Cover Story

Another Way

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, November 19, 2006

THE SOLUTION TO THE ENERGY CRISIS turns out to be, in part, mood lighting. You go with one gentle bulb, a 10-watt number that shoos away enough of the darkness to keep everyone at the table identifiable. We're having a delicious, if arguably dim, meal on a pleasant summer evening at a place called Earthaven. It's an "ecovillage." It's in western North Carolina, east of Asheville, in a notch in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We're off the grid, and deep inside one version of the human future.

Susan Lathrop and Kim Rylander, known in the village as Suchi and Kimchi, are hosting me and my guide, Earthaven resident Greg Geis, as I try to figure out how a bunch of suburbanites who've fled mainstream America are able to live in the boondocks half an hour by car from the nearest small town, without electrical lines or water mains or flush toilets or streetlights or microwave ovens or washing machines or home entertainment systems or electric garage door openers or fake-log fireplaces operated by remote control or any of the other things that most people consider essential to survival.

Earthaven is not a "commune," a term now in disfavor (too stale, too '70s); the members prefer to call it an "intentional community." It's the kind of counterculture social experiment more typically found in places such as Oregon and Northern California. I visited because, while the rest of us worry about gas prices and global warming and terrorists taking over oil fields, the residents of Earthaven have a special approach to energy. They make their own.

Suchi and Kimchi have solar panels that give them enough juice to run a laptop and a coffee grinder and a few low-wattage light bulbs. They follow the weather reports, dialing a local phone number for the latest forecast.

"If I know it's going to be sunny tomorrow, I know I can be a little more extravagant -- put on the Christmas lights for dinner, check my e-mail at night," Suchi says.

They're not absolutists, to be sure. They use propane. Even an ecovillage finds it hard to wean itself completely from fossil fuel. With help from a little stove, Suchi and Kimchi have made a fine meal of stir-fried beef with vegetables, basmati rice, garden salad with greens from the community garden, and a blueberry cobbler with berries from the bushes not far from their front door.

There won't be any leftovers, because it's all good, and they don't have a refrigerator. They use coolers. They had a freezer for a while, but it sucked too much energy. When the leaves came out in spring, their solar panels didn't get enough sunlight. Maybe Suchi and Kimchi needed to add more panels or cut some trees. In the meantime, they simply unplugged the freezer. That's another solution to the energy crisis. Unplug what you don't need. They decided they could make do temporarily by hauling ice in milk jugs from an old freezer that's a few hundred yards away, powered by a small hydroelectric contraption parked on a tumbling stream.

Suchi doesn't mince words as we talk over dinner about life in the village: "It's torment living here sometimes -- just torment." But she loves it still, and says, "I have the sanity of living my principles."

After dinner, I help with the dishes and do what I can to stretch a little pot of hot water heated on the stove. Most of us mainstream people keep a huge tank of the stuff in our homes, say, 30 gallons, maintained at scalding temperatures, at least 160 degrees, even when we're out of town on a long vacation -- in case we need to fly home suddenly and take a bath.

Washing dishes the Earthaven way works acceptably well (though in the gloaming, it's kind of hard to see what's happening down there on the plates as you scrub). It's energy-efficient. It does not require gratuitous amounts of fossil fuel or result in the prodigious emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

When you live like this, you think differently. You think about energy. You think about where it comes from and where it goes. The people of Earthaven have developed a way of life that's sophisticated, that's technologically aware, even as it resembles, at first glance, camping. It's all rather enlightened. Or so you may conclude, after your eyes adjust.

THE KEY TO MODERN LIFE IS STRATEGIC IGNORANCE. There are so many things we don't know about our lives and that, frankly, we don't want to know. We don't know much about the basic things that sustain us. We are clueless "end users" in elaborate industrial supply lines. Energy comes from distant power plants and oil refineries and pipelines and electrical grids, but we don't think about them when we flick on a light or turn the key in the ignition. We live in a world we didn't make, by rules and customs and laws we didn't invent, using tools and technologies we don't understand.

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