Would We Be "Better Off"
Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. By Eric
Brende. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004.
By Keith Akers and Kate Lawrence
NOTE: this review gives away several key aspects of the narrative
of the nonfiction book "Better Off." While the main point of
the book is not the narrative, if you donít want the sequence of
events revealed, donít read this review until you read the book.
Better Off has a tantalizing premise. It is the answer to the
question, "what would it be like to live without modern
technology?" As a student at M. I. T., Eric Brende became a critic
of modern technology. In response to a challenge by some of his college
professors, he goes off for a year with his wife to an
ultra-conservative, Amish-like Christian community which does not
utilize electricity or modern machinery. They get rid of anything
connected to "the grid" including electric stoves, phones,
computers, automatic washing machines, and cars (for which they have
"off-grid" equivalents). They grow their own food and trade
labor and knowledge with others in the same community, affectionately
called the "Minimites" (not their real name).
Better Off is a well-written account of Eric, Mary, and their
eighteen months in an off-grid community. It raises a whole host of
important issues. I like this book as a description of how it would feel
for a modern technologically-oriented person to be immersed in a
voluntarily primitive group, and I can recommend it on that basis.
It represents a truly creative approach to the whole question of our
relationship to technology.
However, there are a number of problems with the book. Some of these
are connected with the way the book was written, others are connected
with how Brende elaborates on his ideas. Our criticisms may seem
to imply that we really don't think the book is worth reading, which is
emphatically not the case. It's a thought-provoking book, and
we're responding with our own thoughts.
These problems are: (1) confusion about the lessons to be drawn from
the book, (2) no elaboration on the question of birth control, despite
its central place in the narrative of the book, (3) relative absence of
women from the story, (4) lack of awareness of the "factory
farming" issue, and (5) confusion over the impact of one critically
important technology, that of cars, on human relationships.
1. Lessons to be Drawn. The lessons which Brende draws for us at
the end are completely unclear. What are we, the readers, to conclude
from Better Off? Is he suggesting that we join the Minimites or a
group like them? Apparently not. At the end of their adventure, they
leave the "Minimites" and wind up in a major city operating a
rickshaw business, a bed-and-breakfast, making soap, and raising three
Brende now owns a car and a cell phone. He does not own a computer,
but advertises on a web site and will use computers from time to time
(for example, to check email). He does not own a television but will
watch it when visiting friends and neighbors, treating it as a social
occasion. He reads newspapers and periodicals and occasionally goes to
the movies. He apparently feels no compunction about contributing to the
population explosion (more about that in a moment).
Compared to the "pure" life he led with the Minimites,
their current life paints a substantially different picture. With
the Minimites he really was cut off from the modern technological world.
Now, he is fully integrated into that world, with a few minor
adjustments such as rejection of watching TV ó at his own home, at
least. It appears that he has rejected the alternative which the book
presents (the Minimite community and lifestyle), but doesnít want to
admit it. Now in itself thatís not a bad thing ó hey, we did a lot
of crazier things when we were young. But what exactly are we supposed
to conclude? Technology is good, bad, indifferent, or what? Itís not
2. Birth control. His approach to birth control is puzzling at
several levels. This is the major flaw with his presentation of the
narrative -- we're left hanging as to what really is going on.
When we first meet Eric and his wife Mary, they are not yet married and
share an interest in this Minimite community. He says of his
relationship, "Our relationship had heated up well beyond the level
of friendship . . . To live in close quarters with a group like this
[the 'Minimites'], you had to be properly married. It would be premature
to say, however, whether ours was a marriage of convenience."
All right, fair enough. But later, Mary becomes pregnant -- a
major turning point in the book. It emerges at a different point that
they were apparently not practicing birth control. He is Catholic
and makes a comment that with breast-feeding, the babies seem to be
pleasantly spaced at every two years.
What, precisely, are we to make of this? Of course "young
and foolish" is an obvious explanation. Itís not as if this is
the first time in history that a young couple got married and then had
children. But it seems that he still accepts a key part of their
behavior: the rejection of the technology of birth control.
It sounds like they had no clear commitment to a permanent marriage
when they started out and that nevertheless, they did not practice birth
control. They then seem to be surprised when Mary becomes pregnant. Iím
wondering what, precisely, they had in mind when they got married and
what, precisely, they thought was going to happen? It sounds a bit
indecent to ask, but by introducing their childbearing practices
conspicuously into the book (and by attacking "technology")
they have already made it part of their agenda for discussion. It
seems to us that if you're going to live with a different type of
society, you'd postpone starting a family so as not to get so distracted
by personal issues.
Is their (apparent) opposition to artificial birth control part of
their opposition to technology in general? This is a tantalizing issue
related to technology which weíd be very interested in knowing
more about. But we are left hanging, not even knowing definitely whether
they deliberately abstained from birth control. If they did, we do not
know whether this practice was part of their anti-technology beliefs,
part of their religious Catholic beliefs, or perhaps just something they
did initially out of carelessness but which later they adopted as a
conscious belief and practice.
And if they are opposed to birth control, what about the population
explosion? Do they think that six billion people can practice the
lifestyle they are currently engaging in, which evidently
includes owning a car, owning a cell phone, eating meat, and continuing
to increase the population indiscriminately? I canít believe that
intelligent people still believe this sort of thing. I have news: this
isn't possible, not even close. While Better Off thus has value
as a psychological or social exercise of some sort, it canít be
construed as a solution to the environmental crisis.
3. Lack of a female voice. There is a relative absence of women
in the story. He seems to go into some detail about his own life
"off the grid," but we hear very little about Mary or other
women. (The exception, which we are glad he chose to talk about, is Maryís
pregnancy and childbirth.) In fact, it is not clear exactly why Eric and
Mary leave the Minimites; the whole subject is handled a bit vaguely,
but it is evidently due to Maryís decision. So in spite of the fact
that a key event in their experience involves Mary, we are left in the
dark as to why this happened the way it did. The immediate occasion is
Maryís allergy to horses, though he acknowledges that this in itself
was not sufficient to cause them to leave.
Given everything else that weíve seen so far ó namely, his
description of his relationship to Mary ó one wonders whether the
relationships between or with the various women in the book gave rise to
this decision. We can imagine Mary telling Eric as he writes his book,
"if you put THAT in your book, Iím outta here!" ó and the
book thus taking the shape that it does by weighing of various
considerations of this nature. Whatever his intentions, the final result
is a book which talks predominantly about males and their interaction
with each other, and generally disregards women except in the discussion
of Maryís pregnancy and childbirth.
4. Factory Farming. To their credit, Eric and Mary ó while
they eat meat ó kill their own animals. Meat-eating does not involve
technology per se (itís been going on for thousands of years), but
factory farming is really different. I would have hoped that at the end,
once they left the "Minimites," they would reject the
technology of "factory farming," which would mean rejection of
about 99% of meat and dairy products sold in the United States. If they
did this, they didnít tell us.
5. Cars. I think Brende has missed the point regarding the impact
of technology on human interaction. Has he read Kunstlerís The
Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere? It is the car
which has most dramatically altered, we should say destroyed,
They, and we, can of course today minimize the use of the car, but
that does not give us back the neighborhood which has been destroyed by
the predominant car culture. A few lucky individuals may manage to
choose a home which is close to their place of work and stores where
they do most of their shopping. The rest of us have no neighborhood in
the traditional sense and have to drive to get anywhere. It was
striking, to us, that the first job Brende got after he left the
Minimites was as a cab driver.
So far as we're concerned, even without a car, and especially
without a car, we are still miles distant from the nearest natural food
store and most of our friends. We have to get into a car to do
practically anything ó something which wasnít true a century ago.
Our entire lives seem to revolve around the car and its needs. By
comparison, the impact of washing machines, computers, and running water
on our neighborhoods has been minimal. The one piece of technology most
devastating to our social environment is the one piece of technology
which, in the end, Eric and Mary have not been able to leave behind.
In short, Better Off is an stimulating book because of its
description of radical off-grid living. But in terms of presenting
solutions, it doesnít leave us with much ó and at least some of what
it appears to offer is, in our opinion, dead wrong. In terms of
"getting rid of technology," weíd like to see thoughtful
people focus on getting rid of the two most destructive aspects of
twentieth century technology: our car culture and factory-farmed meat.
We can keep the birth control and automatic washing machines, thank you