Sustainability Series: Why Did the Back-To-The-Earth Movement Fail & Why We Need to Bring It Back Now

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Last year’s meteoric political rise of one of America’s most notable Back-To-The-Earth homesteaders, Bernie Sanders, reminds us the principles and idealism of the 1970s movement still offer vital lessons for how we can build a more sustainable and peaceable future.

It was the 1970s and a throng of young, mostly white, mostly college-educated American men and women packed up and headed “Back-To-The-Earth” in the midst of political tensions and impending environmental crisis, looking to leave the rat-race of capitalism behind and live more closely to the earth.

Propped up by essential how-to guides and go-to resources like “Whole Earth Catalog” and “Mother Earth News,” idealistic homesteaders, like the young Bernie Sanders, acquired parcels of land in rural Vermont or Maine and built their own cabins, planted their own gardens, raised crops and domestic animals, mastered domestic skills like making their own clothes and soaps, homeschooled their children, and cooked vegetarian meals.

Read Rolling Stone’s “How the Back-to-the-Land Movement Paved the Way for Bernie Sanders

For many, however, the realities of homesteading eventually began to crumble their idealism. Not everything could be created on the homestead without still relying on the outside “capitalistic” world for some products or services. And not everyone could create enough products or services on their homestead to pay their own way or remain sustainable. So in time, many homesteaders ultimately returned to their former lives and careers.

Read Energy Skeptic’s “The Back to the Land Movement: Why it Failed and Why we Need to Try Again Anyway

Before we throw the baby out with the bath water, though, there are vital lessons to be learned from the strengths and the weaknesses of the “Back-to-the-Earth” movement and why we need to bring it back now.

Strengths

Nonviolence – In a world impacted by each of our own individual environmental footprints, the “Back-to-the-Earth” movement teaches the “Do No Harm” approach consistent with nonviolence as we interact with other people, the planet, and the animals, using only the resources we need so there will be plenty of resources for all.

Self-Reliance – The “Back-to-the-Earth” movement teaches the Gandhian principle of “Nonviolence as a Way of Life,” which empowers a culture of change by living outside of the “system.” This includes gardening, cooking, building, making clothes, caring for plants and animals, studying and applying preventative and plant-based nutrition and medicine, participating in self-education as well as wholistic and sustainable livelihood.

Weaknesses

Co-Dependence – Even in the wave of idealism, it was extremely difficult to live completely “off-the-grid” and outside of the Capitalistic System. Like it or not, many homesteaders were essentially entangled in a co-dependent relationship with the Capitalistic System. While life on “Back-to-the-Earth” homesteads was experimental, it quickly became clear for many that it was not going to be a cold-turkey, all-or-nothing lifestyle change and a complete exit strategy did not seem to be within sight. Meanwhile, the theoretical question remained, if the “Back-to-the-Earth” movement were the way of the future, and the entire American population were to follow and find a way to completely abandon Capitalism, how would the country survive the resulting systemic collapse and what exactly would replace the failed system? Mahatma Gandhi warned that we must be careful to not replace one tyrant with another. So, what would be the vision of life on the other side?

Imbalance – Like what has been witnessed in more recent anti-capitalist movements, in the “Back-to-the-Earth” movement there appears to be a disproportionately high number of young, mostly white, mostly college-educated American men and women who come from a place of socio-economic privilege that allows them the freedom and opportunity to “experiment” with life. Where are the people of color? Where are the people who cannot leave and have to continue the work-a-day lifestyle in the suburbs and cities? How could the principles of homesteading be applied to life in the urban environment? On the flip side of co-dependence is interdependence and the question of how do we “experiment” with a new way of living together modeled after our own physical ecosystem in which all life is interdependent, and not separated by an “us” and “them” individualism as we see in Capitalism?

What Can We Learn

There are small changes we can each take every day wherever we live, work, and play, and just like the “Butterfly Effect” these small changes together can eventually create big change.

One of the most inspiring and successful examples of the “Back-to-the-Earth” movement is the Dervaes family and their “Urban Homestead” in Pasadena, California. Their journey is detailed in the documentary film, “Homegrown Revolution.”

We can all learn something from the experience of the Dervaes Family and find ways to implement our own Whole Systems-based, sustainable change in our lives, homes, and communities–thinking globally, acting locally.

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