Science requires steering a middle ground between hubris and humility. Some beliefs are treated as facts. The earth is round. If you think it is flat, then you are just plain wrong. This seems like hubris, but treating everything as a matter of opinion is paralyzing. On the other hand, a lot of scientific information is highly provisional and subject to change based on further inquiry. Even some claims that are widely accepted as fact can be overturned. The provisional nature of much scientific knowledge calls for humility.
It appears to be a fact that religious communes survived much longer than secular communes during the 19th century (see part five), but what this means for 21st century intentional communities is highly provisional. The Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is secular but still going strong after 18 or 21 years, depending upon when you start the clock. It was conceived 21 years ago by a group primarily made up of students at Stanford University in California but required three years to materialize. Land prices and zoning laws in California made it difficult to start the kind of community they had in mind. The Missouri site was chosen in part to be close to another intentional community called Sandhill Farm, which started in 1974. A third nearby intentional community called Red Earth Farms started in 2005. The three communities nurture each other, which is one reason why they remain in existence. It is quite likely that they will grow in size and number. The current population of Dancing Rabbit is 58 and it aspires to become a full-fledged village, complete with shops around a village green. There is already one inn and general store, the Milkweed Mercantile, which has become a locus of village life and attracts people from outside the community for its beer and organic pizza.
Contrast this growth with Rutledge, Missouri, the closest regular town, which had a population size of 109 during the last census. Like tiny rural towns everywhere in America, it is shrinking. The young people can’t wait to leave and no one is arriving to replace them. If intentional communities can thrive in rural America while utilizing a tenth of the resources of the average American, that is a movement well worth studying.
Bjorn, Ian, and I are only starting to analyze the survey of over 100 intentional communities that we conducted with the help of the Fellowship of Intentional Communities (see part five), but the preliminary results are fascinating. The survey includes a five-item “Satisfaction with Life” scale that is widely used in other studies. Members of intentional communities score high on this scale, compared to many other sectors of American society. Thus, 21st century intentional communities appear to deliver Self-Care in addition to Earth-Care.
The survey also includes questions about the social organization of one’s intentional community, including some core design principles that are known to enhance cooperation and suppress disruptive, self-serving behaviors. Our results show that the more an intentional community embodies these principles, the better it seems to work as a community. Something else called identity fusion is also important. It refers to a merging of individual and group identity. If you agree with a statement such as “When someone praises my group, it feels like a personal compliment”, then you are fused with your group. Fusion appears to enhance the performance of intentional communities, in addition to the core design principles.
Here is a “top ten” summary of responses to three open-ended survey questions that asked why someone joined their intentional community, what they currently value the most, and what they would most like to change (thanks to Benjamin Seitz for working with Ian MacDonald to compile these). As you can see, they are a pretty satisfied lot. The #2 most frequent response for what to change is “nothing” and the other improvements listed in the third column call for more community, not more independence.
These survey results are golden and we look forward to mining more with our analysis. Now I’m excited to observe an intentional community in action as Ian pulls his rental car into the little parking lot on the outskirts of Dancing Rabbit. The village collectively owns four cars and privately owned cars cannot be parked near the village. As we enter the village on foot, the first thing I notice is the absence of streets. There are only gravel paths between the buildings, which I find highly appealing. We are so accustomed to roads and vehicles that we have forgotten how much they rip the fabric of social life.
Adults are going about their business and children are playing freely with each other, dodging around the buildings without any helicopter moms hovering around them. Talk to your parents and grandparents about their childhood and they are likely to say that their mothers told them to go outside and don’t come back until dinner. They would meet up with a gang of friends and make up their own fun. If they misbehaved too badly, an adult neighbor would scold them and word would get back to their parents. That’s how children grew up in hunter-gatherer societies for thousands of generations. According to the evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray, unstructured and minimally supervised play is essential for healthy child development and many pathologies can be traced to its disappearance in modern life. At Dancing Rabbit it is magically restored just by virtue of the absence of streets and a small community of adults who are well known to each other.
Not everything strikes me as idyllic about Dancing Rabbit, however. What Ken Wilber said about evolution operating in all four quadrants of the Kosmos takes place with a vengeance at Dancing Rabbit. Some arrive with the kind of practical knowledge required to grow food, build structures, and manage social relations, but others are long on idealism and short on practical knowledge. The left side of their Kosmos brings them to the village, but then they are hit hard by the right side. Building a village from scratch is hard work. Abiding by the dictates of a strong ecological ethic makes the work harder. If you don’t have much money to play with, it becomes harder still. The founding members lived for seven years primarily in a trailer before they could move into their first building. Their numbers dwindled to four before starting a path of upward growth. For those who left, whatever existed inside their heads did not enable them to survive in the challenging environment that was outside their heads. For those who remained, whatever existed inside their heads after seven years was probably different than when they started. Considering those who left and changes in those who remained, evolution occurred in the left side of the Kosmos for the residents of Dancing Rabbit, adapting them to the right side. Further, coevolution occurred between the two sides of the Kosmos, because the rabbits were changing their external environment at the same time that they were changing their subjective experience based on their beliefs and values.
Thinking about Dancing Rabbit as a hotbed of cultural evolution taking place in all four quadrants of Ken Wilber’s Kosmos increased my admiration for it. These people are survivors, carving out an ecologically sustainable economy under difficult circumstances. They are succeeding well enough to live a good life on an annual salary that would lead to abject poverty almost anywhere else in the USA. The rabbits are responsible for earning their own living and paying a fraction of their income to the community to help maintain its infrastructure. They earn their money by any number of means—farming, midwifery, Internet businesses, construction work and odd jobs such as yard care and splitting wood. They pay each other for some services, although they also do a lot of work for each other without payment, through formal volunteer obligations and informal favors. They have their own local electronic currency, which isn’t new, but they use it more extensively than any other community to their knowledge. This keeps the money circulating within the community and enables purchases, such as a new electronic car, without requiring interest-bearing bank loans.
Eighteen years is a short time for a community to create its physical infrastructure and local economy. I can imagine the right half of Wilber’s Kosmos getting better and better as the rabbits continue building toward their goal of a full-fledged village. I can imagine other villages sprouting up based on a similar model. All of this makes me intensely curious to learn more about the left side of the Kosmos at Dancing Rabbit. What are the individual beliefs and values (upper left) and their collective expression (lower left) that keep the rabbits dancing?
To be continued…