For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.
These communities show just how hard it is to live without fossil fuels, a government safety net, or a system of capitalist exchange. They struggle with many of the same issues that plague the rest of America, including health problems, financial worries, and racism. At the center of their political lives is a question that every American faces, but for them, it’s amplified: whether to save the world or let it burn.
Their answers are different, but they share one thing. They’ve seen what modern American life looks like. And they want out.
* * *
Communities like this have a lot of names, including homesteads, intentional communities, or income-sharing communities, which is really a way of saying “commune.” Louisa County, Virginia, is home to five such communities: Twin Oaks, founded in 1967, and its later spin-offs, Acorn and Sapling, along with two fairly new communities, the Living Energy Farm and Cambia. Taken together with the Downstream Project, which is located an hour or two away in Harrisonburg, these newer communities offer three rough models for what it means to create an alternative lifestyle in response to immense global challenges: to struggle at the edges of society, to remake it, or to build a haven for retreat.
Unlike the rural communities of Louisa, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah explicitly wanted to build the Downstream Project in an urban context. (Nicolas and Rachel Sarah each have slightly different last names, in keeping with the Latin American tradition of Nicolas’s family. Their first names are used here for clarity.) Rather than rejecting mainstream culture entirely and living in the woods, they’re struggling to live as ethically as possible in the city, with a particular focus on environmental sustainability and energy use. But their approach—engaging and educating, rather than retreating—makes them particularly vulnerable to the challenges and risks of urban life.
The two 29-year-olds dream of buying land within a bike-able distance of the city so they can supply their homestead with fresh food, but have found the real estate prohibitively expensive. Harrisonburg has only a modest bus system, so it’s difficult to get around. They’ve had trouble recruiting people to join full-time; their project has mostly been attractive to transient, 20-something interns, several of whom have lived with them. “What we’ve discovered in a big way is that you can’t do this by yourself, even in a city,” said Rachel Sarah. “And you can’t homestead by yourself if you have a family even more.”
Perhaps worst of all, Nicolas recently injured his arm, which “flavored our whole year,” Rachel Sarah said. He had been planning to develop ways to make their own food and medicine. Instead, they had to pay for those things, along with medical bills; because they’re uninsured, they’ve had to get financial assistance from hospitals and medical centers. In recent months, they’ve made small but meaningful concessions, like using a crockpot to make dinners.
As they’ve built their project, they have also found themselves caught between two worlds. “Among people who are wanting to live the same lifestyle—being fossil-fuel free—there is a lot of push against Christianity,” Rachel Sarah said. “It’s almost like anything is okay except Christianity, because that’s oppressive.”
“When there’s a Democrat in power, social-justice-minded people go to sleep, because they feel validated by what they hear on NPR.”
The opposite is true at church: While some in their Mennonite congregation are open to what they’re doing, she said, they’ve found little willingness among their fellow Christians to lift up climate change or the environment as theological issues. To them, though, the case for creating environmentally conscious communities is evident in the Bible. “The story of the Jews was that they are emancipated, tribal slaves [who] went out and tried to start their own society,” Nicolas said. “Anarchism is in the story: Simple, small-scale organization of societies, not huge, hierarchical systems.”
They’re hopeful that Trump’s election will spur more people to think critically about their lives. “Times like this really awaken people,” said Rachel Sarah. “Since [the election], we’ve started to feel really hopeful.” Trump’s election left Nicolas feeling sick to his stomach, he said, but he sees an upside. “When there’s a Democrat in power, social-justice-minded people go to sleep, because they feel validated by what they hear on NPR,” he said. The couple says they’re feeling more “awake” now, too. Trump’s election is “like a crescendo for the Christian anarchist call,” Nicolas said. “If we are citizens of another kingdom, and the empire is getting pretty ridiculous, it inspires us to take our convictions more seriously.”
* * *
The folks at the Living Energy Farm are not as confident that their fellow Americans are ready to take their failures seriously. “Among the people I hang out with, there’s a fair amount of alienation from both the political right and the political left,” said Alexis Zeigler, who co-founded the community with his wife, Debbie Piesen. “We are not trying to change who is in office. You can’t dictate a democratic society from the top. You really have to build it from the bottom up.”
The Living Energy Farm runs on a different philosophy of alienation: If they can prototype alternatives to modern life, they believe, they can eventually remake the world. The community is located half a mile up a dirt road in Louisa County, which gave 60 percent of its vote to Trump in November; Charlottesville and Richmond are each 40 minutes to an hour away by car. Two couples and four kids live there permanently, along with a 20-something electrician, Eddie, who has been there about seven months, and a regular cycle of interns and travelers. They’re farther off the grid than the Downstream Project: They function entirely without fossil fuels, and their home and seed-growing business are powered by a suite of firewood, motors, solar collectors, and other devices explicitly designed to be inexpensive and simple to implement.
“We refer to it as neo-Amish, or Amish without the patriarchy.”
In the summer, they cook with a small solar dish and a rocket stove behind the kitchen; they’re building a bigger dish, taller than a grown man, nearby. They hooked up an exercise bike to a washing machine and rigged a pair of old tractors to run on wood gas rather than gasoline, although they aren’t quite functional. They built their own food-drying room off the kitchen, where they process vegetables grown on their 127 acres, and they graft fruit-tree branches onto wild stems. “We refer to it as neo-Amish, or Amish without the patriarchy,” Zeigler said.
They’re not religious; their goal is evangelization of a different kind. “My intent is to get Living Energy Farm on its feet and try to convince people to live this way,” Zeigler said. Recently, they’ve been experimenting on their interns’ cellphones to develop battery-based chargers, which he hopes could be used in India or Africa.
“The way we choose to live has far more impact in terms of our environment … than any particular technology,” he said. “If Americans bother to talk about the environment at all, it’s usually in terms of a technological perspective.” He thinks mainstream environmentalism is too focused on incremental reform and modest lifestyle choices, like driving Priuses. “For us, the question is: How do I live comfortably with what renewable energy can do? … If you ask it that way, you can’t drive to D.C. and work in a cubicle,” he said. “But the environmental groups want to tell you that you can, because then you’ll send them donations.”
The Living Energy Farm residents seem less invested in critiquing government than capitalism. “We don’t buy gasoline, and we don’t pay anybody bills for energy,” Zeigler said. “It’s not coincidental that this frees us from corporate dependence.” For his part, Zeigler doesn’t think government is inherently bad, and doesn’t identify as an anarchist. (“The problem with anarchism is not that the theory, in its ideal sense, is broken. It’s that a lot of nitwits use that word,” he said.)
The idea underlying the Living Energy Farm is that people can change the structure of society by changing the way they live. Without sprawling cities and single-family homes, powered by expensive electricity and gas-guzzling cars, there will be no need for high-level solutions like the Paris Climate Agreement. Their view is at least partly premised on apocalypse—“industrialism is going to collapse,” Zeigler said, matter-of-factly—and their work is meant to address that eventuality. “Can we build a mass movement tomorrow? No, and I’m not even worried about it,” Zeigler said. But “can we do that before we turn the planet into Easter Island?”
“It feels safer to be in a place where we have control over our water.”
But even within such idealistic communities, not everyone sees the goal as engagement. Deanna Seay, one of the other Living Energy Farm residents, moved there last June with her two kids and husband, Misha Nikitine. He was interested in the politics, but she was mostly looking for an affordable way to live. “I envisioned being remote, being able to keep to ourselves, not being involved in whatever strife is going on in cities,” she said. She was glad to leave behind Boston and demonstrations like the ones that took place after Trump’s election; she’s also glad they now drink from a well, she said, because “it feels safer to be in a place where we have control over our water.” Hers is not a search for ideals, but for something tolerable—something better than what was available elsewhere.
At Cambia, another, unrelated community in Louisa County, some of the members seem to have a similar impulse. A California-based couple, Ella Sutherland and Gil Benmoshe, started the community with their son Avni about a year and a half ago. Two others—Anthony Beck, who go by the names Telos, and another man called Gilgamesh—live with them in their small house and nearby cabin; they’re building a barn out back, and they’ve laid plots along a path through the woods where they’re hoping to construct more dwellings. Altogether, they’re looking for 10 or 12 people to join them. Cambians share their income, and their goal is to “create an alternative to mainstream or capitalist society,” they said. They fund their community in part through a small woodworking shop, where they make wooden spoons. They have a car, and get about a third of their food from grocery-store dumpsters—they’re “freegans,” Sutherland said, meaning they only eat meat and dairy if it’s going to be thrown away.
While the Cambians are dismayed by the election, it has mostly strengthened their conviction that they shouldn’t be involved in politics. “I’m embarrassed to say that I felt like I had to vote,” Benmoshe said. “I don’t believe in democracy, so I should have abstained. But I felt like it was really critical. … Well, that didn’t do any good.” Even though they believe many people are unhappy within the current political and economic systems, they don’t feel particularly called to engage in politics because of Trump. “There are a lot of people who feel isolated, who feel violated by capitalism in various different ways,” Sutherland said. “We should be creating an alternative, and that’s needed now more than it was needed before.”
“I don’t want to be an activist anymore. It requires me to rub against the things that I hate too much.”
Instead, most of their energy is directed at building their home—literally. They follow practices called “natural building,” using materials like cob (a combination of clay, sand, and straw) to line their walls, and wood-based energy sources for heat. Their backyard is full of spare parts and fixtures, including a random sink and lots of wood; their free time is often spent on construction projects.
To some extent, they’re trying to spread their knowledge and their project. They’re writing a wiki, nicknamed “commune in a box,” outlining legal and tax details for income-sharing communities—Cambia, it turns out, is both a commune and an LLC. They want people to be able to start new communities, tailored to their own needs; Cambia is not the model, they said, but a model.
That model, though, largely doesn’t involve politics. “I really should be working on a campaign to change the political structure of this world. Instead, I’m working in natural building,” Benmoshe said. “I don’t want to be an activist anymore. … It requires me to rub against the things that I hate too much, and I get sad and frustrated.” Cambia was not built to usher in a revolution. It was built as a refuge.
* * *
Intentional communities are, in their own way, historical projects. The original “cities of refuge,” found in the Bible, were havens for people who had committed heinous crimes. In early modern Europe, religious separatists transformed this idea, establishing towns where they could await the imminent coming of Christ, writes the Williams College art historian Michael J. Lewis in his book, City of Refuge. Great thinkers have long told of socialist paradises and philosophers have pondered distant, lost societies. In all of these communities, historic and present-day, utopian dreamers face the same question: Are they willing to engage at all in politics as they are, or do they wish to build the world anew?
Ironically, the deeply secular Cambia comes closest to those older models of religious separatism that Lewis chronicles in City of Refuge. The historic groups that most eagerly sought to escape the world were obsessed with building geometrically pleasing, architecturally non-hierarchical towns—physical manifestations of their deeply held values. There, in their isolated hamlets, they could experiment freely with social orders and norms, safely separate from the world.
“There’s no escaping into your own little enclave.”
Perhaps it’s unfair to look to penalize utopias for failing to offer salvation. After all, people who live in these kinds of communities tend to be more politically active than the average American, said Karen Litfin, a professor of political science at the University of Washington who has written about eco-villages around the world.
And perhaps these communities are not as immune from worldly flaws as they might like. For example: Many of them struggle to be accessible to people other than middle-class white folks. Sky Blue, a Twin Oaks resident who also serves as the executive director of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, said there are “a lot of racial [problems] and racism that are embedded in intentional communities.” Even despite good intentions, “Liberal white people who have a desire for diversity don’t necessarily understand what it means to be inclusive,” he said. “They’re going to create culture in [their] intentional community that is going to be comfortable for them, which isn’t necessarily comfortable for people of color, or people with disabilities, or people who are gay or trans.” Ethan Tupelo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who lived at Twin Oaks before he began studying intentional communities academically, said residents talked about this issue a lot when he was there. “It’s a bunch of white people sitting around wondering where all the people of color are,” he said. “It’s nice that you’re thinking about that, but it’s also frustrating.”
Tupelo sees a structural explanation for the inaccessibility of intentional communities: It takes a lot of cash to get off the grid. “Even when starting a new community, you need the capital to do it in the first place if you want it to be a legally recognized thing, as opposed to squats,” he said. As Nicolas and Rachel Sarah’s experience at the Downstream Project shows, becoming untangled from capitalism also means becoming much more vulnerable. It’s tough to imagine a comprehensive way of replacing health insurance, not to mention programs like welfare, in a world without government.
And then there is the tension between engagement and escape. In parts of the environmental movement, of which many intentional communities would consider themselves participants, the impulse toward escape can be powerful, and dark. In a 2012 essay for Orion magazine—a piece Nicolas specifically recommended—the writer Paul Kingsnorth argued that one of the things green-minded people should do at this moment in history is build havens. “Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?” he wrote.
“We’re just these little workers building this giant cathedral.”
Litfin said she doesn’t think it’s possible for humanity to go back to medieval times, no matter how tempting that may be for some. “In the Dark Ages, they didn’t have the internet. They didn’t have global travel. They didn’t have climate change to any great extent,” she said. “What we have now is an embryonic global civilization that’s totally ecologically, socially, and economically unsustainable. … There’s no escaping into your own little enclave.”
Some people use the term “lifestyle politics” to describe these communities—“the belief that if you live your values, then you will be able to make effective change, or at least express your political perspective,” Litfin said. “I think that’s a good place to start, but if that’s where you end, you actually don’t have much impact at all.” In their own way, each of these communities is trying to change the world, albeit in small ways. Not everyone who seeks utopia is like Zeigler at the Living Energy Project, though. People don’t necessarily want to remake the world.
“The one thing everybody knows about utopia is that it means ‘no place,’” Lewis writes. What’s less well-known, he says, is that the Greek word for “utopia” sounds the same as “eutopia,” a word with a different meaning: “good place.” For all their struggles, this seems to capture the aspirations of Virginia’s modern-day utopias. “We’re just these little workers building this giant cathedral,” said Nicolas. “Each of us is just chipping away at a little block. We don’t even have the big-picture cathedral. But we’re doing a little block.”
In the face of increasingly alienating politics and massive global break-down, perhaps this is enough: building a good place, better than most, where people can try to live.