Radical Simplicity: Living Car-Free and Off The Grid at the Possibility Alliance
In the small town of La Plata, Missouri, something of a revolution is beginning. A brand new intentional community has recently formed, and its aims and message are radical, inspiring, and daring: the Possibility Alliance is a completely car-free, petroleum-free, and electricity-free community striving to raise a new level of awareness regarding sustainable, cooperative, and compassionate living.
Currently composed of a small handful of members, the Possibility Alliance is totally off-the-grid and uses candlelight and wood stoves for heating and cooking, and it owns no vehicles. Instead, members use bicycles as their main mode of transport. (See above for an example!) Another of the group’s goals is to depend entirely on 100% local food, so that whatever is not grown by the community is obtained within a 200 mile radius. The Possibility Alliance hosts students, visitors, and guests and provides educational workshops free of charge on topics such as permaculture, bicycle maintenance, gardening, etc. Although the group might use the term “radical simplicity” to describe the lifestyle they have taken on, they see it as more of a return to what makes sense for humans living harmoniously with the earth.
Last week, I wrote about the Superheroes bike ride which is currently traveling through Missouri. I spoke at length with friend and communitarian Ethan Hughes, who is heavily invested in both the Superheroes and Possibility Alliance projects. There is a strong bond between both movements, as Ethan explains in this interview about the project. We discuss at length what it means to live sustainably, and what the sustainability community needs to do to take the next step in progressing the ecological movement.
The Possibility Alliance: a Superheroes headquarters
Brian Liloia: What is the connection between the Superheroes bike ride and the Possibility Alliance?
Ethan Hughes: The Possibility Alliance was hatched out of the Superheroes, from seeing what amazing things can happen when we didn’t have an agenda and just stuck to our principles and moved through the world. The Possibility Alliance, in a sense, is a Superhero ride all-year-round. The Superheroes were first, but we offered that hey, we now have this land, and we’ll be the headquarters for the Superheroes. It’s the same kind of expression as living lightly on the earth, and serving the public. We don’t create projects for the Possibility Alliance, we’re just there. We have an intention but no set plan. That equation creates a lot of amazing change. It’s definitely an offshoot of the Superhero energy.
BL: Can you talk briefly about the goal of the Possibility Alliance, and where you think it might be headed?
EH: We’re so happy with what’s happening now. All of us [living there], in our heart level, our big goal is total societal transformation. Our vision is that the Possibility Alliance would have something like a land-based center in every bioregion of the US to see how can we live in this bioregion with a total local diet, no petro input, and as an educational center, and also as a service center. So each bioregion would have a team of Superheroes going out to serve in emergencies, riots, hurricanes [etc.], and for free, which is a big part of the Superheroes and the Possibility Alliance, is that we’re based on the gift economy. We don’t require fees for what we do. We have probably moved over $100,000 in eight years. People give to us and we gift projects. The Possibility Alliance’s land was totally paid for in a year and a half through people’s donations. They say, wow, it’s so amazing that you’re having groups come, you’re teaching permaculture, you’re doing all this for free. It’s amazing how when people have a choice to give, they give a lot more than what you would even charge them.
But really, our goal is not societal transformation as we think it should be, but the belief that if everyone followed their heart, society would be transformed. So how do we support and give people the courage to live what’s in their heart? I know everyone sits on a secret dream, and there’s a whole spectrum. By helping people to live to their full vision, mainstream society will break the fabrics of consumption, people will feel whole again, and we believe that what will emerge is a healthier society.
BL: Would you use the term “radical simplicity” to describe what you are doing?
EH: Radical simplicity…. we use that term now, so that people will get a sense of, okay, we’re not doing solar and wind power, we’re not buying chocolate or other things outside of our continent (or even our bioregion), so yes, we tell people radical simplicity, but for us, we haven’t even begun. We feel like our [ecological] footprint, which for most people is very small, still has so much further to go to actually return to some form of harmony with the earth. And without the earth, without water, we’re dead, and we’re facing this reality that wow, no matter how good a movie is, no matter how good chocolate is, we can’t enjoy it if we don’t have bodies, if we’re all dead of cancer. So, not to take away that movies or chocolate are wonderful experiences (there’s beauty in seeing the artform of the movie), but if someone sat down and could really see what was going to happen to the earth, and they see you have a choice: you’re either dead, or you get your cash crop. I think every human being on earth would say, ok, I can eat honey, locally, I can eat peach cobbler. Yes, it’s not the same as chocolate, but I can deal with it.
This isn’t to mean any kind of gloom and doom, it’s just looking at the facts. I was a conservation biologist, that’s what lead me here. I would study the ecosystems and I saw them collapsing. The normal eye can come to Missouri and say, oh, it looks healthy, but the trained eye can see, no, there’s no climax forests, the diversity is down incredibly, the erosion is up, the watersheds are polluted. So I have a lot of compassion that we really still can’t see the impacts. So yes, we’re for “radical simplicity”, but we’re just returning to the way that we feel makes sense, and what we learn from nature. Nature is our teacher. And there is a give and take of energy, which creates a balance in a system, which humans obviously haven’t followed.
The meaning of sustainability
BL: Can you speak to the idea of sustainability, and what that means to you?
EH: Two things. The first one is that we really try to celebrate any shift towards a lesser impact to life. When a friend calls me and says “I sold my SUV and got a BMW”, I sincerely applaud them. And I’ve had friends call and say “I sold my third house, and gave that money away”, and I celebrate that. I feel that any atom going towards more mindfulness, or more environmental consciousness, should be celebrated. So that’s the first part. Sustainability is a spectrum. It means something different to each person. In the minute we think that we own what is sustainable, I think dogma and separation can come into it.
With that said, I also believe that the current alternative, sustainable movement is ready for a profound jump. I’ve been part of it since 1988, when I went to university, and I have not seen a significant shift in our footprint for twenty years. Great ecovillages, solar panels, etc. were all happening in ’88. These are things we celebrate, but I think that we’re really on the edge of a new jump. When we were in Europe, which inspired the Possibility Alliance, we saw all of this starting to happen: people living much simpler and doing a lot more political and social work than the average community here.
And I think for sustainability, I feel that definition is going to change in the next couple of years. And it’s going to change to the definition which I’m going to give, which is a system that allows all species to thrive. Not just your own land here, but also – where did that solar panel come from? Which is a hard question, and that’s the hardest part for us. Because if we write what inspires us, it often triggers people, and they’ll say “oh, they’re cocky” or “oh, they think they’re doing it better” when we’re just trying to take the facts and say, hey look, we’re willing to really look deeply into what goes into making a McDonald’s hamburger, [for example]. Or if I talk about Monsanto, any activist can list twenty pages about what Monsanto does.
This morning I brought up solar panels and nobody knew where they came from. You’re not aware of the deep-sea drilling they do for silica, much like the oil companies drill? I think the ecological movement needs the maturity to look at itself. I think it’s brilliant at looking at the Bush administration and Monsanto, but turning that same beam in a loving way towards ourselves, not in an “I’m bad” way but, ok, let’s look at what we’re choosing, and let’s really use that information to align with life. The biggest compliment that came from our neighbors who are a lot more conservative, (here we are living so radically like the Amish in simplicity, what the mainstream would say is “radical”), was when they came over to us and said: “you know the one reason we respect you so much is because you are doing what you say”. They really attack Al Gore because they look at the idea that he’s saying ‘it’s imperative now that we change our ways because of global warming, or we’re all going to die’, and here he has this huge mansion.
I think if the ecological movement, in a loving, mindful way, removed the hypocrisy, that’s the first choice: remove the hypocrisy of saying and not doing, or back off on Monsanto and McDonald’s a little bit, and stop making someone else the target. We’re far away from sustainability right now, all of us. It’s hard. What I would ask is how do you bring these hard points to people in a way that doesn’t awaken defensiveness or pain? If we can figure that out, we’ll have the next transformation in the sustainability movement. If anyone knows of more ways to do it mindfully, that’s the strategy that’s going to help the shift happen to a new form of sustainability that will redefine the ecologofical movement.
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I am truly inspired by what is happening at the Possibility Alliance. It is my own belief that this type of lifestyle is perhaps the next stepping stone to a more sustainable society and culture.
To contact the Possibility Alliance to learn more about their community and the Superheroes bike ride, write or call them at:
28408 Frontier Lane
La Plata, MO 63549