About ten days ago I penned a blog post here entitled Living Beyond Off-Grid as a Sci-fi Writer, and it seemed to resonate with a lot of people because it got some attention and was shared around the Internets quite a bit. It also raised a substantial number of questions, and since I’ve received so many Qs via email I figured I would talk some more about how we live and “how we do stuff.” Maybe I’ll make this a series and in each episode I’ll take on a few categories or topics.
In that article I handled most of the standard questions and objections. Like… “can someone really be ‘off-grid’ if they are using Facebook or writing a blog?” And, “Aren’t the Amish really anti-technology?”
As I mentioned in that blog post (and dozens of interviews over the last few years,) the crux of the issue is really something that is universal to all of us, and particularly fundamental to all good Science Fiction. That issue is the tension between the simplicity of our most basic human needs in contrast to the constant march of technology and the promises it makes to better our lives. The tension can be boiled down to a question… “Were people happy before any of this cool stuff was invented (or harnessed and controlled, like with electricity)? And, as a corollary, are we happier now?” Of course this is not just a societal or cultural question. It is also an individual one. Usually, due to the ubiquity of the arms and tendrils of the techno-society and the technocracy it engenders, for most people these tensions are subconscious. They don’t even know they are there. They may never actively think upon or ponder them, but the tensions are there nonetheless. The questions “Is this X a need, or really just a want,” and, “Am I happier with X than without it,” are always there.
The mega-super-famous author Anne Rice recently touched on the topic when she shared on Facebook a History.org article about living history farms that are storehouses for a lot of generally abandoned skills and survival techniques.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate Anne Rice’s curiosity. It’s awesome that someone even cares to think about these things. A friend of mine called on me in that thread to engage in the conversation there, but like many of the Amish (when called to discuss with or explain things to ‘outsiders’) I refrained from doing so after I read a lot of the comments.
Sometimes when called on to explain how we do things (or why,) the profound ignorance (I don’t mean this as a pejorative. Ignorance just means a lack of knowledge or information) of the audience makes it too much. In fact, that is exactly what we say… “It is too much.” It is not that the “English” (Non-Amish) are stupid, it is just that we operate from a separate set of principles and accepted maxims. We value different things. In fact, we have a differing worldview.
I also say, it’s not something, it’s everything.
It is easy for an actor or employee at a living history farm or museum to say, “They used a bedpan at night because it was cold and dark outside and they didn’t want to go outside to the outhouse or the privy.” Visitors and tourists understand that. They translate it in their heads as, “they didn’t have an indoor flush toilet, so I get it. They had to live this way.” What they would have a terrible time understanding is why anyone would choose not to have a flush toilet now that such luxuries are inexpensive and readily available. Of course a whole book could be written on why having a flush toilet, while it is kind of cool, and maybe necessary in a big city, overall it can be a pretty bad idea. But in many ways that term “bad” is subjective. It depends on the values and goals of the beholder.
Some off-the-top-of-my-head reasons not to have a flush toilet: Wasting 2 to 8 gallons of clean water to get rid of your waste. Getting rid of a natural product that can have many extremely valuable uses, not the least of which is building (or rebuilding) soil. Not to mention the expensive, unsound, and unsustainable systems that have to be in place in order to provide the comfort of knowing that once you are done depositing your waste in clean water — water that much of the world doesn’t have access to — you can push a button and make it someone else’s problem. Like I said, there are books that could be written on the subject.
I’m not pushing my opinion on you, I’m saying that whether we consider something “good” or “bad” is often based on preconceived and cultural notions of how life should be lived. There is a cultural assumption and bias at the root of every worldview. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So when we discuss the why of someone rejecting flush toilets, we’re now not just explaining or instructing others on a quaint historical asterisk or an interesting anecdote about how people lived. We’re being asked to define the foundation of a totally different worldview, all in just a few sentences. It’s just too much. And by nature, humans are very, very defensive. Especially people who have accepted a presuppositional maxim that is now being questioned. I’ve learned this from many years of experience. People get angry when you have an opinion different than the prevailing cultural opinion of the day, especially when that opinion seems to them to condemn their own. And when we differ over the fundamental definition of what is “good” or “bad,” it is inevitable that there will be conflict if the party of the minority opinion speaks above a whisper. We live in an age when the tolerance crowd has actually become the most intolerant, but that’s a topic for another day.
So when someone innocently asks a question about things like “how did people smoke meat?” or “how do you grow enough food to feed your family and all your animals,” or “how do you keep food from spoiling if you don’t have refrigeration,” often the people that know the most about these topics will say the least. I guess this is true with just about everything, but it is especially true with Plain people. Especially when it comes to explaining historical skills and techniques to people with little or no frame of reference with which to appropriate or judge the information.
That we only use industrial or commercial “technology” sparingly and deliberately is a quaint and sometimes entertaining notion. Why we do so, well… them’s fightin’ words. So because of this phenomenon (the people who know the most usually remaining silent and minding their own business,) the people who are teaching and talking the most about these issues… well, usually they know a few things but their fundamental presuppositions may be questionable. You may not be getting the best advice or answers to your questions from someone who’s already started out with a worldview the same or similar to your own.
You see, there are people who have a smoker they bought at Home Depot, or people who have had suburban (or rural) gardens that are watered with city or county water, or people who use canning to preserve fruit and vegetables from that garden every year, or people who butcher their own deer on their hunting lease every year using a reciprocating saw and a cooler with ice from their RV… there are all these people who sincerely think they are experts at “living off-grid” or “old timey ways” or “country living” or “survival techniques.” They don’t realize the systemic and fundamental errors in their logic when their ideas or solutions are examined in the context of the way the issue was originally framed.
For example, using ice in a cooler to refrigerate meat until you can either consume it or further process it is perfectly reasonable in the right context. There is no moral judgment for or against it as a technique when examined for what it is (keeping meat cold,) without any situational context. However, if you are saying (or implying) that somehow this is a valid or sustainable long-term technique when there is no electricity, or that this is a viable survival technique in the event of a substantial systemic collapse of the modern just-in-time system of delivery of goods and services… if you really think that this is a survival technique at all, then you are just incorrect. There is a huge logic flaw in the reasoning, and it infects most humans today because of the fact that they have been raised and immersed in what amounts to an artificial life-support system their whole lives. That’s not a condemnation of that system. It’s merely me stating that it exists and it has real effects. Real consequences.
And there is a double standard, as there always is when a particular worldview reigns and another is considered weird, aberrant, quaint, or antiquated.
For example, when a discussion of these topics erupts in social media or on a blog somewhere, there inevitably will be a comment from someone (or many someones) that comes off something like this:
“You can HAVE all that “off the grid” nonsense. Get with the times. We’ve advanced past all of that HARDSHIP and POVERTY. Move on, or stay back in the old days if you want, but I love me some air-conditioning and a gas powered self-propelling lawn mower and ice in my mojito. Give me a microwave and a vacuum and you can go toil over a wood-burning stove and scrub floors on your hands and knees if you want to. LOL. HAHAHA.”
Something like that. Sometimes not quite this abrasively, but sometimes more so.
But the Plain people do not chafe at this. No Amish man or woman cares what someone’s opinion is. I mean, they usually aren’t going to see these comments on the Internet anyway, but if they live in a place where their are tourists, or if they go to town to shop in stores, or if they interact at all with the English, they hear these things all the time. People are rude, but the Amish just don’t care. They aren’t offended. They understand why you feel that way and they are satisfied to leave you to your ways and hope you’ll leave them to theirs. These opinions are not a question of technology, per se, they are an effect of a profound worldview difference.
BUT… If a Plain person (me for example) were to opine in a similar manner. Even a more polite manner. If a Plain person were to say:
“Well, we avoid many of those tools and technologies because we think the negatives outweigh the positives. We think many of those things are loud, toxic, unsafe, damaging to our senses, and hazardous to us and our soil. We think they destroy community and promote selfishness. We think they make us soft, unsustainable, dependent, pliable, compliant to wicked authority, and subject to the whims of whoever controls the means of production. We find value in some invigorating and vivifying discomfort, hard work, community reliance, sweat, independence, sustainability, a lack of pollutants on viable land, healthier food, stronger bodies, and curious and questioning minds that don’t always assume that whatever the masses accept is good, is really good in the long run.”
Well… look who just stirred up a shit storm! There is a double standard. Although both sides are merely saying what they believe based on their worldview, one opinion is culturally acceptable right now, and the other, while applauded by some, deeply insults many others.
This is all to say that usually we just shut up, because it is too much.
But (and you knew there’d be one,) I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to do a series of posts on How We Do Stuff. Some of it will involve “why” too. I’m not going to post things daily. I’ll just do it when I get around to it, and when I receive email questions or inquiries. There will be other posts interspersed here and there too, so I’ll try to gather all of these into a single topic link on the left hand side of this blog entitled HOW WE DO STUFF.
I’m doing this as a community service, and in order to share with those who are curious. I won’t tolerate a flame war, bigotry, or insensitive comments. Those will be deleted. Feel free to leave questions or comments on each blog post, and while I may not answer all of them, I will get to as many as I can.
Alright! So… Giddy. Up.
sideliner 1950 says
How can one be sure that someone who claims (on the internet) to be Amish is indeed Amish? No offense, just asking.
Michael Bunker says
I’m not sure how you can find out if anyone on the Internet is who they claim to be. I have my doubts about most online recipes, and all online news. I just watched a YouTube video about soldering copper pipe that looked a little shady. I suppose you should have the same standard about fact checking information from anyone.
Joe Vasicek says
This sounds like a fascinating blog series! I’ve been on something of a quest to live more self-sufficiently myself, so I’m very interested to read about both your techniques and the underlying worldview that guides your decisions, fighting words and all.
Frank McAvinchey says
Michael, that was a great little article! I use tech all the time that I know is damaging to various parts of my body, and wish I didn’t have to.
Oh, those shit storms! That was my favorite part of the article, the Amish reply.
I started to build a “Lovable Loo”, which is an inside “toilet”, and stopped after thinking about the storm that likely would start brewing should any of my neighbors find out what I’m putting in my compost pile. I’ve decided to forego that move till I move.
You’re my brother from another mother, and father! Keep it up, Michael.
Sofia Leo says
Wonderful post! I don’t think anyone should have to “prove” they’re Amish online – how is that even possible? If a reader doesn’t believe something is possible the “plain” way, well, let him try it and see for himself. Might just lead to an epiphany 🙂 I am especially curious about your tobacco growing and curing as I recently took up making my own cigarettes to get away from the chemicals in store-bought. The idea of growing my own smokes is intriguing, but only if it can be done with little or no input from the grid.
from some who are ‘just a-doing’.
we are some of those who are betwixt and between. one foot is still in the electronic world and one foot is in the world of yesteryear. we have many modern items, (we have a freezer and computers.) and we do much the old ‘granddad’s and grandma’s’ way…(we can, dry, bake bread, and butcher…as well as make our own sausage and soap and home remedies.)
our bias is that we are ready to close the book on this wacky worldly system and go ‘off grid’ at a moments notice…(it may not be as PLAIN as you live, but…)…and we really do have friends that say “why in the world do you live like that?” we have the means to live much higher, but choose to live more simple lives…((if we quit, our chickens and rabbits would get lonely…HA HA)) so here is a note from some of those crazies who are ‘betwixt’ the both worlds…our heavenly Father watches all we all do…..
Naomi Shubert says
Your book “Off Off Grid” is quite inspirational. I am not sure that I can wholly dismiss all cities as totally evil, per se (what about Jerusalem being a city, for example?), but you make a strong case for being self-reliant and not relying on a “just in time” system that is doomed to eventual destruction ..and you have certainly convinced me. I did in fact loan my only copy of your book to a friend a few months back and she liked it so much she is refusing to give it back to me! It would be really helpful, to those of us who are taking “baby steps” (and have limited incomes) to gradually detach ourselves from the grid, to learn about any off grid tools and products that you find useful in your current life and that you would recommend us purchasing now, as a matter of priority, in view of the gathering financial clouds.
Michael Bunker says
Naomi, As far as I know I have never said in any place that all cities as totally evil. Perhaps you have introduced this thought into what I’ve written? I just want to make sure that people reading this comment do not think I’ve ever said that. Thanks! Michael Bunker
Naomi Shubert says
Thanks Michael, I must have misunderstood you, perhaps because of the comments about Babel at the beginning of “Surviving off off grid” and the spiritual lessons we can learn from that. I am sorry I misrepresented your views though, as it wasn’t intentional. I will re-read it with your comment in mind (whenever my friend eventually gives it back or I give in and buy another copy!)
This is a great article, but the question I have really has nothing to do with it. I was intrigued by your description, in Off-Off grid, of land deals involving sharecropping arrangements. Now I know the term ‘sharecropping’ has a lot of baggage associated with it.. but it might be an arrangement that would enable more folks of limited means (like me) to actually own a place of their own. Do you know of anyone who is actually doing this? If so, how is it working out? Thanks for all you do, Michael. I’ve been following you for years, at first not convinced, to put it mildly, and gradually beginning to see the wisdom here.. thanks again.
I came across your site after reading one of your books. I think you and your family found the true meaning of living. As someone that works in the rat race of corporate America, I work my butt off each and every work day and sometimes on my days off for what? Material things, that when it comes right down to it, really are not that important. When I reflect on it a bit more, it is not really hard work in the physical sense as I work in an office. What we perceive as hard work is really stress, but we don’t know it. To your point, it is disguised as hard work. To see you and your family working together threshing grain… that is enlightening. As I get older and my children have moved into adulthood, my values are changing. As I move into the third trimester of life, I am starting to find the simple things in life more appealing. God bless man.
I read your WICK books and they were both entertaining and well written.