Societal Escape

As 2020 continues to be a challenging year in so many different ways, there is a sentiment of wanting to just get away from it all. From societal unrest to pandemics, to many of us, there has never been a better time to leave population centers and find a little more social distance.

More Americans in general are pursuing a more self-sufficient life with less dependence on society, whether that be short-term or a more permanent solution. Living off-the-grid is not anything new, but changes precipitated by the pandemic makes the decision to reevaluate living situations a more pressing concern. These days you might have friends or neighbors—or yourself—who decide to uproot and seek out a new way to live that is less dependent on society at large.

For the fully committed, Earthships have, for decades, been a housing option for those who are serious about sustainable living. These homes are built out of upcycled materials such as glass bottles, cans, and tires. The people living in these homes, either in small remote communities or solitary, have found little need to change their lifestyles due to COVID-19. Food, water, and sewage are all taken care of in-house without government infrastructure. These homesteaders have little need for outside contact, leaving them with premade social distancing.

The creator of the Earthship concept, Michael Reynolds, runs a school called “Earthship Academy,” where he provides online classes that educate people on sustainable living. While Reynolds has seen slow increases in Earthship popularity throughout the years, COVID-19 sparked an explosion. Reynolds says that this pandemic has “opened people’s eyes.”

However, not everyone is looking for their own Earthship—sometimes we just need tips on being less reliant on outside help.

The goals of living off the grid are different for everyone, and some are not willing to ditch everything and move to the middle of nowhere. Some are looking for a stop-gap solution to overcrowded cities where COVID-19 fears are more pronounced. For those with the financial resources, hitting the road in a customized van has become a trendy escape plan. “#vanlife” has been popular on social media for years, but the trend is moving from niche and quirky to a realistic option.

Van living has become such a hit that the business of creating these van-homes is seeing a boom. Benchmark Vehicles, a company that custom-fits Mercedes Sprinter vans, has had its demand double since the start of the pandemic. Additionally, infrastructure has cropped up for those who would rather rent the van lifestyle as opposed to owning. Startup Kibbo is offering a membership program that allows members to rent fully outfitted Mercedes vans, and grants access to RV parks in various scenic locations across the nation.

The recent changes to the way we live our lives are making it less important to be so close together. Though there will likely not be a complete diaspora from city centers, there has been an uptick in those seeking a more rural setting. According to Realtor.com, homes in rural zip codes saw a 34% increase in views from last year, and a study by the e-commerce startup Fast found that 40% of American workers are interested in relocating to a less populated area.

Things like the new acceptance of working from home, the boom in goods and services available online, and the ubiquity of delivery is making life outside of cities equally tenable. Many of the draws of city life, including the density of culture and experience, have been put on hold for the foreseeable future anyway.

COVID-19, among other issues plaguing 2020, has exposed some cracks in the stereotypical American life. It cannot be ignored that the ability to fully commit or even sample off-the-grid living is relegated to the privileged. Socioeconomic disparities make it impossible for many American families to get out of current social situations; however, the cultural shifts are causing many to envision a future outside of urban environments.

While we can’t all uproot and move to the desert in a house made out of recycled beer cans, there is a burgeoning interest in a more self-sufficient life—and that has proven benefits for the planet as well as for our personal safety and health.