For Mark Sundeen, the search began with a guilty meat snack.
After two decades of bumming around the country—first as a outdoorsman stringing together jobs in the rural West, and later as a city-bound freelancer and “money-lung … whose sole purpose was to inhale dollars, transform them into pleasure, then exhale a stream of carbon into the air, feces into the sewer, and plastic containers into the landfill”—Sundeen settled in Missoula, Mont., seeking a simpler existence.
He got engaged to a woman with similar values, bike-commuted 14 miles daily, lived on garden feasts that took hours to concoct, and left the sink cluttered with wholesome dirt clods.
In a world where human appetites obliterate entire ecosystems, Sundeen recognized that what we choose to consume has moral implications. But one night while grocery shopping, faced with the $6.50 price tag on organic butter, he broke—and headed instead for the much-cheaper stuff in the conventional food aisles. There, he succumbed to a greasy breast of fried chicken, no doubt factory-raised on monoculture grain and cruelly caged with a throng of its brethren. Then, he wiped his sins away with a moist towelette and pedaled home.
It’s a wry encapsulation of a conundrum that those who aspire to sustainability face: We carve out sacrifices here and there—Drive less! Recycle! Install solar!—until they interfere with other desires. In search of a clearer path, Sundeen, author of The Man Who Quit Money, sets out to find people who have gone far beyond what most of us consider “good enough.”
The result is The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America, a gorgeous new book that provides a contemporary twist on Wendell Berry’s 1977 classic The Unsettling of America. Where Berry argues that industrial agribusiness and modern capitalism have distanced people from the land and each other, with catastrophic consequences for the environment and communities, Sundeen explores a movement toward radical simplicity meant to solve those ills, digging deep into peculiarly American strains of utopianism and telling the stories of three couples trying to live out their ideals in wildly different places.
Olivia Hubert, a black horticulturalist, and Greg Willerer, a white former teacher with roots in the anarchist punk scene, create a tiny urban farm, hoping to localize and humanize Detroit’s inner-city food system—part of a bigger ambition to build a more-just version of a city bludgeoned by industrial collapse, racism and poverty. There is Ethan Hughes, who led a cross-country, bike-driven “superhero” expedition to do good, and his wife, Sarah Wilcox, a classically trained soprano, who created a car-free, electricity-free intentional community in Missouri that engages in nonviolent activism. Finally, we meet Luci Brieger and Steve Elliott, who founded a successful small organic farm not far from Missoula, and catalyzed a vibrant local food scene across western Montana.
The book is part memoir—chronicling Sundeen’s own new marriage and quest for a better life—part interwoven biography, and part social history. But though Sundeen finds beauty in each of the couples’ lives, he doesn’t flatten them into human Instagrams, “the soft-focus shots of sun-dappled mason jars and fresh-picked pears” that tug at the hearts of the rest of us cubicle-bound hordes. Hubert and Willerer must run off armed intruders from the crackhouse across the street instead of merely grappling with gophers as other farmers do. Hughes and Wilcox grow weary of the infighting so common in intentional communities and grope to maintain momentum when few of their peers are willing to commit to the enterprise for more than a summer. And Brieger and Elliott watch their dream enter mainstream society as yet another piece of the corporate machine: mega-organic agriculture that plants sprawling monocultures and sends plastic-sealed produce thousands of miles, driving right over the environmental and community benefits of the small, diversified farms that the couple built their own lives around.
The characters are weird, stubborn and strong, and Sundeen provides a nuanced picture of their beliefs, underpinned by both religious and social justice movements and influences ranging from Berry and Thomas Jefferson to the Quakers, Booker T. Washington, the Nation of Islam, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Importantly, Sundeen also acknowledges that the “renunciation of privilege” can become “just another means of exercising it.”
In the end, nobody finds revelatory answers, and yet all persist despite obstacles. And Sundeen himself recognizes that his own role is not to be a pioneer of simple living, but to be what he already is: a writer. The book seems to suggest that the true recipe for revolution is not utopianism, per se, but the emotional foundations from which its practitioners strive. In other words, to live right, one must find true purpose, work hard in its service and do the best good she can.
This review first appeared in High Country News.
The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America
By Mark Sundeen
324 pages, $26