11/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Simple Life: A Value Liberals Share With Libertarians

Maybe it's because I'm involved in it myself, but these days it seems like I can't turn on the computer without seeing an article about urban farming, homesteading and living off the grid. Among the liberal crowd - no doubt fueled by the likes of Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingslover and Joel Salatin (who is no liberal by any means) - urban farming and local food is all the rage.

What many "locavores" and "foodies" don't know is that a very similar movement has been going on for decades on the other side of the party line. Or, I should say, on the other side of the other side of the party line...

The farthest of the right thinks anarchy is coming after the collapse of a bloated government. The farthest of the left thinks we are headed for disaster as a result of abusing the Earth's resources. Both are preparing in similar ways for what they see as a possible, if not inevitable, fall of modern civilization as we know it. In-between the extremes lies a tapestry made up of many types of people with different party affiliations, beliefs and values who just yearn for a simpler life.

The violent, apocalyptic end foreseen and feared by many on the far right is in contrast to the forced-but-necessary return to simplicity that is all but hoped-for from the far left. Yet both visions of the future, and distaste for present political, social and economic realities, have led each of these farthest-of-far flung poles to some of the same basic values.

Hope For The Best. Prepare For The Worst.
John Silveira writes about "The Coming American Dictatorship" for Backwoods Home Magazine, which could generally be described as Mother Earth News for Libertarians. Of course, that applies to the days when "Mother Earth" was a meatier, more independent publication.

We're not talking about the kind of pseudo/neo-Libertarians you see at tea parties; the ones who don't know the difference between fascism and socialism; the ones who are just afraid of whatever Glenn Beck tells them to be afraid of this week. Mr. Silveira is a true Libertarian; an intelligent, articulate, independent American who subscribes to a certain ideology after having informed himself and come to his own conclusions. And although his political and economic ideologies differ greatly from the average Mother Earth News reader, they may have more in common than you would think. For example, topics like renewable energy, self-sufficiency, simple living and environmental stewardship.

Let's explore how the same interests and values can be obtained through vastly different viewpoints.

Mr. Silveira's readers might have a "doomsday shelter" in the boondocks with a wood burning stove, guns buried in the yard and canned goods in the basement. Such "eccentricities" may strike you as odd until they are compared to an off-the-grid earthship built by an aging hippie in the middle of the desert. Both are hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

Mother Earth News authors will write about things like solar electric, wind turbines and micro-hydro because readers are interested in renewable energy topics as solutions to environmental problems. Backwoods Home will tell you, step-by-step, how to build your own wind turbine, or wire solar panels in a daisy chain primarily because their readers are interested in getting off the grid for political, economic, and religious reasons - among others.

Liberals love organic food. That is no secret. And, while some liberals like to think they're the only ones hip or smart enough to care about the topic, conservative Libertarians like Jacky Clay have also been writing about it for decades. It's just a way of life in the country, especially when you're trying to be self-sufficient.

The serious modern Liberal is a do-it-yourself type of person. At least, one gets that impression by reading all of the articles about building your own backyard chicken coop, top bar bee hive, greenhouse, etc... If there is anything at all the far right and far left can agree on, it is the importance of DIY skills for self-sufficiency such as: canning, building, growing, making your own clothes, raising livestock.... The right will further add skills like hunting, butchering and gun maintenance to the list. Other than that, both sides are pretty much aligned in these interests.

As mentioned above, Earthships are a prime example of a post-apocalyptic dwelling invented by so-called "liberals". But did you know strawbale homes were being built by conservative, protestant settlers in the heartland of America long before "green" took on a new meaning? Think about the Libertarian battle cry of "less government". By definition, a Libertarian home - as in free of government power lines, government water, government sewerage - would ideally be green. It would have to generate its own power, treat its own waste, conserve water, maintain a high level of energy efficiency, be buildable with local materials, and so-on.

Liberals and Libertarians both generally value community and neighborliness, and demonstrate those values in very similar ways. Every issue of Backwoods Home is full of stories about neighbors helping each other out, and they often write about rural communities coming together to get through the tough times. What seems to separate Liberals from Libertarians is the notion that the government should be involved in "helping" the community in such ways. I know plenty of self-described Liberal friends who volunteer in the community, but most of them are just as happy to pay higher taxes for government programs to do the same. Americans are generally good people with big hearts who want to help their friends and neighbors. We just don't always agree on the best way to go about it.

Despite the "baa-a-a-a-a-a-a" sound coming from town halls these days, the Libertarian movement is fiercely independent in thought and action. Just as Liberals value higher education as a means to acquire knowledge, Libertarians value experience as a means to acquire wisdom. And both groups value the idea of "thinking for yourself" over "following the crowd". I don't think even the most judgmental of Liberals could read articles by Dave Duffy or follow a conversation between author John Silveira and his alter-ego MacDougal and come to the conclusion that these men follow blindly behind talking heads like Glenn Beck.

There has been a lot of talk about "voluntary simplicity" lately. It seems to be something that always pops up as a point of Liberal discussion in times like these. Henry David Thoreau published Walden in 1854, in which he shared his thoughts on simple living and life in the woods. Helen and Scott Nearing famously wrote about "The Good Life" they made for themselves during The Great Depression. Encouraged by the Nearings' success, a wave of "back to the landers" followed suit during the 1960's and 1970's.

Thoreau, the Nearings, and back-to-the-land hippies valued nature, hard work, time with family and friends, and wide-open spaces where they could contemplate. In other words, like today's urban homesteaders, they valued a simple life. These are values you find again and again when speaking with Libertarians. The major difference is that they see government and bureaucracy as unnecessarily complicated things that keep them from living a "simple" life. Healthcare reform aside, it is easy to see how Libertarians can come to such a conclusion.

Recognizing our similar interests and knowing where and why we disagree is probably as close as we can get to empathy in this politically charged time. As a subscriber to both Backwoods Home Magazine and BackHome Magazine (a much closer comparison than BWH and Mother Earth), I often read what seems to be the same article written through totally different lenses. It has taught me that the "far right" can no more be stereotyped than the "far left". Libertarians are not all (or even mostly) ignorant, ranting religious fanatics who hate something without being able to articulate what or why they hate. And Liberals are not all (or even mostly) over-educated, ivy-tower, anti-religion miscreants who want the government to wipe their bottoms for them.

I urge you to pick up a copy of Back Woods Home, or an old Foxfire Book. Skip the "editor's note" and move into the meat of the articles. You may find, after you get over the rhetoric, that it is a far better publication than the glossy advertorial rags you're buying at the Whole Foods checkout counter.