The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America

Mark Sundeen
(Riverhead Books)

Today many people sense, with varying degrees of urgency, the need to find simpler, more ethical, sustainable, and authentic ways to live. Amid a burgeoning movement of “local food and urban farms, bike co-ops and time banks and tool libraries, permaculture and guerilla gardening, homebirthing and homeschooling and home cooking,” Sundeen, author of The Man Who Quit Money, goes in search of “more radical, more committed, yet less isolated” exemplars of such a life. His other criteria: they should be raising a family (he’d just married), presumably progressive (like him), not Amish (“you can’t join them”), not born rich but bootstrappers, not escapists but working to heal society, and succeeding at a project viable over the long haul.

Sundeen starts with our friends Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox at the Possibility Alliance in Missouri, a petroleum- and electricity-free community dedicated to nonviolent social change (see Plough No. 5, Summer 2015).  Next he follows Olivia Hubert, a descendant of slaves and a child of inner-city Detroit, as she turns abandoned lots into an urban farm together with her husband Greg Willerer, a child of white suburban punk anarchism. Closer to home, Sundeen finds Luci Brieger and Steve Elliot, pioneers of the local food movement in Montana, successfully raising three children and organic vegetables without compromising their beliefs and values.

The Possibility Alliance community doesn’t exist online, yet it attracts over a thousand visitors a year. So why in eight years has only one man joined them full-time? Well, it turns out that, despite the joys, voluntary poverty and simplicity really do mean hardship, self-renunciation, and lots of manual labor. So does sustainable small-scale farming. Most people, like Sundeen, prefer a simplicity that allows for daily hot showers, Wi-Fi, and international travel. That’s why the search for the good life remains far more popular than actually living it. Let’s hope this book prods at least a few ­searchers to put down roots.