Jean-Paul Gagnon: What is ‘seachange’ and where in the world is this happening?

Nicholas Osbaldiston: This is an important question and one that deserves teasing out. For one, the phenomenon of seachange involves a type of urban and suburban escapism. In particular, it’s the movement of people, across a number of countries in mainly the developed world, who have become disaffected with the environment they live in within the confines of the metropolis into regions traditionally left behind in the progress of modernisation.

Now the fundamentals of the movement were once aligned to other collective attempts at alternative styles of consumption and lifestyle, such as voluntary simplicity (Elgin 1981), downshifting (Schor 1998; Hamilton 2003) and some of the slow movements (Parkins and Craig 2006). Seachange was not just a physical shift but also an individual shift in ideas, values and conceptions about the ‘good life’. Often people who undertook a seachange completely transformed careers, consumption habits and social relations. For instance, I have talked through my years researching the topic to people who were once high flyers (career-wise) in major capital cities that in their new regional location started cafes, restaurants, boutiques, life-coaching and bed and breakfast accommodation. The transformation was very much attuned to this idea of ‘seachanging’ one’s entire life through geographical location.

As the movement has grown older however, these foundations have been lost through a process of marketing and mass public interest. Nowadays, at least here in Australia, you often hear of people performing a ‘seachange’ but it is understood as simply a shift towards the coast; hence why researchers and real estate specialists now refer to the movement towards the country/bush as ‘treechange’. The movement was never merely about an escape from the city to the beach to live the lap of luxury. It was originally designated as a genuine attempt to recover something lost in the messy social world we embrace in urban/suburban social life. Furthermore, it was never something entertained solely by the middle classes. However now, it would seem that seachange is predominantly a middle class phenomenon. This is evident in the work of Michaela Benson (2012) (amongst others) who wrote an exquisite ethnographic account of what the Europeans call ‘lifestyle migration’ in her book The British in rural France: Lifestyle migration and the ongoing search for a better way of life.

JPG: What are the major political implications of this shift?

NO:  This is more difficult to answer because there are really in my view two effects of seachange upon the political landscape. Firstly, there is the broader cultural disaffection with consumption from which the movement was first instigated. The ideas here are not too distinct from downshifting, voluntary simplicity, slow food, slow cities and simple living. It is founded upon not just a disdain for city/suburban life (though that is a major component of it), but also a cultural narrative that speaks to a popular rhetoric of ‘there must be something more to life than this’. In particular, there is a narrative that threads through these movements including the first forms of seachanging which makes the argument that a consumption focussed lifestyle is one that does not lead to happiness and success. Rather, consumption practices need to be altered either through food, place, services and travel in order to capture something more meaningful that feeds directly into one’s sense of self. I argue in my forthcoming book Seeking Authenticity in Place, Culture and Self that such transformation is really an exercise in self-authentication; a process by which the individual can remove themselves from those things which he/she deem to be profaning the self to those activities and environments which enhance the self. Politically speaking, when collectives begin to resist the pull of mass consumerism, this creates a potential for a more ethical and environmentally sustainable future. Indeed others have argued this point such as Kate Soper’s (2007) ‘alternative hedonism’ arguments and Wendy Parkins and Geoffrey Craig’s (2006) book Slow Living. In both instances, the theoretical position is that through alternative practices of consumption, individuals themselves can in fact choose lifestyle and consumption options that are more sustainable in the long term while also enhancing their own sense of self. Martin Ryle and Kate Soper for instance discuss this in an upcoming chapter in the edited book The Culture of the Slow (Osbaldiston, in press) whereby they contend that the relatively fresh reuptake of bicycle transportation provides the State with the opportunity to reduce traffic pollution, congestion and other issues while also delivering a pleasurable experience for the individual. The same tenets potentially apply to slow food, slow travel, slow cities and even seachange wherein people are able to experience more distinct pleasures than what are found in the general malaise of everyday life.


Published in Political Reflection Magazine (PR) Vol. 3  No. 2