In the first part of this interview, Ethan Hughes talked with The Technoskeptic about events that led to the founding of The Possibility Alliance, an intentional, electricity-free, petroleum-free, permaculture community in northeastern Missouri. He described daily life on the homestead and the rewards and challenges of the gift economy and sustainable living.
In the second part, Hughes expounds on the mission of social justice that drives him and how it is intertwined with his lifestyle. Plus, how do children raised without electricity or money react to modernity? The interview has been condensed and edited.
Mo Lotman: Do you think that we generally underestimate what we’re capable of as a human race?
Ethan Hughes: Yeah. I point to my inspirations, which I think of in education. In first grade I learned about some amazing people like Bacha Kahn. A lot of people don’t know about him. In what’s now Pakistan, when the British were assaulting Northern India, the Pashtun, which are Muslim, Bacha Kahn was a rich landowner and he decided to create a non-violence army, trying to heal the land from the war. They would heal anyone, any side. And they had a standing army of 100,000 non-violent soldiers. It’s the largest standing non-violent army known in the history of the world.
There’s a wonderful book, Non-Violent Soldier of Islam. Incredible story. They would walk and just heal the hillside and rebuild schools, and sometimes the British thought that it was a joke and would open fire on them and they would open their arms. It’s incredible. And then once Pakistan became separate, he was imprisoned by his own government because he was dangerous. ’Cause he was just going to live his truth.
But they had to switch guards with him because he’d become friends with the guards, and the guards would be like, “Why do we have this amazing person?” And of course, because he’s Muslim, that story’s been hidden, pushed away, that the largest standing peace army that we know of in human history was inspired by Islam.
You can take so many cases of history, Harriet Tubman went to freedom and then once she crossed the line she realized, “I’m not free until everyone’s free,” and went back and brought 300 women and children across the line to freedom. She had a bigger bounty on her than any of the other generals or anyone in the Civil War. Just this small woman, who just demanded everyone tasted freedom. And so those are the moments that take great courage, but to realize, yeah, if one human being has done it, it reminds me that I can imperfectly go for it.
ML: The imperfectness of it, I think is important to get across. And I like that you mention that, because I think for a lot of people, there’s a barrier there between what they want to go for when they feel like they will fail or they can’t live up to someone like Harriet Tubman.
EH: Yeah. We’ve become a big target too, because we’re imperfect. So here I’m trying to practice non-violence and be peaceful, and a couple years ago, with visitors there, my mom’s second husband passed away, and I got into an argument with my wife, and I walked out, grabbed this bamboo thing, knocked against the door, the bamboo broke and went through and smashed the window.
My daughter starts screaming, I walk outside, I’m so upset ’cause we have to replace the industrial window that I kick a chair and the chair goes up on the table and smashes this jug. And then I kick another chair that flies in the outdoor kitchen and a visitor, Mark Becker, is like making pizza in our cob oven, and I didn’t realize he was there.
I dealt with anger, growing up in Gloucester, like there was fistfights. And so the first response was just embarrassment. Here people are coming to the Possibility Alliance and one of the founders looks like part of the problem.
Mark Becker said, “In that moment I was either going to be terrified of you or I was going to come,” and he just came to the barn, put his arms around me, and I just started to cry. I mean, all that pressure of watching my mom suffer through another death. And that’s the difference, that we’re imperfect. But the response isn’t, “Oh, you’ve now lost your membership, you’re a powder keg.” It’s more of like, “Wow, you actually need more support than any of us.” And that was this pivotal moment in my life where Mark came into the barn and just hugged me.Someone who came to the Possibility Alliance who sold their car and gave all their money to the homeless population in St. Louis was the same person who stole the Reece’s peanut butter cups from a visiting youth group.
And so here’s the paradox, the same person, that’s being human. So when they drove away, thinking one of the kids ate it, we sat in a circle and that person shared, and that person laughed and cried, and we’re like “Here we are! The Possibility Alliance!”
I think when we take those people off the pedestal, you know to realize that Gandhi did amazing things, and also from his kids perspective wasn’t really there as a parent. Had some strange sexual issues. Some people say that Martin Luther King drank and cheated on his wife, and it’s like, we’re human. Those things don’t cancel each other out. And I say that with great honor.
When we think we have to be perfect, it freezes us. We have to work and then forgive ourselves, and I’m accountable. I had to clean up my relationships. Not just like, oh, you messed up. Accountability. But it makes it really exciting, ’cause when you’re taking risks, you’re gonna make mistakes. And we need to take a lot of risks right now and make a lot of mistakes.
EH: We want to support everyone’s vision. So we’re in great solidarity with Dancing Rabbit eco-village that’s doing solar and carpooling with veggie oil. All the ships are important.
Scott Mann was just out, that does the Permaculture Podcast. In the interview [he] was like, “Yes, and I’m dreaming of a day where we don’t need this information to get out, that I can close down my computer and it’s done.” Like using a technology to transition out of it. So that’s the exciting part.
We’re all where we’re at, you know, doing our important work and trusting that any movement towards more justice, any movement towards less impact to the Earth, we have to celebrate. So a friend gets rid of the SUV, and gets a Lexus, or another friend gets rid of their second house and shares it in their community, that’s a celebration.
Lifestyle as Lever
EH: I realized, OK, I can lobby and do reformist work, I can do direct action, but why not put a lever into every part of my life? So I’m starting to show an imperfect, different way to live. I don’t like the arguments that lifestyle choice isn’t anything, you should do activism. Activism isn’t anything, you should do lobbying. If you’re called to something, let’s do it all. We need change from inside, outside, up, down.
And I think it impacts you. When I was at the fracking action in Winona, [Minnesota], the largest mass arrest in Winona, we blocked shipments of frack sand. And the owner came out and was really angry. And he turned to everyone and said, “Oh, you’re all using natural gas in your stove, and this is hypocrisy!” and 200 people were like, “Well, that’s true,” and I turned to him and I said, “Well, I use solar cookers and rocket stoves. That’s it, I haven’t used natural gas in years.” And he looked at me for a couple seconds and he turned to everyone and he said, “This guy can be here!”
I think we respond to integrity. I think it has a lot of hard-to-track impact. ’Cause then he had to really think, “Oh, there’s another way.” So now, who knows, he went home and thought “solar cooker.”
ML: Your approach is very interesting because it’s very holistic. You’re looking at everything and you’re trying to align it into one coherent world view, which I don’t think a lot of people necessarily do. And that’s very inspiring.
EH: I’ve just noticed that it’s been very powerful to have all those self-transformations creating alternatives like biking, and also being socially and politically engaged. Both direct action and also helping local towns shift and not creating the government as an enemy. Especially local government.
We’re getting a bike lane and the mayor was invited, said “Thanks for inviting me. Progressives in Missouri, they never invite me, but I want a bike path, people are overweight.”
You know, actually believing that if we reach out…. I think that enemy identity, we see it in politics right now, it just divides us. Where is the actual overlap? Like how Republicans and Native Americans came together to block the Keystone Pipeline. They said the cowboys and the Indians. But what an incredible coalition! And that’s dangerous to the corporate powers.
ML: So have they grown up completely in this environment?
ML: Do they get off of the farm at all, or no?
EH: Yeah. We go down to Kansas City—we love to take them to live theatre. At one point, some of Etta’s friends were going to see films and she said, “I really want to see a movie,” and we said, “Well, how ’bout this. We’ll take you to twice as much live theatre.” She’s like, “Yeaaahhh!” So we’re going to the theatre, some of it very local, like high school. So even that is a movement away from the Hollywood culture. Instead of billions going to one director and actor, it’s going to people who want a cottage industry to entertain us.
ML: What’s their reaction when they’re interacting with the modern world?
EH: My oldest, Etta, she’s like, “Why is there lights on everywhere?” They’re not afraid, they love the darkness. It’s natural, you know, there’s no problem with it.
We were once at the free Art Institute in Kansas City looking over the city, and a friend is like, “Isn’t it so beautiful?” And Etta looked and she’s probably six, and she said, “If you take away all the buildings and concrete it would be amazing!”
She’s also been to cities where there’s community gardens and the bike path and visiting friends in Eugene, where she’s like, “This is amazing!” We can dream of more condensed urban areas that are really life-giving. So it’s that creativity. So they love their life.
[She] meets people from all over the world, and families, and our next-door neighbors’ kids. She can just walk on a trail over to a friend’s house. And in the community, too, there’s always someone to take her on an adventure, to fish… So they’re really happy. And if they choose something when they’re 13, she’s like “Well, I’m interested in making bridges,” we’ll be like, “OK! See what happens.”
She never sees a purchase. We only have three bills that happen. One is the phone, the landline that keeps us connected to groups. And so we’re in Boston once, visiting my mom, and we’re at the Museum of Science. And at the end, my mom took her into the gift shop. It’s like, “You can pick one thing.” And she just looked around and she’s like, “I don’t need anything.” ’Cause she never saw any adult buying anything her whole life. So it’s nothing extraordinary, it’s just to see, wow, a child can be content. Because she’s getting everything she needs.
She has belonging, she has inspiration, she’s around adults that are always like “I’m going to do this crazy thing!” so she believes she can do anything, so she has integrity and her belief in capability. I feel like that’s enough. Some friends think it’s child abuse, like “They’re suffering!” I tell people, and she’s like riding the draft horse, and I’m like, this is a dream for an eight-year-old.
ML: I wanted to ask you, what about health issues, if people get sick. What do you do for that?
EH: That’s a complex one. I think the first level is preventative medicine, eating really well, staying healthy. One situation, we had someone fall down a ladder. So she was life-flighted. She has a cracked skull and a broken back. I don’t have an option for this one. I’m not going to put some comfrey poultice. A helicopter came and life-flighted her, and my dear friend Hannah’s alive and doing amazing stuff in midwest for bike paths and local food.
So there’s a realistic [response]. Where some people’d be like “Ha ha! We got you!” Like, well, no. My mom’s a nurse and they say 90% of hospital visits are not necessary. If we were actually putting the hospital’s money into preventative care to teach health and empowerment and diet, and then let’s save the 10% for when we really need it. It would be amazing if everyone in our public school system learned at least EMT, learned herbalism, learned response, [felt] empowered that it wasn’t just this big entity that had all the information.
The most exciting thing happening with health care, we’ve been approved and haven’t fully done the last step to get PEACH, which is a community health care. Hundreds of people pay in to this fund, I think the fund is currently 14 million. I don’t think any claim has been turned away from it.We can spend about 90 dollars a year based on our income to get good health coverage. And that’s happening with churches, with collectives, I saw it happening in Eugene, people are starting to pool and create their own community health care. I think that’s one thing that needs to happen. The good news is every system needs to be radically revolutionized.
ML: That’s the good news.
EH: That’s the good news. ’Cause whatever you’re interested in, it needs help.
Transformation at home
ML: I have to say I’m very attracted to the idea of what you’re doing, but the thing that would hold me back is just having all of my friends, all of my community that I have here in this world, that I basically would have to abandon to live that life that you’re living.
EH: Right now people are doing it everywhere. My friend in Eugene just turned off her lights. And the amazing thing was, you go down the block, there could be darkness, and on a Friday night, 50 people would be at her place. You know, playing guitar and hanging out. You know moths are attracted by light, it’s like humans were attracted by the mystery.
All my hometown buddies from Gloucester, many of them have visited me. My friend Gary Wilson has now been three times with his family. And, you know, first, his daughter disappears over the hill with Etta and Etta’s six and they’re eating berries and he’s like “Whoa! We were just running around for like seven hours and I didn’t know where she was.” ’Cause for most parents in the city, they’re always observed.
So my friendships are deeper. Because it’s no longer just based on going to the movie, it’s based on, like, we have to do a lot of work to realize I love and honor you. You know my friends and our connection are more authentic. I did lose my girlfriend.
ML: But you gained a wife.
EH: Yeah. So, and those who fell away, that small percent, how close were those friendships anyhow? If I said, “I want to follow my dreams and sail around the world,” you’d be like, “Great!” But if it’s a dream that confronts and disrupts, it is trickier. “Oh. Live outside of capitalism. This is uncomfortable.” But to realize I’m not doing it to make people uncomfortable. It leads to really hard conversations that deepen my friendships.
ML: It’s just the type of thing you can’t easily do in the middle of Boston, for example, to have a permaculture, draft horses, and all of the rest.
EH: Yeah, I think it would have to be creative, but we’re seeing models in Portland and Seattle and where an incredible percent of people’s needs, through both dumpstering and waste…is being provided, which I think is the exciting thing is, how much could you do in Boston to push that edge?
One of my inspirations, he gets five things a year imported. He grows wheat in people’s back yards and has co-ops and hand does it. He’s a daylighter, which scares the crap outta me.
EH: Daylighters don’t even use candles. When it’s dark, it’s dark, when it’s light, it’s light, and they get in the cosmic rhythm.
We were visiting [a community] in the Pyrenees, and it was in the cliffs of the Pyrenees and I had a headlamp. And here from Eugene, I was like mister Luddite. “That’s the guy who doesn’t drive and they have candlelights,” and so in that community I was called Las Vegas, ’cause none of them used any lamps. They just used a bat sense!
Like, I don’t want to fall off this cliff! So I’d be walking around with my headlamp, and I was used to being mister Luddite, but they’d be like “Ah, Las Vegas!” But, you know, it’s good for humility to realize no matter how far you go…
ML: Someone’s gone further.