When we consider the criticisms made of the modern world since the 1970s, as well as the solutions proposed to resolve current and future global crises, we inevitably come across the issue of autonomy. This autonomy is framed in terms of energy and food, but also with regard to medicine, finance, etc. Eventual resilience of societies in the face of the major changes on the horizon will only be possible through systems which are less dependent on a globalised organisation, less dependent on ultra-complex super-tools, less dependent on fossil fuels, and less dependent on multinationals and corporations which jealously guard their knowledge. In order to live well in the future, we need to reclaim essential skills and wisdom: how to feed ourselves, cure ourselves, build a home, etc., all at a much more local scale.
There has been a loss of autonomy among societies and individuals, who have become dependent upon a system which is destructive not only to the planet but also to the group or individual themselves. This is certainly true.
However, we can also suggest a similar reading at a rather more basic level: modern human beings have largely lost their physical autonomy, even in their locomotion and seating arrangements. Just as the global economy is addicted to oil, modern man is hooked on footwear and armchairs (both now originating from oil, incidentally – the trap is total), as he is no longer able to live without them. Try it for yourself for 24 hours, and you’ll understand. This addiction results in, on the one hand, the incessant production and consumption of highly processed, globalised products (the noteworthy example of the pair of trainers), as well as, on the other hand, the emergence of physical dysfunctions and other medical complications in individuals.
 Locomotion autonomy
“The worst thing that ever happened to feet was shoes, or perhaps the second worst, after paved surfaces. These two products of urban civilization have conquered the human foot and created an entire specialty in the field of medicine. Our ancestors crossed continents, pursued wild game, danced for days on end – all without shoes. What about us ?” George Sheehan, runner
While taking off my shoes one day almost four years ago, I was forced to confront a startling observation: I was physically dependent upon this simple accessory to move around. Running for more than 5 minutes on asphalt, even if it was smooth, was painful. Walking, moving forward on stony, natural paths was simply unimaginable. Better still, several months after this discovery, I realised that my behaviour, my movements, my attitude, and my walking and running technique had been particularly violent and destructive to me for all these years, provoking recurrent injuries and psychological fatigue.
But without protection on my feet, I became aware, simultaneously, of my body and my environment and was forced to show respect to both of them. Over the course of four years of practice, I have developed a certain fluidity and precision in my movements, a greater wisdom and caution in my behaviour, (and, secondarily, much better times in the half-marathon), and have been able to enjoy all the benefits which come with that, particularly in terms of wellbeing and health. But I understand that my weaning is not yet complete: my feet are still not fully functional, and I am not yet able to adjust to all of the ground’s rough patches or to complete several consecutive days of hiking. To achieve this, I estimate it will take me another ten years or more. Adults in transition are particularly slow in their progression towards autonomy, and nothing can accelerate the process.
my little neighbor and great master, showing me the autonomous, natural, efficient, and healthy running style : relaxed posture, vertical torso, bent knee while landing the foot, and ball of the foot touching the ground before the heel.
Feeling the ground, becoming conscious of my body and my environment, and then, trying to build a respectful relation for both of them.
 Seating autonomy
“We no longer know how to crouch. I believe it is an absurdity and an inferiority of our races, civilisations, and societies. (…) The crouching position (squat) is, in my opinion, an interesting position to maintain in children. The biggest mistake is to strip them of it. All of humanity, apart from our societies, has maintained it.” Marcel Mauss, ethnologist – 1934
I was quickly prompted to make the same observation regarding my sitting habits as my movements: comfort was impossible without a chair. Cross-legged sitting became painful in less than five minutes, and a crouching position was simply impossible to attain. I was therefore dependent on a manufactured product just to sit down. A dizzying wake-up call. Yet crouching is the most natural sitting position there is, offered to us by Mother Nature. All young children practise it instinctively, and we find it among adults around the world, in places where the chair has not yet established itself culturally. The benefits of this position are numerous. In other words, the loss of this natural ability can lead to numerous complications: difficulties in childbirth, haemorrhoids, bowel cancer, constipation, lower back pain, and the list goes on. Cross-legged sitting, and all related positions (lotus, semi-lotus, etc.), albeit less instinctive and more derived from cultural codes, also allow autonomous sitting, which is healthy and comfortable for several hours at a time.
For three years now, I have been abiding by a daily regime to develop the flexibility necessary for these two postures. I have made progress, and can already hold the lotus position for several seconds, but I would need several more decades before attaining a true feeling of relaxation in these positions. As with walking, the transition towards autonomous sitting, free of all support, is slow and tedious.
my nephew and my neighbor teaching me the natural and autonomous way of sitting
My squat after two years of work. Still not functional : my buttock high in the air and far away from my ankles. I’m not having a rest, I’m still working towards my autonomy.
It is difficult then not to see school as a machine for transforming children into future consumers, once they have become dependent upon the chair (the school bench) and the shoe (compulsory dress code). This reading of the situation may provoke amusement, but Microsoft has understood the principle and is now trying to impose its presence in French schools to create generations of future adults who are dependent on computer systems, and who will inevitably become consumers of the products offered by the company.
We could, in contrast, imagine an educational system which supports children in becoming autonomous individuals and masters of their own bodies and minds, both fully functional.
“It is one of the mysteries, this way of ours with a child. He comes to us equipped with everything he needs for a happy, successful life and we ignore his equipment and attempt to substitute one of our own, manufactured to our order. We have set up a false standard and the result mocks us. Let’s get down to the bare earth on our bare feet for a time and feel life from the ground up.” Angelo Patri, School Principal, Bronx – 1932
 The tool and the problem
The problem is not so much the tool as its excessive use.
A (good) pair of shoes does not weaken the feet nor alter an individual’s behaviour. It is purely the prolonged absence of barefoot experience which gives rise to these damages and losses. Equally, chairs are not directly responsible for our inability to sit naturally. It is the prolonged absence of crouching which causes individuals to lose the possibility of enjoying this healthy resting position. Once we have understood this mechanism, we can then apply the same approach to all of our more or less modern tools, from music scores (which allow the composition and transmission of complex works, but which do not invite us to develop our listening skills, our improvisation and our memory nor promote oral transmission and group cohesion, etc.) to the GPS for navigating the Parisian suburbs (allowing, at times, a simpler and quicker journey, but developing neither a sense of direction, map reading skills nor social interaction).
It is therefore not a question of rejecting these tools, but of taking a critical look at them. We should consider the bad habits they allow us to adopt, as well as the skills they invite us to abandon. We must acknowledge the autonomy they cause us to lose, and the dependency they push us towards (and, as always, their impact on the planet). Once we do this, we will be in a position to regulate the use we wish to make of the tools, by establishing limits and thresholds to be respected. This may be done individually and/or at the political level.
Will this approach be valid for all technical and scientific innovations? Perhaps not. There is likely to be a particular set of tools to be rejected out of hand, simply because they are highly harmful and destructive by their very nature. It is difficult to reach a consensus as to which tools should be placed in this category, as each individual perceives the dangers they may pose differently.
Another problem occurs when a tool is adopted by the majority of a population (spontaneously or, in the vast majority of cases, following extensive advertising and propaganda). The whole system then reorganises itself around this new tool, at the risk of rendering it compulsory and of marginalising those who reject it, as well as those who do not have the means to access it. Can we still survive socially without a smartphone or WhatsApp? Can we obtain a loan from a bank without shoes on our feet (and indeed, can we live without loans)? Can we invite friends to our homes without chairs to offer them? Very often, the tool ends up imposing itself upon us, even when we do not really want or need it.
“Because, above a certain threshold, the tool transforms from a servant into a despot. Above a certain threshold, society becomes a school, a hospital, a prison. And so begins the great imprisonment. (…) I call ‘convivial society’ those societies in which modern tools serve the individual as part of the community, rather than serving a body of specialists. A convivial society is one in which man controls the tool.” Ivan Illich – Tools for Conviviality, 1973
Very helpful resources for those who would be interested into starting a transition to an autonomous body :
My blog about shoes and bare feet: www.mytrailtosanfrancisco.wordpress.com