Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Building Bridges to Sustainability: Dancing Rabbit and the Milkweed Mercantile

Below is column I wrote on behalf of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage published in the Memphis Democrat, a local northeast Missouri paper:

In the summer of 2010, I arrived at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage to help for six weeks on a natural building project. In the course of these weeks I grew fascinated with a community brave enough to experiment with the comforts of modernity that most Americans take for granted. This short six-week stay was just long enough to inspire me to completely change the focus of my doctoral dissertation research in Urban Planning at the University of Illinois. I have since reoriented my professional and academic life toward investigating Dancing Rabbit and other similar ecovillages, as well as promoting its mission of community-based sustainability.

In departmental seminars, college lectures, high school assemblies, meetings with municipal urban planners, and even dinner conversations with my friends and family, I’ve attempted to explain how residents of Dancing Rabbit have built a fifty-plus member community that generates its own electricity from the sun, cultivates the vast majority of its water from the sky, builds its homes using only recycled and/or locally harvested lumber, recycles all of its organic waste, and survives in rural Missouri with only three shared vehicles.

I returned this summer as both a researcher and an employee at the Milkweed Mercantile Eco Bed & Breakfast— a fascinating business that I will discuss further below. I’m finding that even as a life-long environmentalist and advocate for social change, daily life at Dancing Rabbit is a challenge for me. While I am each day more and more encouraged by the successful (and sometimes unsuccessful) experiments in which the “Rabbits” have engaged, I have also encountered the challenges of routine change that come with new, more sustainable ways of living. For example, the amount of electricity I feel comfortable using is heavily dependent upon yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s weather. Even as I type this article, I am reminded of the ‘low’ level of energy available in the community’s common house that has resulted from a rather old and inefficient refrigerator (soon to be replaced!) and seasonally higher number of energy consumers. I’d very much like to wash my clothing at some point this week, but I am finding that this season’s energy shortage may force me to wash my clothing by hand—a relatively time consuming and unfamiliar task to a middle class suburban man.

My excitement about Dancing Rabbit is, in part, the result of my concern for the long environmental and economic emergency of global climate change. All available information I can access paints a rather pessimist picture of the coming decades. But here’s some good news: I am convinced that the vast majority of the physical technology needed to overcome the humanity’s environmental challenges already exists. Humanity has already invented all of the “stuff”— the solar panels, wind turbines, solar ovens, composting toilets, etc.— that we need to live comfortably at a lower level of impact on the earth. The real challenge now is how we use this stuff and how we live together, and this will require some routine change. Routine change is hard. Overcoming the environmental challenges of the twenty-first century will require lots of it, but I’d personally prefer experimenting with small routine changes now than be forced to make terribly uncomfortable routine changes when, for example, gasoline prices approach $10/gallon, or a new climactic reality overwhelms even our “emergency” resources.

For ideologically motivated folks like the residents of Dancing Rabbit, routine change is the new reality. For the vast majority of humans, however, routine change is a taxing endeavor. I have trouble imagining most of my friends and family living at Dancing Rabbit for even longer than one week, let alone a lifetime. This summer, however, I have been encouraged by my experience at the Milkweed Mercantile Eco Bed & Breakfast (The “Mercantile”) and its role as a “bridge” between the radical routine change in the Dancing Rabbit community and guests exploring new ways to live more “sustainably”. It is only appropriate that such a transitional space would manifest in a B&B. The facility exposes guests to energy, water, food, transportation, heating/cooling, and feeding systems of noticeably different, yet comfortably similar dynamics. A guest at the Mercantile, for example, will find many of the same comforts they would find in any other B&B: clean white sheets, large comfortable beds, impeccably clean bathrooms, a delicious and hearty breakfast, a hot shower, running water, a pleasant selection of cold beer, wireless internet, and yes, light switches connected to functioning lights.

More observant guests, however, will realize that all the electricity is generated by solar panels on-site, all the water is harvested from rain and purified on-site, the air is “conditioned” by straw bale insulated walls, the water is heated in a wood-fire furnace, the food is mostly grown locally, and everything that falls in the toilet is recycled— after a long and careful composting process. Managing such a business and keeping it affordable (under $100/night) for guests is far from conventional. Each morning, for example, my responsibilities include closing the windows of the B&B, a seemingly counter-intuitive routine given the summer’s extreme heat and that the building has no air conditioning unit. But closing the windows effectively traps the cool evening air inside the highly insulated walls so that the air in the inn remains cool relative to the heat outside. Staff at the Mercantile must also monitor rainfall, rotate the compost container, make cooking decisions based on the weather, collect burning material for the water boiler, and make sure to do the inn’s laundry in time for it to dry in the afternoon sun.

The owners of the Mercantile comment that a more sustainable living situation does not require deprivation. Indeed, my experience living and working at Dancing Rabbit has exposed me to an abundant, rewarding, and fun lifestyle that simultaneously offers me the chance to be a better global citizen. While I do not expect the world to dive into radically new living practices overnight, I do think that radical change is necessary if we expect to avoid catastrophic change in the next few decades. I’m hopeful that places like Dancing Rabbit and the Milkweed Mercantile can offer solutions that allow humanity to live together peacefully, abundantly, and in good health for millennia to come. I would also encourage any individual, with even the slightest curiosity in environmental innovation, to take a tour of the community and/or spend at night at the inn.

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