Opting Out: An Introduction - Pacific Standard

Opting Out: An Introduction

We're telling stories all week about people who opt out of society on some level—homesteaders, back-to-the-landers, anti-government survivalists.
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(Photo: Henrik Larsson/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Henrik Larsson/Shutterstock)

Ever since I moved to the Yukon Territory, in northern Canada, four and a half years ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about the choices we make about our participation in society. More specifically, I’ve thought about the people who choose not to participate in all aspects of modern communal life—the people who opt out.

Opting out can be as simple as deciding to make a big batch of jam or to pickle your own vegetables, or as complex as creating a detailed action plan for a potential apocalypse.

Here in the Yukon, and in my regular travels to Alaska, I’ve met people who opt out of the most basic shared infrastructure of city living—plumbing and the power grid—by living in cabins with no running water, an outhouse for a toilet, and a limited supply of electricity provided by a solar panel or a generator. I’ve met people who hunt all of their own meat and sew their own parkas, eschewing the big Walmart store down by the river. I’ve met people who, like the Fairbanks militia leader whose dramatic story is at the heart of this project, believe that the government is a menace rather than a service or a safety net, and who are willing to take action to defend themselves against that threat.

Of course, opting out is not something that’s limited to the wild north, or to extreme cases like militiaman Schaeffer Cox. It can be as simple as deciding to make a big batch of jam or to pickle your own vegetables, or as complex as creating a detailed action plan for a potential apocalypse. It can be an all-encompassing lifestyle choice, or a series of small, occasional choices—a commitment renewed with every new DIY project a person takes on.

Throughout this week, I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned about the various ways in which people choose to opt out of society. I’ll talk to the authors of a pair of very different recent books about people who opt out, and I’ll take a look at a literary tradition spawned by writers who flee to the wilderness. I’ve started with the story of Schaeffer Cox, the charismatic young Alaskan leader brought down by a mole inside his own militia. I hope you’ll choose to stick around for the rest.

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