In the summer, they cook with a small solar dish and a rocket stove behind the kitchen; they’re building a bigger dish, taller than a grown man, nearby. They hooked up an exercise bike to a washing machine and rigged a pair of old tractors to run on wood gas rather than gasoline, although they aren’t quite functional. They built their own food-drying room off the kitchen, where they process vegetables grown on their 127 acres, and they graft fruit-tree branches onto wild stems. “We refer to it as neo-Amish, or Amish without the patriarchy,” Zeigler said.
They’re not religious; their goal is evangelization of a different kind. “My intent is to get Living Energy Farm on its feet and try to convince people to live this way,” Zeigler said. Recently, they’ve been experimenting on their interns’ cellphones to develop battery-based chargers, which he hopes could be used in India or Africa.
“The way we choose to live has far more impact in terms of our environment … than any particular technology,” he said. “If Americans bother to talk about the environment at all, it’s usually in terms of a technological perspective.” He thinks mainstream environmentalism is too focused on incremental reform and modest lifestyle choices, like driving Priuses. “For us, the question is: How do I live comfortably with what renewable energy can do? … If you ask it that way, you can’t drive to D.C. and work in a cubicle,” he said. “But the environmental groups want to tell you that you can, because then you’ll send them donations.”
The Living Energy Farm residents seem less invested in critiquing government than capitalism. “We don’t buy gasoline, and we don’t pay anybody bills for energy,” Zeigler said. “It’s not coincidental that this frees us from corporate dependence.” For his part, Zeigler doesn’t think government is inherently bad, and doesn’t identify as an anarchist. (“The problem with anarchism is not that the theory, in its ideal sense, is broken. It’s that a lot of nitwits use that word,” he said.)
The idea underlying the Living Energy Farm is that people can change the structure of society by changing the way they live. Without sprawling cities and single-family homes, powered by expensive electricity and gas-guzzling cars, there will be no need for high-level solutions like the Paris Climate Agreement. Their view is at least partly premised on apocalypse—“industrialism is going to collapse,” Zeigler said, matter-of-factly—and their work is meant to address that eventuality. “Can we build a mass movement tomorrow? No, and I’m not even worried about it,” Zeigler said. But “can we do that before we turn the planet into Easter Island?”
But even within such idealistic communities, not everyone sees the goal as engagement. Deanna Seay, one of the other Living Energy Farm residents, moved there last June with her two kids and husband, Misha Nikitine. He was interested in the politics, but she was mostly looking for an affordable way to live. “I envisioned being remote, being able to keep to ourselves, not being involved in whatever strife is going on in cities,” she said. She was glad to leave behind Boston and demonstrations like the ones that took place after Trump’s election; she’s also glad they now drink from a well, she said, because “it feels safer to be in a place where we have control over our water.” Hers is not a search for ideals, but for something tolerable—something better than what was available elsewhere.