Work versus Play

Do we make a difference or just go down with the ship?

I love my work. I’ve had a passion to make a positive difference in the world since I was a child. The schism between economics and the environment was a particularly compelling issue to me. I often watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and there was a constant debate between the need for jobs versus the need to protect the environment. I wanted to help. I wanted to know if it were possible to create a sustainable civilization. I wanted to know how to do it, and I wanted to come up with a plan to help get us there. It was my singular mission in life, and for a while, I thought I had it all figured out.

Creating a quasi-sustainable lifestyle was the easy part. I knew that I didn’t want to get stuck in a job because I had too many dreams to live, and my own mission seemed too important. I theorized that a good path to success would be to save up a small nest egg, waste nothing, and build a low-cost solar home on cash, to avoid paying monthly expenses such as rent, a mortgage, a big utility bill, or college loans. Then I would have a secure home base and the freedom to focus on the mission.

Although it took a few years longer than anticipated, the theory largely worked. I found a partner in high school, got married, and saved up a small nest egg. We bought land, moved into a tent, and built the American Dream for about the cost of a new car. We eventually added solar panels to generate electricity and run the meter backwards, zeroing out our already meager utility bill. It also looked really good on my resume. I figured that I could really change the world if I could just build up a sufficient resume to get into politics and have a platform to speak to the American public.

It is not so much that we need a bunch of new regulations and red tape to tell people what they can and cannot do. I do have the aptitude and attention to be a good policy wonk, to get into the details of good legislation. But that’s not where change happens. Change happens when individual Americans get a new idea and run with it. As I saw it, my “job” was to introduce new ideas, new memes, to the general public, to illustrate potential paths to sustainability. Politics offered the promise of regular airtime on the microphone to get the message out.

I focused on my writing to better flesh out cutting edge ideas about building sustainable homes, connecting with nature, prospering in the green economy, and reflecting on our place in the universe. I liked to imagine that getting into politics would be a good way to market my books, and I could invest any income in further making the world a better place.

But in order to be a serious political candidate, I would need more than just a pretty house and a few books on my resume. I also needed business and leadership credentials, and I had about fifty different green businesses and products that I wanted to launch. I wanted to demonstrate green prosperity, that it is possible to make a living while making the world a better place.

A logical next step was to start a publishing company and print my own books on fully recycled paper. From there it was natural to start a retail bookstore and sell my own titles and other quality books and products. In addition, I was already teaching wilderness survival and nature awareness skills part time, which expanded into separate programs for youth and adults. I started a nonprofit organization to promote conservation and recreation on our local Jefferson River. I also built a couple more houses to refine my theories and designs on low-cost solar construction, with the hope of eventually starting my own construction company. I was continually looking for partners to help launch some of my other business concepts as well. With half a dozen different careers, I was spread too thin to give any one area the required attention, but I managed to keep them all moving forward a little bit at a time. It all looked good on my resume, and I thought I might be minimally qualified to try my hand at politics.

The other thing on every politician’s resume is family. For better or worse, a politician is judged by his personal life, and I was acutely aware of that with my wife and kids from the very beginning. For example, I genuinely wanted to raise children, and I felt that I had a lot to offer. I felt like I was making a positive difference in the world when we adopted our first three children and later had a baby. My love for them was and is sincere. In addition, I was equally aware that my family looked really good on my resume. Indeed, my family represented everything I believed in and worked for. I can think of at least two other couples who were likely inspired to adopt because of our experience, and I hoped to inspire many more as a public figure.

Through twenty years of marriage I tried to win my wife’s support for a political career. But she never wanted a public life, never wanted anyone to know we existed, and objected to efforts to market my books. With these issues, and our very different emotional needs, our marriage eventually crumbled and our family fell apart. I not only lost any chance of launching a political career in any foreseeable future, I also lost the one thing I believed in promoting most of all – family. For the first time in my life, my focus shifted from the world’s problems to my own, as I have struggled to resolve the past and mend broken relationships with my children.

Fortunately, the last couple years have been really good to me. I have a new love, and she understands me in a way my ex never did. We laugh, growl, and play a lot, which is a completely new experience to me. The transition has been hard on the kids, and my relationship with my older daughters remains rocky, but my relationship with my younger boys is better than ever. We go on some great adventures together, such as canoeing and carp hunting. We are currently building a small castle for my youngest son, Edwin. He and I are both taking fencing lessons. We have a lot of great battles. And while my political career hangs in limbo for the foreseeable future, I am enjoying indulging in my hobbies. I am currently writing a book about foraging wild foods, and I could easily spend the next ten years just writing about things that interest me.

But with the present state of the world, I often feel like we are merely dancing on the decks of the Titanic, steaming towards an iceberg as if we are invincible. Dancing is good for the soul, yet I wouldn’t count on it altering the course of the ship.

I hear the call of duty, and I know that for our children’s sake we must make an all-out effort to create a sustainable civilization now, not later. I sincerely believe that I have the skills and aptitude to make a significant positive difference in the world, and yet, I am merely hanging out, playing games, and having fun.

My ex and I were fortunate in that we owned two houses, two business, and two cars to ease the pain of splitting the estate. However, I am definitely rebuilding my personal life, my businesses, and my resume, and I feel that I am a long ways from being ready to enter politics. Strangely, I find myself in less of a hurry now than before, if only because I see little choice but to take time to find solid footing again. Yet the need is greater than ever before.

The Titanic was considered unsinkable, and that is our attitude today as a nation. We are steaming along as if we can just ram through whatever lay in our path. But the iceberg I could see ahead of us as a child seems to loom overhead today. The captain is off taking a break, and nobody seems particularly interested or qualified to take the helm and steer us in a new direction. I would gladly do my duty and serve my country in any way possible if I had the opportunity. I’m just not sure I can rebuild my resume in time to do any good.

It is possible, and perhaps likely, that I will never accomplish the mission that called to me since childhood. I gave it everything I had for thirty years, and I feel as though I am now starting all over. But if the iceberg is unavoidable, and nobody else takes the leadership to do anything about it, then at the very least, I intend to enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts. I will be dancing on the decks of the Titanic with everyone else. It is not my preferred choice, yet for the moment, it seems to be my only choice.

If you, however, want to change the future, if you want to work together to chart a new course and a new destiny, then by all means, speak up. Let’s talk. Let’s make a plan, let’s make a difference, and let’s do it before we run out of time.

Thomas J. Elpel
June 15, 2012

Mr. Elpel,

Today I was offered, and I accepted a job as a research assistant for a Canadian politician. Before being informed about the interview this last week, I was certain I would be on my way to Montana come end of October. That said, I won’t be joining you this November for an internship.

I want to thank you for taking the time to write back to me so quickly and with such detailed information. I recognize that you’re likely very busy with e-mail and writing and work etc. I’d like to express my appreciation for you taking the time to communicate.

In your article ‘Work versus Play: Do we make a difference or just go down with the ship?’ you say you feel like we’re ‘dancing on the decks of the Titanic’. I can’t tell you how much and how often I think similar thoughts – whether it is even possible to change the world or if our actions are ultimately futile, simply wasted energy in the big picture. This has been a big part of my thought process and has resulted in a contemplation of two major life paths:

1) Keep on dancing on the decks! Prepare myself and those close to me for coming change, but make little attempt to influence others’ lifestyles and actions. The ship is sinking anyways, might as well have fun, or as Joseph Campbell says, “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.”


2) Try my damnedest to make as big of an impact as I possibly can – fight the good fight and hope that our tribes’ collective actions will be successful. Heed Margaret Mead’s advice, “Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I have not concluded which, if either, choice is valid / correct. For now, option 2 seems to be the better for emotional and spiritual well-being. At least here there’s a place for hope.

I’d like you to know I’m all-in for option 2. Hopefully my new job will allow me to have influence on major decisions, in large or infinitesimally small ways. It will also help me, should I decide to run for office at some point.

I feel compelled to tell you all this to let you know that I’m on board to make a difference. I hope to keep in contact, and have no doubt that I will come to intern with you or participate in one of your workshops in the future.

All the Best,


P.S. I thoroughly enjoyed Participating in Nature. While reading your narratives and learning about your philosophy, I felt like I was reading a much clearer, more organized and focused version of some of my own thoughts and ideas. Thank you for sharing and showing me and others like me that we’re not alone.


Filed under Autobiographical, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Work versus Play

  1. Thomas,
    Like you I too hear the call of needing to take action as the titanic heads towards the iceberg. I stumbled across your books and other similar writers and thinkers in college about 9 years ago at 20 years of age. Since then I tried to chart a course towards deep, sustainable, and influential change. Unlike you my plans and actions can not really be construed as even moderately successful. I tried to utilize my engineering degree and conventional job to fund a visionary permaculture farm, I did not know my limitations and failed at both. Since then I’ve been gone to what now can best be described as marginal employment, staying just barely ahead of my student loans and rent.
    I’m not alone though, there are many like me in similar stuck financial situations, with similar aspirations. We are an untapped resource, a spark waiting for kindling and air to ignite. Perhaps you do not need to be in a governmental position to lead and take the helm? Perhaps such a position would not even allow for the changes that you want to enact? I bet you have thought of this, but imagine how much change you could create if you headed a large a corporation that sold products, and sustainable know how. Imagine if you replicated your school and know how in ten or twenty cities.
    I really hope you find an avenue to take the helm to the greatest of your capacity, your work and abilities seem very unique and needed right now.

    • Wildfarmer,

      Thanks for sharing! You suggested making change through the private sector, rather than through public service. I agree. That has been the intent of our Green University, LLC program ( – to mentor young people in sustainable living and to incubate many green businesses. So far, it is a great idea that hasn’t yet been realized. My interns and I built a nice passive solar stone home to use as a starter campus for G.U., but my ex moved into it when we split up. So, I am starting over with Green University, LLC and keeping it small while I re-organize my personal life. But someday I do hope to turn it into a bonafide school that graduates people with viable green businesses, rather than a piece of paper and colossal school debts. Let me know if you ever want to work together in some way.


      Thomas J. Elpel

      • Thomas,
        Green University LLC is certainly a vision I’m on board with, I love to figure out a way to get involved. I’ve had dreams for some time of teaching a comprehensive living energy energy education program that helps people get an intuitive feel for energy flows in ecosytems, and the massive energy flows in industrial systems. The big part of that curriculum lies a skill set I’ve yet to see anyone develop, that is sensible low cost DIY alternatives that mesh with our economy and population numbers.

        I am open though to nearly any possibility that fits my skill set and is part of a much needed shift towards a green economy. Recently I’ve been sketching out some ideas on a resilient property conversion company, you can see it here

        The idea was prompted by someone who was developing a “resilient” hedge fund. I started to think about how transforming the power of money could be and then sketched out the idea of how we could systematically do green real estate developments with principles like permaculture, and low cost green building techniques. Surprisingly a couple of people with capitol have actually been interested in developing a test property in that manner. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on either of those ideas or any ideas you have that you are seeking collaboration on.

        Nick Raaum

      • Nick,

        Thanks for sharing. Interesting read! I do not yet have any deeper thoughts on it than that. I am presently on the road, but do stay in touch.


        Thomas J. Elpel

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