1 Dec 2008, 2:18pm
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Walking the Talk: How Empowered Are You?

After several long months of talking to Oregonians of all ilk and walks of life, another chapter of Ecotopia Revisited is complete.  There is still much data crunching and qualitative work to be done, but there are a number of observations that we can see at this point in the project.  My immediate interests lie in the difference of degrees of hope between residents of intentional versus non-intentional communities, a thread I began in my previous post (Pragmatism Reveals Degrees of Hope).  Given that we found many surprising correlations between these two groups (or maybe not so surprising!), what appears to be their main difference and from what does this difference spring?

The survey we administered to participants of our project, in addition to a number of volunteers that took the survey online, examined individuals along a number of different worldview axis.  Does an individual see nature as inherently sacred, or sacred for theological reasons?  Does one value a vision of ecotopia, in which society is based around a local economy and natural products?  Is the world on the brink of some kind of significant collapse?  How much does one identify as an American or an Oregonian? How much does one identify as environmentalist, spiritual, religious, or morally or politically conservative?  Our results showed us a remarkable lack of significant difference between people living in intentional communities and others.  This means, for example, that you are no more likely to find an ecotopian, dystopian, or environmentalist in an intentional community as you are in a non-intentional community.  The distribution of Oregonians we interviewed reflects similar values and worldviews across the board.

The consistent choice of D.T. Suzuki’s quote (“we are the air, the water, the soil, the sun. What we do to the Earth we do to ourselves, because we are a part of the web of life”) is another significant similarity that has already been discussed to some degree.  This quote was chosen 72 per cent of the time, which means that across all of our interviews almost three out of every four people chose Suzuki’s words as personally meaningful.  Clearly this sentiment reflects a common worldview, at least in the Oregonians who participated in our project.  The quote can be interpreted differently, of course; generally participants would either speak of it in a more ecological, scientific way or in a more spiritual, philosophical way.

Now, in light of the above correlations and similarities, what does this lend to thinking about degrees of hope and empowerment?  I am struck by how persistent Suzuki’s quote was and by the discussion it generated.  In this and other inspirational quotes, many people signaled their need to look at the world through a positive, solution-oriented framework; hence, perhaps, the negative correlation between inspirational quotes and factual quotes from authorities of science.  We also heard comments about Suzuki’s quote being philosophically distinct: that if our global (or national, or local) society functioned more from the framework of Suzuki’s quote, than we wouldn’t be in the kind of mess we’re in now.

Suzuki’s quote is about having a responsive and responsible relationship with the earth.  In ecological terms, it is recognizing that what we physically put into our air, our water and our soil will come back to haunt us (or bless us, depending on our choices of treatment).  Think lead poisoning, contaminated water, and greenhouse gas emissions.  In a metaphysical sense, Suzuki stirs sentiments of oneness with the cosmos and a deep recognition that somehow we all are inherently connected.  It is an acknowledgement that the individual’s interests ultimately lie in the interests of the whole, on many different scales.

While this quote resonated in both kinds of communities, there is a distinct difference in the lifestyles of the residents in each.  Many of the intentional communities we interviewed were embedded in a natural landscape that the residents worked  on daily and often depended on for their resources, to some degree.  They ate food from their gardens, used energy from their decentralized renewable resources, built structures out of clay, straw and water, and sequestered water from on-site locations.  No community was entirely self-sufficient in their needs, but each was pursuing projects to move in that direction.  Hence, it is not a far leap to conclude that these people were directly and actively living in a manner that reflects Suzuki’s quote.  It was readily evident that everything that happens to the land they lived on, will eventually affect them in some way or another.  This practical sense of Suzuki’s quote may well cultivate the more spiritual interpretation of it, as well.

Another difference between intentional and non-intentional communities is the degree to which people report a strong sense of personal political empowerment.  It is my impression that, while most of our participants resonated with Suzuki’s quote, those who were actively living in that worldview – that is, seeing how their actions on the planet affect them directly – were able to feel more empowered in their role as an individual in the midst of global crisis.

Does this mean that one lifestyle is better than another?  I make no presumption to judge.  The way one chooses to live is the result of a plethora of complex factors and preferences and at best reflects the uniqueness of each individual.  In a world where there is great concern over the direction the future will take, each individual is faced with the challenge of determining how she or he will personally respond. Whether those lifestyle choices foster empowerment or disempowerment is in the hands of each individual.  Do the current circumstances of the world demand that every person feel personally involved and responsive in some way?  Again, I am not one to judge, but we can glean from our research that among the many different ways one can cultivate a sense of empowerment, actively practicing a philosophical worldview that acknowledges the interrelatedness of every individual’s interests is but one solution.

11 Nov 2008, 12:56pm
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Pragmatism Reveals Degrees of Hope

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.

1 Oct 2008, 8:56am
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Do People Always Spoil Utopia?

Population is one of the most common themes we hear in the interviews.  It readily comes up when we start to talk about dystopia, but it never seems very far from people’s minds throughout the whole discussion.  People are deeply concerned about the balance of population and resources.  At the global level, overpopulation as one of the strongest forces causing much of the world’s worst problems is considered a plain fact.  At the regional and local level, dramatic rise in population is a looming threat to the perceived relative utopias people enjoy here.  The fear is that this current utopia will fail when more people come to enjoy it too (whether because they are forced from their own homes, or because they are drawn voluntarily to the Pacific Northwest and particular localities within it).  Overpopulation is certainly a factor that can put a tremendous amount of pressure and strain on a system that was working well with its given resources, and if it happens too quickly, its affects can be devastating.  I’m interested, however, in the underlying assumption tied up in the idea of there being a tipping point where more people equals a downward spiral into dystopia – or at least enough disruption that an ideal community loses the things which made it ideal.  For example, one man described Seattle as his utopia for twenty years; another ten years later everyone else moved there, and he had to get out.  The city had turned into a dystopia for him – too much noise, traffic, pollution, and so on.

It’s one thing to say one might just prefer a smaller town to a city.  But what is it about utopias needing to be well-kept secrets from the rest of the world?  Are successful utopias always undiscovered, where perhaps there can be some people, but not many?  As Jim Kopp writes about in Eden Within Eden (forthcoming), when early pioneers came west and found places that invoked names like Paradise, Eden, Enterprise, and Eureka, they were looking upon vast tracts of beautiful land untouched (as far as they knew) by humans.  I wonder if those pioneers imagined development like industry, agriculture, and large communities of people when they looked upon the new land, or whether instead they believed the “untainted” nature of the place to be essential to their notion of utopia.  Did they expect it to remain as ideal as they found it, when more people came out to join them?  Or does this go back to classical ideas of Eden as involving pristine nature and the absence of man?  In the case of the latter, you can see the stubbornness of a “me only” attitude – only me, and a few others, can live here and occupy utopia.  If you come, it will be ruined, and we’ll all have to move on to the next place.  Utopia can only stay in balance with so many people, and, well, we were here first.

20 Sep 2008, 4:53pm
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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Our ventures into the utopian and dystopian landscapes of Oregon have been both academically and personally stimulating, not to mention challenging on a number of fronts. It is not surprising to for me to be reminded through these interviews just how much our dreams feed into our nightmares, and vice versa; it is equally no surprise, then, to be met with the difficulty of untangling the two, and to try to piece together a story of just how they play into each other. We have visited self-proclaimed intentional communities, cohousing communities, neighborhoods, and rural towns thus far. Each has created its own collective identity, some apparently more tightly knit than others. What is most interesting to me is how the individuals within these identities have found themselves there, and whether that has anything to do with a need to respond to some perception of the larger world. Jim mentioned the saying “think globally, act locally,” and as Jim suggested I’m not so sure that’s the most accurate way of capturing the kind of movement towards focused attention on the small and local. Maybe now “think globally” really means think of all the awful scenarios playing out on the world stage right now, and “act locally” really means finding one’s personal utopia where one is. It doesn’t sounds like such a bad idea.

Living in Portland, I’m privy to a lot of local activities that in some ways seek to be models for other cities and organizations to learn from. From progressive political leadership to a vibrant bicycling community, Portland is a great example of a unique and particular kind of city that draws people of a similar bent. In the same fashion, many of these communities we’ve been visiting have their own niche, their own specialties and culture, that tend to attract more people than other destinations might. You can go to these places and boast of them as excellent models, but another aspect of all that is that you don’t necessarily want to leave them. You have succeeded in blocking out, to some degree, the chaos of the outside world, by finding this little paradise of your own.In some ways that doesn’t sound like such an outlandish idea. And yet there’s something about admitting it that stirs a sense of guilt. I wonder about that guilt, because I’ve certainly felt it too. In the search for our own utopias, can we ever be truly happy when we find them? Is the guilt of our happiness relative to the rest of the world one of the forces that causes us to pick up and keep searching? The stories of the people we are speaking to continue to add new angles to these and other questions, and I’m excited to continue the journey of piecing them together.