Is a renaissance in land-based living possible without the technologies that empower us to design more sustainable, regionally based societies and economies—or the online technologies that help us instantly fan the flames of this movement? At the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC), where I live and work as Online Communications Manager, appropriate use of technology is constantly on my mind.
OAEC is a sustainability demonstration center and intentional community on 80 acres of mixed forest, woodlands, and coastal prairie in western Sonoma County, California. Our work revolves around researching and modeling how to design healthy, beautiful place-based communities. In response to a global economy that has caused environmental and cultural degradation of epic proportions, our goal is to inspire and empower change-makers with community influence—from tribal citizens to schoolteachers to activists representing marginalized urban groups—to envision how they could design local systems for providing for their communities’ needs. We call this work “community resilience design”: helping to develop regionally based settlements and economic systems that depend far less upon the global economy to thrive.
Appropriate technology plays an important role in our work. For instance, we are currently supporting a Haitian nonprofit called Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) to design modern humanure composting systems. These will improve health and provide jobs for marginalized communities of Haiti, where human “waste” has been a huge problem—but is now being transformed into a resource with the properly designed systems.
My job is to continue to grow OAEC’s influence using tools of modern technology. As Online Communications Manager, I have spent much of the last year and a half on a computer, rebuilding a more effective, impressive website and expanding our social media network. My work ideally captures the attention and imaginations of the community change-makers we seek to inspire and empower, as well as attracts the funding we need for our financial sustainability.
But I sometimes find myself questioning just how “appropriate” my personal use of technology is, feeling guilty about the amount of fossil fuel required for nine-to-five computer use. Or I’ll think about the “big picture” and feel hopeless, finding it difficult to see the point of what I’m doing day to day. In the face of rising sea levels, or a drought that threatens to destroy California’s powerful industrial agriculture complex, does what I’m spending my days doing really matter? Sure, maybe Facebook helped the masses organize during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, but does it have the power to restore biological and cultural diversity at the speed that it needs to happen for our species to continue to thrive for, say, another few thousand years?
Plus, if there really is to be a massive transition away from the global economic system—whether by design or by disaster—being “plugged in” every day is absolutely not preparing me for it.
After months of reflection, however, I have come to realize that my deep entanglement with modern technology allows me to play a necessary role in my community. The mainstream emphasis on individualism has caused a generation of idealists to define “sustainability” as heading back to the land to homestead in an effort to provide for all of their own needs—perhaps rejecting modern technology in the process. While well intentioned, this approach does not take into account that humans are fundamentally tribal and community-based. At OAEC, I’ve learned that sustainability isn’t about learning how to provide for all of your own needs; it’s about understanding and accepting what your skills are, then building alliances with people around you who have complementary skills to develop a more sustainable regional economy. Some of us are Farmers, others Builders. When I zoom up out of myself, I see that I am Storyteller for a group of people who are spending their days researching and educating about place-based resilience.
So, although I am not personally a model of ecological sustainability, I’m the communicator for a group of people who are “living in truth” about the ecological crisis together. I’m heralding the stories of the work my colleagues are doing in order to inspire community leaders and funders to emulate and believe in OAEC’s vision of a more resilient future. Though my use of technology might be considered resource-intensive if looked at from an individualist standpoint, I believe it is “appropriate” and necessary when viewed through a community lens.
In the end, I think the combination of appropriate use of technology with community—characterized by deepened relationships between people and between people and place—is the key to human resilience. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when citizens of a local Native American tribe with which we are allied spent a weekend at OAEC, reflecting upon their interrelationship with this land, their ancestral home. Staff and residents were invited to join the tribe for an evening of stargazing facilitated by a renowned cosmology historian. As we all lay in a field beneath a vast, starry sky, learning about how land-based people throughout history have interpreted and utilized the stars, I was overcome with a sense of joy. There we were, celebrating a technology as ancient as time, with the quiet understanding that—although from a myriad of backgrounds—we are all ultimately land-based people who must unite in community to take care of Home once again.
Janel is Online Communications Project Manager for the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (oaec.org) in Sonoma County, California. She is a graduate of USC’s Annenberg School of Communication. From 2010-2012, Janel lived at the Twin Oaks Community in Virginia, the largest and arguably best-known secular commune in North America. There, she honed her outreach skills as Manager of the Twin Oaks Communities Conference. Janel has worked as an editorial assistant and staff writer for a marching band magazine, a casting intern for Nickelodeon Animation Studios, and a cruise ship lounge singer. She is passionate about human connection and intimacy, intentional community, expressing herself through writing and singing, nature adventures, and envisioning more sustainable human societies and systems.