his shoulder smiling next to a view of nature.

As I cycled to Royal Roads for the first time since mid-March 2020 this morning, I knew for sure that for me at least, my 30 km round trip bicycle ride is a luxury. With no need to sit isolated in a car burning fossil fuels, I can put my face into the day’s weather and use my bowl of muesli and oat milk as the fuel for getting me to school. Even in the dark and cold of a Victoria winter, that I can do this ride (and at my advancing age) keeps me aware that, for me at least, luxury is not in things or even in comfort, but in the experiences of what one can do with one’s body.

One morning in May 2019, I got out of bed and could barely walk; whatever damage I had done to my right knee over the years had finally hobbled me. My knee replacement surgery in February 2021 allowed me to again walk and hike without pain, to scramble over sea cliffs and get down amongst the tide pools with full confidence that I could get up and not fall over in pain. Completing a 12 km hike with my partner, children and grandchildren recently, I had a sense that being able to walk like that was a luxury.

Our hiking was on Sonora Island, a beautiful place about halfway up the east coast of Vancouver Island.  We stayed in a cabin with no wifi and no cell phone service. Again, what a luxury; to be disconnected from the outside world, to have no distractions other than the desire to read a book while the grandboys wanted to go fishing. To have no possibility of giving in to the desire to make one more call, to check the email and text messages just one more time; that was luxury for me.

There are six definitions of luxury in the Oxford English Dictionary, only one of which really fit the experiences I’ve described and felt; “refined and intense enjoyment”. In my incipient dotage, this is what sustainable luxury might be for me: finding “intense enjoyment” in simple things like walking, cycling, or being disconnected from the ubiquitous networks that lie in wait to hook us and reel our attention in.

Can we find these luxuries close to home? Of course we can, and when we find them, we also find that they cost virtually nothing (although I’m sure the knee replacement was a costly expenditure for our health system). Sustainable luxury need not have an enormous ecological footprint. We just have to teach ourselves that luxury need not be, as the OED also offers as a definition, “the habitual use of, or indulgence in what is choice or costly, whether food, dress, furniture, or appliances of any kind” or “sumptuous and exquisite food or surroundings”.

Sustainable luxury can be as simple as finding refined and intense enjoyment in being able to take a walk.