The Atlantic did an unintentionally hilarious profile this week on people who are dropping off the grid in order “escape Trump’s America.”
One couple identifies as “Christian anarchists.” At first that sounds absurd because anarchy means lawlessness which is wholly incompatible with Christianity. But according to Merriam-Webster there is an alternate definition of anarchy: “a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government.” After reading that you realize that it’s absurd for an entirely different reason: Utopia is an unachievable ideal. What these folks are doing sounds like a far cry from Utopia anyway.
For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
Toddlers playing near open flames and eating unrefrigerated food. Sounds blissful.
They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.
How many is “many?” In my experience, very few Americans radically overhaul their lives. I suspect the number who choose to abandon electricity and fossil fuels altogether is not “many” by any definition.
Rachel Sarah and Nicolas acknowledge that living like this is no easy task. (I never realized utopia was supposed to be a grind.)
They’ve had trouble recruiting people to join full-time; their project has mostly been attractive to transient, 20-something interns, several of whom have lived with them. “What we’ve discovered in a big way is that you can’t do this by yourself, even in a city,” said Rachel Sarah. “And you can’t homestead by yourself if you have a family even more.”
It is hard to imagine why they’ve had a hard time recruiting people to willingly live like flood victims.
Perhaps worst of all, Nicolas recently injured his arm, which “flavored our whole year,” Rachel Sarah said. He had been planning to develop ways to make their own food and medicine.
Sorry, honey. I’m not going to be able to reinvent agriculture and science this week. Hurt my arm. Gonna need to push back inventing the cotton gin at least six months too.
They’ve also found out that most people who are agreeable to the hobo lifestyle (i.e. wackdoodle leftist hippies) tend to look down on Christianity.
“Among people who are wanting to live the same lifestyle—being fossil-fuel free—there is a lot of push against Christianity,” Rachel Sarah said. “It’s almost like anything is okay except Christianity, because that’s oppressive.”
“Coexist” only applies to non-oppressive religions. Like Islam. Nicolas does hit on a pretty fundamental truth though. People like him don’t really distrust government unless there’s a Republican in office.
Trump’s election left Nicolas feeling sick to his stomach, he said, but he sees an upside. “When there’s a Democrat in power, social-justice-minded people go to sleep, because they feel validated by what they hear on NPR,” he said.
That’s because “social-justice-minded people” are mostly totalitarian leftists who exploit alleged injustice to justify telling other people what to do. The ones who don’t fit that category were mostly duped by that category.
Another group called The Living Energy Farm (I think they used to tour with Jethro Tull) refers to themselves as “neo-Amish” according to Alexis Zeigler, though they aren’t Amish or even religious. They’re not particularly neo either. They’re basically Gilligan’s Island without the laugh track and the Skipper is really Karl Marx.
In the summer, they cook with a small solar dish and a rocket stove behind the kitchen; they’re building a bigger dish, taller than a grown man, nearby. They hooked up an exercise bike to a washing machine and rigged a pair of old tractors to run on wood gas rather than gasoline, although they aren’t quite functional. They built their own food-drying room off the kitchen, where they process vegetables grown on their 127 acres, and they graft fruit-tree branches onto wild stems. “We refer to it as neo-Amish, or Amish without the patriarchy,” Zeigler said.
Down with the patriarchy and down with capitalism!
The Living Energy Farm residents seem less invested in critiquing government than capitalism. “We don’t buy gasoline, and we don’t pay anybody bills for energy,” Zeigler said. “It’s not coincidental that this frees us from corporate dependence.” For his part, Zeigler doesn’t think government is inherently bad, and doesn’t identify as an anarchist. (“The problem with anarchism is not that the theory, in its ideal sense, is broken. It’s that a lot of nitwits use that word,” he said.)
A lot of nitwits also wash their clothes with an exercise bike and build non-functional tractors that burn inefficient fuel.
There are some other hilarious nuggets of misguided foolishness from other groups.
Cambians share their income, and their goal is to “create an alternative to mainstream or capitalist society,” they said. They fund their community in part through a small woodworking shop, where they make wooden spoons. They have a car, and get about a third of their food from grocery-store dumpsters—they’re “freegans,” Sutherland said, meaning they only eat meat and dairy if it’s going to be thrown away.
Isn’t selling wooden spoons a form of capitalism? They are saying that their “alternative” to capitalism is basically capitalism plus being really poor.
They follow practices called “natural building,” using materials like cob (a combination of clay, sand, and straw) to line their walls, and wood-based energy sources for heat. Their backyard is full of spare parts and fixtures, including a random sink and lots of wood; their free time is often spent on construction projects.
“Wood-based energy sources” or “wood” for the layman.
There is something to be said for learning how to survive without modern conveniences. They may not always be there. Abandoning them without cause is just like going camping…forever. It might be fun for a few days but most people are going to be looking for a hot shower and a cold beer before the weekend’s over.
Even if fossil fuels and evil Republicans really are destroying the planet, I will guarantee you that the people who find a viable alternative energy source aren’t going to be the ones living in mud huts with no electricity and dumpster diving for expired meat. You don’t get closer to your goal by reversing course.