For the last eight years, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah have been slowly weaning themselves off fossil fuels. They don’t own a refrigerator or a car; their year-old baby and four-year-old toddler play by candlelight rather than electricity at night. They identify as Christian anarchists, and have given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”
As it turns out, exiting the system is a challenging, time-consuming, and surprisingly technical process. Here in the Shenandoahs and central Virginia, a handful of tiny communities are experimenting with what it means to reject the norms of contemporary life and exist in a radically different way. They seem to share Americans’ pervasive sense of political alienation, which arguably reached an apotheosis with the election of Donald Trump: a sense of division from their peers, a distrust of government. The challenges of modern politics—dealing with issues like climate change, poverty, mass migration, and war on a global scale—are so vast and abstract that it’s difficult not to find them overwhelming. But instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.
These communities show just how hard it is to live without fossil fuels, a government safety net, or a system of capitalist exchange. They struggle with many of the same issues that plague the rest of America, including health problems, financial worries, and racism. At the center of their political lives is a question that every American faces, but for them, it’s amplified: whether to save the world or let it burn.
Their answers are different, but they share one thing. They’ve seen what modern American life looks like. And they want out.
* * *
Communities like this have a lot of names, including homesteads, intentional communities, or income-sharing communities, which is really a way of saying “commune.” Louisa County, Virginia, is home to five such communities: Twin Oaks, founded in 1967, and its later spin-offs, Acorn and Sapling, along with two fairly new communities, the Living Energy Farm and Cambia. Taken together with the Downstream Project, which is located an hour or two away in Harrisonburg, these newer communities offer three rough models for what it means to create an alternative lifestyle in response to immense global challenges: to struggle at the edges of society, to remake it, or to build a haven for retreat.
Unlike the rural communities of Louisa, Nicolas and Rachel Sarah explicitly wanted to build the Downstream Project in an urban context. (Nicolas and Rachel Sarah each have…