Interview: Ethan Hughes of The Possibility Alliance, part one

There are brilliant writers and thinkers who are questioning technological progress from a philosophical perspective, others who raise alarms about cognitive and social dangers, some who warn of privacy incursions, and a few who prescribe setting careful limits. All of them are in some ways tinkering at the edges, trying to reconcile living in a modern society that they can’t imagine abandoning even as they see decent human values increasingly under assault. And then there is Ethan Hughes.

Hughes is the founder of The Possibility Alliance at Still Waters Sanctuary, an intentional community built into a permaculture farm on over 100 acres in La Plata, Missouri. The farm has no electricity, no petroleum products, and nearly everything they have they make with their hands. Hughes will not get in a car unless it’s an emergency. He is living out a life in complete alignment with his values, and also, one could argue, in complete alignment with the planet. In doing so, he has seemingly solved, in a single grand stroke, all of the problems that have vexed the great writers and thinkers above. What’s more, he seems fulfilled. The Possibility Alliance, then, in some ways seems to be the near platonic ideal of the opposite of our current technology obsession.

Of course, Hughes is hardly the first back-to-lander. Thoreau lived in his tiny cabin but eventually went back to civilization. The integrity of the Amish community is legendary but so is its closed nature and fundamentalist rigor. The hippie collectives of the 60s and 70s seemed to be glorious social experiments until they went awry or faded away. But The Possibility Alliance is a little bit different.

For one thing, Hughes is neither hippie nor religious zealot. He grew up in what might be considered unremarkable modernity in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a working-class town that is famous for the Gorton’s fisherman. For another, he’s not merely interested in carving out a private sanctuary for his family and friends. Deeply woven into his endeavor is a mission of social justice. That means connecting what he’s doing to the world at large. In addition to approximately a dozen full-time residents which include Hughes’s wife and two children, the Possibility Alliance hosts an astonishing 1500 visitors per year and takes up an incredible range of service projects, including nonviolent actions to disrupt fracking and nuclear power, to support farmers’ rights, and to stand in solidarity with indigenous people, among others.

The Alliance has also launched what are known as the biking superheroes: a network of hundreds of generous individuals who dress in colorful costumes and ride bicycles from place to place to offer spontaneous help or kindness to people. The superheroes have performed tens of thousands of hours of community service.

I met with Hughes recently in the home of a family who was hosting him for a few nights in Somerville, Massachusetts and whose daughter lives at Still Waters Sanctuary. He had just given an inspiring and challenging talk to a small group of people, where he revealed that living out his intention meant, among other things, laughing all his laughter and crying all his tears. Hughes is unassuming, engaging, and real—charismatic without being magnetic. He would not look out of place wandering through a Home Depot. If you’re trying to reach a wide variety of people, that’s probably a good thing. And Hughes is trying to reach everyone. He admits the odds of saving the world through viral activism and radical simplicity are incredibly tiny, it’s just that those same odds are infinitely higher than the odds when doing nothing. It’s a point that’s hard to argue.

What follows is a reorganized and edited version of our hour-long interview, in two parts.

Seeds of Transformation
Mo Lotman: You went on a journey. You came out of modern society and you’ve made a choice to live in a sustainable [community].

Ethan Hughes: You’re born into the culture and it just seems normal, and so it’s really hard to look outside of it. But I think one of the two big events that got me really thinking was one, losing my dad to a drunk driver at 13. Which, the interesting part was, of course, incredible heartbreak. But then when my mom joined MADD and I looked at statistics, I found that the leading cause of death between 16 and 25 was automobiles. More people have died from automobiles than all the wars.

But what really shifted it, I did a semester abroad in Ecuador and got involved in the indigenous rights movement there. What had just happened when I arrived was the Texaco pipeline built under Petroecuador busted, and almost twice the Valdez spilled down the Andes into the Amazon, the Aguarico. Now, they’re watching this and just weeping, the whole bank covered in oil and animals covered in oil and a lot of the Secoya and Siona and Shuar that I was working with being paid a dollar a day to scoop up the oil out of the river and then bury it in trash bags. They had no responsibility for it. And then I reached out to friends in the United States, “You know, this is a global catastrophe,” and they’re “What are you talking about?”

ML: When was this?

EH: I was there in the early 90s when it happened, and it was later that it all came out. So that kind of heartbreak led me to really start shifting, that led to, I think it’s been 16 years, car-free. Only for emergencies. So it’s not a fundamentalist view.

Life in the Amazon
EH: I spent a month in the Amazon with the Siona Secoya hunting boar by blow-gun, seeing like, here’s a culture where there’s no homelessness, there’s no mass shootings.

ML: How were you able to integrate with them?

EH: Partly through School for International Training. But as we went out on a biological look at impacts of the oil spill, I was really drawn to want to live with them. Someone from Gloucester! One of our facilitators went to one of the tribal heads and said, “Well this 19-year-old really wants to live with you and is working on this campaign as much as he can.” And they asked, “Does he have a doctorate? Is he an engineer?” And they asked all these questions, and then all the answers [were] no. So they said “Yes, he can come.”

So I had this amazing month. That was also transformative. It was the first month of my life where everything I touched didn’t have a global impact. And the singing, the humor, all the kind of stereotypes, like progress and everything, were blasted out of the water. There’s 84-year-olds running around, full health. Wow, when you’re indigenous, a nature-based people, you live [on average] to age 40…most likely you might not live from zero to one. [But] the 80-year-olds were healthier there in the rainforest than most friends in their 30s, cause they’re not taking care of themselves, industrial food, stress. Here’s an 80-year-old who’s the best hunter getting us a sloth for dinner.

ML: What was the daily life like?

EH: One, the education was interesting. The kids were expected to be somewhere, but they had choice, so they could go to the dugout canoe maker, or someone else was boiling down poison arrow frogs for their blow-gun tips. So everyone was engaged. I was there for the full moon, so we went on a wild-boar hunting party at night and I had to go barefoot ’cause the Western shoe, the foot, the animals can hear that. Lot of life transformation, like wow, there are different ways to live.

Over the Threshold
EH: It started to shift in Vermont. I did a study of bears being disrupted from skiing and I was a downhill skier, so at 20 I said, OK, I’m just going to hike up mountains. I would hike up a mountain and go back country skiing, which was better!

So those steps kept happening. Then it was getting in airplanes, and then it was free-diving instead of scuba gear. And each thing, I noticed that as I shifted, I had to be in better shape and hold my breath to free-dive and it was actually more life-rewarding.

How the Possibility Alliance came to be is, at 29 is when I was like, OK, that was this threshold. I had inherited $100,000, I wasn’t using it, I paid off my college debt and that’s when I just imperfectly went for it all. That money was split into three. Some of it was realizing some of that inheritance was stolen from the Africans that were kidnapped and brought and built the country’s wealth through slave labor, some of it Native Americans. So it was like, trying to really, imperfectly, give some of it to those who it was taken from. I’m going to give some of it back to also the species with no voice, so helping nature reserves and things that were protecting endangered species.

As I started to give it away, I was like, “Give me some more!” ’Cause I started to see the world I want to see. Right here in Chelsea High, a friend who I gave some of the money to has this amazing garden in Chelsea High School. And you know, I was like, what’s better, money in the bank or actually seeing the world, through these resources become [better]?

If I was to say in high school, “I’ve got my occupation. I want to live in a gift economy, post petroleum, educational, transformational center…” If I had raised my hand, they’d have said, “That doesn’t exist.” Your messaging around technology, that wasn’t an option when you looked at putting together your work, and so often we have to invent, out of scratch. So we visited projects that were doing petrol-free living and activism and studied and included us sailing to Europe by boat.

We started the Possibility Alliance which is 100 acres. 50 acres is a working permaculture post-petroleum [homestead], you know, beeswax candles that we hand-dip, you want to fish, you catch it in the pond. Draft horses and bikes for transportation. People from all over come, and we ask the question, “What’s your vision?” We have networks, so if you’re from the west we have a sister project Be the Change in Reno, and Loving Earth Sanctuary in California. And so, creating a network where people are actually starting to say yes to our crazy ideas.


Less is More
EH: I got out of the car and started to realize, wow, now I’m really discerning where to go. I used to jump in the car if there’s, oh, there’s a band in Eugene, I’d drive 20 miles. But when you’re biking 20 miles, you really think about it. So I realized my life force started to do exactly what I wanted to do, and that included stop looking at screens. But my life kept getting more rich. Some people think it’s this martyr [complex]. But I want to be alive! Part of my life’s experiment is to be alive and enjoying and heartbroken, and so each time, I was more alive. When it’s snowing out, and I’m going home at night, and everyone drives home and I’m on the bike and it’s this blizzard, every moment’s an adventure. And it’s great.

So I met my wife, who’s in some ways more radical than me. She’s like, “What? Why electricity?” ’Cause I was into solar panels at that time and I was into all the fancy organic potato chips and she’s like, “Well, where’s this bag going?” I was growing food, but it was more of like a hobby. So combined, ’cause I was doing a lot of more of the activism, I brought her to resist the GMO gathering in Sacramento, and she had done solidarity with the Navajo Nation at Black Mesa, and so together we kind of filled in these pieces. She was more of an introvert, so I said, “Yeah, let’s bring people into it!” So the Possibility Alliance was launched. A post-petroleum, service activism-based center. And we’re called the Possibility Alliance because it’s not “Hey come look at what we’re doing.” It’s like what happened tonight. What is your vision? And we want to give you support.

ML: Can I ask you some very prosaic questions? I’m just curious about the day-to-day life of living in an intentional community where you’re basically providing all your own food. We don’t know that we’re capable of feeding ourselves.

EH: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s like we’ve forgotten that. It’s inherent when we see the kids go out and we’re berry picking, and my daughter, when she was four, probably knew more than 99% of Americans.

Someone would be like, “There’s an eagle!” and she’d be like, “No, it’s a turkey vulture.” And then they’d see my four-year-old eating berries off a bush and be like, “Don’t eat that!” and she’s like “That is autumn olive. It’s also a nitrogen fixer.” Just because the information is different.

She’s in a realm of, you know, she’s milking goats and making cheese and riding the horse to the home-school collective. It’s incredible to see that empowerment, making the beeswax candles and to realize yes, this is a human birthright. And that’s why I think people love to fish, for example, because you have a direct connection. And when people come, they’re like, “I just didn’t think I was going to love it so much.”

There’s a lot of upkeep, so we have building team that’s building everything from platforms and jungle gyms to straw-bale houses with hand tools and yankee screwdrivers and brace and bit. Felling trees from the forest to help build. Then there’s a food team that’s both perennial, hundreds of fruit trees and raspberries, and that’s another team that’s mulching, pruning, growing food. And then every day someone’s cooking.

Intimate Living
EH: That’s a whole other shift—a family of four, 300 square feet. The national average is 2,600 square feet, and when we look at the psychology, in the 60s, the national average was 800 square feet. But the happiness in the 60s was way higher than now. So I think we know that’s a bad strategy.

My mom when she was visiting is like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t live in that tiny house with you.” But we put a bed by the little rain-water catchment that flowed in and filtered for our drinking water from a roof. And after the first morning, the grandgirls all came from our bed out into the other room and jumped in with grandma and she’s stayed there every time. ’Cause we want human connection.

The amazing thing is that over 10,000 visitors, I think the biggest thing we’re doing is people are like, “I didn’t miss anything.” You’re meeting people from all over the country, all over the world. We’re ice skating, we’re cross-country skiing, we’re playing football, we’re having soccer games.

ML: Sounds like you have a lot of time to enjoy yourself, a lot of time to have fun.

EH: Yeah, a good friend of mine said, “I get it. Money equals time. And I chose money, and you chose time.” It’s like, that’s exactly it. We don’t go to restaurants, we don’t do these other things, but we have time to go mushroom hunting on a Tuesday. We have time to redo The Hobbit for a friend.

ML: Live.

EH: Live remake. We have time to go be in solidarity with Hopi and Navajo leaders which is incredible, amazing potluck in St. Louis, and then walking in the streets to Peabody Coal and demanding justice for what’s happened. Meaning. Purpose is through the roof.

We want to be creators. We don’t want to be passive. people come, they’re just like, “Wow, there’s something,” like, they eat the food and they’re like, “I gathered this! This morning! And here we are, eating. And I did these beeswax candles, and here we are sitting around, having a conversation.”

ML: By the light of the candles…

EH: And then in the next room, my wife was an opera singer, there’s someone playing piano and there’s Puccini being sung in the other room. And it’s just the normal night.

ML: Sounds wonderful.

EH: And then we were out watching fireflies. I guess to just say, deeper human needs are being met. And so that’s why I think people are astounded like, “I didn’t miss anything.” So much wonder out there.

Richer in the Gift Economy
EH: Living in the gift economy, I’m in this house because we welcome people to the Possibility Alliance regardless of their socio-economic [status]. We tithe any excess we have to where we’re called to give it. So I can’t have a hotel, so then I have to depend on human relationships. “Oh, my parents are in—they would love to have you, they’re bikers.” And then all of a sudden my community grows and that’s how we met. My choices have led to us sharing the story.

I have two daughters in the gift economy. My brother comes back to Gloucester, and often friends are like, “Ethan’s being an irresponsible parent,” because of the gift economy they have no guarantee of income. I mean literally our account is often at zero. But, we need almost nothing, ’cause we got all of our systems.

We’re building straw-bale houses with hand tools, wood from our forest, growing perennial food systems, gardens, mushroom logs. We eat probably over 50 wild edibles, mushrooms and berries, and learning the abundance. And my brother, often, when I’m not around, defends me.

“Well, let’s check this out. Ethan’s in the gift economy. Anything he gets he gives 20% to people in need or ecosystems, and they’re happy, his family seems happy. And you are in the capitalist system and you are at negative 300,000, you’re in debt to your home and everything else, so he’s giving everything away and he has $300,000 more than you!”

Debt is something that needs to be addressed, that is affecting everyone, ’cause debt doesn’t allow you to live your heart. So we also take that on. We’ve had people who’ve come in debt, and we’re like, “Hey, we’ll feed you and house you and if you need to work part-time, let’s all be responsible to free people up from that. You sign the paper when you’re 17, oh you should go to Bowdoin College, often it’s just not reasonable that the average year of a New England college is $38,000. And so, it becomes complex, but it’s an interesting point that the average American is in so much debt that living in the gift you have more. Which is just crazy.

ML: Well you’re sustainable, you have everything you need there.

EH: We point a little box towards the sun, it cooks our food, 350 degrees, it cooks it just as well as [an] electric or propane stove. It’s safe. The only problem is that people burn themselves ’cause there’s no flame and they reach into grab the pot.

ML: And do you not burn wood?

EH: On cloudy days, or if we have a really big group, like one day we had hosted 40 Congolese refugees while hosting a Methodist youth group looking at environmentalism, and so some meals we’re literally feeding 70 people.

But the amazing thing—with an average 12 adults and then 1500 visitors per year—our operating costs are under 9,000 a year. And that’s also sending hundreds of people out through the biking superheroes and service work and the action with the Navajo and Hopi, sending people out to be in solidarity to set down Peabody Coal for a moment. A single American can’t imagine functioning for a year on 9,000. We call it the reduction economy and creation economy. By intertwining with nature, simplifying, and being abundant, we can get our needs met. [Dog barks] The dog’s getting very excited about the gift economy.