With the ever-growing popularity of organic foods, tiny houses, urban farming and the like, it appears a large number of Americans are yearning for a simpler life, trying to fit a back-to-the-land mentality in the face of modern life and a relentless media culture of consumerism and conspicuous consumption. In the book “The Unsettlers,” Mark Sundeen immerses himself with families who have taken their political and environmental beliefs to the limit, living sustainably off the grid, tending their own land and growing their own food. In a charged political climate where multiple sides are fighting and resisting power, Sundeen’s book finds itself in a particularly dynamic moment.
Sundeen will be at Maria’s Bookshop on Tuesday, Feb. 7, to discuss his book, his second visit to Durango after the publication of his previous book, “The Man Who Quit Money.”
Why do you think this book is important right now?When I was writing this book, I sometimes thought, “These people are just chicken littles. We don’t really live in the petrostate.” Of course, I never imagined that Trump would be president. So now I think millions of people are suddenly realizing that the government is not our friend and the government is doing things that are immoral and corrupt and unethical and we do actually live in a petrostate. It’s like we’re Venezuela or Russia or the old Iraq, where it seems like the government’s explicit function is to get more fossil fuels and turn them into money for the stockholders. And in that situation, any ways that we cooperate with the state makes us complicit in our own destruction. So I think some people are scratching their heads and saying, “How can I not be complicit with this system anymore? How can I resist?” And that of course is what this book is about.
How were you surprised in writing it?All three of these families blew me away in that they were taking the ethical resistance so far and yet they seemed pretty joyful in life. They didn’t seem to be resentful and martyrs, you know? They really seemed to enjoy their work. And they were doing it with kids, and they’ve been doing it for 10 years or more. I was inspired just to find out that these people exist. And if I could boil down to what I hope this book does to just one sentence it would be to inspire the reader to learn that people like this actually exist.
And then what?That’s kind of up to them. I would like them to take action, but I feel like the lesson from this book isn’t “OK, I’m going to recycle, I’m going to ride my bike, and I’m going to buy organic.” I think the bigger lesson is how are you going to follow your heart and how are you going to find meaningful work? Because I think so often, the waste that we have in this materialism and the over-consumption is not a result of us being greedy, it’s the result of us working 40 to 60 hours a week at something we hate and makes us feel like a cog in the machine and we have to reward ourselves with all these high-carbon-footprint activities, whether that’s a whole bunch of steaks or flying to Mexico for the weekend for a vacation … So what I want people to do is not make a couple surface-level changes – although I wouldn’t mind if they did that – but to really figure out what their values are and say, “How can put my whole heart and my life energy into living my values?”
Competing sides in our political environment seem to very dismissive of the other. How do we get beyond talking past one another?I think conservatives would really admire the people in my book. And that’s because these people are embodying a lot of the principles of the founding fathers and doing small-scale agriculture, owning their own business, not depending on the government or nonprofits or corporations. And just living with absolute moral integrity … I think that the people in my book, I mention how Ethan says the same thing as Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, where he’s like, “If I’m opposed to oil, I’m not going to use a car to drive to the protest, I’m going to ride my bike.” That level of integrity is something that I think will appeal to conservatives, even if they don’t agree with these folks on a lot of things. And there’s one of those small, inspirational moments in the book is like the way Ethan and Sarah have become so close with their next-door neighbors who literally have a portrait of George W. Bush hanging in their kitchen. And they just figure out how to avoid certain topics, like maybe abortion and the war in Iraq and climate change and focus on the things they really had in common, which was, like, living with moral integrity, being a good neighbor, being close to the land and producing their own food on the land and not being reliant on the government. Those are things they really bonded about.
David HolubDGO editor