Friday, December 3, 2010

Overcoming Discursive Barriers to Sustainability through Experiential Learning

“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.


  1. When I hear someone say that ecovillages are marginal, fringe, or somehow not "normal", I encourage them to take a larger, evolutionary perspective. Margaret Mead, the noted anthropologist, once said that for 99.9% of our evolution, we lived in tribes. In the last 150 years or so, with the industrial revolution, we've lost this sense of community so profoundly that most don't even think of it as something worth having. So, from a larger frame, it's suburbia and nuclear families that are abnormal. I suspect and hope that peak oil and the coming "energy descent" will catalyze massive relocalization efforts that, while uncomfortable at times, may also awaken and nourish this need for belonging that is part of our genetic and evolutionary heritage. Time will tell...

  2. Hi Rob, just come across your blog. Spent the past half hour or so reading your posts.

    I'm studying Environment, Policy and Society with the Open University and have enjoyed reading your work.

    I'm doing some research which is largely based on a 2003 study "Making Believe: Institutional and Discursive Barriers to Sustainable Transport in Two Australian Cities". However, I haven't found much literature on "discursive barriers" to help me establish a satisfactory definition. Can you help at all?

    Thanks in advance.

    Yours sincerely,
    Jonathan Scott