The Unsettlers by Mark Sundeen

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The Unsettlers by Mark Sundeen is a book about people unhappy with the fundamental expectations of American life. Over three sections, Sundeen covers three different homesteading families who are peacefully navigating their resistance to the negative forces of American life. In Missouri, Sarah and Ethan operate a self-sufficient anarchist collective. They ride their bikes or take the train wherever they need to go. In Detroit, Olivia and Greg create a thriving urban farm despite the abandonment of their city by all levels of government. In Montana, Luci and Steve operate a farm mostly because that’s what they want to do. It makes them happy.

Along the way, Sundeen looks to their lives to see how he, and by extension others, might live a happier life, one that is less damaging to the environment. In the introduction, he explains how “sustainable” living falls short.

For the first time in human history, I was aware, the appetites of our species exceeded the resources of the planet. From climate change to deforestation, extinction to depleted fisheries, we were devouring our nest. As a result, we had come to equate consumption with morality: buying one brand of butter was more ethical than buying another.

This, essentially, is the occasion for the book. Sundeen is unsatisfied with how he’s impacting the world and wants to change his actions for the better. By framing the book as a search is for answers, not arguments, Sundeen fills it with empathy and curiosity.

Each section is distinguished by strong reporting, and Sundeen’s admiration for his subjects is clear. He tries to understand not only how the homesteaders do something, but why. Even unusual choices, like the Missouri anarchist collective’s decision to use nineteenth-century technology for farming, are given a lot of space.

Ethan Hughes proposed that we divide technologies into three types. First were those that required no industrial inputs…The next level included those that required a one-time industrial input for their manufacture…The last were those that required the constant industrial inputs of oil, coal, and electricity… Ethan’s goal was to use as much s possible of the first category, plenty from the second, and none from the third.

This level of rigor is not necessary to demonstrate that their choice is the less harmful one. Instead, it humanizes the characters and makes their strategies more adaptable for others.

Sundeen’s willingness to let his subjects tell their stories is exciting and keeps things fresh, but he sometimes loses balance. For example, the family in Detroit—Olivia and Greg—repeatedly insists on the idea of a meritocracy in America.

“I wonder what farmers in Brazil, Mexico, Ethiopia, or Korea would think of these Americans complaining about their income,” [Greg] posted on Facebook. “All I gotta say is that some people don’t hustle.”

Olivia and Greg’s ideas evolved out of their lived experience of governmental apathy and fecklessness, so this is not an unreasonable conclusion to reach. But it comes despite their recognition of structuralized racism and inequality, and meritocratic ideologies necessarily blame the oppressed for their structuralized lack of access and mobility. Sundeen, in the portions of the book where he lets his personal political philosophy show, demonstrates that he knows this, so it seems unlikely that he would out-and-out endorse Greg’s Facebook post. But he is committed to representing Greg and Olivia in their own words. His willingness to divorce his politics from those of his subjects is admirable and appropriate, but it is never complete. In the introduction and other times throughout the book, Sundeen makes it clear what he wants and believes. These competing forces pull the book in different ways, causing some confusion.

There is also the matter of the difficult world in which The Unsettlers will now be published. It was written in a time when things were bad for many people in America (and everywhere) and will be released into a world where things are now much worse. The majority of the book’s subjects are, in some sense, politically radical. The homesteaders are doing their part to protect the environment and live sustainably with a looming climate disaster all but inevitable; their work is objectively important. However, their resistance to technology isolates them from movements that begin on Twitter and other digital platforms at a time when isolation is costly. All political actions have pros and cons, and the families Sundeen visits (and Sundeen himself) are doing more good and causing less harm than most; they deserve credit for it. Still, with a minimum of four years of protofacism in our future, and with a rising tide of ethno-nationalism in Europe, it is important for the political left to think critically about what a strong and unified resistance can and should look like.

Most people who read The Unsettlers will see it as a simple window into another way of life, and that is okay. Some will read it as a blueprint for homesteading successfully, and that is okay. Sundeen allows the book to be read this way. But the most important aspect of the book is not about homesteading. Instead, it’s this: every choice is, in some way, political. What one buys at the store and how one gets around are all expressions of one’s values, conscious or not. We should all do more thinking on that subject.

Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic. His work has been published in Electric Literature, The Collagist, Full Stop, and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate in Fiction Writing at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. He can be found on Twitter @therealbradbabs. More from this author →