Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ecovillages in a Money Economy

I had a brief but in-depth email correspondence with someone who is certain that the industrial phase of human civilization has all but run its course. I'll call him Adam. Adam is sure that a collapse and Malthusian Correction are immanent. He is Canadian, and for a time he thought that ecovillage living was a viable response to impending calamity and something worth pursuing. So Adam set about looking for the ecovillage that was the best fit for his desires, skills, and financial means.

He eliminated all ecovillages outside of Canada from his list of candidates . He'd spent 10 years as a vegetarian and found that he required some meat in his diet for good health, and so he removed all vegan and vegetarian communities. He is an atheist who spent time in India and who now has a strong aversion to cults and gurus, and so he disqualified any ecovillage that set off his cult detector. By this time the list of potential ecovillages was growing short.

In his email dispatches Adam named names, but I don't want to make things personal or get into a shooting war, so I will withhold the details and give a brief summary of the opinions that Adam formed regarding ecovillages and their shortcomings.

Upper-Middle Class Enclaves: The list of remaining candidates that survived the weeding out of obvious cults left several candidates that, upon closer inspection, revealed cult-like characteristics; the most obvious of which being that they were seeking prospective members with money. The price of admission was rarely less than $150,000 and after buying in, new community members would still be expected to build their own houses. These ecovillages amounted, in Adam's estimation, to little more than gated enclaves of upper-middle class privilege, in which the residents paid a considerable amount of money in order to live in a spiritual/intellectual monoculture.

Not Interested in “Lifeboat” Skills: Adam claims proficiency in a range of skills that would qualify him for the lead role in a story by James Fenimore Cooper, but the ecovillage communities that he surveyed were not interested in people with such skills. He writes, “Few were asking for hunters, meat cutters, butchers, cheese makers, dairyers, livestock husbands, horse wranglers, mule breeders, oxen drivers, foragers, leather workers, shoemakers, clothing builders, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carriage makers, leather tanners, trackers, snowshoe builders, gunsmiths, bullet re-loaders, bow-and-arrow makers, or any other "lifeboat community" skills practical after the Great Correction.”

What these communities wanted and needed were people who could reside on the ecovillage and still make money, either by commuting long distances or by working remotely.

Exploitative Caste System: Folks who can afford to buy into an ecovillage because they have good jobs often have to keep working those jobs and don't have the time or energy for a double life as a farmer, and so these communities need farm hands. In other cases, the founding members of the community had grown long in the tooth and were no longer able to maintain the level of physical labor that their communities required and which they did, in fact, perform in years gone by. The members of these communities recognized the need for “new blood,” but in most cases the financial requirements for new membership disqualified almost all interested parties who possessed the physical robustness and vitality implied by the phrase, “new blood.” Communities in each of these situations turned to an organization called WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), and Adam reported that he encountered tales of exploitation and abuse from former WWOOFers on internet forums.

The email from which I'm quoting and paraphrasing ran to over 3,000 words, so I won't try to summarize all of Adam's complaints and comment on them in a 1,500 word essay like this one. The three complaints listed above form the core of the problem with ecovillages in Adam's experience, and they really all come down to a single phenomenon in my mind, but before I comment on their unity, let me say something in response to each of them.

Upper-Middle Class Enclaves: In a world where governments are no-longer giving out free land to homesteaders it costs a lot of money to create a new community. This is equally true for an ecovillage, for a mainstream retirement community, or for a gated community built around a golf course. That expense comes only in part from the need to acquire land.

An ecovillage can be established near existing centers of commerce and non-eco-residential areas, or it can be out in the boonies. If the former, then you have to build it to conform to a system of standards that codify waste and inefficiency and which provides a source of continuous income for the people certified in building to those standards and to inspectors and regulators who are the institutional defenders of the dysfunctional methodology.

If you build your ecovillage way out in the boonies so that you can do your own thing, then you've got an even tougher row to hoe in terms of generating income. Your members either have to commute long distances to jobs, have sufficiently fast and reliable internet access to do “knowledge work” at a distance (in most instances satellite internet will not cut it), or your community needs a sugar daddy or a sugar daddy caste, which creates a killer counter-current to any egalitarian aspirations with which you might have started out.

Not Interested in Lifeboat Skills: While you can use money to buy organic yogurt, you can't pay your property taxes by bartering your “lifeboat skills.” The government doesn't want you to shoe the Mounties' horses. They want you to cough up some cash or forfeit your property. Until the collapse is well under way you will have to have a way to make money.

Exploitative Caste System: I checked the WWOOF Wikipedia entry, and it doesn't have a section on “controversy” or “reported abuses,” but I don't know if that's because no such controversy exists or because vigilent WWOOFer sentries keep watch over that entry and “scrub” any dissenting edits. I can say that I have heard first hand from someone who described very callous and predatory exploitation while working on a supposed ecovillage. I have not asked for his permission to share the details of that experience, so I'll say no more for now.

I do have the permission of Merry, the innkeeper here at the ETC to share her experience as a massage therapist at a spa at a small Mississippi casino prior to hurricane Katrina and how it compares to her experience here on the Farm. She is a hired hand and not an official Farm resident, and so she is clearly a member of a lower Farm caste, but she says she feels more like a person in this environment and less like a unit of corporate production than she did at the casino. For the casino, extracting money from the patrons was the unifying goal of all the activities that took place under its roof. Here at the ETC, economic realities require that everyone contribute to making enough money to keep the operation running, but the unifying goal remains providing an educational resource for people looking to live in a more ecologically enlightened way.

I don't want to embrace cynicism, but the old adage seems true: Life (in a capitalist oligarchy) is a shit sandwich. The more bread you have the less shit your have to eat. The fact that this adage holds true on ecovillages operating within the larger context of a capitalist society only demonstrates that ecovillages are not utopias. Hopefully you know enough to put your hand on your wallet and back away slowly when someone tries to sell you shares in Utopia.

In addressing each complaint individually the general theme shines through. The system does not allow actual dissent. You can say whatever you like, but it doesn't matter what you say. You may not opt out. You are more than welcome to spend your money buying into the “opting out” demographic, but the talismans of membership for that consumer category remain quite pricey indeed.

Whatever the flaws of ecovillage living as it exists today, the more people who have some experience growing food and who have an informed idea of what a hard day's physical labor really feels like, the better. Better still the larger the pool of people who appreciate how a desire for community, sustainability, and a soft ecological touch can be turned to exploitative ends. The collective pool of skills and experiences that we'll have to draw upon in a post-collapse environment is richer for the existence of these ecovillage experiments and for the people who lived them. Our post-collapse prospects would be no better had those burned WWOOFers spent that time as standard corporate cubicle serfs.


  1. I met some WWOOF workers that came through Vancouver this summer and they had a great experience with their host. After their term was over they were able to make some money working at a farm nearby their site. I can see how it would be easy to get or perceive abuse as a WWOOFer but the two I spoke with had a great time. BC also has a lot of options for farm schools, this can be a great gateway for young folks looking to gain necessary skills for an ecovillage, one such school:

  2. Yeah, a little slavery is inescapable. Bob Dylan sang about how "you gotta serve somebody." Hunter-gatherers had it easier in the sense that they served nature and fate rather than some Fatcat or Bureaucrat, and their hard work served their real needs directly.
    Permaculturalists losing heart with how much the money economy undermines the work they are trying to do can take heart when they remember it goes both ways: everything we do to make ourselves more self- generating undermines the corporate Leviathan a little bit. Hurray for freedom!
    --- Farmer Anna in Western WA

  3. I'm really enjoying this blog KMO, thank you. I had been meaning to get round to contacting you so as to suggest that you cover these topics on the C-Realm more often, this is really my bag.

    I have been involved in trying to set up such a community in the east of England, for the last couple of years. It's very frustrating dealing with the "shit sandwich" that persists in casting it's shadow over such a venture.

    It feels to me like we (my proto-community) need to hang tight until the cracks in the current paradigm get big enough to create opportunities for us.

  4. KMO, has your friend, came to discover a worth ecovillage, that demanded no big money, and was not cult-like?

    I share of your oppinion, this is an excellent assay, I am often confronted with this same problem!