History, Job Ecology, and “Location Independence”

Author's grandmother and great-grandfather

Author's grandmother and great-grandfather before embarking on their move to Brazil

“The only thing we can learn from history is that no one ever learns from history.” (Hegel) – Not so.

Americans go to China, Chinese to America, everybody wants to spend some time in Europe (except maybe some of the Europeans), Bali entices, subtropical Mexico beckons – and everyone can easily live and work wherever they want.

Some things are quite different now from how they used to be.

Given mobile phones and social media, it is possible to have clients halfway around the world you work for while living somewhere entirely different. It is also possible to make a living in rather new ways.

The usual example is the location independent hyper-modern, hyper-connected, probably American, person who follows his (or her) fascination with the ‘other’ and ideas of geo-arbitrage in living in a subtropical, exotic – and cheaper – place while having online customers or clients “back home.”

Maybe the more interesting example would be the local farmer who is no longer completely dependent on an intermediary or a local market alone, but can find out prices of his produce in the entire region, or maybe even sell local specialty products globally, thanks to connections made by mobile, or better yet smart, phone.

And then, you have the look towards the future. Which, realistically speaking, does not look like it will be in quite so “flat” a world. Even now, location matters more than some people realize (with language barriers, visa rules for citizens of different nationality, availability and cost of internet connections and transport,…). In a future where energy is likely to be scarce, though, transport will be more costly, and it will not be as easy to travel or ship products around the whole world. Stronger localization will ensue, not least as the need for the subsistence garden and surplus primary production may very well rise to renewed prominence.

Author's grandmother and great-grandfather
Author’s grandmother and great-grandfather before embarking to Brazil

At the same time, looking back at history… there has always been some migration. Entire peoples sometimes moved wide and far. There are supposedly more people from the Burgenland (the part of Austria the writer of these lines lives in) in Chicago than there are here.

The early 20th century was less energy-rich and had considerably less high-tech than we have today. Hardly anybody even flew anywhere by plane – but the author’s grandmother accompanied her father in his (short-lived) emigration to Brazil. They went by boat (what else?) and saw the arrival of the airship  LZ127 Graf Zeppelin in Rio de Janeiro (on its Europe-Pan America journey) in the same year, 1930. And, those zeppelin journeys were even funded by the sale of commemorative postcards and stamps, by the way, in what amounts to an earlier use of crowdfunding.

So, location independence as it is done nowadays is something new that may or may not be possible even in the rather near future. The easy, fast  and cheap (especially air) travel of the present is different from how it was even just 20 years ago, so hardly a normal state of affairs that is likely to last. Neither is making a living in (online) sales of knick-knacks and (social media) marketing, and many related contemporary jobs which are based not so much on the production of anything useful as on the relative affluence (of rock-bottom prices and good-enough or decent incomes) we have recently been seeing.

Trade in necessary resources/goods not locally available, or in (relative) luxury goods highly desired has also been around for just about as long as there have been humans, however. Even when localization becomes necessary again, simply because there is less energy to expend on transporting soy beans from the USA and Brazil to China and knick-knacks from there to the more-affluent countries, some communication, migration, and trade is likely to go on.

After all, we have seen the advantages of it, we know what good it can bring… and we will continue elements of it that still make sense even if it is trading by sail boat again – as, in fact, New Dawn Traders and the Fair Trade sailors of the Tres Hombres have started experimenting with – and Paolo Bacigalupi suggested in his fiction writing. Rococo Chocolates’ Gru Grococo attests to the possibility – and puts things into perspective…

Moreover, we can learn something more from the notion of location independence: Whether in your birthplace or somewhere far away, the way to find work is to have skills you can use anywhere, to work with the opportunities and constraints a location offers (whether those are natural, technological, or other). The way to find a home, in fact, is to make yourself at home, getting to know the place you are and starting to really see it, and live in it.

Leave a Reply

Related articles