Every year I am taken by surprise with the speed at which the warm weather encroaches on us. One day I’ll be shivering in a woolly jumper and scarf, the next I’ll be crouched beside a desk fan, begging for relief from the heat. This year was no exception, as temperatures reached 24 degrees in my area last weekend.
I spent a lovely few days in the sun, walking to the shops instead of driving, basking in the late sunsets, teaching my nephew how to blow bubbles… And then Sunday night hit. After going out for something to eat with a friend, we found ourselves unsure of what to do, but not wanting to waste the rare opportunity of simply existing in Scotland with nice weather overhead.
So that was how we found ourselves just driving aimlessly for over an hour, around some of the local countryside and past some tourist hotspots, the golden hour sunshine leaving a beautiful hue over our surroundings. My friend took some pictures from the passenger window, and then the guilt hit us.
We were burning fuel, driving needlessly, round and around in random circles, because we had nowhere else to go. Simply existing was costing money and fuel and we felt guilty for enjoying ourselves. Was it worth the beautiful views?
My heart wants to say yes. We really do live in a beautiful country, this beauty only amplified when the grey skies are swapped out for blue and the rolling fields and trees take on a fresh shade of green, town and city skylines in our backdrop reminding us of how connected we really are. But part of me can’t help but try to balance this: the towns and communities we drove through to reach them have suffered immensely, subject to decades of cutbacks and reduction in services. The people within them are not receiving the same affection, like this country simply does not love them back. It left a slight melancholy hanging in the air, the idea that all of these places had endless potential being squandered underneath the surface as we drove through them.
Driving around really does help to clear the mind in a way that looking wistfully out the window of a bus or train simply cannot emulate. The car I drive is fairly small, low emission, but still not hybrid or electric. Am I condemning the planet for the sake of an hour’s clarity? What’s the alternative?
Summer activities in Scotland rarely come without some sort of cost, whether that’s from public transport, the cost and environmental impact of fuel, or indulging in the food and drink of local businesses and chains alike, even the existence of entry fees if you want to go anywhere other than a museum or park. Rarely now do we find an activity which has zero impact or consequence for our planet or our wallet. Even my anecdote from earlier, where I spent an afternoon blowing bubbles with my nephew: the bubble solution was packaged in a large plastic tube which will simply be tossed into landfill when it runs out (or more likely, when he gets bored of blowing bubbles).
And this has all been by design. As we discuss in Sorted, recreation has become commodified, a way for companies to upsell our free time, our mental and emotional capacities, trying to convince us that we cannot truly relax without their products or services. Relentless advertising of said products and services telling us we will never truly be happy without them in our lives.
Even among the free activities, there are limitations. As I keep pointing out, we are surrounded by some absolutely stunning scenery, perfect for trails and hillwalking, a low budget way to spend an afternoon. But this is simply not possible for everyone, with physical health and/or capabilities severely limiting many people’s ability to enjoy such scenery up close, particularly as we begin to understand the long-term health impacts of Covid on the population. Add in the increasing numbers of tourists, using more and more fuel to reach these places, even putting some natural beauty spots at risk by doing so, and we can envision a problem which will only get worse over time.
While the solutions we propose in Sorted, which would empower communities to take the lead on recreational activities, such as reclaiming the recreational spaces and facilities bought over or ran by private companies, are a promising start, these improvements are still a long way off. Right now, we still have to contend with the private interests which are intent on commodifying the human experience.
So, what can we do?
Living in the moment, romanticising our own mere existence, being ‘the main character’ as the young people say now, is just the start. Accepting that, while everything we do will have some sort of cost attached to it, as is the nature of being human, we can and should have some say over what kinds of costs these may be. If going for a drive through the countryside at sunset will stop me from buying half a dozen imported, plastic houseplants, then the costs outweigh the benefits, and the emotional high will always last longer. Then maybe next year, the appearance of the sun won’t fill me with a sense of unease that I’m not doing enough with my free time, instead giving a reassurance that whatever I choose to do with it is in no one’s best interests but my own. Maybe with the exception of my nephew, if I remember to buy him more bubbles.