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Living outside the American economy: ‘The Unsettlers’ follows a family in Missouri as it breaks away

Mark Sundeen, author of "The Unsettlers," followed families who opted to live outside of the traditional American economy.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Mark Sundeen, author of "The Unsettlers," followed families who opted to live outside of the traditional American economy.

The trend of rural to urban migration across the world has been well-documented and is going strong. But what about people who migrate the opposite way? Or who choose to live a life outside of the traditional American economy? These people choose a different life with different challenges, but they also make up a community all their own.

That’s the community author Mark Sundeen explores in his book, “The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today's America." One of the stories he highlights takes place in Missouri — La Plata, to be exact, which is about three hours northwest of St. Louis, outside of Kirksville.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Sundeen joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh to discuss “The Unsettlers” and what he learned about these different kinds of pioneers in American society. He will speak at Left Bank Books on Monday night. 

The unsettler movement, he said, is an outgrowth of communal or intentional living communities but it differs in that these people don’t necessarily live in communities of like-minded people. Sundeen initially became interested in these people because he also felt helpless, trapped even, in having to “support industries that are making life worse,” such as banks, Wall Street, and gas and oil industries.

The most extreme unsettler communities live without electricity, cars or any dependence on gasoline. They also often grow their own crops and do not own cell phones.

“Believe it or not, the parts you and I might think are hard, like going without electricity or going without your car or growing your own food, that does not seem hard because they enjoy that work,” Sundeen said. “The parts that seem hard: isolation of being in a rural place without access to other social activities and the feeling that the rest of the world isn’t moving fast enough. They’re in a passionate hope they’ll stop climate and economic destruction and sometimes they say ‘why aren’t other people joining us?’”

In his book, Sundeen catalogues the lives of three unsettler families.

Two people, Sarah and Ethan, make their home in La Plata, Missouri, and don’t use any electricity and grow most of their own food. They are also dedicated to political actions, such as protesting nuclear armament. While they live near others, Sundeen said the largest amount of contact they have with other humans is through visitors: around 1,500 people visit a year for classes in permaculture and natural building techniques.

Perhaps most analogous to St. Louis, Sundeen also profiles a family in Detroit who have made their alternative lifestyle within city limits but using abandoned lots to grow food. They don’t accept government or foundation funding, hoping to prove that you can make a living from the Earth without the support of the government.

The family Sundeen profiles in Montana is the most traditional narrative: a family who has operated organic farms for 30 years. What’s spectacular about this family, Sundeen said, is that they have managed to raise three children “without depriving them of the opportunities America has to offer.”

Mark Sundeen's "The Unsettlers."
Credit Penguin Books
Mark Sundeen's "The Unsettlers."

Sundeen said that, through the process, he has learned that people who decide to live such alternative lifestyles are actually really intelligent and, in fact, innovative. 

“I expected to be finding drop-outs but instead I found people fiercely engaged with the world,” Sundeen said. “Trying to innovate and create new systems: new economies, new ways of growing food, new ways of transportation, new ways of living in community.”

He hopes highlighting such lives will encourage others to live in a similar manner.

“In America, we only reward innovation when it involves a big IPO or making a lot of money,” Sundeen said. “And so, I wanted to talk about innovations that talk about changing the world without making the inventors rich.”  

Related Event

What: Mark Sundeen: The Unsettlers

When: Monday, January 23 at 7 p.m.

Where: Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Ave.

More information. 

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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