Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.
I made my first European friends when I was 19 years old. Zowie was then, and is now, a vivacious, creative, and compassionate soul. She listened patiently while I tried to sort out the meaning of a difficult teenage passage. She taught me a language—I thought it was British English—that I learned later was Zowenglish, her own much amused creation. Kari was a Norwegian I met in that time as well. Her nickname was “little fox,” and she could guide me—the redneck countryboy—through a forest at night at a steady gait. She is as wily and magical as any forest sprite could be. I met these people at an intentional community, and since that time I have lived in, and helped found, a few different “ICs.”
Now over 40 years later, the vast majority of the close friends I have made in this lifetime have been in ICs. In the context of modern industrial society where everyone moves around to maximize employment and housing options, we have become a society of strangers. The world of the IC is one where everyone knows everyone else. The culture of ICs tends to be much more relaxed, trusting, and socially interconnected than our isolated, industrial society. Even for those of us with less than stellar social skills, building a strong social network in the world of ICs is not hard.
ICs are also the most powerful environmental technology ever developed. If fact, ICs are the magic bullet that makes renewable energy work. (A previous article, “Community Makes Renewable Energy Work”—in Communities #161, pp. 8-11, and Wisdom of Communities Volume 4, pp. 173-176—made this same case; this one attempts to develop it further.) While the mainstream environmental movement often ignores the laws of physics to play politics, the reality is that renewable energy systems need to be scaled and integrated at a village level in order to work really well. Employing renewable energy on a village scale is the only effective way we can address climate change and the other environmental impacts brought on by the relentless growth of the industrial/consumer society. And, oddly enough, village-scale living is also the most effective cure for loneliness and isolation.
If you study much anthropology, you come to realize that, before the industrial age, everyone lived in a village or band. For all of human history, our lives were interwoven though a vast kinship network. The phrase from a study of !Kung gatherers in southern Africa rings through my mind: “loneliness and isolation are unendurable to them.” The single most powerful social sanction any village- or band-level society could impose upon any egregious outlaw was social ostracism.
In modern times, we ostracize ourselves. People move from one job to another. Some carry a family along, but many millions of people now live in private apartments. Nothing could be further from our true “human nature.” But by earning good (one hopes) wages and living alone, or even with just a family in a suburban home, the average citizen of modern industrial society is doing precisely what that society has defined as socially acceptable behavior—achieving “success.” The symbolic social acceptance achieved by monetary “success” is far more compelling to many people than the actual social connections that can be made in more intimate communities.
Symbolic “success” in modern industrial society is a terrible lie. You see it with the vast numbers of people who “fall through the cracks” of modern social networks: the socially awkward who are unable to negotiate the maze of problems imposed by our segmented society; those who get sick, or just get fired, and everything falls apart. The social networks that can be built in intentional community are far deeper, more enduring, more reliable in times of sickness and need, than petty tokens of social status. The social “safety net” is incomparable. An older woman, a friend of mine, died recently in the intentional community I first joined so many years ago. She was conscientious, helpful, a good friend to have, though not exceptionally charismatic. She lived many years in an IC. As she was nearing the end of her time, she was put under hospice care. The hospice nurses asked if she was famous. They had never seen so many visitors and well-wishers for an ordinary person.
Want to “save the Earth?” Want to live your life surrounding by a supportive and engaged group of friends and co-conspirators? Want to make it much, much easier to find a life partner? The answer to all of these questions lies in shifting our focus from private consumerism to intentional community.
Politics, Climate Change, and the Laws of Physics
Empowered, sustainable communities are the antidote to isolation. And they are the pivotal technology that makes renewable energy actually renewable. Even as a teenager, absorbed as I was with the out-of-control frock of a precious young Brit, it was clear back then that the level of conservation achievable in a community setting is very different from anything that is possible in industrial society. One machine, be it a tractor or a washing machine, could serve the needs of many people. Likewise, the skills of any individual, be they herbalist or mechanic (we had one of the former, a few of the latter), serve the needs of many.
Some years after I found my first IC, I began the process of trying to quantify my impressions. Intentional communities in the US and globally are diverse—some are downright peculiar, and some are no more than aspirations–but there is enough of a movement that their impacts can be quantified. I began collecting the energy bills of ICs, and also of a number of my environmentally-minded friends and acquaintances who live in urban areas of the United States. I set three years as the study period, and analyzed residential energy use only. After standardizing the units and comparing head-to-head, the results were shocking. If one takes the energy use of the average American and sets that as 100 percent, my environmentally-minded associates ranged from 80 percent to 140 percent energy use, with the average around 120 percent.
How could that be? Well, bricks and mortar matter more than ideology. Turns out a slob in an apartment in Manhattan or Chicago uses less energy than a saint in a free-standing house because the apartment has other climate-stabilized apartments around it and the house has moving air around it. Equally surprising was energy use in community. For this analysis, I included firewood and homegrown energy, as well as electricity and petroleum fuels. The communities ranked from nine percent up to about 60 percent of the US average for per capita energy use. Wow. Sharing matters; it matters a lot.
Many of our modern environmental groups put out goals about reducing energy use and carbon output by various arbitrary goals: 50 percent by 2050, etc. Theoretically, so they say, we are going to achieve such goals by ignoring how society is organized, and adding some solar panels and windmills. Well, there were a couple of communities in my study that had reduced energy use by 90 percent or more based on a capital investment of less than $15,000 US per capita. That would be a miracle, if our environmental leadership cared to notice.
Why are communities so efficient? There are a few reasons.
The first is context—what gets built and where. Modern housing in mainstream America is patterned after imitations of European royalty. As such, the mansion on the mountaintop may be a symbol of status, but it is an environmental disaster. If you are driving to work, driving to pick up the kids, driving to go shopping, coming home to shovel “homegrown” firewood into a boiler, and then eating convenient food that was industrially produced, there is nothing you can add to that scenario that will make it more “environmental.” It’s the wrong thing in the wrong place. And when you get fired? You’re alone.
In an IC, the physical infrastructure is built based on need and proximity. Never in my life have I been dependent on a car. I have been months at a time without getting into one. My wife and our two children live in an IC in a rural area, and we still don’t own a car. We have invested in some good bicycles. Food, employment, and entertainment are all within walking or biking distance.
Shared use is the magical “technology” that makes renewable energy effective. Solar hot water is an exceedingly simple technology, though a little more complex in temperate and cold climates than in tropical ones. Our climate is temperate, so we need good equipment to take a solar-powered hot shower in the middle of winter. If you tried to pay for such a system for a single-person apartment or condominium, it could cost a few thousand dollars for just one person. In the company of others, the per capita cost drops to hundreds of dollars for effective, durable equipment that can generate hot water for decades with no monthly energy bills.
The advantage of fossil fuel is that it is concentrated and portable. That allows us to make small, cheap, powerful machines. Renewable energy by comparison is dispersed and intermittent. Cooperative use allows for—indeed, the economics strongly support—the installation of durable, effective renewable energy systems that compensate for the intermittent nature of renewable energy. Given more users, it is wise to invest in better renewable equipment that is village-scaled. In a village, the use of energy is near the source of energy. Energy systems can be scaled and integrated in a manner that provides a high level of comfort and a tiny fraction of the environmental cost compared to our segmented, industrial society.
The varied and flexible use in community compensates, to a large degree, for intermittency of renewable energy. Housing is a clear example. Housing that serves as a status symbol gets larger and larger, and is supposed to be as ostentatious as possible. The average residential square footage per capita in the US is about four times what it was in the WWII era. (Commercial space is 10 times!) But if people share space, the laws of economics and physics support good insulation. Four squares (of whatever size) joined together to make one big square have just as much square footage and half the surface area. Wrap the outside of that larger square in a highly insulating material (my preference is straw bales, but many other methods work), and you have highly insulated community buildings.
It is always cheaper to save energy than to generate energy. For the average American house, a stunning 98 percent of the energy the house uses over its lifespan is spent post-construction. If only a tiny fraction of the cost of that 98 percent were invested in insulation and other conservationist measures, then total energy/resource use would be dramatically reduced. Why don’t we? Because greed and ostentatious display is “human nature,” so we are told. That is the other strength of community. With one’s identity invested in a real social network, people no longer seek symbols of display. The need for a massive private house and accoutrements simply goes away. Not only that, but the economics shift. Buying a lawnmower for your own small private house? Something cheap and crummy will do. Buying a machine that a number of people are going to share? You want something better, sturdier, made to last and be repaired, something more efficient as it will be used intensively.
3) Making Renewable Energy Actually Renewable
In the US, our environmental leadership ignores the laws of physics to play politics. It is difficult to challenge consumer society. So instead of doing that, our leadership focuses on “renewable” energy production. A few books have been written about why that does not work. (See Ted Trainer, Ozzie Zehner, Alexis Zeigler.)
The industrial consumer society has a voracious appetite for energy and resources. It is no coincidence that using more resources, however wastefully, supports a greater flow of money and material through our industrial economy. Waste = profit. That is a theft from our children of mind-boggling proportions. We are loath to admit that our values and beliefs are heavily impacted by crude economic facts, but alas, they are. We are not innately greedy, but our current economy is. Trying to energize that voracious machine with “renewable” energy is at best futile. At worst, it simply adds to the ecological footprint of industrialism as we try to create “renewable” energy systems on an enormous scale.
About 10 years ago, my wife and I decided to start a new community, a prototype that would operate without fossil fuel, and be supported entirely by renewable energy. It has been built at modest cost so it can be widely replicated. We call it Living Energy Farm (LEF), and though we continue to improve the various tools we need to support the community, it is operational. When we first started LEF, we set up a cabin and an outdoor kitchen to support the various members and volunteers working on the project. We put a hand pump (a good quality one) in a small creek to supplement rainwater for washing and solar showers. On a dry summer day, it would take four people working hard for about four hours to fill our storage tank. Then we installed a small photovoltaic (PV) powered pump, a simple little 100 watt affair powering an old piston pump. That little pump could just thump along, and do more work than those four people.
When you try to support modern, spacious, badly insulated homes with “renewable” energy, the results are frustrating (or very expensive). When your goal is to do the work one actually needs to live in a sustainable village, renewable energy become a miraculous and powerful energy source. At LEF, our energy needs are about two percent of that average American demand. Our energy systems are integrated so one set of PV panels can run literally dozens of motors. We have built a unique “DC microgrid” that is unlike any other community of which we are aware. (See livingenergyfarm.org for more detail.) Community context, good insulation, and an integration of systems mean we are fully energy efficient with a very modest energy supply. And our members support each other, physically, mentally, socially.
A Better Way to Live
For many people, work is drudgery. In my now 40 years of community living, I have never had a “real job,” because mostly “real” jobs are a horrific offense to the human body and psyche. Even something as benign as sitting at a computer becomes offensive to the human body if you do it all day, every day. Heavy lifting? Working with unhealthy chemicals in construction or mechanics? These things I do sometimes, and it would be horrific to do them all day every day.
Certainly, applying the term “utopia” to any intentional community is foolish, but there are many ways in which community living is much, much better than having a private job, house, car, and life. For all of my adult life, I have never had to do an onerous job on a continuous basis. I have—as does everyone who lives in an IC—a great deal of choice in what kind of work I do, and when I do it. Work some, play some. Decide at the last minute to take the day off and take the kids for an adventure in the woods. Not infrequently, I respond to mechanical emergencies, but that is part of the interdependence of community. Each person gets to choose what they are good at, and is responsible to the group for fulfilling their roles so the community as a whole can continue to function.
Not all work is joyful, and not all people are industrious. While the image of people joyfully going about their daily work for the benefit of the community may be appealing, the reality is that a lot of cajoling is often involved. Motivating people, getting a community of people to focus on a task that really needs to be done—these things don’t happen without effort. Some communities resort to various forms of cheerleading or offering incentives to get people to focus on needed activities. Most people in community, left to their own devices, will drift away from income-earning activities or business management. Even in populous communities where there is no absolute shortage of labor, there is almost always an ongoing struggle to find enough management. While the inherent efficiency of community theoretically means that people could work a lot less, the lack of focus on efficiency or efficacy means people often simply fill a full-time work schedule, whether or not they are actually achieving all that much. In the end, the work gets done, but with a lot more effort than utopian writers have imagined.
Drug and alcohol abuse can have a different impact in community than they have in “mainstream” society. Private houses may isolate people, but they also insulate people from each other’s bad habits. At worst, a sociable but drug-addicted group of people can start to drive the sober people out of a community. These things are usually worked out over time, but not without some stress and conflict. Some communities have more of a “party culture” than others. I have spent quite a bit of time trying to help people who are marginalized for one reason or another. It has been a hard lesson to learn, but the most important ingredient that empowers compassion in community is a good expulsion process. A group that knows it can effectively set limits on people’s behavior or expel them if need be is able to admit a greater diversity of people. A group without such clear limits is more likely to evolve towards unfair discrimination.
Communities shine their brightest when supporting people with physical ailments. Then the support system allows people who would otherwise end up poor, isolated, and degraded to go on living full lives. Mental health issues are more challenging. Community can be a healing environment, and many people undergoing deep personal transitions are attracted to community for that reason. But in community, one person having a personal crisis can have significant impacts on everyone around them. I have seen dozens of people heal and transform in community, young people who blossom in unimaginable ways. I have seen others rejected, judged, and degraded.
Communities are more environmental by design, but not everyone who lives in community actually cares about that, or about anything else in particular. That is perhaps where modern intentional communities, getting their population from progressive urban centers, differ from traditional villages. While modern progressives are more tolerant of diversity, they are not taught a sense of community responsibility. While “tribal” is often used in derogatory terms, nothing would benefit modern ICs more than a greater sense of tribal unity. In an Amish village, if someone’s house catches on fire, everyone will come over and try to be involved if they can. If a building catches on fire in a modern IC, some people will sit in their room and “let the fire department deal with it.” Likewise a more metaphorical “fire,” a crisis of need in your circle of friends, may not get adequate attention from others who don’t want to deal with it.
Some communities are fully economically self-sufficient, operating their own cooperatively owned businesses. Some communities still rely on a lot of “outside work” at paid jobs in the regular economy. The latter situation is harder to maintain in the long run as it pulls people’s attentions and loyalties away from the community. LEF is a very small community, and we are economically self-sufficient, largely food self-sufficient, and energy self-sufficient. Growing our own food is some work, but the rewards are delightful. The modern commercial food system is based more on addiction than nutrition. We have found growing our own staple foods, including grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables, to be tremendously rewarding.
Most non-religious communities are operated either by consensus or by some form of highly participatory democracy. At this point, having lived in community for many years, I think there is a bit of deception built into community decision-making processes. Modern industrial society encourages narcissism because that attribute more than any other supports consumerism. It is not coincidence that the level of control an organization has over people corresponds with how much decision-making power the members of that organization are presumed to have. You will not see any consensus meetings in the military, and business is consistently driven by economic coercion. Communities, lacking means of coercion or control, presume to give all members a high level of involvement in community decisions.
With a set of strong, shared goals, that would work. Given that such is often lacking, many “consensus” organizations operate by benign (one hopes) bureaucratic oligarchy. The most important decisions are made quietly by people in positions to make them, and then the populace spends a great deal of energy arguing over far less impactful decisions. This, sadly, also describes many of the presumed “democratic” institutions in the world at large. Keeping real power out of people’s hands while letting the masses quibble over trivialities is something most large organizations and governments aspire to accomplish. As with many issues, life in community mirrors life in the larger world, except the mirror is see-through.
Having seen as many victories and defeats as I have in the world of community living, I hold no illusions about the strengths and weaknesses. I have never lived alone, and I cannot imagine why I would ever want to. In younger days, I wanted to flirt and socialize and party some. Now I mostly just want to try to leave a better world for my children. I am deeply dismayed by our modern environmental leadership who chooses to ignore the powerful solutions right under our noses while offering palliatives to consumer addiction. We have the answers, and they involve embracing our true human selves. We did not evolve as humans in apartment blocks. We evolved in villages and bands where people knew each other, stood beside each other to embrace a fundamental loyalty to the well-being of all, regardless of the conflicts of the moment. The Sacred Earth on which we live demands that we reclaim our true selves. And it is a profound joy to do so.
Alexis Zeigler was raised on a self-sufficient farm in Georgia. He has lived all of his adult life in intentional community. He has worked as a green builder, environmental activist, and author. His book Integrated Activism explores the connections between ecological change, politics, and cultural evolution.
Excerpted from the Summer 2019 edition of Communities, “Sexual Politics”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.