Peace, simplicity, community, reflection and involvement — at the Possibility Alliance, these values and more weave together beautifully.
PHOTO: MARK COUCH
The Hughes family lives by candlelight at night because their 80-acre homestead is electricity- and petroleum-free. They and the other inhabitants of the Possibility Alliance use an outhouse, grow their own food and choose to live well under the poverty line at less than $3,000 a year. Yet founder Ethan Hughes says he feels that they live like kings and queens. The Alliance hosts a diverse array of 1,200 annual visitors to the site. On any given day, you could meet a West Coast band, a Christian youth group, a crew of atheist activists or a middle-aged mom searching for inspiration. In a nutshell, the Possibility Alliance is an educational homestead practicing simplicity, self-reliance, service and gratitude.
The Possibility Alliance is also the headquarters for the Superheroes, a network of over 500 members who dress up like superheroes, with nicknames such as “Love Ninja” and “Atomic Calm,” and bike across the country, stopping wherever possible to give service to anyone in need. The Superheroes have served in several states, and they assisted during the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
We spoke to Ethan Hughes, who — along with his wife, Sarah — founded the center roughly three years ago in La Plata, Mo. They live there with their 3-year-old daughter, Eda, and various interns and visitors.
Did you encounter a turning point that led to giving up traditional living, or was the change gradual?
A few events in my life were huge. One was, at age 13, losing my dad. A drunk driver hit him. At that moment, I started to question everything. As I did the research, I found out that the leading cause of death between ages 16 and 25 is automobiles. Then I found that some 30 million people to date have died from automobile accidents. I thought, “Wow, just for that reason — not even environmental — I’m going to start moving toward trains and bikes and light rail.” That was my first great wake-up to some of the costs we don’t think about with our fast lifestyle.
The second one was a trip to Ecuador in college. I got involved in the indigenous movement for protecting the rainforests. At that time, an oil pipeline from Ecuador spilled twice the amount of oil from the Valdez spill. I was there in the rainforest and saw indigenous people getting paid a dollar an hour to put oil in trash bags and bury it in the riverbank. I saw thousands of animals killed and none of it was reported in the United States until years later when there was a lawsuit. I also went to a banana plantation in Ecuador and found out 10,000 people a year were dying from chemical exposure from banana plantations. That was the real turning point — seeing the costs firsthand.
When I came home, I fast-tracked my road to simplicity. It was reactionary at first, but I realized as I started biking and living simply, my amount of joy, wonder and love of being alive increased. My life became more full, which stuck with me.
It became almost a positive addiction, like a runner’s high. I just started to see what I could do without. Out went the rock climbing, and I started free climbing and boulder climbing, which was safe and easier. I started free diving instead of scuba diving so I would have to learn to hold my breath and get really healthy lung capacity. It became more exciting, more challenging. And then, that rippled to feeling good and feeling in line with my values and needing less money, so I had more time to do community service. The level of joy I felt when helping others was indescribable. So I simplified and freed up more time and started using that time for things that are important to me: family, living simply, learning skills, and taking care of habitats and ecosystems.
I saw that I was thriving, and other friends who went the road of materialism and security ranged from depressed to overwhelmed to divorced with broken families, and I thought, “Maybe we’re on the wrong track.”
What values guide the Possibility Alliance? Did they contribute to this overall joy you felt through simple living?
Our vision is living so all life can thrive. Then we reach our highest potential as human beings. The five practices bring it into reality. Out of our own life’s experiment, my wife, Sarah, and I came up with those practices that have been most valuable to our well-being and to the planet’s well-being: radical simplicity, service, social activism, inner work and gratitude.
The first, radical simplicity, means reducing our ecological footprint, which is why we live here without electricity or petrol. Part of that radical simplicity is the gift economy, which allows everyone to participate, so all our classes are free. The 1,200 people who come through every year are given knowledge — permaculture, organic gardening, orchard care, animal care and appropriate technologies. So it’s all about sharing the ecological movement instead of charging.
Number two is serving people’s needs with no agenda. This one is a bridge builder. My neighbor’s house burned down, and we went up to help them rebuild, and we built it the way they wanted it so they could have a house in the winter.
Number three is social and political activism. That’s when you go out with an agenda, like helping start the bike co-op, or helping the small farmers and going to the statehouse. Here, we are really going out with an agenda to move society toward where we want to see it go, so it’s different from service.
Number four, inner work, is a commitment to be less judgmental, less fearful, less hateful — and it’s a commitment to develop greater kindness, greater appreciation of life, greater stewardship of the Earth and creation through whatever practice suits you.
Number five is gratitude, or celebration. This means remembering what to be grateful for when we wake up. Wow, I have water. Two billion people in the world don’t have water. Wow, I have air. Wow, gravity is holding me to the Earth right now. Remember that the people around you aren’t going to be there forever, and look at these beautiful ecosystems and animals, and practice celebrating them in a way that doesn’t require flying to Disneyland and using a lot of fossil fuels. Instead, we can walk through the forest and see each thing, or write a poem about a plant or an animal in our ecosystem.
Do you ever find it hard to keep from judging people who are taking part in a lifestyle you do not approve of?
In regards to the sustainability movement, if we are more joyful and more peaceful, that’s going to be more exciting to people. But if we’re just saying, “You’re bad because you’re driving,” they’re going to think, “Well, I don’t want to be like that person, so I’m not going to do whatever they’re doing.”
My personal challenge is being judgmental toward people who are judgmental toward mainstream society. I have noticed some people complaining, “Oh, how could people go to a racetrack and waste all that energy?” And yet they are flying to a fancy permaculture center in Hawaii. I want to work on that, but that’s a hard one for me, when I find people claiming they want to be for the Earth and for people when their words and actions do not line up. I have a lot more ease with mainstream culture because I see their struggle.
I’m working on my patience and trusting that everyone’s on a path to become more mindful, but I think it comes out of really wanting change. Many species are extinct already.
I have a daughter who’s 3, and I want her to see all the diversity of the Earth and experience it here in Missouri. Sometimes I’m impatient. I want to see people take up the issues of climate change or species loss, and I want people to take huge leaps right now — and I see that capacity and beauty in people. I certainly made the leaps myself. I was an average student and an average person who just leapt on behalf of life.
What made you decide to transition to a gift-based economy?
I had wanted to become permaculture certified for 10 years. I worked at some of the cutting-edge permaculture institutes on the West Coast and Europe. I was never certified because it averaged about $1,500, which was half the amount of money my family was living on for an entire year.
Van Jones, an activist on the West Coast, coined a term called “eco-apartheid.” Middle-upper-class environmentalists are demanding that low-income folks “green” themselves, yet all the information comes with a price tag. Seeing that gap really inspired me to create a free educational center, so nobody would be excluded.
We now offer the first by-donation permaculture certification in the world. Over a million people have been certified, all around the world. We’re really proud that we can allow someone in debt or without money to come here and learn some amazing ecological and homesteading science.
It was really important to me to create access, and the gift economy is about access. Probably 1,500 people will pass through the Alliance this year. We publicly speak to another 5,000 to 10,000 people. That’s not a huge amount, but imagine if a lot more ecologically minded institutes and educational centers were doing it. We could start affecting hundreds of thousands of people.
And people respond to it. Our community classes are booked! We do pruning classes and hand out free trees. We have trees in every major city in Missouri. Neighbors have plants that they learn how to propagate, then they give them to their neighbors. We teach them the skills, and we give them a few plants, and it spreads. I think we will have an ecological revolution only when we are giving tools away to people who are overwhelmed and in debt.
It’s also joyful to give. When you give something as a gift — a gift of meaning, like food or information that will help someone grow a garden — it’s incredibly joyful.
Do people ever take advantage of your generosity?
We have an arm of our organization called the Superheroes, which consists of 500 people total who ride on bikes from town to town serving people — just a peace service army. We pull into town and say, “Hey, we want to help whomever.”
We just helped out a group for about two days, and it just seemed that they didn’t really need us, and they had the resources to do without us. We saw other people in higher need. But at those times when we sense we might be taken advantage of, we check in with each other and say, “Let’s trust that something of value is happening here.” Maybe that upper-middle-class person we helped will say, “Wow! Those people came and helped me regardless, and now I’m inspired to help.” We need to trust that kindness will pass forward.
I have no proof, but I know that when I receive a gift, it usually moves something in my own heart to want to give. If we feel that in the physical realm we are being taken advantage of — that we would rather be working with people with less — that’s when we move to the spiritual realm and say that we hope their hearts and minds are being moved to a new idea.
Apart from the gift economy, the Earth, if cared for correctly, is incredibly bountiful! We have these 80 acres, and we host 1,000 people a year, yet all of our fruit, vegetables, meats and cheeses — apart from some organic local grains and oil we import — come from the land. We are also giving away hundreds of fruit bushes and trees that keep propagating themselves. We give away dairy goats from this land — training people how to milk them — and chickens, fruit bushes and trees, seeds, soil, and compost. We gave away probably over $1,000 of plants this year alone.
When we tie ourselves into the Earth’s economy, there is so much abundance! If we get into a sustainable relationship with the Earth, we have way more than our basic needs. That is what’s astounding to me. If we moved to an Earth-based economy, everyone would have enough.
Why do you forego renewable energy?
First of all, renewable energy takes non-renewable energy to make it. The technologies are still in an infant stage. With solar power, 20 years is the optimum time for the most expensive batteries. There needs to be a lot more research, development and recycling of materials. For a solar panel, the thousands of miles for all of those resources to be mined and processed and put together are incredible. The same goes for wind. With that same breath, I would much rather have solar and wind and renewable resources [than non-renewable resources], but I’m not going to pretend that they’re the answer for the 6.8 billion people on the planet.
I believe people often don’t want to change their lifestyles. They want to get solar and wind. But really, what we have to look at is an incredible reduction of our consumption. We could do a combination of, for example, reducing our usage while saving solar and wind for running the hospitals and public institutions.
But there is a clever way around renewable resources. I have seen groups that have taken an old car alternator and hooked it up to a stream and they’re making power with recycled parts. I saw an eighth grader in England build his own solar panel out of stuff from a dump. That’s a whole other category that I think needs to be brought forth — people learning to build their own power. That’s more exciting to me.
Also, no one asks the question — what about electricity-free? We are so stuck in the paradigm that we need electricity. And by literally living off the grid, people who come here are thriving. They’re happy. They’re following their dreams. They’re homesteading, learning crafts, doing puppet shows, playing music, swimming in the pond, climbing trees, eating peaches off the trees and reading by beeswax candles at night. We can thrive without electricity, which kind of makes the whole argument moot.
We are also filling a niche that hasn’t been filled. We are the only petro-free education and service center that we know of in the United States. Because of that, people who are really interested in a petro-free or beyond-petro life have an actual place to visit where they can see what that can be like.
How important is creating a community with off-the-grid living?
Everyone needs to be welcome. I think a lot of the problems in the world are because there are the “haves” and the “have-nots.” There are the powerful and the untouchables. Inclusiveness is an important part of building community, so we welcome everyone. That’s a healthy community: inclusiveness and then meeting people where they’re at — and supporting them.
Another important bridge in community is considering how to build a healthy community for your family beyond your own home. You have to take care of the greater community, too, through service and outreach. Then you have this wheel of healthy homes, healthy communities, healthy county, healthy state, healthy nation and healthy world. Those rings have to be addressed, and I think too often, our view of community is too small. Community means 80 acres we’re on, or community means our nation. But that’s also selfish because we’re on one planet, and I think community needs to mean, “What’s good for the planet?” We bring these concepts back to the home, welcoming strangers.
When someone shows up here, we don’t say, “Here’s what excites me, and I want it to excite you.” We say, “We’re excited about this. What are you excited about?” A lot of people assume that people who come here just want to be electric- and petrol-free, but we had a nurse come through who ended up walking from here to Kansas City on a healing walk. We’ve had nationally published poets come who decide they are going to infuse their poetry with living simply.
What do you do for entertainment? How do you celebrate life?
With all the bells and whistles of video games, ringing cell phones and TVs in every room, our celebration and entertainment has become passive. People listen to music instead of playing it. People watch an adventure on TV instead of living it. People live vicariously. But most people would say that compared to watching “Survivor” or a show on TV, it’s always more exciting when they’re on the river or climbing the mountain. And most musicians I know say that their ultimate experience in music is making or sharing it.
The amazing link is that when we are more alive, we need less stuff. People who come here are really connected and alive with their friends, relationships and connections to the Earth, and they don’t need a lot of stuff to be content. I would guess that their ecological footprint — whether they’re trying to or not — starts to drop.
Here, we are creating our entertainment and celebration. We’re part of it — not passive. We are an adventurous project. That’s exciting! We sometimes have a runaway draft horse. We are sometimes pedaling across New Mexico to help people whose cattle are being killed by the diesel plants. We are putting ourselves in some risk for an adventurous life. You cannot be fully alive without risk. Live life instead of watching it.
Then, the celebrations come naturally. We just built a new dock, then, spontaneously everyone said, let’s have a party! Everyone ran off the dock and went swimming, and then we had this amazing celebration that was a lot more fun than if we had jumped in a car and went to the water park, because we had a connection to it. We built it, and we were celebrating something we did with our own hands.
We had a woman from Colorado stay here recently. She was a public school teacher, about 40 years old, who came here for a week. At the end of the week, she said, “I haven’t felt this peaceful, connected and excited in I don’t know how long.” There’s nothing magical going on here — people are simply living their lives again instead of passively watching.
Are people often challenged internally when they come to visit you?
For some people, a fear comes up, which is the risk. I used to be a professional marine biologist. Sarah and I both had mainstream jobs, and we were both alive and functioning. It wasn’t as if we failed and chose this. We were succeeding, yet we think this is better. We are living our dream, and that is both exciting and scary, because people come here and start to remember their dreams that they buried and start thinking, “Am I just doing this because I feel comfortable and safe? I feel half alive.”
As exciting as it is, people also go through a lot of challenges being here, but they are challenges that we need to face. With the ecological state of the world and the political state of the world, we need people to come alive and live their dreams. All life depends on that.
What thoughts do you have about raising your daughter on a homestead? What advantages and disadvantages do you think she will have that most children will not?
One challenge is honoring people’s generosity. We have one little corner of the room with a basket for Eda’s toys. We communicated to her that if it overflows, she’s welcome to go through her toys and — by her choice — give some away. But we get a lot more than she could ever use, and that’s one of those challenges; how do we receive these gratefully from grandmas and also keep living in a way that’s simple?
The challenge lies in honoring where people are coming from and that they want to give to Eda and her life, and drawing limits without making family and friends feel alienated. You can give her a spoon, and she can be in the sandbox for 10 hours. In a way, we think toys are a conspiracy because kids are so creative! (I should note that I put crayons and instruments in a different category than a plastic bunny that rolls across the floor. Things like art and music can help your creative potential.) But it works out because we just end up giving away a lot of the excess to kids who don’t have a lot.
One advantage is that our daughter gets to be fully human and really develop her capabilities. That will support her in wherever she chooses to go! She picks vegetables during harvest and could tell guests at age two which peppers were ripe. A few months ago, she corrected a woman who said what one of the greens was in the salad.
The advantage is, she is a citizen of Earth. She knows wild edibles, she knows plants, she knows birds, she knows bird calls, and she has more dexterity than most 7-year-olds. She can chop with a knife and carry a candle around. Sometimes when other parents come, they follow her around and say, “Oh, she’s 2, and she’s alone with a candle.” I first found that when I saw 3-year-olds walking llamas across a mountain path in Ecuador. I realized that we really slow down our kids’ developments by making them too fearful and giving them too much security.
There are disadvantages as well. We don’t have any right now, but I think as she gets older, especially into her teenage years, it’s going to be a challenge. She is in this life that, in a lot of ways, is very different from the lives of kids who get in a car and go to the mall. Right now, she gets full attention and gets to be home with her parents. We’re home all day with her. She is 3 and helping me saw boards for the dock. She wanted to do that. If she wants to follow an animal trail, someone takes her there, too.
If you could change one thing about modern society, what would it be?
I would change education in K-12. Kids would learn about plants and animals. Kids would learn about ecological concepts. They would learn how to grow food and work wood. They would have to do community service monthly through the school system. They would be encouraged to follow their wildest dreams. Some would go into law, some would become doctors, and some would be amazing farmers.
I would love an educational system that encouraged the highest realm of human potential in the heart and actually gave kids the renaissance type of education that’s not about profit or monetary success, but about emotional and heart success — being happy people with meaningful lives. I think that would be enough. I think after that, the world would transform.
For the benefit of our readers who want to start a homestead or a center in the future, what would you do differently if you had to start the Possibility Alliance all over again?
My advice would be to persevere. There were times when we almost gave up, and that doubt slowed us down. If I could look back and tell myself something when we were first here, the first couple of months when it just seemed Herculean what we were trying to do — non-electric, non-petrol, hosting everyone, serving, hosting people when the women’s shelter was full, gifting everything — I would say, “This is what’s in your heart. Trust that it will work out.”
I would also tell people this: If you’re starting a project, get 10 to 20 people who believe in you to be a support network. Before you start, let them know that when you call, you’re going to need a pep talk. That’s something we didn’t set up ahead of time. We would be excited to be a cheerleading section for anyone starting something that’s alive in their heart.
I would also like to give readers a homework assignment. Sit down, put the article aside, and make a list of everything you love to do that you’re doing now. Then add a list of everything you want to do and are not doing — big or small, whatever it might be. “I would love to grow a vegetable garden.” Or “I would love to bike to the White House and hang a sign that said, ‘No more offshore drilling.’”
Then make another list of everything that you don’t want to be doing. On that list, also write anything that you might be doing in the future that you don’t want to be doing.
After you’ve got those two lists, it’s very simple. The next day, choose one thing from the first list to start doing and choose one thing from the second list that you don’t want to be doing and remove it from your life. Start integrating one thing at a time into your life. Each one might take a week or it might take a month. Just keep going until your whole life is aligned with the first list.
The Possibility Alliance
28408 Frontier Ln.
La Plata, MO 63549