What Good Is Simplicity in Today’s America?

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

Editor's Note:

Mark Sundeen is the author of several books, most recently The Unsettlers and The Man Who Quit Money, as well as the coauthor of North by Northwestern, which was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. In this piece, Mark makes the case for living the simple life in today’s America.

When I wrote The Unsettlers, my nonfiction book about three families living in radical simplicity, I could not have predicted what would become of the United States. I feared that the subjects of my book, with their mistrust of government and their boycott of fossil fuels and their insistence on growing their own food, might be deemed Chicken Littles, fixated on America’s failures without appreciating its technological wonders and relative freedoms.

Now we are all unsettled, living under a regime that is not – as in the days of yore – corrupt and incompetent yet generally well-meaning. Rather, our tax dollars now enable an instrument of carnage: you and I tithe a portion of our daily wage for this barrage of official lies, constant threat of nuclear war, attacks on women and brown people, and the elimination National Monuments for more drilling and mining. Ours has become a rogue state that defies virtually every other nation on earth in denying that burning oil and gas is warming the planet and inviting catastrophe.

And so the question turns out to be not whether my subjects were overreacting but whether their type of resistance was enough. They were not devoting much time to calling their congressmen, organizing town halls, or flying to Washington to march. I was in Detroit staying at urban homestead owned by Greg Willerer and Olivia Hubert on the day of the Women’s March; when I asked if they were going, they hadn’t heard about it. They spent the afternoon sorting seeds for the coming spring.

But the Unsettlers are not dropouts who fled the problems wrought by our system of exploitative capitalism and structural racism. Rather, each of them began as some sort of activist, and evolved toward a life of radical simplicity in which nearly every waking act was one of resistance. For Steve and Luci at Lifeline Farms in Montana, growing and selling organic food defies and replaces the agribusiness that depends on the oil and chemical industries. For Greg and Olivia at Brother Nature Produce, homesteading in Detroit not only turned a wasteland into a garden, it built an independent viable black-owned business. And for Ethan and Sarah at the Possibility Alliance in Missouri, daily actions as simple as riding a bicycle instead of a car, milking a goat, praying with neighbors, or living by candlelight, are deeply considered resistance to a culture that values convenience and technology over spirit and community.

But is it enough, in the era of Trump, to just stop using gasoline and eating Big Macs? Don’t we also have to sign those petitions and make those phone calls and rally in the streets? The Unsettlers do both, not striving merely for internal purity but reshaping the world around them. The Possibility Alliance trains hundreds of nonviolent activists who make their way to the front lines at places like Ferguson and Standing Rock. Greg and Olivia’s farm is part of a broad tapestry of community organizing – seeding other farms, business networks, schools – to combat the effects of decades of racism and neglect on Detroit. And Lifeline has been on the vanguard of food justice for thirty years, reminding its neighbors and customers that eating local is not a trendy fad but a strike for human-scale economy over corporate servitude.

For myself, I found that the past year’s minute-by-minute online orgy of outrage did not compel me to right action; it left me anxious and hopeless. What’s more, full-time activism is hard on the body and soul. In these toxic times, maintaining our sanity and our families is both important and difficult. And there’s a certain crazy-making in the belief that we can stop climate change by spending more and more hours plugged into electronic devices that burn carbon.

What’s required for deep resistance is the spiritual resolve that our actions are right. If such a product is for sale online, I haven’t yet found it; if you come across it, please forward me the link. Until then, I propose that such courage is earned through a sort of monastic habit: simplicity, prayer, love, meditation, fasting, working with the hands, tending to plants and animals. Remember that the world’s greatest practitioners of civil disobedience, from the Quakers and abolitionists, to Tolstoy and Gandhi, to Martin Luther King to Malcolm X, were not just political protestors, but deeply religious seekers. Putting the inner house in order is not some task to be performed in addition to outward action; it’s the very basis of that resistance.