Note: this article is adapted from the forthcoming book, Together Resilient: Building Community in the Age of Climate Disruption, available from the ic.org website, May 2017.
The word community means a number of different things. In addition to residential intentional communities (characterized by shared values and shared living space), community can also mean, for example: sharing an identity (as in the queer community), living in the same town (geographical community), sharing a basic orientation in life (the conservative community), sharing an interest (the homeschooling community), sharing an experience (the Burning Man or “Burner” community), or sharing a religion (the Catholic community). All of these are legitimate expressions of community, which really implies getting your social needs met and often includes being economically connected and falling within a certain range of worldview commonality as well.
Many communities are not embracing a full-on residential intentional community form, but are nonetheless using community as an interesting tool for carbon reduction. Here are three projects that use community to address climate change:
1. The Hoop
The Hoop is a grassroots network of nomadic rewilders who live and travel with the seasons, living mostly on National Forest land throughout the Columbia Plateau and Great Basin bioregions in the northwestern US. Bruno Seraphin at the University of Oregon has spent a couple summers and a few other shorter stints studying, living with, and sometimes traveling with the Hoopsters, and my information comes from him.
Their central focus is to replant and tend wild food gardens and bring them back into abundance. This has duel purposes. First, like any other gardeners, they are cultivating food for themselves, and the idea (and reality) is that when they come back around the next year to that place, there will be more abundance. Second, and more interesting for my purposes, they are working on recreating a more ecologically balanced and regenerative relationship with the natural world, and many are motivated by climate change.
The Hoopsters don’t really have leaders as we would normally think of them, but the primary teacher who has helped create a movement of sorts is Finisia Medrano. Medrano in turn learned much of what she shares from the local indigenous people and their botanical traditions. The Planting Back website has this short bio of her: “Our community owes much to ‘Tranny Granny’ Finisia Medrano, infamous rewilder and author of ‘Growing Up in Occupied America.’ Finisia has spent years ‘on the hoop’ with her horses, gathering the traditional foods of the Great Basin. She has devoted her life to sharing hoop wisdom with others, and she has spent time in jail for acting on her beliefs.” Medrano’s nickname comes from another alternative culture life achievement: she is believed to have been the recipient of the first legal sex change surgery in California.
Hoopster worldview has some very relevant pieces for all of us. “Theirs is a philosophy of working with regenerative forces—not leave no trace, leave a beautiful trace,” Bruno told me. At the same time, the Hoopsters are both emulating the indigenous people from the region they occupy, with a close relationship to the land and deep respect for natural cycles, and at the same time professing a kind of attitude that is too single-minded to make for good coalition-building—bordering on holier-than-thou, in my reading of it—that Seraphin and I both find problematic. “Overall, they are taking bold steps to re-imagine some of our most deep-seated assumptions about the way the world works, what a human being is, and what our relationships to the non-human should be. At same time, they are struggling to overcome assumptions and ways of being that serve to perpetuate colonialism, genocide, and environmental destruction. The Hoop, like any social movement, is shot through with contradictions.”
2. Ashton Hayes, UK
Community-led solutions that do not require governmental buy-in are a terrific way to proceed when attempting to address climate change. In 2006, the small English town of Ashton Hayes set their sights on becoming the first carbon neutral town in the UK, and in the first year, reduced their collective carbon footprint by 20 percent. They’ve continued to make progress every year since then.
One of the interesting things is seeing how that decision affected their relationships with each other, reinforcing the idea that the social is not easily separable from the ecological. “Community cohesion has increased significantly since the carbon neutrality mission was adopted. One reason for this, [resident Garry] Charnock suggests, is that the carbon neutrality mission was created by and for the people in the town, without the influence or direction of politicians (who are only allowed to listen at meetings if they attend). There were never any community-wide mandates to contribute to the cause—just neighbors inspiring each other to make an effort here and there.” (Quoted from Ally Hirschlag, www.upworthy.com/this-little-town-decided-to-go-green-and-they-did-it-without-the-government.)
As an intentional communities advocate, I find this model particularly compelling. In some ways, by bonding over this particular shared value, they have transformed themselves from a geographical community into an intentional community (a group that shares both values and place). This is a potent example of what happens when people embrace the concept of a Transition Town. (Originally inspired by Rob Hopkins’ book, The Transition Handbook: from Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, this movement has spread throughout Europe and North America.) Sometimes, the unintended consequences turn out to be really positive ones!
The Transition US website (www.transitionus.org) defines their work in this way: “The Transition Movement is comprised of vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. Transition Initiatives differentiate themselves from other sustainability and ‘environmental’ groups by seeking to mitigate these converging global crises by engaging their communities in home-grown, citizen-led education, action, and multi-stakeholder planning to increase local self reliance and resilience. They succeed by regeneratively using their local assets, innovating, networking, collaborating, replicating proven strategies, and respecting the deep patterns of nature and diverse cultures in their place. Transition Initiatives work with deliberation and good cheer to create a fulfilling and inspiring local way of life that can withstand the shocks of rapidly shifting global systems.”
3. New Vistas
Mormonism is fundamentally a millennialist religion. That means that, prior to the Rapture, Mormons anticipate a period (generally thought to be 1,000 years—thus the term millennialist) of heaven being manifest on earth. This has lent a utopian flavor to various periods of Mormon history, though in recent years, it has drifted away from those roots. David Hall is a man who is bringing these roots back, with a distinctly modernistic flavor, in the form of the New Vistas project.
While Hall insists that the New Vistas project is not a “Mormon project” per se, he has also based the fundamentals on a handful of documents recorded by Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, and Smith himself attempted to bring communalism into the early church. Given that Smith bumped into the American hyper-independence tendency and couldn’t get enough folks on board, it is probably wise that Hall has tried to put some distance between the church and his project. And yet, the project shares cultural and textual roots with the church, and there is something potentially powerful and definitely interesting about that.
New Vistas seeks to be a modern eco-utopia, with carefully designed cities of up to one million people living in housing and sharing buildings that would not be out of place in a Jetsons episode. Where the Hoopsters are going super low tech in their approach, and the citizens of Ashton Hayes are building a grassroots movement from the ground up, New Vistas is very much about tech and design as tools to create optimal human environments for low-carbon living. And it is also all about scale, as in large-scale.
While this project is still on paper and not yet at the prototype phase it is worth mentioning here as an example of a project with a lot of money behind it, and an attempt to move us out of hyper-independent worldviews through providing a large amount of physical comfort and ease of daily life, without all the carbon. (Hall’s family money comes from the artificial diamond industry, and their main clients have been the mining industry. Hall no longer owns that business, having sold it a few years back to focus all of his attention, and his considerable wealth, on the New Vistas project.)
Hall has a pretty unique vision in that the community businesses (rather than the residents) would income-share, with all profits going into a collective pool that would cover both the shareable business needs (such as marketing and accounting) and the needs of the community. Community members would mostly work in these businesses.
This has the potential to do an end-run around some of the stickier interpersonal dynamics of income-sharing, while providing many of the benefits (including cost savings and ecological savings by being able to take advantage of massive-scale bulk buying and growing of food). It also has the potential to create some traditionally very bad dynamics in terms of a “company store” set-up, where people could get locked into working for businesses that could easily abuse this situation. In fact, I think the biggest X-factor in this project is how the social dynamics will play out.
(For the sake of transparency, I heard about this project first in mid-2016 and ended up doing a short-term contract with the project to help develop social systems. Because there were not yet actual people involved to work with—an essential element in the work I do!—I ended up not being able to do much for the project. Perhaps in 10 years when there are real people to work with, I’ll have another shot at helping it be functional. As a project basically designed by engineers, it seems to me that the likelihood of the core social dynamics becoming a main focus is fairly low—which is too bad.)
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Climate disruption is, I believe, the single most urgent issue facing us right now: no other issue has a literal biological clock ticking. And while I see residential intentional community as being an essential building block of a post-carbon future, the three projects listed here make it clear that the lines between intentional community and the mainstream are blurry at best.
Community is both a full-on lifestyle choice and a tool that can be employed in a variety of ways to bring us closer to a truly sustainable future.
Ma’ikwe Ludwig has lived in community for two decades and is now part of a forming income-sharing ecovillage in Laramie, Wyoming. She serves on the FIC’s Board of Directors, and is currently the Executive Director of Commonomics USA, an organization that works to bring together economic and ecological justice in the form of tangible legal, economic, and community systems. She is the author of one previous book, Passion as Big as a Planet. Ma’ikwe does regular training and consulting with communities and nonprofits on group dynamics, functional consensus, and integrated sustainability models, with cooperative culture development being a main theme of all of her work.