In all of the intentional communities we visited, there was a pervasive commonality among the type of people we encountered. This trait would show itself towards the end of our conversation about what’s going on in the world today, prompted by two movie trailers that depict some of the more horrific global crises. The first was a trailer from The 11th Hour, a film that lays out a barrage of science to convince the viewer that we are at a convergence of crises that all, according to the people interviewed in the film, threaten planetary life as we know it. Global climate change is shown as the driving force behind a domino effect of disasters, and the movie urges viewers to take action for a better future. The second trailer is on AIDS in Africa, and uses the phrase “I am because we are” to inspire a change in perspective towards this epidemic. At this point in our interviews, the conversation would often take on a dire and hopeless tone in the face of such present global catastrophe. Individuals had different ways of responding to the trailers, some insisting that worrying about such huge issues get them nowhere (see Amber’s post Worrying – A Thing of the Past) while others could do little more than express their lack of power over these situations.
While some degree of personal hope was also present in all of our interviews, the hope we heard in intentional communities had a much more solid foundation beneath it. That foundation was one of pragmatic personal determination, a sense of empowerment that stemmed from the individual’s choice to be a part of an intentional community. Residents of non-intentional communities also often focused on local issues as a response to the global situation, but this was less about actually engaging with global issues as it was about a primary concern for their immediate communities. The people we interviewed in intentional communities more often than not said that their participation in their community was precisely in response to a global status quo that they saw as deeply flawed. They described their communities as models for a better way to live in the world, and as educational places where skills could be learned and then applied elsewhere. They considered themselves to be actively engaged in a lifestyle that went beyond their own retreat from a messed up world, and that in some small yet significant way, was helping to create change in the world. At Mountain Homestead, a plot of land in southern Oregon, individuals temporarily stay in order to learn about farming, gardening, cob building, and living in community, then leave to take their newly acquired skills to other parts of the world. Lost Valley Educational Center is an experiential school near Eugene that teaches similar skills through apprenticeships and workshops. Tryon Life Community Farm is the home of the Cedar Moon community, who open up their land for the curious and the seeking to learn about a different way of living in an urban environment. Breitenbush Hotsprings is a resort that offers a spiritual sanctuary to folks of all creeds and colors, also home to an on-site community that invites visitors to be inspired by an intimate relationship with the surrounding natural environment. Alpha Farm, near the central coast in Oregon, opens its doors to individuals trying to cultivate back-to-the-land skills, and has influenced visitors for thirty-plus years.
In brief, our experiences at these intentional communities revealed a worldview in which individuals feel like they are personally contributing to a better world. This sense of determination sometimes leads to a more optimistic outlook for global crises, or at least a pragmatic sense of hope.
Are the well-intentioned efforts of these intentional communities and the individuals who find themselves there to be taken seriously? Can they honestly be viewed as legitimate progress towards some paradigm that better serves a healthy world community? Are they anything more than charming small-scale experiments in alternative ways of living? It’s easy to dismiss them as such. Alternatively, one could make an argument that follows the old “think global, act local” thread, where every tiny effort on a small scale adds up to create something bigger and perhaps globally significant. In my opinion, however, this argument is still missing the point. Ecotopia Revisited is a project about dreams and hopes, nightmares and fears. These are harder to articulate and often exist ambiguously within each individual, but they are the motivators for what actions we take to reach our utopias and avoid our dystopias. The intentional communities we interviewed have much to say about what practical actions they are making to change the world, one person at a time. But I think the vision that they hold is even more important than the skills their residents gain. What does it mean to feel personally empowered in a complicated global crisis, versus having a sense of hopelessness and hands-off appeal to leadership to save us from disaster? Perhaps the only difference is in degrees of hope. What brings one person hope is entirely subjective, but then, so is the search for utopia. With any luck, the patterns we find from our interviews will shed light on the relationships between empowerment, tangible actions, and hope for achieving those utopias.