Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Need for Speed

If you want to be a model of sustainable living, how do you get there?

While most intentional communities these days have sustainability on their mind—and most sustainability experts agree that community is an essential element—the aim for most communities is to create a decent life for their members while ratcheting down their resource consumption per person. You might say they aspire to be a taste of sustainability.

But if you're really serious about being a full-fledged alternative model, with minimal reliance on outside inputs, then you need something more industrial strength than 8-20 person micro-enclaves, or 40-60 person boutique outposts. You need a project with hundreds of people. Anything less and you won't have a vibrant internal economy. What's more, experiments that are too small and too isolated are less likely to appear accessible to the mainstream culture that they're meant to be an attractive alternative to.

If you look closely at the Intentional Communities Movement, you'll note that there are very few groups of more than 100 members. The truth is, it's hard to grow them that big.

To be fair, most communities don't aspire to be full, working models of sustainability and are quite content with a smaller, more manageable population. For one thing, it's difficult to maintain group cohesion with larger numbers, and once you get past 60 disparate souls it's even hard to remember everyone's name—much less their food preferences or their birthday.

It's my sense that those groups that have managed to grow beyond 100 have mainly achieved that through rapid development in their early years, or relied on a driving spiritual mission, or both. 

You know the old joke about how to make a small fortune? Answer: first you start with a large fortune… That's how The Farm (Summertown TN) got to a stable size of around 200 residents. Over the course of their first dozen years, their population ballooned to around 1500, and then settled back to its current numbers after its economy imploded and they de-collectivized in 1983.

If you aspire to be large—on a scale where the village will have too many people for everyone to know each other well—how picky can you be about membership? And yet, if you're not checking closely for value alignment or social skills, you're probably sowing the whirlwind, which creates tensions that are sand in the gears when trying to make decisions about keeping your foot on the gas, or easing off to be able to negotiate the curve dead ahead.

The dilemma is that if you grow more deliberately—being more careful about a good fit with prospectives, and taking time to integrate the last batch of new additions before opening your arms to more—it's damn hard to maintain momentum. Once you get past the immediate pioneering phase and start looking for settlers to join a going concern, people tend to be more attracted to your reality than your vision. While pioneers may be more vision driven (that is, they see the dream and are inspired by it), settlers tend to be more interested and the here and now.

To be clear, this is not bait and switch on the part of the settlers; they're defending their dream—the community in front of them, the thing they joined—that is placed at risk by an uncertain future being pushed by the pioneers. For the pioneers, the Promised Land is yet ahead, perhaps something that won't be reached in their lifetime (like the Mormons pushing west after Joseph Smith was murdered in Carthage). For the settlers, the community they joined is the Promised Land (like the Mormons arriving in the Salt Lake Valley). As such why would they be interested in going further?

Most successful communities that have aspired to be large, grew steadily in their early years, paused somewhere around the decade mark, and simply stopped growing. Caution: I'm not saying that they stagnated; I'm only saying that new members came in only as fast as old members departed. Witness Twin Oaks (Louisa VA) and East Wind (Tecumseh MO) as prime examples. Each originally had visions of being much larger, but Twin Oaks has been hovering around 90 adults for decades, while East Wind stabilized at around 60.

So the would-be model village is caught between: a) the Scylla of measured growth, where the community is at risk of having its continued expansion eroded by the conservatism inherent among the settlers you've successfully recruited; or b) the Charybdis of wide open growth, which brings in the desired numbers but accompanied by the chaos of low coherence and questionable social skills. With Scylla, you can (hopefully) maintain a consistently attractive community, yet do so at the risk of getting bogged down at lower numbers. With Charybdis you run the risk of a bumpier ride which acts as a different kind of break in terms of attractiveness (having open door membership doesn't help much if prospectives experience the community as beleaguered). Yuck.

All of which raises an interesting question about what is a sustainable model for building a model of sustainability.

I can think of three examples in the US of groups making a serious pass at this by intentionally trying to develop neighborhoods within the village: Ecovillage at Ithaca (Ithaca NY), Earthaven (Black Mountain NC), and Dancing Rabbit (Rutledge MO). All three of these groups moved to their land around 1996-97, all are purposefully trying to be models of sustainability. All intend to grow into a final population in the hundreds, and all have embraced the concept of neighborhoods as a building block—knowing that it's hard to maintain affinity and close connections in a village of hundreds.

While each of these groups has a distinctive flavor and a unique set of agreements, all have struggled at times with sustaining group coherence relative to mission and growth. At this point, only Ecovillage at Ithaca has broken through the 100-member barrier.

While it's obviously necessary to have strong value agreement among the pioneers, at what point do you appropriately loosen the expectations as you approach your target size?  Groups of 400 have very different dynamics than groups of eight, and there's no instruction manual that comes with the starter kit.

I am reminded here of the title of Roy Morrison's 1991 insightful study of Mondragon, We Build the Road as We Travel. That about sums it up.

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