Friday, May 27, 2011

Struggle and Evolution make an Ecovillage

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably well aware of the growing popularity of “green” housing developments and “eco-friendly” consumer products pervading real estate listings, health food stores, and Wal-Mart. I have written and pontificated extensively on the risks of misusing the “sustainable” label as well as the many shades of green that governments across the world have adopted to achieve energy independence or environmental conservation. Surely there is no shortage of impressive advances in urban development that adopt the green label. Suburban projects like Prairie Crossing, a low-impact development in Grayslake, Illinois, or urban projects BedZed (Bedding Zero Energy Development) in South London are important demonstrations of ways that we can live comfortably at relatively lower costs to ecological systems. When I mention to friends or family that I study “ecovillages,” the phrase most often evokes images of “hippie communes” or these contemporary developer-led communities that seem to be gaining a presence in the housing market.

While I can emphatically state that ecovillages are neither “hippie communes” nor developer-led “green” communities, I have struggled to securely distinguish ecovillages from other types of intentional communities. Where, for example, shall we draw the line between ecovillages and co-housing communities? Despite its name, many acquaintances of mine argue that EcoVillage at Ithaca is, in fact, not an ecovillage at all, but a co-housing community because its members work with designers and professional developers to build a neighborhood. Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage and Earthaven Ecovillage, on the other hand, are composed primarily of dwellings designed and built by individual inhabitants themselves.

A recent conversation with an Earthaven inhabitant (and fellow urban planning student) clarified for me the importance of this distinction. In an interview, he explained that many of the ecological innovations that Earthaven demonstrates (e.g. micro-power, local food production, rainwater harvesting, etc) are readily available at developer-led green communities. The difference, he emphasized, was the ability to watch your community evolve and participate actively in its evolution. While it’s true that developer-led green communities offer important innovations, an inhabitant of such a community may or may not be aware of how these innovative systems work, and has most likely not taken part in the production and assembly of such systems. A resident of developer-led green community or co-housing community could most likely proceed with their lives happy to know that their energy is being generated on-site or that their food is locally harvested, but an ecovillage resident has little choice but to be part of these systems and struggle from day to day to adapt these systems to the means of production and metabolism of the community.

For my friend, it boils down to the economics of necessity. It is becoming cheaper and less surprising for people in the mainstream to install solar panels on their roofs or to purchase organically grown food at the supermarket, but it remains abundantly easy to take “conventional” power from the grid on a cloudy day, or pass up the organic aisle in favor of industrially produced food when you find a cheaper or more convenient alternative. In other words, “green” alternatives are a thing of convenience and hobby outside of ecovillages. Inside ecovillages (for the most part), micro-energy, local food, local water, and manure composting are the daily reality for which there is no easy alternative. On cloudy days, you remain acutely aware of your energy consumption and often have no choice but to reduce consumption. When on-site building materials run out or recycled materials are sparse, you cannot purchase lumber grown in Brazil; you build a smaller structure. Turning off the water while you brush your teeth or soap-up in the shower are not just kind or conscientious actions, they’re imperative.

I should mention that even in this ecovillage, residents are still very dependent upon fossil fuels. Earthaven is, according to one inhabitant, “far from food self-sufficient” and currently struggling to determine whether it should strive to produce all its own food or specialize in a few products while continuing to purchase food from outside the community. But it is this type of struggle and evolution that is producing very conscientious citizens and simulating the very uncomfortable decisions that everyone in the mainstream will have to confront in due course.

Living and struggling in a reality with little to no fossil fuels (and substantial pressure to avoid using them) is what distinguishes ecovillages from other types of “green” communities. This reality forces someone like myself, who has lived for decades in a world fueled by petroleum and coal, to undergo a sort of personal evolution; a struggle that forces me to ask, “How badly do I need to shower?” or “Do I really need to chec my e-mail right now?” or confront the fact that despite the fowl smell of my clothing, I cannot use the laundry machine because it’s raining, and there’s neither the solar power to run the laundry machine nor the sun to dry my clothes once they’re wet… (really, I should have planned better).

As I have argued before, the United States and the rest of the developed world will not overcome fossil-fuel addition by simply installing solar panels or driving hybrid vehicles. No known technology can effectively displace the fossil energy at the rate that westerners consume. Increases in energy efficiency are always cancelled by increases in total energy consumed or vehicle miles traveled. We need to figure out how to meet our needs by consuming less, and I commend ecovillages for confronting this harsh reality and acting sincerely to solve it.

Thanks for reading! (Pictures will be coming soon. I promise. For real. Just waiting for a friend to e-mail them to me. Yes, I forgot my camera in Champaign. Yes, my cell phone has a camera but the pictures suck. Sorry to keep you waiting, but it’s worth the wait.)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Beltane Celebration, Ecovillage People, and Improv Comedy Warm-Ups

‘Twas the evening of the first full moon of May! Know what that means? (I didn’t). It’s Beltane! And if there was a day to be introduced to the Earthaven community, oh boy, this was it. I had seen pictures of similar celebrations and was vaguely familiar with the Maypole celebration, but this was my first time experiencing Beltane myself. I’m still working to gather the details surrounding the occasion, but my understanding is that Beltane is the Gaelic (neo-pagan?) celebration of the coming of Spring, exactly midway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice. There are, I have learned, eight such celebrations each year—for each solstice, each equinox, and the midpoints thereof. Beltane, however, takes the cake for flare and significance. It makes too much sense to me that the coming of Spring would be celebrated heartily. Observances like Passover (my personal favorite holiday), Easter, and various celebrations of other ancient peoples recognize the re-emergence of life, a natural renaissance of sorts. And no matter your religion or belief system there are so many things to celebrate this time of year: the end of the school year, the beginning of baseball, the NBA finals, the opening of the farmers market, season finales of your favorite TV show, the start of summer camp, perhaps the start of a fun summer fling?

The Beltane festivities at Earthaven started early Tuesday evening and lasted through early Wednesday morning. Most of Tuesday was a dreary mess—cold, rainy, and lonely. I spent most of the day dreading that the remainder of my time in the community would be equally drab. But the clouds let up around 5PM, just in time for the Maypole dance, and my housemate and I approached the celebration in time to participate. As we neared, we saw the community gathered around a post. Most of the women and a few of the men were dressed as fairies: flowing gowns, wreathes made of branches and leaves, face paint, scarves, etc. In my rain jacket, jeans, and boots, I was surprisingly overdressed.

The Maypole

The Maypole is a narrow tree trunk capped by a spinning wheel out of which radiates dozens of long colored ribbons. Each participant takes hold of a ribbon, and while walking and chanting, weaves in and out of each other to form a variegated pattern up and down the pole. Drummers on the periphery of the celebration keep the pace steady. The chant and the rest of the celebration was led by a woman who is an actual ordained priestess—a modern-day witch—who seems very dedicated to this craft and the celebration. She knew the repetitive multi-line chant inside-out and backwards, but almost no one else did, so people started humming to it and/or making stuff up that seemed to rhyme. Similarly, the pattern on the pole was about as tight and accurate as our recollection of the chant. No one seemed to mind. When the pole was finished, the crowd swarmed around it, touched it, and embraced. It was a giant warm group-hug. This is when I stepped back to watch as an outsider, no quiet comfortable enough to hug a group of strangers.

The Beltane Ritual

After the pole was complete, we drift to the other side of the field to start the Betlane ritual. I won’t elaborate too much on the following ritual, because I don’t remember all of it, nor do I understand most of it, but it involved the following: splitting up into small groups based on our zodiac signs and choreographing a dance to introduce our elements into the energy circle (I was fire, and our dance was definitely the most lame); creating the actual energy circle by compiling our individual orbs of energy into the center and letting it “explode” into a perimeter that surrounded the circle of people holding hands; lots of hand holding; expressing gratitude to our spirit; expressing gratitude to our animal instinct (this involved a lot of growling and clawing at each other); expressing gratitude to our ancestors; expressing hope for the future; disposing of our baggage from the winter; dispatching our hopes for the summer; holding hands in pairs while jumping over a fire while trying to avoid other pairs that are also trying to jump over the same fire; breaking the energy circle that we had originally created; and finally crowning and Jack of the Spring and the Queen of the May to lead us in feast.

Ecovillage People are “Yes, And” People

What I loved about this ceremony, and what seemed clear to me, is that while most of the people in the circle aren’t trained in neo-pagan ritual and didn’t take the ritual as literal truth, they played along, accepted the rules of the ritual, and embraced the activities fully and enthusiastically. Each activity was an opportunity to express something individually and collectively at the same time. In other words, the ritual proceeded similarly to a successful improvisational comedy warm-up. To an outside observer, improv warm-ups (and, I imagine the Beltane ritual) appear silly and irrational, but to a participant, the activity succeeds at empowering individuals in the context of a group. The result is an empowered and affirming collective.

I thought to myself, as I growled and clawed at a fairy-clad complete stranger, “These are yes,and people!” My improv friends reading this probably understand what I’m trying to convey. To everyone else, I’m about to reveal a big secret of improv comedy: what seems miraculous and spontaneous in a successful set of improv comedy is the result of several relatively simple techniques which improvisers are trained to repeat. The cardinal rule in improv is “Yes, And.” When your scene partner offers you a “gift” in a scene, you accept it as truth, and give another gift in return, which they accept as absolute truth. The best improv scene is a giant string of affirmation and gift-giving. When this succeeds it appears as if it was scripted all along and the magic of improv comedy. When it fails (as it often does), you lose nothing and but you’ve learned something and you can try again.

Now, not everything in ecovillages is affirmation and gift-giving, but what I’m beginning to realize is that in trying to craft a radical and positive new reality absent of the daily conventions that help us meet daily needs in the mainstream, inhabitants of ecovillages and other intentional communities need to say “yes” to each other. Jonathan Dawson, author of “Ecovillages,” describes ecovillages as one step “beyond the politics of protest,” or a step towards creating new realities instead of only deconstructing and protesting an old regime.

This is how imagination and personal evolution work, I think. Sometimes, it’s appropriate (or imperative) to suspend the rules of normality, just to see what happens. Sometimes, a newer, better “normal” emerges from this temporary suspension. I’ve come to realize, both in ecovillages and in my day-to-day life in Champaign-Urbana, that my favorite people are also “Yes. And” people. Despite my occasional moments of austerity (especially when discussing politics) I tend to be a goofy person. I tend to cling to people that are willing to play along as I let go of the mainstream momentarily. I’m also excited because, for the first time, I’ve pegged in writing why (good) urban planning and (good) improv comedy are the same: they both have important rules and lofty aspirations, but sometimes these rules need to be responsibly and consciously bent, and sometimes these aspirations need to be re-imagined.

Monday, May 16, 2011

New Earth Living: An Experiment in Ithaca

Tompkins County, NY and EcoVillage at Ithaca were recently awarded a large grant from the US EPA to incorporate grassroots techniques into county-wide climate planning. This is a fascinating development, and deserves extra attention. One of the three funded experiements is "New Earth Living" a development slated to be built upon public land and intended to use the most cutting-edge design and resource management techniques to create small urban ecovillages.

Here's more info:

Welcome to Earthaven Ecovillage!

After a year of anticipation, a bittersweet farewell from friends and family in Champaign-Urbana, and a dangerously insufficient night of sleep, I departed for Black Mountain, North Carolina yesterday around 6:30AM, an hour of the day at which public radio is still broadcasting British news. It was probably the combination of excitement, sleep deprivation, and the droning voice of a British radio announcer that resulted in me driving west out of town, toward Springfield, Illinois, instead of east toward my destination, Earthaven Ecovillage. “No way to start a long road trip, let alone the summer…” I thought to myself. I turned around. Fortunately, I would reverse course only one other time the entire road trip, literally yards away from my destination, when I accidentally pulled into the driveway of a private residence and the bellicose glare of a man that indicated to me—in no uncertain terms—that I didn’t belong…

My twelve-hour drive started in perhaps the most boring landscape of the United States and progressed into one of the most beautiful. I probably could have finished the trip in under eleven hours had I not stopped to take several short naps—again, I don’t recommend barely sleeping the night before a day-long road trip. The flat grade of Illinois/Indiana transitions to rolling hills in Kentucky, which grow into a mountain vista in Tennessee. By the time I entered North Carolina, I was driving through that mountain vista, and the road was immersed in a vertical landscape of trees and granite. For a flat-lander like myself, such a scene is distracting and, at times, enough to induce salivation.

I hoped to arrive at Earthaven before dark, and I pulled in just short of 7PM, with light to spare. After winding up and down hills, I arrived at a wide-open entrance gate and a gravel path that meanders through a narrow canopy of trees, past several homes, twice across a narrow creek, a small play field, and finally to a gravel parking lot and a visitor’s kiosk. If you’ve driven in to Camp Agawak (my sister’s summer camp) in Northern Wisconsin, you’ve experienced a similar scene.

Unfortunately, my host and I hadn’t made detailed plans about where and when to meet, so I escaped my car for a moment to look around. Immediately, I noticed the relative silence of the place. Were it not so neat and beautifully well maintained, I’d have thought the place was abandoned. My short walk revealed plants I’m not used to seeing, including a small patch of bamboo, and other species I known I’ve never seen in the Midwest. I encountered several small clusters of homes, and what appeared to be the community “center”: a circular, white plaster complex, the large windows of which revealed a circle of chairs on an open wooden floor. This is where meetings happen…

When I finally encountered another human and enquired into the whereabouts of my host, they revealed to me that, in fact, my host lived just outside the community gates I had entered and that I should exit the gates, turn a corner, and climb up a hill. Following these directions, I arrived at my home for the summer: a three-story, off-white plastered house that overlooks an accompanying guesthouse, barn, and field of (recently shorn) sheep. The property and pasture is surrounded on four sides by trees, and a small stream cuts through the southern edge, effectively forming the edge of the sheep pasture.

My host still missing from the scene, I was greeted by one of the other four tenants with whom I’ll be sharing the house. After a brief introduction I inquired: “Where’s the bathroom?” The bathroom, which I found, is absolutely gorgeous and unlike any ecovillage bathroom I’ve ever seen. The entrance is filled with indoor plants, a granite countertop, a shower enclosed in stone and glass, and a toilet like any I’ve seen in the suburbs of Chicago. As far as I can tell, the water is pumped from the stream that descends from the surrounding mountains.

The house itself is equally impressive. A foyer, sitting room, full kitchen and dinning area, three guest bedrooms, a master bedroom with a full bathroom, and patio off the master bedroom. I’m sleeping in the attic, which was chilly last night, but I anticipate it will become ridiculously hot by the end of the summer. I have a small porch of my own which overlooks the barn and pasture. The construction of the home is timber frame (still not sure what’s insulting the place, but it’s not straw bale), and apparently all the wood was harvested from the property when the land was cleared for grazing. My host is quite the builder. He and a friend were able to clear the land, complete the house, the barn, and the guest house in about five years.

Electricity? You bet. All solar photovoltaics, and it’s enough to power a flat-screen television and my computer just about whenever. Today is cloudy day, and the power meter currently reads “91” out of 100. Internet? Yep- Ethernet connections throughout the house. Cooking? Primarily an alcohol stove with a wood stove backup which my host tries to avoid using in the summer.

Thanks for reading. Things are bound to get very exciting here. More blog posts later—pictures to follow.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Future of Energy (in 500 words)

As the environmental and national security repercussions of the “age of oil” grow too large to discount, governments around the world face pressure to explore clean, affordable, and renewable energy sources. Unfortunately, no existing energy source can affordably and cleanly displace petroleum (the world's current leadings source of energy) at least given our current rates of consumption. Even if human ingenuity developed an ideal energy alternative in the coming years, ever-changing political, demographic, and geological conditions render impossible the ability to predict future energy crises—few could have predicted the climactic consequences of greenhouse gas emissions prior to the middle twentieth century, for example. “Solving” today’s energy crisis will require two important endeavors: 1) reducing total energy demand, and 2) building a low-impact, diverse, and resilient energy system.

Every energy source to which humanity has access poses some ecological, economic, and/or geopolitical cost. Deciding where to invest research and infrastructure is a matter of balancing these costs. First and foremost, however, solving our current energy crisis must involve investing in “nega-watts” (Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 2000), or increasing whole-system industrial efficiency, clever building design, urban development that reduces the need for automobile trips, improvements to the national energy grid, the localization of food systems, etc. Reducing the demand for energy will render feasible relatively clean energy sources that seem financially infeasible today.

By reducing the number of steps between direct sunshine and energy useful for human activity, energy media like solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, and ambient heat geothermal pumps yield relatively low environmental costs. Tidal energy, a product of centrifugal and gravitational shifts on our planet, can also deliver electricity at relatively low environmental costs. Our future energy systems should rely principally on these systems. Relying on these energy sources, however, requires a re-imagination of the energy grid and the scale at which most USA regions produce energy. Building a low-impact, diverse, and resilient energy system is impossible at current geographic scales. In addition to posing large security risks, large regional-scale coal, nuclear, and gas plants lose the vast majority of energy as heat through the walls of the facility and the transmission of electricity over long distances. We can capture this efficiency by localizing energy production at the neighborhood scale, and investing the difference in further research. By investing in energy research with the savings incurred through captured efficiency, we are more likely to avoid energy crises in the future. If we invest in constant research and infrastructure that is not cost prohibitive to clean, replace and/or upgrade, we will transition from a boom-and-bust energy economy to a resilient and responsive system of energy supply. Of course, solar, wind, ambient geothermal, and tidal energy present their own caveats. Each requires space, and may result in localized environmental problems. I am convinced, however, that relatively localized problems are more likely to be solved by concerned neighbors than are geographically diffuse dilemmas that fossil energy has caused.