Monday, December 20, 2010
Saturday, December 11, 2010
I just read an article in Slate about the counter-intuitive effects of induced demand. Induced (or "latent") demand is the increase in demand for a service as it becomes cheaper or more accessible. A great example is the long-term increase in commuter traffic when lanes are added to the highway. This may seem like a strange notion: If you wish to solve automobile congestion on the highway, an intuitive solution is adding more lanes. Right? Wrong! While the additional lane frees up space and reduce travel times in the short term, the extra lane ends up increasing traffic because destinations (e.g. offices) take advantage of the lower transportation costs induced by the additional lane. It's like quick sand, or a Chinese finger trap: the harder you resist, the more perilous the situation grows! The same can be argued for energy efficiency and automobiles: our cars are more fuel efficient than ever, but many many more people world-wide are driving. The net effect eliminates our efficiency gains completely.
So how do we escape the energy-efficiency trap of induced demand? Instead of optimizing a flawed system, we must make radical changes to the way we consume and produce energy. This, as I've argued in my previous posts, will require more than mere advances to existing artifacts. We will not reduce greenhouse gases by driving hybrid vehicles or replacing our light bulbs. We must change our expectations about transportation and household energy consumption, retrofit cities for a pedestrian economy, retrofit existing buildings to take advantage of the sun's free light and the earth's free warmth/coolth, localize food systems, eliminate "waste" through composting and whole-system efficiency. Contrary to the article's contention, individual actions CAN make a difference, but individual action has to be bold and radical. You should NOT “go ahead and guzzle.” We should try to imagine a world in which “guzzling” is no longer necessary, so that a transition from gas guzzling to no-guzzling seems as natural as walking to the store.
Friday, December 3, 2010
“Off a road with no name, near a town you’ve never heard of, is a place you’ve surely never heard of: the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, where life is just one big green party.” –Fox News St. Louis, 2007
Many ecovillage inhabitants I have encountered are well aware of the lingering similarities with the hippie communes of the 1960s and 70s: social egalitarianism, shared resources, a heightened concern for nature. But contemporary ecovillages are in many ways quite different than the hippie communes that “dropped out” of society. Many contemporary ecovillages have taken a firm activist stance, engaging aggressively in mainstream society through the internet, visitor programs, national conferences, and publications that evangelize the social and technical innovations emerging in these new communities. For example, Dancing Rabbit’s mission is twofold:
To create a society, the size of a small town or village, made up of individuals and communities of various sizes and social structures, which allows and encourages its members to live sustainably.
To encourage this sustainable society to grow to have the size and recognition necessary to have an influence on the global community by example, education, and research [emphasis added].
This type of mission statement is not uncommon amongst other communities. Contemporary ecovillages are engaged in mainstream society to an extent unprecedented by their hippie commune predecessors. Yet the legacy of disengaged hippie communes pervades the portrayal of ecovillages in the popular press, and the remembered legacy—correct or not—is alien, irresponsible, and delusional.
A 1998 Washington Post article sets the scene:
Vashon Island is a natural place for people who want to start a new life. Home to about 10,000 people, it has a working-class hippie feel, with many a young woman clad in velvet curtain-like skirts and woven hats making espresso for a living (Quart and Kushin, 1998).
Certainly, the discourse regarding ecovillages has evolved in the past decade. Much of the popular press surrounding ecovillages offer positive coverage—often in the form of a quirky human-interest story. Many articles begin with a disclaimer, a sort of cultural pardoning of ecovillages as places that have transcended the wayward hippie era.
A 2009 article from the Canwest News Service (Montreal) explains:
While touring an ecovillage here, a few features you might expect from a rural communal dwelling are noticeably absent: no hippies farming in the nude and no daisy chains or peaceniks in tie-dyed clothes smoking weed...Rather, many ecovilles, like the one in Caledon, are home to business-minded people such as architects, doctors, and teachers, working together to run an environmentally sustainable co-operative .
Similarly, 2004 article from the Washington Post begins:
To many, the marriage of community and ecological principles brings to mind the 1960s—an association that makes the residents of EcoVillage cringe. They say it’s important to note they are not hippy freaks; they do have private lives .
The authors of these pieces have identified that ecovillages are different than hippie communes, yet in each of these samples ecovillage inhabitants are framed as acceptable “others”. We are signaled to look out for such similarities as we proceed to explore these strange new places. While far from outright condemning, the authors in each of these articles refer to a “normal” mainstream audience (“…you might expect…” and “To many…”) against which to contrast the qualitatively different norms of ecovillage residents. Community members are allegedly not “hippy freaks,” but the invocation of hippy freaks is still fruitful to the author.
Almost every article identifies the activities of ecovillages as relevant and noteworthy, but simultaneously alien and outside the comfort zone of their readership. Rarely, do they acknowledge that ecovillage practices are important to society—a contention that drive ecovillage inhabitants. If anything, popular media signals that ecovillage activity has good intentions but is ultimately irrational as indicated in a 1991 article in The Post Standard (Syracuse) which begins, “For the gung-ho environmentalist who wants to do more than write letters and recycle, a movement taking shape in Ithaca promises a more responsible way of life [emphasis added].”
The coverage of ecovillages extends into the realm of television comedy, a fascinating discursive medium. On Earth Day (April 20) 2009, Nickelodeon aired a special entitled “A Kid of the Grid” which featured the daily life of one ecovillage youth who explained some of the surprises of moving into the community including, “…pooping in a bucket.” Elaborating on the community’s excrement management system, the young man’s father explained that the buckets were eventually emptied, and the contents used to create “humanure” which, like cow manure, can be used to fertilize gardens after proper composting. The same evening, comedian Lewis Black, on his special segment of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show replayed the clip, and commented, in his exasperated and acerbic tone, “Humanure! You can call it the big rock-candy mountain. Kids still know a bucket of shit when they see one!” The crowd responds with roaring laughter. Black’s mocking retort and invocation of the “big rock candy mountain” is a plain signal that the objectives of the humanure system are a fantasy, and that the adult users of the humanure system are delusional.
Why was Black’s joke such a hit? He highlights a strong normative/cognitive/regulatory contradictions of the humanure system. The system’s adherents keep and even use human excrement, which has been discursively constructed as a dangerous “waste” product. This construct is enforced firstly, by building codes and zoning law and it is reinforced each time we flush our excrement out of sight and out of mind. Through present-day, the flush toilet is associated with prosperity and modernity: to live without one is considered backwards and unsanitary. The construct is further enforced by historical accounts of excrement mismanagement and the ensuing cholera epidemics, which eventually spurred the modern urban planning profession. Finally, the construct is emboldened by “potty humor”, and humorous accounts of individuals that transgress the normative rules of excrement management. Indeed, proper excrement management ought not be overlooked, but even human excrement is part of an organic cycle that modern plumbing has effectively severed. Ecovillages have adopted a remarkably sanitary system that both avoids bacterial plague and nourishes soil—for free. In the process, the system avoids consuming water and replaces petroleum-based fertilizers and their accompanying environmental, economic, and geopolitical consequences.
Overcoming Barriers to Change
I can personally assure you that the humanure system doesn’t smell like shit. But you probably would not believe me. You could read on blogs and other websites that the humanure system doesn’t smell like shit, and you might accept it, but you’d probably still find the concept vile. You might even read a scientific report that confirms that the humanure system is safe and sanitary, and you’d still reply, “No thanks. Not for me.” Indeed, overcoming the normative and cognitive barriers to one of the strongest societal constructs is not easy. Ultimately, the discourse surrounding the humanure system and ecovillages, in general, will remain one of fantasy and otherness until individuals experience the places personally. The barriers to radical ecological change are so deeply embedded in our daily lives that nothing short of hands-on experience will change our conceptions of nature and community that continue to destroy our finite, life-supporting ecosystems.
If urban planning wishes to achieve the radical changes that approximate “sustainability” –an admitted utopia (English translation: no-place)—then our epistemological approach must shift from one of synoptic scientific rationality to one of experiential understanding. I am not the first to champion this approach. The public policy field has debated the merits of incremental versus strategic planning for decades (Behn, 1988; Golden, 1998; Hartley, 2005; Lindblom, 1953; Potts, 2009; Sanford, 2001), and the case of ecovillages reinforces the argument for incremental “groping along.” As an example salient to the sustainability debate, Abram Kaplan (1999) demonstrates that public utility managers are more likely to invest in solar photovoltaics if they have experience and familiarity with them, versus only technical understanding.
The public can grow familiar with ecovillages and their accompanying innovations if, and only if, a much larger portion of the population sees, smells, and experiences them. Ecovillages have taken the first step through their outreach. If the public wishes to achieve “sustainability”—as a tidal wave of local and regional “sustainability” plans now indicates—planners ought to accommodate such niches and community experimentation by nurturing innovative spaces close to home.
Monday, November 29, 2010
Last week, while making my obligatory Thanksgiving-break visit to the dentist’s office, I was encouraged to see a full-page magazine advertisement that emphasized, in bold green type face: “The solution is negawatts, not megawatts.” This, of course, is an allusion to whole-system energy efficiency as a means to solving our energy crisis rather than choosing between one lethal energy source over another. Negawatts aren’t a terribly new concept (Amory Lovins has been preaching about them for decades), but amidst the flurry of green capitalism that seems to pervade every type of consumer product, it’s refreshing to see that someone out there is trying to accomplish more by actually doing less. The concept is simple: if we used energy ten times more efficiently, we’d need to burn ten times less coal, and engage in ten times less mining to access the coal. Astonishingly, ninety percent (yes, that’s 90) energy produced in big power plants is lost through inefficiency between the energy source and an average American home. Nearly eighty (80) percent is lost at the plant itself and the power-lines between the plant and your home. We could eliminate these “leaks” in the system by localizing energy supplies, say, on residential rooftops or neighborhood wind turbines, and make up for the lower energy yield by consuming energy more efficiently on the demand-side. The same “conserve-and-load” mentality can be extended to other resources like water, food, and lumber. If we find ways to waste as little as possible on the demand side, we don’t have to worry about costly and polluting infrastructure to deliver, process, and recycle it.
Much of this resource efficiency can be achieved through simple changes in routine: turning off and unplugging appliances when they’re not in use, walking/cycling to destinations when possible, taking shorter showers, buying food in bulk, turning off lights when daylight will do. When combined with efficient technologies, these behavioral changes make a big difference. But we’ll need to make yet bigger changes if we are to neutralize our carbon footprint and ultimately reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases.
Transitioning to a carbon-neutral economy will require a process of socio-technical innovation: changes in both technological artifacts and the social discourse that surrounds them. These changes are mutually-dependent—one will not occur without the other. Although we tend to think of technology in terms of physical artifacts that spontaneously emerge, new artifacts are highly dependent on complementary technologies that support new artifacts as well as our willingness change our behavior and sometimes laws to support these new technologies. Technology is also highly symbolic: think about the socio-political impact of the 1957 launch of Sputnik, a basketball-sized Soviet satellite that resulted in a decades-long “space race” in a addition to advances to atmospheric science.
Researchers in western Europe, specifically in the UK and the Netherlands, have begun to apply a new model of “socio-technical innovation” to policy-making and planning that considers how novel technologies emerge and infiltrate rigid “socio-technical regimes”— stable economic rules and networks. Whereas traditional, neo-classical economic models see innovation as exogenous to the economy (as originating outside the system), socio-technical systems see innovation as originating within society, in protected spaces called “socio-technical niches.” Niches protect novel, unprofitable ideas from market competition, allowing them to thrive in a sheltered space with different “rules of the game”. Governments create niches all the time: The US government creates a very special and lucrative niche for novel military technology, medical technology, and communication technology, mostly through direct funding or tax incentives. Niche ideas infiltrate and ultimately change regimes when combined with pressure from the “socio-technical landscape” or signals from society at-large. The whole process is similar to biological evolution—when pressure and diversity combine, new configurations emerge!
Radical new socio-technical configurations are desperately needed to improve resource efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. Climate change has been forecast by some as the most threatening national security emergency of the twenty-first century. I believe it may be, and so do the many national, regional, and local governments now considering climate change policies in their published plans. It’s time that urban planner begin thinking about creating niches for energy and resource efficiency. Fortunately, one such niche exists.
Ecovillages: An untapped socio-technical niche
Ecovillages are intentional communities that achieve remarkable ecological efficiency by applying radical new “rules of the game” to community life. While no two ecovillages are the same, many ecovillages are able to dramatically reduce overall resource consumption (relative to “mainstream” American communities) by combining both new and very old technologies with changes in norms and behavior.
My experience living in Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage exposed me to several of these practices (you can read about this experience in detail in past blog posts). The human “waste” system at Dancing Rabbit, for example, closes the loop that modern toilet systems leave open by composting human excrement and re-integrating as fertile soil it into local gardens. You may cringe, but managed correctly, this system is completely sanitary, water- and chemical-free, and provides rich, organic fertilizer for the soil. The urine and feces that most Americans consider “waste” becomes a very valuable agricultural input.
Of course, implementing a system like this outside an ecovillage faces enormous legal, normative, cognitive, and technological barriers. Even if human waste recycling could turn a theoretical profit (which I imagine it could), we have been trained from an early age that our bodily waste must be flushed “away” as quickly as possible. The infrastructure doesn’t exist to recycle waste on a large scale, and most municipalities would probably frown upon the composting of human waste in our backyards.
In short, there are normative, cognitive, technological, and regulatory barriers to this safe, clean, and potentially profitable practice. We can extend this same logic to other energy-conserving practices like cooperative kitchen facilities, natural building techniques.
Another normative barrier I have encountered in the discourse of ecovillage life is a cultural stigma associated with “hippie communes” of the 1960s and 70s. I am not an expert on the hippie movement nor on the socialist utopian communities of the middle twentieth century, but in my recent perusal of newspaper articles and other mainstream media surrounding ecovillage life, I find that contemporary ecovillages are fighting an image of disengagement and laziness that seems to follow hippies around (Patton Oswalt, my favorite comedian, hasn't helped). Popular discourse views ecologically-oriented intentional community with the counter-cultural movements that encouraged young people to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” detaching themselves completely from societal conventions.
My experience living in and researching ecovillages contradicts this association completely. In fact, many contemporary ecovillages are aggressively engaging mainstream society through websites, educational seminars, and opportunities to visit and experience ecologically-oriented practices. I believe the contemporary ecovillage movement has a lot to offer cities, regions, and nations that are trying to develop more sound environmental practices. While neither I nor the ecovillage inhabitants I’ve met have any intention to transplant ecovillage practices exactly onto mainstream society, I think that exposure to these practices and experience engaging in them will allow for mainstream integration of radical resource efficiencies into daily metropolitan life. I have tried over and over again to explain to friends and colleagues the merits of the humanure systems or the benefits of shared facilities. But until they experience these alternatives themselves, I’m confident they’ll be relegated to the realm of foreign or extreme.
This returns us to the theory of socio-technical transitions. If city and regional planners want to create more “sustainable” places, they have an opportunity to take advantage of localized, existing ecological practices. “Sustainability” will not succeed if we apply a single prescription to every community of the world: every community exists in a distinct bio-region that will require different sets of human behavior if finite ecosystems are to be sustained. Instead of planning rationally, synoptically, and comprehensively (as most cities and regions continue to do) we can experiment with sustainability locally—in ecovillages. This approach to engaging the future is admittedly humble and incremental: it acknowledges that we cannot know the future before we try it out.
Urban and regional planners can begin this process by visiting existing ecovillages, which are often marginalized by strict metropolitan land-use regulations, high land prices, and a stigmatized reputation. We can proceed by removing some of these barriers and encouraging ecological practices that the general public can see, touch, taste, and experience first-hand. Increasing energy and resource efficiency will require radical shifts in technology and behavior. If the majority of people haven’t experienced radical shifts, even briefly, they will continue to feel uncomfortable about them, or even reject them as alien.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
After a multi-month hiatus, I've returned to the blogosphere with some autumn updates from Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. Over Halloween weekend Cynthia and I headed west, winding through rural roads, just in time for Friday lunch in the village. We were met with big hugs and a beautiful landscape, made more visible by the thinning trees. It was wonderful returning to the community and it felt as if I had fallen asleep one day in the summer and woken up to find that the leaves were gone, my project had progressed, and my girlfriend present. In other words, it was like I had never left. Dancing Rabbit has been on my mind pretty consistently since August, and I have made a point to integrate into my studies. I've also made multiple presentations on the place, nesting it as an untapped "socio-technical niche"- a place in which radical new "rules of the game" allow for innovative technological and sociological arrangements. I'm sure you'll hear more from me on this later...in a dissertation.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Monday, August 23, 2010
I am very convinced that urban planning can play an important role in solving our existing global environmental-social-economic crises. I've devoted most of this blog to this very topic. So many of our problems are the result of poor or zero planning* and I think that if the American public invested as much in innovating the way we plan and build communities as we do in innovating for the market place, we could build communities that are comfortable, meaningful, healthy, just, and ecologically regenerative.
Over the summer, I lived in Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Rutledge, Missouri. Dancing Rabbit (DR) is an intentional ecologically-oriented community. Members of the community have actively chosen to reject many of the conventions that we expect to find in most American communities. Sewerage, grid energy, supermarkets, gas-powered vehicles, and "new" construction materials are amongst the many conventions DR has opted to live without. Susan Love Brown (2000) describes intentional communities as places that are “purposely and voluntarily founded to achieve a specific goal for a specific group of people bent on solving a specific set of cultural and social problems (5).” While I love the concept of intentional community and think that DR and similar communities make important contributions to society, I think there is much untapped potential in recognizing places like DR as sites of important innovation. This fact is very apparent to me: ecovillage residents are discovering new, comfortable, rewarding, and ecologically friendly ways to live. They can do so because they are sheltered from the conventions that are seeking to transcend. In a way, DR and other ecovillages are "incubators" for community innovation. The RIS literature focuses heavily on the ability for innovation to occur in sheltered "incubators". I don't see why community innovation can't be incubated as well.
What if we, as a nation, state, or region, decided that community innovation was important. Important enough to invest time and talent into discovering and enacting new, sustainable, and valuable ways to live? Now, I'm not going so far as to suggest that the government pay for the establishment of ecovillages (although it'd be nice), but I DO think our regions and cities can help spur community innovation by supplying the legal mechanisms to build innovative communities. Overcoming land-use and subdivision regulations are amongst the biggest obstacles to ecovillage formation- usually because such communities require unconventional buildings and settlement patterns and must therefore endure expensive and time-consuming appeals processes (this is one reason why DR is Scotland County, Missouri).
What if Champaign County, Illinois decided that community innovation was as important as economic innovation? Instead of having to jump through hoops to build a carbon-neutral settlement, eco-communities would be invited and encouraged to experiment in sheltered sites within the county. Of course, not all sites would "succeed" but the successful experiments could be applied throughout the region.
These are my thoughts...it's getting late. Goodnight!
*There are very important differences between planning as I hope to use it and "regulation" or the command-and-control of the human environment. Briefly, planning has been described as "providing information about related decisions (Hopkins, 2001)" and applying "knowledge to action (Friedman, 1989)". While regulation can result from planning, it is only one of many outcomes.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Friday, August 13, 2010
Sunday, August 8, 2010
It was only a matter of time. With an easily accessible data source thanks to the Fellowship for Intentional Community (www.fic.ic.org), some tinkering with MS excel, MS access, and ArcMap, I managed to map existing and forming ecovillages in the USA. The colored forms are individual counties, which makes states with geographically large counties (e.g. Arizona) seem rife with ecovillages. Arizona has no shortage, to be sure, but that entire big green blob is home to one "existing ecovillage" and one "forming ecovillage."
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Following an ecstatic farewell party (a three-hour acoustic jam/ sing along) and an emotional departure from Dancing Rabbit, I’ve begun to settle back into the read—write –meet—re-write rhythm of academic life in Champaign, Illinois. I’ve had more trouble than I anticipated leaving DR; even the uncomfortable summer heat feels hotter “off the farm.” Thankfully, my academic advisor is pretty enthusiastic about integrating intentional community and ecovillage life into my research, and I intend to run (briskly) with the opportunity!
This afternoon, while seated alone in a vacuous, air-conditioned computer lab, surrounded by droves of humming Dell desktops, I skimmed through academic articles describing the unfortunate state of public participation in American and British planning processes. One after another decries the inefficient, unjust, often self-legitimating public hearings that strip citizens of any efficacy in their local government. One author, Kathleen Halverson of Michigan Technical University, explains that public participation ought to be comfortable, convenient, satisfying, and deliberative. That is, citizens ought not have to strain themselves to arrive and sit through a meeting, their opinions ought to be heard and acknowledged, they ought to engaged in (at least) two-way dialogue, and they ought to feel as if their contributions have made a difference in the outcome of the proceedings. Attend most municipal public hearings, and the critiques of Halverson and many other authors become instantly evident.
Contrast this with the Dancing Rabbit Sunday meeting. I hadn’t until a few days ago considered the Sunday meeting a form of public participation. Perhaps its lack of Robert’s Rules of Order and its unquestionable relevance to daily life in the community clouded the comparison. I think it’s worth a blog entry to discuss why the Sunday meeting seems to work so well.
Each Sunday at 12:30, Dancing Rabbit members, residents, and visitors of all sorts gather in the common house to discuss the week in preview, or “the WIP.” Sitting in a circle, dressed in their daily casual attire (shirtless perhaps), the Rabbits begin with an open call for announcements. People announce anything from lost items, to found items, to surplus garlic they’ve harvested and are willing to sell, to a workshop they’re offering the following weekend. Ah yes, and just in case someone realizes they’ve forgotten to announce something important, they have another chance at the end of the meeting to let everyone know that there’ll be a work party to fix the mailboxes after the meeting. After announcements, the meeting shifts to “Guests and Tours” during which hosts announce the guests that will be arriving in the coming week. This, I imagine serves a dual purpose: 1) to avoid confusion about strangers walking around and 2) to make sure that guests aren’t greeted with confusion. This also explains why one woman, who had no official association with my arrival at DR, knew my name, “You must be Robby,” the instant I left my car back in June. This is followed up with a list of people “Off the farm” or who’s leaving the village during the week, also an important undertaking as to avoid any unwarranted worry or search party.
Next, important events and committee meetings are announced for each day of the week. Finally, a similar discussion revolving around car usage lists the day, departure/arrival time, and destination of the three cooperative vehicles. This allows members to schedule their use of the cars AND to notify drivers of potential errands that they can help with. If, for example, Joe was scheduled to drive into town on Tuesday afternoon, I could ask him to pick up a box of nails for me. I would, of course, share the cost of fuel with Joe.
After the WIP is finished, members sometimes engage in potentially more important business meetings, during which members discuss and decide on issues such as community energy production and grid connections—a topic that was decided during my stay.
Although I did not take attendance or count the number of members present, the “participation rate” at the DR Sunday meeting was probably about 80 percent of active members. Far exceeding the paltry, undocumented participation rate in Champaign, Illinois, a city of over 75,000 residents. Even if every seat of the City Council Chambers were filled, participation would still lag behind that of DR. I feel safe in extending this reality to most other American municipalities. It’s certainly not because Champaign residents have no stake in the proceedings. I’ve witnessed multi-million dollar investments and major ordinances pass the city council without a single public comment.
Let’s take Halverson’s requirements—that public participation ought to be comfortable, convenient, satisfying, and deliberative. Without venturing too far into criticizing the City of Champaign, for which I serve as a public appointee, let’s take a look at why Sunday meetings attract such a robust crowd. First of all, it seems as though the Sunday meeting is a great place to catch up with neighbors and friends. Indeed, it’s not hard to run into other people at DR—most everyone spends the day outdoors and there are wonderful common spaces. But some people remain pretty isolated to their work, so it’s nice to know that you can see your neighbors face to face at least once a week. Residents have to make the tumultuous journey of 1,500 feet (maximum) to arrive at the meeting at which they can wear whatever clothes they want. They sit in a circle, know they’ll have an opportunity to speak, and they’ll receive a response if they need it. They information they gain at the meeting is usually relevant to their daily lives and if it’s not, it could become relevant later.
Contrast this with a traditional municipal meeting that is usually scheduled on a weekday evening- sometimes during work hours. You stand before officials you probably don’t know. They look down on you from an elevated and decorated podium. They have no obligation to respond to you and while you’re guaranteed an opportunity to speak, you’re limited to a relatively short amount of time (yes, I’ve been effectively “shut up” at a plan commission meeting before). The matters of discussion are often esoteric, presented in legal jargon, and publicly televised, so don’t trip or stutter or ask a question that might spur the perception that you’re ignorant or uninformed! And this is only if you choose to attend in the first place. More than likely, the decision has been made a meetings prior to the public hearing by very qualified professionals (in the case of Champaign) or by corrupt politicians (in the case of Chicago). The silence at the municipal meetings I’ve attended are, on one hand, a sign that the professionals at the City are doing their job well. I really think they are. Having worked with them, I am convinced they are some of the brightest professionals around. But they are entrenched in a system that discourages dynamic public discourse. Public participation is, by design(?), an intimidating and uncomfortable process. I don’t think it should be this way.
The contrast between DR Sunday meetings and the municipal public meetings I’ve witnessed provokes all sorts of questions: at what scale and about which topics should weekly public meetings engage? Could a city of 75,000 conduct a “Sunday meeting” with facilitators that change from week to week? At what cost should public officials try to “engage” residents that don’t have an immediate moneyed interested in a topic? Where should public meetings be held? What should the layout of the room be? What are the merits of having an elevated podium in the first place. I certainly don’t think that a city of 75,000 or even 1,000 could conduct their public meetings like a 50 person ecovillage. But I do think there are lessons to be learned regarding conditions that make for a healthy democracy.
Sunday, August 1, 2010
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
I'd like to believe I'm a good writer, but there some ecovillage images that even the most eloquent prose cannot adequately describe. I thought I'd devote this entry to some of the more intriguing structures in the community- with more to follow.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
I’m finding that life in an ecovillage more closely resembles summer camp and fraternity life than I’d have ever anticipated. Admittedly, comparing an eight-week all-boys summer camp and/or a group of sixty college-aged man-friends to an ecologically-friendly village of full-time residents of all ages is a bit like comparing a tropical fruit with a sub-tropical fruit. Nevertheless, summer camps and fraternities are institutions with which I am personally very familiar, and life at Dancing Rabbit reminds me of them in several ways. Many of the similarities, I imagine, are simple consequences of close-proximity living.
Dancing Rabbit inhabitants share aspects of daily life that conventional urban dwellers access to the exclusion of their neighbors. I’ve discussed shared kitchens and gardens in prior postings, but sharing extends much further. There are relatively few toilets in the community. A “toilet” here is colloquially called “the pooper” or “the humey”, which is short for humanuer. It’s a 5-gallon bucket with a toilet seat. When enclosed and properly decorated, it doesn’t look terribly different from a conventional toilet. Each person, however, is responsible for covering his or her “contribution” with saw dust or dirt to cover the smell, and the contents of the bucket are emptied into the bed of some unfortunate resident.
Not really. They’re emptied into a compost bin. I’ll cover the intricacies of the sanitary process on a later date.
So, not only does everyone share the relatively few number of poopers, but we all share the responsibility of muting the smell of our poop, emptying the buckets when they’re full, and like anywhere else, washing our hands when we’re finished. Hand washing is especially important because of the manifold shared kitchen appliances, doorknobs, garden tools, construction tools, books, and musical instruments in the community.
Community social life centers around the common house, which is cleaned each Sunday morning—a duty I executed last week. My fraternity would take time (almost every) Sunday morning to clean common areas of our house. Similarly, at camp, we’d take time to clean the cabin each day and other parts of the camp on other occasion. While most urban areas today uphold littering laws and enforce nuisance laws, but common areas like streets and parks aren’t necessarily cleaned by residents (the mess makers), but rather by municipal employees or outsourced cleaning companies.
Finding privacy in the community isn’t always a simple endeavor. Indeed, I enjoy the privacy of my tent, but the instant I leave my 6’ x 4’ containment unit, I encounter a construction site and a couple working hard to build their house. The few Skype conversations I’ve arranged (my phone has no signal here) have all been interrupted by someone peeking into the small office at the common house where I can pick up an internet signal. This morning I sought a quiet moment before beginning work and sat down on the porch of what I thought was an uninhabited cottage, when someone—a new renter!—surprisingly emerged from the door. While I’m sure I could easily find time to myself if I worked hard, most space in this village is shared and visible. Privacy is the exception, not the rule. I just left a dinner conversation at which someone explained, “One week at Dancing Rabbit feels like one month.” I agree. I feel like I’ve known some people here for much longer than 2 ½ weeks. This isn’t to say that I’ve sparked deep, spiritual relationships with everyone here, but it’s easy to learn a lot about a person when working and eating with them all day long. Even those with whom I don’t work all day or eat every meal, I see most nights night or at least at weekly activities. The intensity of relationships given the relatively truncated time reminds me of the very meaningful relationships I established cabin mates and fraternity brothers in similar living scenarios.