“We must accept finite disappointment,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., “but never lose infinite hope.”
Americans have seen their share of disappointments in recent years. We have always been a forward-looking nation, but as we’ve watched numberless tragedies unfold—from the melting of polar ice caps to the rise of authoritarian populism—many have wondered if there will even be a future, let alone a bright one.
Still, a growing number of Americans persist in pursuing that most hopeful of endeavors: planting something in the ground and making it grow. This act of optimism, along with a number of other aspects of sustainable living, is at the heart of Mark Sundeen’s new book, The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America.
In this deeply thought-provoking work, Sundeen follows three very different couples striving to achieve lives of sustainability, simplicity, and meaning—while himself coming to terms with those ideals in his own, newly married life. His subjects are distinct: Modern-day hippies Ethan and Sarah found an intentional community in an isolated corner of Missouri; mixed-race couple Olivia and Greg grow vegetables on a vacant lot in Detroit; and in Missoula, Montana, Luci and Steve spend decades fighting to build and maintain a viable organic farm. All three couples face enormous uphill battles. All choose to raise families while pursuing their dream. And all keep going when the going gets tough, which is basically all the time.
It’s no wonder that many Americans are heeding the back-to-the-land call. Technology and the pace of modern life drive us to distraction. We want to regain control over how we live and what we eat. We want to reclaim our agency over our economic and societal choices.
It is both a fraught and fascinating time for the growing number of people pursuing sustainable living. Food and farming are central to the sustainability movement, yet farming has long been on the decline. As Sundeen points out, during the Great Depression, twenty-five percent of Americans lived on farms, but by 1970, only four percent did. Considering factors like the high cost of land and the muscle of big agribusiness, starting a farm in 21st century America feels a little like tilting at windmills.
But that doesn’t stop Sundeen’s subjects, who, staunch in their faith in a better future, take self-sufficiency even further than farming. Ethan refuses to ride in a car, opting for a bicycle instead; he and Sarah built their home themselves with natural materials and without power tools, and they don’t use electricity or the internet. In a bankrupt city with a dysfunctional government and out-of-control crime, Greg protects Olivia and their homestead with a shotgun. And Luci and Steve refuse to participate in the government’s organic certification program, instead launching the Montana Sustainable Growers Union and, explains Sundeen, “branding their produce with an ornery stamp: homegrown.”
It’s neither hope nor simple joys, however, that drive such idealists out of the mainstream and keep them plowing and planting in the face of ridiculous odds. “The pleasures of rustic living—the clean living, the clear skies—are generally not enough to justify an existence of voluntary hardship,” Sundeen writes. “To stick with it, the motivations must also be economic and ethical.”
For Luci, even making cake from scratch versus buying cake mix in a box presents such a choice. “We’ve been sold the lie that easy is better,” Sundeen quotes Luci as saying. “When we embrace easy, we’re not examining what we give up.”
As for Olivia and Greg, “their goal was not just to change what people eat; they wanted to change how they eat,” Sundeen explains. “‘I want the garden to replace the café, the garden to replace the grocery store,’” Greg told Sundeen. They wanted to fight the likes of Monsanto by building “a new economic model of food distribution.”
With every modern convenience they forsake, Ethan and Sarah make a political statement. “Riding a bike was not just riding a bike; it was a boycott of the fuel industry that waged wars and destroyed indigenous people,” Sundeen writes. “Milking your own cow—and then butchering it—was resistance against feedlots, subsidized genetically modified corn, slaughterhouses, plastic packaging, and supermarkets. Singing on the porch was a boycott of Hollywood and the electricity cartels.”
The reality is that most Americans aren’t about to start living off the land or giving up cars. Most Americans are hard-pressed even to consider the ingredients in what they buy. Indeed, Sundeen himself concludes that his path is not one of pure off-the-grid homesteading; instead he supports his wife in her decision to go to graduate school, and he accepts that his raison d’être is to write.
This country was built by pioneers who led by example—people like Ethan and Sarah, Olivia and Greg, and Luci and Steve, who changed the paradigm with their actions. But it was also built by people like Sundeen, mavericks of arts and letters whose calling it is to tell us what’s happening in the world and help us make better choices. And that’s hopeful—and sustainable.