Turn a corner in New York City (and there are a lot of them) and you could see anything. For instance, on West 63rd Street, just a stone’s throw from Central Park, stood Ethan Schneider. It was a chilly, mid-November morning, with winter finally arriving on the East Coast and Schneider was wrapped up warm. He had good reason to be, seeing as he was standing beside his home, a mountain bike and a trailer with personal belongings hanging off nearly every inch of it.
“When I walk around the city the thing I notice is it’s really noisy, it’s really dirty and the air is not very clean so I’d like to live a lifestyle that is in line with improving those conditions and increasing everyone’s quality of life,” Schneider begins telling me after I double back to ask him to explain what exactly is going on.
He has been living a version of this life he’s created for himself for around eight years, only incorporating the bike about five years ago.
“I was trying to do it with less,” Schneider explains,” being even more of a minimalist before I got the bike but I realised especially if you’re living in a colder climate, you need the ability to transport a certain amount of survival gear. And I feel a van or a car is too much, I’ve lived in my car before, plus you have to deal with fossil fuels and combustion which I don’t like. So I’m working now on this solar electric e-bike and I want to see…I’m exploring the limits of that within a number of parameters that I’ve set for myself. I haven’t written this down in any seriously coherent way but I’ve talked to some people about it and I have some pretty clear ideas about what I hope to accomplish and how I think I want it to develop over the next few years.”
Schneider’s main message, he continues, is to live a lifestyle of zero exhaust, zero noise and zero waste because those are the three improvements to the city that he believes would greatly increase everyone’s wellbeing.
“I want to find out what’s possible for me to do and then hopefully other people will also know what’s possible,” he says. “As far as leading by example and being the change you want to see in the world.”
In the summer Schneider does a lot of boondocking as the chaos in the city increases with everyone outside enjoying the good weather. Barefoot, he will often walk as far as he can to make sure he and everyone else has enough space and also to “keep himself out of trouble”.
But now it’s not the summer, a bitterly cold winter is upon his outdoor set-up where he admits he willingly treads the line of being homeless.
“In the winter time I usually find some place to hunker down and do some more research and studying. So for the past week or so I’ve been hanging out at this public atrium, it’s a public space,” he points behind him. “There are power outlets so I can charge my batteries, I can watch YouTube, I can listen to music, I can talk to people, I can do some sewing. I just finished repairing a cover for my bicycle trailer.”
It’s good to know that even those living lives of such extremes still can’t resist the red play button of YouTube. As we stand on the street corner, Schneider looks visibly cold, his stillness betraying an inner chill that won’t dissipate of its own accord. In fact, he also sometimes tries to minimise his caloric intake in pursuit of lofty sustainability goals by not biking too much. Really, it feels like a life that is impossibly difficult.
“It’s really tough, it’s the most difficult thing I can think of to do,” Schneider says of his chosen lifestyle. “Just in terms of…not for the sake of it being difficult, because I think it’s a meaningful thing to do. I have a lot of what I consider to be important reasons for doing this and I’m putting them to the test every day. For me this is like existential philosophy. My generation was raised with a lot of information and influence about ecology and environmental awareness and sustainability and so I took that seriously and I’m trying to figure out how do you actually live a life that doesn’t create pollution? How do you live a life that doesn’t destroy the planet and living conditions where you are?”
Conscious of his need to get inside and get warm, a couple more questions about who Ethan Schneider is outside of his environmental mission.
“I was born in Missouri, I lived there for four years and then my family and I moved to South Carolina, lived there for 16 years, grew up there, it was alright, I never felt like I belonged in the South but never really had a choice because I wasn’t an adult yet. As soon as I was old enough to leave I left, I think when I was 20 or 21. I put everything in my car and drove to California because I saw a lot of interesting things happening in bigger cities and I wanted to explore that for myself so I went and did that and it led me all the way here to New York. I like being here in New York, it’s so diverse and it continually challenges me to improve and grow and find ways to develop new relationships with interesting people and do innovative things. Once I get the electric bike running I might do more travelling. I’ve collected batteries, an electric motor and solar panels, I still need a charging controller, I need a charging harness, I need to do some more research on that and see if I can get done with that this winter.”
And, if you don’t mind me asking, what do you do for money? To provide for yourself?
“People give me money here and there, I have a GoFundMe, but mostly I try to live without money as much as I can and trade and barter and upcycle, salvaging materials from the trash is really important. Most of the things I have here I found in the trash or people gave to me or I built it out of junk. I think repairing is important, reusing is important but ultimately reducing is why I live such a minimal lifestyle.”
Amongst a city of millions harbouring dreams of what’s possible, Ethan Schneider’s stand out above the skyline.
“How do I meet my minimum physiological, emotional and psychological needs without all the materials, without the buildings?” Schneider asks. “I spend most of my time outside most of the year, so I’m always exploring the limits of that to find out what’s possible.”