The United Nations, World Economic Forum, and other global institutions are pushing to pile more humans into cities. But humanity itself is fighting back. Many people are collectively deciding that living in concrete jungles is just not right for them.
Cities are what biologists call an “evolutionary mismatch.” Researchers widely believe humans evolved to live in small communities of around 150 people in agrarian or hunter-gatherer economies. Life should proceed slowly, they say, with only minor changes in daily routines.
That’s not the case in cities today. Tranquillity is the exception, not the norm. And many people report feeling uneasy with all the noise, hyperstimulation, crime, and legions of strangers who throng every bus stop, subway, and pavement. To make matters worse, researchers are increasingly discovering that living in a city adversely affects health. Studies show that it can impact everything from sleep quality to cardiovascular disease. The constant comings and goings, sirens, rumbling of traffic and screeching trains can mean the brain never gets a break. It is constantly on edge, looking for the next threat.
The root of the problem appears to be excessive cortisol production. Large cities appear to raise stress hormones chronically, preventing individuals from ever feeling truly relaxed. Constant activation of the sympathetic nervous system prevents people from achieving the essential “rest-and-digest” stage, preventing their bodies from carrying out basic repairs.
City living may also lead to immune system troubles, increasing the risk of mental illness. Increased toxic load may cause depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other conditions. Lack of community can also lead to a sense of loneliness and isolation among those affected, particularly older generations.
For organisations like Zero & Zen, the solution is living off the grid. Instead of submitting to the imposed way of life, people are leaving behind consumerism and endless striving for something simpler.
“Urban living was an experiment,” the organisation says. “But it is clear that it is not sustainable. Cities are significant contributors to global warming and the greenhouse effect due to CO2 emissions. What's more, they are the source of significant sources of stress. City dwellers must work for a living; they cannot retreat to the land.”
But despite the overwhelming call of society for people to engage in modern life, a growing cohort is choosing to live off-grid. Many people are rejecting consumerism, capitalism, and the whole structure of modern life and seeking out something simpler and more primal.
“We’re not surprised that many people prefer to live off-grid,” Zero & Zen says. “Modern life promised individuals the world, but the reality is different. Stressful commutes, rotten bosses, and soulless apartment blocks work against our fundamental nature.”
The problem with modern cities, as Zero & Zen sees it, comes back to this fundamental mismatch between humans and their environment. Urban landscapes are not the seat of our collective evolution but something that only emerged to a significant extent in the last two hundred years.
“We want people to imagine what it would be like to move to the woods, build a cabin, and use sunlight as a fuel source. Life wouldn’t have the trappings of modernity and it would also be vastly more fulfilling. We would be surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of nature, just as evolution intended.”
Of course, Zero & Zen is pragmatic about the practical difficulties of living off-grid. Nobody moving away from the city ever finds it easy, at least at first. However, it is keen to point out that it is possible with education.
“We’ve created a guide that teaches people how to build a homestead and live off-grid. We cover things like whether it’s even possible to live off-grid and what people should do to achieve it.”
“What matters is getting the basics right. Once people have a source of shelter, food, water, and energy combined with effective waste disposal, they can live in the wilderness indefinitely. The tricky part is making it happen.”
Even so, Zero & Zen says there are numerous reasons to live off-grid. Perhaps the most significant reason is better health. When people get out of the city, they become significantly more active, enabling them to overcome numerous chronic health problems.
People also experience a greater sense of personal satisfaction. Learning new skills provides them with a sense of agency and they feel less like other people are controlling their lives.
“Getting out of the city gets people away from stress-generating modern life,” the organisation claims. “Leaving modern life behind and embracing nature makes a tremendous difference in how the average person feels, giving them back their sense of agency and autonomy.”
Lastly, living off-grid also provides people with a closer connection to nature. Research shows that simply being surrounded by a forest can profoundly improve a person’s well-being. It reverses the effect of cities removing people from their natural environment.
To help people survive off-grid, Zero & Zen provides topical help. It covers how to obtain water, food and shelter, the essentials for survival. What’s interesting about the information it provides are the multiple strategies available to those who decide to leave the city and move to the woods.
“When it comes to survival, you can take multiple approaches, even if you are planning on going full off-grid. Naturally, you need shelter to protect you against predators, but the options for homesteads are broader than many people imagine,” the organisation says.
“Food is also less complicated when you live off-grid. Instead of going to a superstore and trying to resist all the junk food in bright packaging, living off-grid compels you to eat natural, whole food, which is another reason people get so much healthier when they leave city life behind.”
Whether people will warm to the idea of living off-grid remains to be seen. The movement has been going for years and yet it still is not mainstream. That may change in the coming years as migration to cities continues and people look for an escape.