Better OFF: Flipping the Switch on Technology" is an account of their lessons as Eric Brende, a highly educated man, attempted to learn more about the relationships between man and machine. Does technology improve our lives? Do labor-saving devices actually reduce work or just create more work to pay for them?" />

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Better OFF: Flipping The Switch on Technology by Eric Brende

July 23, 2005 Books, Environment 9 Comments

Eric and Mary Brende spent 18 months living without electricity in a community that considers most Amish excessive. “Better OFF: Flipping the Switch on Technology” is an account of their lessons as Eric Brende, a highly educated man, attempted to learn more about the relationships between man and machine. Does technology improve our lives? Do labor-saving devices actually reduce work or just create more work to pay for them?

Through their journey they encountered many challenges and new experiences. Brende’s writing has you right there sowing the seeds, weeding the pumpkin patch and giving birth to their first child in their home without electricity. It is exciting reading. I finished the book in less than 24 hours, something I rarely do.

So what does the story of a couple in Amish country have to do with urbanity in St. Louis? A lot more than you might think. Living in a long established and compact urban environment leaves farm land for farming — not Wal-Marts. Residents of our older ethnic neighborhoods tend to form bonds and help each other out in some of the same ways described in Brende’s book. Reduced dependance on a car can allow someone to live better on less income than many that make more money but spent it all on transportation just to make more money. But the connection is even closer — the Brende’s call St. Louis home!

I spent a half hour interviewing Eric Brende in their home yesterday afternoon. He had warned me they didn’t use their air conditioning so on the drive over in my car I didn’t use the A/C, an attempt to get acclimated. I had the windows down and tried to ignore the outside temperature gauge on the dashboard nearly approaching 100 degrees. I did bike to an 8 A.M. meeting in the morning less than 2 miles from my house but by late afternoon I just wasn’t going to do it.

I won’t tell you too much about where they live but lets just say it is in the 63104 zip code, south of downtown. I arrived at the handsome red brick building and noticed the windows shut. It is in the high 90s, they don’t use A/C but their windows are shut. I grabbed a handkerchief I keep in the car to wipe the sweat that had accumulated on my short drive and to keep from dripping while in their home.

I didn’t want to keep Brende too long, I knew he had to get to work soon. He earns part of his living as a rickshaw driver. Last night was a game night so he could earn some good money. As we talked a couple of his children came in and out of the room. Very well behaved, didn’t interrupt us once. The temperature was pleasant. Given the fact I had spent 10 minutes in the heat of the car prepared me as I had hoped. Eric turns on a fan to move the air. While we didn’t discuss his methods of keeping the house cool I surmised the windows are opened at night when temperatures are cooler and humidity is less. During the day the shades are drawn and windows closed to keep the interior comfortable. It seemed to work, I didn’t need to make use of the hanky.

We touched on many subjects in our brief conversation such as sources for local shopping, food supplies, bicycling, New Urbanism and specifically New Town at St. Charles. While they don’t live without electricity they don’t have a computer at home. They do have a cell phone for his rickshaw business. They have one family car, older than their oldest child, but use it sparingly. They are also debt free. Brende says they have more disposable income than many people that earn considerably more money. I’d be willing to bet the Brende’s spend far more time with their children than most people do. The Brende family of St. Louis are model citizens.

On a personal note much of what he wrote about is appealing. I’ve done hard work before, thinking I’d escape it by going to college. For the most part I have avoided hard work and my waistline reflects that. But in the last year I’ve been getting in touch with my roots and looking more critically at my own life and choices.

You see, I come from a Mennonite background. My mother was raised Mennonite in a small farming town in Western Oklahoma. My father was raised on a farm also in Western Oklahoma but with less religion simply because town was too far away. But with each generation we have lost a bit of our heritage. My mother’s grandparents, who died long before I was born, never learned English but instead spoke a version of Pennsylvania Dutch. “Mijn vader is een timmerman,” is the one phrase I learned as a kid — “My father is a carpenter” in Dutch. Both my father and my mom’s father were carpenters. My dad, in his mid 70s, is still a skilled carpenter. My grandfather was working well into his 80s and doing small jobs into his early 90s.

My grandparents had an evaporative cooler for their home. Oddly, our family doctor’s office did as well. Seemed very backwards to me at the time. My grandmother was a wonderful cook. The homemade noodles were great. My favorite was the homemade rolls made with warm milk, called zwiebach. While my grandparents lived in town, had electricity, a phone and a television it is only now clear to me how unique they were. As a child I simply thought it was their generation (my grandfather was 30 when the great depression hit). Granted, it was not uncommon for people all over to can their own home grown produce and fruit. Still, my grandparents lived a much more reserved life than many of their non-Mennonite peers.

So here I am a late 30s urbanist in the great City of St. Louis. So begins my experiment to evaluate the use of technology in my life as well as the importance of things. Where can I simplify? Can I live better with less income? Can I reduce the use of my car? Can I grow some of my own vegetables (I’ve gardened before with moderate success)? All I know at this point is that I will not make assumptions about the inclusion of technology in my life — each will be carefully evaluated. Some will stay, some will go. Some will change to low-tech from high tech.

Like the Brende’s I feel St. Louis has the right mix of East coast architecture combined with big city cultural amenities and affordable housing. Look for Mary Brende at the Soulard Farmer’s Market on Saturdays selling soap and copies of “Better OFF: Flipping the Switch on Technology.” Look for Eric’s rickshaw in Lafayette Square, Soulard and downtown. Look for me on one of my bikes.

– Steve


Currently there are "9 comments" on this Article:

  1. Dan Icolari says:

    It seems right that a blog on urbanism, planning, architecture and transportation should focus from time to time on individual consciousness and decision-making as well as on matters of public policy. I applaud your attempt to incorporate personal values and social and political ideas into your everyday choices and behavior. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who found this post both moving and inspiring. Good job, Steve.

  2. Nate Sprehe says:

    My wife and I stayed at Eric’s bed and breakfast in Herman Mo, before they closed it. They seemed to have a pretty happy life, making soap, driving the rickshaw around, and living more of a low stress life.

    It’s funny that you write this post right now because Kathy and I have decided to go down to one car and have started taking the bus, metrolink and walking places. We have decided to make choices in our life that allow us to make use of public transportation. In choosing where to shop, looking for a job, going to get groceries, I have become much more aware of how much I try to cram into my day, simply because I have a car. This weekend we took the bus/metrolink on a great journey that took us from Old North to Downtown, to South Grand, to the Central West End, to Clayton, to Brentwood, to Maplewood and home again. The system worked beautifully and we were shocked at how many places the buses go and how quickly they get there.

    Rather than the day be about the destination, it was more about the process of moving about the city by means of your own two feet and public transportation. It was incredibly fulfilling to know that we have the ability to make choices that allow us to live the urban lifestyle we desire, here in St. Louis. I no longer buy the typical St. Louisan attitude of “well, if we had a decent public transportation system, I would take it…” WE DO, SO STOP MAKING EXCUSES!

    I think this is the first step in simplifying our lives, realizing that we have control over how we live them out.

  3. Nate Sprehe says:

    oh, I almost forgot…a few years back we had picked up this book called “Extreme Simplicity, Homesteading in the City” — ( link). It’s a great book about a couple who, as the title suggests, extremely simplified their lifestyle, within an urban context. It’s pretty intense and definitely much more than we were interested in doing, but a good reference book for all of it’s examples and information.

  4. Stefene says:

    Nice post!

    My husband & I see the Brendes on Saturdays, at Soulard Market. I think Mary homeschools the kids, which is a great way to spend more time with them. Their soap is awesome. I’ve been using it since last winter. It smells nice, doesn’t dry out your skin and they just use a slip of paper for packaging. The best soap I’ve ever used, much better than the $15 L’Occitane stuff from France that they sell at the mall.

  5. Michael Allen says:

    It’s amazing that so many forms of technology become taken for granted so quickly. Is it inherent in the human constitution to exploit any resource that one can find? Or do we simply have ample lesiure time to fill?

  6. Scott says:

    Wow! This is an excellent post. This is something I think about regularly. Squandering your life to purchase a fat lifestyle is addictive. They don’t call it a rat race for nothing. I have read books in the past about simplifying your life by moving to rural settings, but I am interested in learning more about doing it in an urban setting. This family is an inspiration. Though I might have to find a way to simplify with air conditioning…

    Nate, I am impressed with the decisions your family is making regarding transportation. I think my love for St. Louis is intensified because I got to know it so well during my years of being carless. When you don’t use a car, you see the city in a more intense and personal way. It is very rewarding.

  7. Diana says:

    I recently read Eric’s book. It was quite inspiring.
    But I feel like the rich young man of the parable. I still cannot give up what I must to be a part of this. However I have begun re-thinking our family diet. Baby steps are the best I can do at this time I guess.

    I would love to read more of Eric’s ideas.

    [REPLY Baby steps or some bold steps? I pulled the plug on my costly satellite dish and now watch virtually no TV. Make an assessment about the technology in your life and what you can and cannot live without. I found I was able to do without many things and I am in the process of simplifying my life of both tech and “things”. – SLP]

  8. Michelle says:

    “Better Off Flipping the Switch” is a great book. It has inspired me to think differently about how I live my life. While I still use technology, I use it sparingly. I also try to lead a debt free life.

    I let the famliy I work for borrow the book, the mother of the family after reading it, has too tried to implement it in their lives (better then me). They homeschool their kids and grow their own food and even raise chickens, goats and sheep for family consumtion. She also has an interesting book that follows the same idea as Brende’s book; “The Encyclopedia of Country Living : An Old Fashioned Recipe Book” by Carla Emery, it talks about how to live a simple life with interesting subjects as burying the dead and how to deliver your own child. I reccomend it if you are even thinking you might want a simpler life.

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