Explorers of the Alternative By Zach Altman
I first learned about alternative living in 2013, though it was not by that name. This was
a period when I was grappling with the destruction of our environment in the wake of modern society’s growth and habit – the stage of education where you begin to understand that the problems facing the world today are more serious and complex than you could have ever imagined. How can I live in peace, knowing that my way of life is causing such harm?
At times, I was without hope. Then, like many others, I discovered cob construction, permaculture, and tiny homes. I found that there were low-cost, high efficiency construction methods using materials of the land around you: clay, sand, wood, stone, water, straw. I discovered how useful old pallets were. I found that it was possible to grow food and raise animals so that they work together, with less input from the farmer.
I discovered those things, but as a college student in an urban environment, I lacked the resources to fully implement these ideas. I grew some vegetables, began composting, and built pallet tables. I had bigger plans for the future.
Later on, I moved into a van. Burning gasoline, drinking beer, and adventuring all around the American West doesn’t really sound like a holistic, integrated systems approach to living that I was aiming for – in fact, it seemed like the opposite. Regardless, this period in the van was a liberating shift in perspective. Gary Snyder describes this idea in his essay, The Etiquette of Freedom, “To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are – painful, impermanent, open, imperfect – and then be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us.” That first step, the point where your actions embody those shifts in your ideology - leaving the conventional lifestyle behind - that is the biggest leap you will ever take.
Sure, freedom from the confinements of conventional living is great, but without the environmental component, why is #vanlife so popular? Like other forms of alternative living, I think this self-actualizing, sometimes nomadic tradition is deeply engrained in our ethos, and van life is the most accessible means to embody this narrative. The truth is that van life is the first step among many, and most people who have lived in a van would say that a tiny home or cob cottage is their end goal. I can easily say it is mine.
The most wonderful discovery I made during those early times – or rather, the one simple fact that fostered the most hope – I was not alone. There exists a global community of people taking the plunge into the non-conventional, seeking to align their lives with
the rhythms of nature and lessen their dependence on a capitalist economy. This is a movement, and you are a part of it.
Through this journey, I found the answer to my question: If your way of life is causing harm, change your way of life.