When author Mark Sundeen set out to write his latest book, he thought he would be telling a story of Americans living off the grid, eschewing conveniences like electricity and cellphones for “the simple life.”
But it wasn’t long before Sundeen began to question his premise. Decamping to the countryside and living off the land, he suspected, was neither as straightforward nor as revolutionary as Americans daydreaming of tiny houses, solar panels and vegetable gardens might think. Rather than looking for people avoiding the institutions they abhorred, he decided to seek people actively working to create new norms.
That pivot led Sundeen to the three families at the heart of The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America, published this week. The families, living in Victor, Montana; La Plata, Missouri; and Detroit, share visions of an American dream stripped of most luxuries. And instead of just talking about it, they’re actually doing it.
The author shows the triumph and struggle in the families’ quests. But above all, their stories display tenacity and perseverance that is, at times, hard to imagine in the face of great challenges and sacrifices.
The Huffington Post recently spoke with Sundeen about his work, and why — in today’s world — its message of grit is perhaps more timely than ever.
What inspired you to go about writing this book — to find these people who have turned to living off the land and off the grid?
Basically, the book is about families with children who are living in ethical dissent to the economy and the government, and doing so in a way that they don’t lose their mind or soul. In fact, they find joy in what they do. I guess the joy part of it is important because if you look at the problems we face as a society — from war to racism to species extinction — you tend to feel so helpless. Part of the reason you feel so helpless is because we feel entirely dependent on the industries that are destroying us.
We hate the banks, we hate Wall Street, but we’re the bank’s customers. We have mortgages, credit cards and bank accounts that enrich the banks. We hate Big Ag and GMOs and soil depletion, but unless we’re growing our own food, it’s pretty hard to extract yourself from that system. And we might hate the oil companies and global warming, but everything we touch in our society is either made of or delivered by oil. So how do we go from there without being completely depressed? The people I was after were not those who just dropped out, but those who were trying to invent innovative systems to replace those.
How did you find these people who are innovating?
Once I met all three of the families, I knew they were the ones who told the stories I wanted to tell, and in most cases were telling a story I hadn’t even heard of yet. Ironically, I found the couple in Missouri that didn’t use the internet or any electricity or cellphones after posting a note on Facebook looking for people living off the grid with children. Through a series of contacts and connections, I was given their landline phone number and I called them up. The Montana family was easiest to find because they were friends of friends and I was living in Missoula at the time.
I found the Detroit family as I started to meet and interview people you might call “preppers” living in rural America. They were largely white and privileged, and they were sort of preparing for the collapse. But I started to think the collapse has already arrived in places like New Orleans and Detroit, and the people who suffer are not white, middle-class, educated preppers. They are largely poor people of color.
How is what these families are doing different from off-grid living?
When I got started, I thought the book would be about people living off the grid, which turned out to be the least interesting thing about them. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, off the grid meant living in dissent with the global economy. Today, you can be off the grid in a solar-powered house and, like, trading stocks on the internet. I realized that being off the grid was not a big deal in terms of transforming society.
America has this ethos that you can have whatever you want and live the dream, but these people say, “No, you can’t have it all.” And by deliberately choosing not to have it, they might be more rich in a non-material way.
So much of the book centers around food. You spent a lot of time with these families and shared a number of meals. Did you have a favorite one?
The first meal that pops to mind is one I had with the Possibility Alliance [in Missouri]. Every Friday, Ethan [Hughes] would have a big feast and he cooks this amazing spread with roasted peppers and fresh greens. What was memorable about it was that they had fresh beef from their neighbor, and since they don’t have refrigeration, the only way they could get beef is if their neighbor kills a cow and walks over across the street and asks if they want some beef.
It was a truly local meal in every sense because these people don’t have chocolate and coffee and condiments. There were just some Concord grapes off the vine and some berries and then dessert with fresh cream that had just been pulled from the cows and sweetened with honey.
I think the sort of food movement has become mixed up as a luxury item, as something that fancy people do because they have snooty taste. But of course, it’s actually the opposite. It’s not about consumption, it’s about production. And that was evidenced by this meal, where everything had come from either their land or their neighbors’ land.
Speaking of the food movement, the families you interviewed all had a complex relationship with it. Why do you think that is?
The local food movement began as a sort of changing of the means of production, of using appropriate technology. Now, it’s transformed into this elitist sort of consumption. It’s like you want to eat whatever fresh garlic scapes, organic kohlrabi or whatever exotic vegetables you can find. In some ways, it’s become its own enemy.
As Luci [Brieger] mentioned [in the book], if you’re buying organic grapes flown in from Peru in the middle of winter, you’ve missed the entire point. It’s true you’re not eating any pesticides, but you’re causing this plane to fly grapes from South America. It’s insane.
I was also fascinated that Greg and Olivia [Willerer] refused to deal with Whole Foods, which so many people saw coming to Detroit as a huge victory because fresh, organic, healthy food had arrived in a food desert. But to them, it was just a corporation sucking money out of Detroit and putting it into shareholder pockets.
The current political climate seems to provide a particularly interesting backdrop to this idea of creating alternative ways of living. Obviously, you couldn’t quite anticipate that.
I definitely had no idea when I was writing this that Donald Trump would be president and, sadly, this book has become much more relevant now. Writing this during the Obama age, I thought a fair criticism of these people would be that they’re like Chicken Little, thinking the world is so terrible that we have to create a new one. But I think millions more of people are suddenly saying we live in a corrupt petrostate in which our government is taking an active role in destroying our world, so how can we fight it, resist it and stop it? It seemed very prophetic to me.
What do you hope people will take away from reading this book?
I hope the book is totally inspiring to people, though I don’t think many people who read this will follow the path these people did. They didn’t just one day decide to do this, they spent 10, 15, 30 years gradually getting to where they are now. To farm on vacant lots in Detroit, these people have to love it.
This is their dream, and they have the courage, the willpower and the strength to do it. I’m not totally sure that what they’re doing is replicable on a large scale, but in these times where we feel so powerless and we can’t even make basic, free-will decisions to live ethical and meaningful lives, I’m inspired by the people who have the courage to pursue these dreams that seem nuts to everyone else. Watching them might inspire other people to at least say, hey, I might not be able to live without electricity, but I might get out of debt or stop using so much oil and gas.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.