Has it really been 20 years? My relationship with Auroville began in 1992, during a wonderful year at Findhorn in Scotland with my wife, Monique Gauthier. Having researched education within intentional communities and visited over 30 in the U.S. and Canada, I was at Findhorn completing my Ph.D. in Child Development and dreaming of some day creating a school for children in a community setting.
How did I get from there to founding, directing, and recently leaving Living Routes, which partners with the University of Massachusetts to run college level programs based in Auroville and other “ecovillages” around the world? The seed was planted the first day I stepped foot in an intentional community. I learned more in that one day than in the two years I had spent researching them. Rather than eccentric or strange, these communities seemed aligned with humanity’s evolutionary history, 99.9% of which we spent in tribes. A long dormant, need for community and belonging awakened in me. Suddenly, it was my own suburban childhood that seemed odd and out-of-place.
This seed was watered at Findhorn when a friend brought over a group of U.S. college students and I witnessed many of them “Pop!” – their lives transformed in a matter of days by Findhorn’s visions and practices. Something clicked. I woke up one night with goose bumps thinking “This is why I am here!” I felt called to create more opportunities for young adults to experience a new way of being and belonging within communities striving to model positive visions for humanity and the planet.
This seed was further nourished a few months later when I met Dhanya, a long-term Aurovillian, who traveled to Findhorn to cross-pollinate ideas and learn more about Findhorn’s “touchy-feely”, new-agey ways. I was inspired by Dhanya’s stories of Auroville and committed to visiting one day.
A year later, I called Bruce Kantner who had started the Gaia Education Institute and was bringing U.S. college students to Auroville through the University of New Hampshire. A mere six weeks later, I joined a group of nine students on their way to Findhorn, Plum Village (Thich Nhat Hahn’s Buddhist community in SW France), and Auroville. My dream had come true! I remember walking out of the Chennai airport feeling I had come home.
From ’95 through ’98, I co-directed five semester programs (three with Monique) and truly loved facilitating students’ deep immersions and transformations within these communities. It was also crazy with lots of near-miss travel stories, jet lag, sickness, and exhaustion from this gurukula model of education where we lived and worked with students 24/7. This was also in the days before ubiquitous email, so we would travel for four months and then come back to a stack of letters and applications and struggle to catch up before the next program.
Eventually, Monique and I wanted to live more fully in community, and I was drawn to start something new, so in 1998, we moved to the Sirius Community, a Findhorn spin-off in western Massachusetts. Here, we took the leaps into parenthood and starting a new business.
Living Routes was incorporated just two days after our eldest daughter, Simone, was born in November of 1999. I felt like I had twins. Here were two beings, each deserving of more love and attention than I could possibly give. While both have had their crises and growing pains, it has been a privilege to watch them develop and I like to think they are both turning out fine. It was a special honor to connect them more fully with each other in 2010 when Monique and I returned to Auroville to teach on a semester program again while Simone and our younger daughter, Pema, attended Deepanam and Nandanam schools and soaked in Auroville and India.
That trip was also the beginning of my transition out of Living Routes. As Living Routes has matured, my “start-up” style of directing was becoming less a fit with the organization and I increasingly felt my vision and creative energies being drawn elsewhere. I am leaving Living Routes in good hands and fully expect to stay connected to Auroville. So as our students sometimes say, “It’s all good”.
Looking back, after 13 years and over 400 alumni from 28 programs in Auroville (plus 1,000+ on other Living Routes programs), I continue to believe Auroville is one of the most unique and important experiments happening on the planet today. How could it not be with over 2,300 people from 45 nations trying to build a “City the Earth Needs”?
Living Routes students often come with specific interests (e.g. in agriculture, education, or alternative energy), but they leave with a sense that the whole is much more than the sum of its parts and that it is up to each of us to create the world we want and need.
Of course, Auroville is far from perfect. When interviewing students, I always try to help them understand Auroville’s mission to build human unity and experiment with conscious evolution, while also dissuading them of any utopian fantasies. Reality usually hits home after a week or so navigating Auroville’s dirt roads and bureaucracies. I’ve even played with the idea of starting the semester program at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry and then moving to Sadhana Forest for a week or two before landing in Auroville proper in order to offer a compressed experience of Auroville’s history from Ashram to land regeneration to today’s expanding community.
Running an academic program in Auroville also requires balancing deep immersion in the community with a high level of objectivity and critical reflection. Overall, I am proud of how deeply Living Routes’ students have learned about and integrated into Auroville. Students have collectively offered thousands of hours of community service in dozens of units, including building water tanks at Solitude Farm, creating raw foods at Satchitananda, planting trees and bunding at Sadhana Forest, rebuilding after Cyclone Thane, and teaching children in various schools, just to name a few.
While Living Routes has played with the idea of co-developing a “home base” within Auroville (most recently and seriously in 2008), it has also been a privilege to participate in so many existing communities and facilities such as Verité, Aspiration, College Guest House, Youth Camp, and the International House. While moving around has been occasionally challenging, it has also allowed Living Routes to stay nimble as Auroville evolves.
Another long-term balancing act involves faculty. Living Routes faculty work hard to create “learning communities” within the living community of Auroville. While the intention has always been to hire all faculty from within Auroville, this has not always been possible. Auroville has many capable educators, but they tend to be overcommitted and unable to carve out five months of their lives to devote to holding a Living Routes semester program.
One possible way forward is to adopt Living Routes’ “Findhorn” model in which faculty focus on particular courses rather than holding students in their day-to-day experiences. This works at Findhorn because the community is geographically much smaller and has a very strong “hosting energy”. Students arrive to Angel Cards and folded towels on their beds and feel held simply by participating in community activities and rituals.
In contrast, Auroville is a bit more like the “Wild West” with visitors needing to find their own way without as much hand-holding. Living Routes has succeeded in Auroville at least partly because of the full-on facilitation offered by core faculty and it is not clear how well a looser structure would fare.
One positive development is the recent creation of an official “Living Routes in Auroville” “Unit” (or “department”), which has formalized this long-term relationship and allows further integration with Auroville’s systems. Hopefully this Unit will allow Living Routes to hire all-Aurovillian faculty teams on most future programs.
Our world is in a time of transition, full of crisis and potential. Auroville offers a beacon of hope and an ideal “campus” for future leaders to learn how to live in harmony with each other and our planet. I am forever grateful for the opportunities to connect myself and others with the vision and members of Auroville and hope Living Routes will continue doing so for many years to come.This post is an adaptation of an article that will appear in the October, 2012 issue of Auroville Today.
As our environment continues to grow and change, how we interact with it must also. With certain resources and animals on the brink of extinction, the growing risk of climate change and other factors, it’s evident that the time to act is now.
But how do we ensure that the present and future generations adapt to the changing needs of our world? How do we ensure they take the necessary steps and action to preserve this planet and all of the life it supports? The answer? Through sustainability education. Knowledge is empowering and can affect change, but often times resources and funding just aren’t there. Luckily, there exist several resources, programs, organizations and initiatives that support sustainable education and all it promotes. Supporting actions that work WITH rather than against Mother Nature, sustainability education is important to the future of Earth.
Whether you are an educator or student, the initiatives and resources below may help support your long-term goals and mission.
Creating a hands-on, interactive learning experience, Living Routes allows participants to learn about topics such as sustainable development, fair trade, organic agriculture and more while living in eco-villages and communities that make sustainability a way of life every day. Rather than having students learn about environmental concepts while cooped up in a stuffy classroom, the Living Routes Program enables students to learn straight from the Earth. This program is a great alternative to more traditional means of education, so if you’re looking for something different, this just might be it.
As our world changes, so too, do the jobs that are necessary and available. Understanding this, the Greenforce Initiative, partnering with NWF and JFF and active in six states across the U.S., seeks to better improve the education and skills imparted upon the next generation of laborers. Focusing its emphasis on community colleges, this initiative sets forth to “green” the future members of our workforce, better preparing them for any new, environmental challenges they might face.
Focusing on a younger crowd, Green Teacher is a non-profit organization that, among other things, produces a quarterly magazine which offers insight and tips into the world of sustainability education. Seeking to start awareness at a young age, the materials and resources this organization provides can sometimes be used for to educate students as young as the age of six.
With information on upcoming events, conferences and curriculum updates, Green Teacher is a great asset for any environmentally minded educator.
Providing consulting, professional development and curricula design, The Cloud Institute seeks to engage and inspire educators and students alike to ensure a better, more sustainable future. Offering eLearning opportunities industry events and more, the institute is making waves in the world of education. Understanding the importance of community support and involvement, the organization also strives to create meaningful partnerships that will benefit societies as a whole.
So, although the future for our planet may be uncertain and even a bit bleak now, it’s refreshing and reassuring to know there are people and programs who support the efforts of sustainable educators everywhere. It may seem like a tough, impossible task at times, but remember you are not alone.Lauren Bailey is a freelance blogger who loves writing about education, new technology, lifestyle and health. As an education writer, she works to provide helpful information, pointers, and the most recent online college news for students looking into online degrees. Lauren welcomes comments and questions via email at blauren 99 @gmail.com.
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
The times, they are a’changin. In 1999, there were a billion less people on the planet, the twin towers were still standing, and the first study abroad organization fully dedicated to sustainable community development was founded. Over 1,400 alumni later (and among an explosion of sustainability-themed programs), Living Routes continues to be a leader in the field of international education. We’ve come a long way from a basement start-up to a $1M/yr organization with 13 programs in 9 countries, 7 full-time office staff and over 40 field faculty/staff.
The time has come for Living Routes’ next evolution. I will be departing as Executive Director on August 1st. As with any Founding Director, this has been a long and challenging process involving a great deal of soul searching and letting go. In 2010, my six-month working sabbatical in India and Europe was my first attempt to pro-actively transition Living Routes beyond “Daniel”. Upon my return, I sat more fully in my E.D. role and, while the learning curve was steep and rocky, I’m proud of how mature Living Routes has become over the past two years. I also learned my personal passions and skills are more attuned to start-up organizations and now feel my vision and creative energies being drawn elsewhere.
Living Routes is blessed with a very capable staff and Board committed to Living Routes’ success. I will work closely with them to facilitate a successful transition and welcome a new Executive Director in the fall (watch for the job announcement soon). I will always love and support Living Routes and am confident its best days are yet to come.
Please feel free to share with others and leave a comment if you have any thoughts, questions, or like to connect to talk further. Thank you!
It seems everyone is talking about “Sustainability” these days, but what does it really mean? Especially when associated with phrases such as “clean coal” or the former Bush Administration’s Clear Skies Initiative, the term often loses any sense of credibility or meaning.
For me, sustainability is about creating high-quality, equitable lifestyles that have low ecological impacts. It is about living “well” and “lightly” together — as communities, as nations, and as one species, among many, on this planet. Let’s explore these layers of the onion in more depth.
At the community level, I have written how ecovillages are creating “livable zones” in which all humans must enter if we are to survive as a species. In resource rich countries they are striving to lower their ecological impacts below local and global carrying capacities while maintaining high quality and equitable lifestyles. In resource-poor countries, they are trying to rise above an “equity baseline” while maintaining small footprints. Either way, ecovillages are laboratories and beta-test centers, experimenting with how we can live well and lightly together. (They also provide ideal campuses for sustainability education via programs like Living Routes.)
What does sustainability and livable zones mean on the level of nations and our planet? For insight, let’s look at WWF’s 2012 biennial Living Planet Report, which was just launched (from space!) on May 15th and offers a rigorous analysis of our planet’s health and the impacts of human activity.
How ecological are we? Not very…. According to the LPR, humans’ demand for natural resources has doubled since 1966. If we distributed global biocapacity evenly among all humans, the average “Earthshare” in 2008 was 1.8 ha per person. Unfortunately, we were using around 2.7 ha per person. This means we are now using the resources of over 1.5 planets and “business as usual” projections estimate we will need two planets by 2030. I don’t know about you, but last I checked, we have only one. Most of this increase is due to our use of fossil fuels, which is also driving global warming and depleting a precious, finite resource.
So, we’re certainly not living “lightly” as a species. How about “well”? The most widespread indicator for quality of life on a national level is the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI), which combines three measures: (1) per capita income, (2) life expectancy and (2) educational attainment. Globally, our HDI has increased by 41 per cent since 1970. This is good news in general, but we also know the gap between “haves” and “have nots” continues to expand in many countries. To account for this disparity, the UNDP introduced a new version of the HDI in 2011. The Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) discounts the three measures based on a nation’s level of societal inequality.
Okay, so here’s where it gets really interesting. If we plot countries’ IHDIs in relation to their per capita ecological footprint we should be able to demarcate a zone of living both well and lightly. To be sustainable, according to the UNDP, countries must have IHDIs of over 0.08 – the lowest threshold for a very high level of human development. Countries must also have per capita ecological footprints of less than 1.8 hectares – the global average limit for consumption if we are to not undermine the Earth’s ability to regenerate.
The following chart shows where countries fall in relation to this livable zone:
In the 2010 Living Planet Report, which used the HDI, only one country fell within this livable zone – Peru (where Living Routes is proud to run a 6-week summer program on ecology and indigenous spirituality). Now, in the 2012 LPR, which uses the IHDI, you can see that no country meets the UNDP criteria for both a high quality of life and a low ecological footprint.
Let me repeat that. Zero countries on this planet are living sufficiently well and lightly. Not a single one is within the Earth’s livable zone of sustainability. Nada. Bupkis. None are even close!
What a crazy, dramatic time to be alive! It’s like we can see the finish line, but haven’t even stepped up to the starting blocks. Or, like we know the requirements to graduate from college, but as a species are still in kindergarten in terms of our relationships with each other and the planet. Even most of the ecovillages we work with at Living Routes have not entered this sustainability sweet spot.
We have a long way to go folks! Yes, it’s depressing and we may not make it. But if we do make it, what an incredible world we will create! This is our Hero’s Journey. This is our moon-shot. This is our opportunity to consciously evolve as a species and discover not only how to live interdependently with all life, but also what it means to be truly human. Here’s to reaching our sustainability sweet spot!
I was really looking forward to watching Wanderlust, the new movie about a harried NYC couple (played by Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) who end up living in a hippie commune called Elysium. It was inevitable I would see this movie, having traveled to around 40 “communes” in the early 90s studying children and education for my graduate thesis, living in about a dozen (including Findhorn and Auroville) and now directing Living Routes, which runs college programs in “ecovillages” around the world. My wife and co-adventurer, Monique, and I just returned from the theater where we both laughed harder and longer than with any movie in recent memory. Granted, Wanderlust is a comedic spoof of communal life with over-the-top stereotypes and clichés, but the crew did their homework (at a 30-year-old commune in the North Georgia Mountains called Earthsong) and much – although not all – of Elysium rang surprisingly true.
For more ways communities don’t conform to popular conceptions, I encourage you to read the FIC’s article on What’s True About Intentional Communities: Dispelling the Myths. I also encourage you to go and see Wanderlust and let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!
How can we educate for a sustainable future? How can we best engage students in gaining the inspiration, knowledge, and experience necessary to build more equitable, just, and ecological lifestyles for themselves, their communities and the planet?
In this blog series, I have explored these questions and why academia needs to utilize and help develop ecovillages as campuses for sustainability education. To conclude this series, I’d like to turn the equation on its head and consider why ecovillages also need academia.
So far, I have offered the following nine comparisons:
|8. Large Footprint||Small Footprint|
|9. Problem Orientation
These may seem like nine arguments to run, not walk, away from traditional academia. Okay, I do believe ecovillages represent our best available campuses in which to teach integrated sustainable community development. In fact, this is why I founded Living Routes, which partners with UMass Amherst to offer college-level study abroad programs based in sustainable communities around the world.
Still, there’s no question we must teach about sustainability within all college and university settings. In so doing, however, we must also recognize and make explicit to our students that what academia “says” and what it “does” are often quite different matters, especially with regard to this topic. If we don’t at least address the cognitive dissonance in the left column above, students may come away confused, angry or worse, apathetic.
So, yes! Let’s strive to make sustainability a core component of every college and university’s curricula and operations. And, let’s acknowledge our challenges and limitations along with our efforts and successes. And, let’s also reach out to ecovillages as more integrated models of what we are attempting to teach. Okay. ‘Nuf said.
Now, I want to look in the opposite direction and share four reasons why I believe ecovillages should also reach out to academia.
College students represent a powerful leverage point in the world’s “Great Turning toward a more Ecological Age,” as Joanna Macy refers to it. These “emerging adults” are mature enough to ask the big questions yet are also open to radical alternatives such as those modeled within ecovillages. The world desperately needs leaders who are able to think—and act—outside of the box and today’s students are key to the generation of tomorrow’s paradigms and new ways of approaching local and global issues.
We are living in an amazing moment, not just in human history, but in planetary history. We have exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity and must now transition to a post-oil world if we are to survive as a species.
It is possible to live lives that are both high quality and low impact. I know this because I have seen thousands of people manifesting positive visions in ecovillages around the world. While not utopias, these communities represent living laboratories, beta-test centers, and innovative campuses for learning how to live well and lightly together. We have so much to learn from each other. Building bridges between ecovillages and academia is literally building bridges to a more sustainable future.
Thanks for reading! Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.
 Medlin, Lander, High Performance Facilities: Are we Embracing the Challenge of Sustainability,” delivered at the annual national conference of NACUBO, July 10, 2005. Text from “Campus Climate Footprint and Efforts to Reduce It,” by Julian Keniry, January 12, 2007.
 College Enrollment and Work Activity of 2010 High School Graduates (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
 Higher Education – Institutions and Enrollment (U.S. Census Bureau 2012 Statistical Abstract)
 Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution
(An Executive Summary PDF Prepared for the UNESCO 2009 World Conference on Higher Education, pg iv)
Universities are very good at dissecting and analyzing “problems.” Environmental studies courses in particular often seem to be litanies of everything going wrong on the planet. Of course, we need to study and better understand our impacts and the serious local and global issues facing us. And … there comes a point when students “get it.” After reading books, taking courses and writing papers, they need to do something or risk spiraling into negativity and despair. Or worse, many students have gone “uncomfortably numb” in an unconscious effort to defend their hearts against the seemingly insurmountable social and environmental problems facing humanity and the Earth. It just hurts too much to think about…
Ecovillages are creating new cultures and new “stories” in a post-carrying capacity world. While not utopias, they tend to think differently about problems and offer unique campuses for sustainability education. Reflecting on my previous eight posts in this series, compare the following “frames” or metanarratives of academia and ecovillages in how they often approach problems such as peak oil and climate change.(note: these comparisons are extreme ends of a continuum and not black and white)
• Nothing will ever change anyway. We should just go on with business as usual.
• We should trust the PhDs to solve these problems.
• ”The problems we have can’t be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” – Albert Einstein
• Let’s just start and learn as we go.
• I’m one person. What can I do?
• It’s the ‘higher-ups’ responsibility to figure things out. Not mine.
• Everyone has a piece of the truth and nobody holds the whole truth.
• Power with, not power over!
• Is this going to be on the exam?
• How will this help me get a job/tenure/grant?
• We’re all in this together. Let’s act like it.
• Many hands make light work.
• Where do we even start? It’s too complicated.
• This is a problem for <another discipline>.
• ”For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” — H. L. Mencken
• True solutions are integral & integrated.
• I’m just trying to live my life. I don’t have time for this.
• As long as it’s not in my backyard…
• We all breath the same air and are fellow travelers on this Spaceship Earth. Relationships are key!
• We need to think 7 generations ahead.
• Climate change is just a theory. We need more evidence before acting.
• I think we have a subcommittee analyzing the problem.
• “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Gandhi
• “The only way to predict the future is to invent it.” – Alan Kay
• We can fix the planet through bio-engineering or nanotechnology.
• The world belongs to Man. Oil is here for us to use.
• “I am part of the [planet] protecting itself.” – John Seed
• “We are on the brink of an evolutionary leap in consciousness.” – Sri Aurobindo
• I want my MTV and like my campus’ <favorite amenity>.
• “Living large’ is a sign of having ‘made it’.
• Live simply so others may simply live.
• Small is beautiful.
Ecovillages offer students powerful opportunities to be a part of the solution and learn how they can make a positive difference in the world. Using energy generated from local windmills or photovoltaics, eating organic vegetables harvested from the land, living in homes built from local, natural materials, participating in communal celebrations, economies, and decision-making processes; these are all chapters within larger stories that ecovillages are writing about how we can live well and lightly together. After spending time living and learning in an ecovillage, students can never again say, “It can’t be done.” because they have experienced doing it. It then comes back to students to ask themselves, “What am I going to do? How can I make a difference in my own life and in my own community?”
Yes, there are big, scary problems facing humanity. Take your pick: deforestation, climate change, peak oil, species extinction, overpopulation, social injustice and inequity… the list goes on. We absolutely need to solve these problems in order to survive as a species and maintain a livable planet.
Yet, I don’t believe we will solve them from a place of fear. We will only create a truly sustainable future from a place of love; through focusing on solutions and actions we can say “Yes!” to. Sustainable cultures must be more attractive and more fun than our current lifetstyles or they won’t last. Ecovillages are striving to lead this march and be pied pipers to a better world.
Next up (and the last in the series): “Why Ecovillages Need Academia” Please share your thoughts, questions, and counter-arguments in the comments. Thanks!
(This series is adapted from my forthcoming chapter in “Localizing Environmental Anthropology: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillage Design for a Sustainable Future”, edited by Joshua Lockyer and James Veteto and published by Berghahn Books)
A few days ago, I was on a college campus to offer an Info Session about Living Routes, which runs study abroad programs based in ecovillages around the world. Seven students attended, but the room could fit 250. The next day, I was amazed by all the new steel building construction at another university I last visited only six months ago! And both of these schools are well known for their commitment to sustainability!
I’m looking forward to heading home to Sirius Community with its straw bale, cob, and local timberframe buildings.
We’re up to Part 8 of this blog series juxtaposing academia and ecovillages as campuses for sustainability education. So, far, I have explored the following seven comparisons:
And now for …
In order to be competitive, academic institutions not only have to offer top notch courses, but also a wide array of facilities and perks: spacious student housing, expanses of well-maintained lawns, and state-of-the-art student centers, classrooms, libraries, dining halls, and research facilities. All of this comes at a high cost, not only to students, but to the environment as well.
To be fair, there are schools that “get it” such as the University of Washington with its hydropowered campus and only LEED Gold buildings, Green Mountain College which is carbon neutral and teaching fossil free farming, and Warren Wilson College with its 250-acre farm growing produce for the dining halls. In addition, the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System (STARS) developed by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) is helping schools gauge their progress towards sustainability.
For the most part, however, colleges and universities are still incredibly resource-intensive institutions and not very attentive to their impact on their region or the world. Buildings are often made of concrete and steel and are not local, integrated or organic in any way. Even recycling and compact fluorescents are recent phenomena on many campuses and very few even attempt to buy food locally, not to mention organically. We can (and should!) teach about sustainability in these schools, but we should also recognize that students are often learning a very different lesson while walking around campus.
As previously noted (and hopefully implied by the word itself), ecovillages strive to live well, yet lightly. Through sharing resources, conscious consumption, local food production, and renewable energy systems, ecovillages are creating models of low impact lifestyles.
For example, a study conducted in 2006 by the Sustainable Development Research Centre reported that the Findhorn Foundation, perhaps the world’s premier ecovillage, with around 450 residents on the north coast of Scotland, has an average ecological footprint of 2.71 gha per person (Tinsley and George 2006:4). According to a Findhorn Press Release, this is “the lowest ecological footprint recorded for any permanent community ever measured in the industrialized world…. The average resident in the community consumes just one half of the resources and generates one half of the waste of the average citizen of the UK.” (Dawson 2007:1)
While certainly a wonderful achievement, it should also be noted that the 2.71 ha appropriated per Findhorn resident is just about the current average global per capita footprint of 2.70 ha and quite a bit above the 1.8 ha per capita of available world biocapacity. (WWF 2010:34). So, while ecovillages are striving towards Robert Gilman’s definition of “integrating harmlessly into the natural world” they still have a ways to go (Gilman 1991:10).
While many assume ecovillages aspire to self-sufficiency, this is rarely accurate. Most look to their bioregion or watershed as the unit of land and culture that should try to become more self-reliant. Ecovillages often serve as regional catalysts for reducing ecological impacts by supporting local initiatives such as organic agriculture and local distribution networks so resources do not have to be shipped long distances.
If we are, in fact, on the downslope of global oil – and energy – production, we can reasonably predict this will lead to wide-spread relocalization efforts due to rising transportation costs. Communities will increasingly need to concentrate more on local production of food, energy, and goods as well as the development of local governance, currencies, and cooperative cultures.
Ecovillages are community responses to the pressures of climate change, fossil fuel depletion and economic contraction. They are living laboratories striving towards high quality lifestyles, while maintaining relatively light footprints. As such, they make ideal campuses for students to learn first-hand about sustainable community development and how we can all live in right relationship with our planet.
Next up: Last but not least … “Problem vs. Solution Orientation.” Please add your thoughts and questions in the comments below. Thanks!
“I had no idea how spiritual the program would be. Honestly, if I knew before I went, I probably wouldn’t have gone. But now, looking back, the focus on spirituality is what had the most meaning for me.”
So far, in this blog series, I’ve shared the following contrasts:
Now, for one of my favorites:
“Spirituality” is a commonly misunderstood and dismissed term, especially in public universities where it is often perceived as airy-fairy, new-agey, mumbo-jumbo – the very antithesis of scientific rigor. Even Professors with a favorable view of spirituality often believe it is either too personal or inappropriate a subject to explore with students given their institution’s mandated separation of church and state.
Granted, the word means many things to many people, including new-agers and religious zealots. What spirituality means at Living Routes, and I believe for our students, however, is a holistic, secular worldview divorced from any religious framework. And it’s not just our students. In a recent survey of 1,200 18- to 29-year-olds, 72% say they’re “more spiritual than religious.”
Rather than articulating a relationship with any particular faith system or divine entity, spirituality today seems more often about going beyond our materialistic culture and, as Robert C. Fuller said, “struggling with the issues of how our lives fit into the greater scheme of things.” Personally, I define spirituality as the exploration of our inter-beingness with each other and our world.
Seen in this way, spirituality embodies some of the highest ideals of education (and life!) – creating meaning and developing qualities of responsibility, compassion, and love.
So, I am frequently disappointed that higher education does not embrace a more spiritual perspective. On the contrary, most universities strive to separate our heads from our hearts—and typically only focus on our heads. Consequently, academia tends to support a Newtonian/Cartesian view of the universe as a soulless machine to be manipulated and controlled by humans. This paradigm of the world as “other” inherently discounts our ecological relations and provided the basic rationale for the industrial revolution (and most wars). How else could we do what we do to the planet and to other humans?
Fortunately, academia itself is pointing out the fallacy of this worldview. From physics to chemistry; from biology to psychology, if there is anything the past century has taught us, it’s that John Muir was right. “When we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” (Muir 1911:110). It’s time we recognize that humanity is inextricably embedded within and dependent upon a web of relationships that we are not “in control” of.
So, how might ecovillages offer a more spiritual context and campus for sustainability education? Practices such as meditation and various forms of yoga are common features of many ecovillages and Living Routes programs. For example, at the very center of Auroville, a large international community in south India, sits the Matrimandir – a large meditation sanctuary. This is not a place for religion or dogma. It isn’t even a place for groups. It’s a place for individuals (and students on our semester program in Auroville) to be silent and seek inner peace and wisdom. We also facilitate a 48-hour vision quest on this program to support students to deeply reflect on their relationships with themselves, each other, and the world.
More than these practices, however, it is by immersing in these learning communities within living communities that students learn to “be the change they wish to see.” While none of the ecovillages that host Living Routes programs are explicitly religious, most embrace a holistic, spiritual worldview. In these environments, it is natural to re-examine some basic assumptions about who we think we are in the world. Members (and students) are supported to be “in process” and engaged with big life questions such as…
Ecovillages are innovating new “options”, new “stories” about living in right relationship with each other and the planet. “Trying on” these new ways of being — and belonging — is fundamentally a spiritual and transformative exercise. This is a very difficult concept to convey through course syllabi, yet is what I believe most of our alumni remember as the most profound aspect of their programs. I guess I should now make this blog post required reading for prospective Living Routes students to help them better understand what they’re getting into.
Next up: “Large vs. Small Footprint.” Please add your thoughts and questions in the comments below. Thanks!
I have a confession to make. If I had to blindly choose between two experienced candidates to teach a Living Routes‘ ecovillage-based program, one with an M.A. and the other a Ph.D., I might very well choose the one with the M.A. While this preference does not win me many friends within conservative universities, I feel it reveals another core difference between academia and ecovillages as campuses for sustainability education.
So far, I have offered the following five comparisons:
My sixth is:
So, why might I prefer someone with an M.A. over a Ph.D.? Two reasons:
First, Ph.D.s sit at the top of the discipline-centric pyramid of academia. Given they have spent years researching very specific topics, it is understandable that they tend to draw discussions back to their own field of study. While such “vertical” rigor is honorable and necessary, sustainability educators also need to focus on a “lateral” rigor and tie together Earth, life, social and health sciences along with philosophy, economics, business and more. I find M.A.s generally more willing and able to connect these dots, build these bridges, and share our fundamental stories of interdependence. For more on this topic, see my 4th blog post in this series on fragmented vs. transdisciplinary thinking.
The second reason I like to hire M.A.s is they often see their degree as a passport to interesting work in the “real world.” Doctoral programs on the other hand tend to attract and train “armchair theoreticians” who can maintain a detached, abstract perspective of the world. To many Ph.D.s (especially those who become professors), knowledge appears passive, decontextualized and best transmitted through didactic lectures, textbooks, and multiple-choice exams.
While noble in intention, the idea that it is possible to keep our opinions and feelings objective and separate from that which we study, is more a theory than reality. No research is value free. The problems we choose to explore, how we observe, extract and order information, and how we present our findings are all reflections of who we are. “We don’t study nature.” said Rollo May. ”We investigate the investigator’s relationship to nature.” (May 1975).
Today’s emerging young leaders face a changing and challenging world in which technological advances are outpacing our collective wisdom and maturity. Of course we need to train (and sometimes even hire!) Ph.D.s. But also, and perhaps more importantly, we need to train community builders – applied scientists – with the knowledge, skills, and commitment to create sustainable models of living and working together in peaceful and productive ways.
Ecovillages, in order to survive and prosper, must focus on practical knowledge and wisdom that can be applied in real-world settings. Theory is in the service of “what works.” Ecovillages are inherently participatory, discovery-based and experiential. While few ecovillage educators have doctoral degrees, I feel many have multiple Ph.D. levels of expertise gained from decades of experience and experimentation.
These are the educators that have taught Living Routes students to regenerate the tropical dry evergreen forest in Tamil Nadu, India; to design and implement permaculture gardens for schools in Brazil; to build recycling centers in Mexico and greenhouses in the U.S. using local natural materials; to help create the first written fairtrade contract in Peru. And it is clear our students learned more real-world knowledge and skills through these internships and service learning opportunities than in even the best classes or seminars.
Having said all this, I want to also acknowledge that environmental and social responsibility is on the rise in academia. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) currently lists 47 Bachelor’s, 40 Master’s, and 8 Doctoral programs in sustainability. So, perhaps it will be possible to hire applied and generalist sustainability Ph.D. in the coming years. This would be a good thing, not only for Living Routes, but for the Earth as well.
Next up: “Secular vs. Spiritual.” Please share your thoughts, questions, and counter-arguments in the comments. Thanks!
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