What I Learned from Whole Village Intentional Community

whole village
I spent this afternoon at an orientation session at Whole Village, a very successful 25-person, 200-acre Intentional Community and Eco-Village about a half hour drive from where I live North-West of Toronto. It was a blustery, rainy day but the welcome that I and ten others received from our hosts was warm and gracious. I’d like to thank especially Brenda Dolling, who painstakingly and candidly explained the principles, processes, and highs and lows of eco-village living.

You always learn more from seeing and doing than from research and reading, and I learned an enormous amount. Here’s what I learned in particular:

  1. A lot of people in Intentional Community really ‘get’ sustainability. The people I met were extremely well-read and, thanks I suspect to the Internet, well-informed and well connected. They know about the organic/local food trade-offs, more about the challenges of permaculture, bioregionalism and biodynamic agriculture than I could ever hope to know, and about how close to self-sufficiency and sustainability an eco-community can reasonably hope to get in our modern economy and society. 
    • What this meant to me: This was hugely encouraging — I felt immediately as if I were among friends, people I hope to spend more time with in the future.
  2. Intentional Community is a hard sell. Diana Leafe Christian’s research suggests the average IC only has about 11 members, and the failure rate is phenomenal. Half of the total IC’s (planned and under development) are still at the idea stage, and most of them will never get past that stage. To even contemplate joining an IC you have to have three things: (a) a shared vision and shared principles with others in, or aspiring to start, an IC, (b) the freedom to pull up stakes and move to where the IC is (which is probably not close to most workplaces) and (c) the resources (money and/or time) to invest in becoming a full member and participant in the work on an IC. How many of us have that? One person I spoke to compared it to joining a monastery. It’s a big and complicated change. Because of this, despite the success of Whole Village, I suspect I would not have much difficulty getting accepted — there are a few memberships available, rather than the waiting list I’d expected. But once you’ve bought in, you might find it difficult to find someone to buy your membership if you change your mind or if circumstances force you to move. 
    • What this meant to me: Until I know for sure where I belong, I probably won’t invest in an IC.
  3. Intentional Community, done right, is affordable and responsible. The members of Whole Village did two things very well: They did not start until they had a core group of people (three women with farming backgrounds and three men with carpentry or other useful construction backgrounds) to build, rather than buy, much of what they needed. And, they paced themselves and used connections, frugality and reciprocity to acquire much of what they needed at less than market cost. They did this, to their credit, without compromising on quality, sustainability, or principles: everything there is locally-made, natural/organic, free of toxins and pollutants, energy-conserving and durable. You can buy a small unit (close to 1000 s.f.) and a share in the 6000 s.f. common areas and huge acreage, giving you a much larger ‘effective’ living space than the average single family dwelling in the ex-urbs of Toronto, for a fraction the cost. What’s more, food grown on the premises, and shared labour, save you a fortune and hours of time every week compared to owning your own nuclear-family home. 
    • What this meant to me: After hearing about some ICs that are priced out of reach of most people, I was very relieved to hear that some ICs are very reasonably priced. For me, this is no longer a pipe-dream.
  4. Skill mismatches are a chronic problem with Intentional Communities. Like most non-urban ICs, Whole Village is, commercially, a farm. What such communities need, therefore, are people who know about farming, about maintenance and construction, and people with the time and enthusiasm to do this hard physical work. What such communities tend to attract, by contrast, are idealists, thinkers, writers, white-collar office and technology people looking for life closer to the land, but not very good at it, and people who are too busy (with their wage slave office jobs, and commuting to them) to learn and help out with what needs to be done. I suspect this is probably the largest reason why most ICs, even successful ones, have so few members. 
    • What this meant to me: I know nothing about farming, gardening or construction, and I’m pretty useless with my hands. And my job keeps me so busy I have neither time nor energy for pitching in with the hard labour. What is really needed for ICs, and where I might be able to help, is mechanisms for creating Natural Enterprises in ICs, so that members can make a viable living right there, in ways other than farming, maintenance and construction, without the need to commute or work long hours. Until then, I have to confess I’m not very useful to an IC, and I know I’d feel badly about not contributing my fair share. What’s worse, the commute would kill me. As determined as I am to become part of an IC, now is evidently not the time. Now I need to decide where I belong in the meantime.
  5. Communal living requires a lot of compromise and adaptability, and some passion for living simply. I was already aware that most ICs have had to develop, and teach their members, the art of consensus-building and conflict resolution. I wasn’t aware of how difficult it must be to move into a place where most of the area is communally owned and used for what the majority want to use it for, and decorated the way they want it decorated. Inevitably, this compromise leads to a fairly utilitarian and ‘institutional’ look to the common areas. Like most homeowners I’m used to being able to decide exactly how to use and decorate ‘my’ space. In an IC, your personal space is pretty small, and because you’re at close quarters and have a responsibility to the others in the community, you don’t really have that much leeway on how it’s decorated either. The apartment-dwellers at the orientation session didn’t seem phased by this, because they’re probably used to it. For single-family homeowners this would take some getting used to. It helps therefore to keep in mind that this is probably the most painless way to achieve a radical reduction in your personal ecological footprint, and to dramatically simplify your life. There simply isn’t room for most of your stuff, and that’s probably a good thing.
    • What this meant to me: The idealist in me envisions something that I can never hope or expect to find in a ‘real’ IC, which is of necessity a communal invention, a compromise, a consensus. How much of my ideal am I prepared to give up to be part of such a ‘reality’? I guess I will find out.
  6. Farms are not ‘natural’ places, are not particularly attractive, and require huge amounts of land. The farmers I know have been quick to tell environmentalists this, but for many it takes a while to sink in. I am always surprised at how shabby farms look, how many chemicals most of them use, how much natural habitat of wild species they destroy. Brenda has the two-volume set on forest permaculture called Edible Forest Gardens, from my publisher Chelsea Green, which is perhaps as close as we can get to a ‘natural’ farm, at least in temperate climates. Nevertheless, I somehow expect to see a lot of forested land in ICs, and frequent glimpses of wild animals, and I am usually disappointed. The cleared farmland in Whole Village takes up much of the 200 acres, both for edible plants and, even more substantially, for feed crops and pasture for the village’s farm animals (dairy cattle, chickens for eggs, sheep for wool).
    • What this meant to me: The vegetable gardens and fruit groves at Whole Village provide enough for 50 vegetarian families, far more than live there, so that some revenue can be achieved at small additional cost to defray other expenses, and to attract visitors to the IC who might become members or at least learn more about what ICs have to offer. I am not sure whether this is perhaps too high a price to pay. I would hope that an IC could operate with most of its land in wilderness, open and inviting to wild creatures. That would require it to be subsistence, and to do without pasture and animal feed crops, and hence, without farm animals. So if I believe this, it behooves me to do without the products of farm animals. I’ve resolved therefore to go the next step, from vegetarian to vegan. It’s the least I can do for wilderness.
  7. Canada is cold, most of the year, when you’re working outdoors. My recent visits to Belize (wonderfully warm, but soon to become another failed state struggling nation), Australia (warm in the more tropical parts, but already environmentally challenged and so very far away), and New Zealand (delightful, lovely and full of smart, knowledgeable people, but almost as cold as Canada) have persuaded me that the country that I have called home for almost all of my life is, perhaps, not where I or any other human was really meant to live. Whole Village has invested an enormous amount of money and energy just to keep its indoors comfortably warm — geothermal, solar and masonry wood furnaces. They have done wonderful work, but still, as anywhere in Canada, it means that much of the year you have to retreat indoors. This is not natural, not healthy, not entirely sustainable.
    • What this meant to me: When I retire, I will live someplace warmer, someplace where I can be outside almost all the time.

So I will be revisiting Whole Village, to learn more and help out and build new friendships as my time permits. But I will probably not be joining as a member. More likely, when I retire, I’ll be joining a vegan IC in a warmer nation, probably one in an early stage so I can have a hand in co-designing it, while striving for radical simplicity and zero footprint. In the meantime? I haven’t the faintest idea.

If you have been looking for a way to live lighter on the land, find a community of people with whom you share values and purpose, live more responsibly and sustainably and self-sufficiently, the Intentional Community model may be for you. There is a global list of ICs to contact, visit and explore, and books about how to create your own. One of the residents of Whole Village, Shane, spent much of the last two years visiting and documenting eco-villages across North America in his very thorough eco-tour blog.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, or if you’ve ever lived in an IC, I’d be interested in knowing: Why wouldn’t you consider living in anIntentional Community? And what would it take to make you reconsider?

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7 Responses to What I Learned from Whole Village Intentional Community

  1. Daniel says:

    I read good comments about Belize before, but why do you think it will be a failed state?. Thanks.

  2. YM says:

    Dave,You may want to consider going even further north:http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/may/18/iceland/printLet us know what you think . . .

  3. Dave, if you want to live somewhere warmer, just wait a while ;^)As usual, this post of yours seems like an astute and honest assessment; essential reading for anyone considering joining an IC. Thanks.As for why an intentional community probably wouldn’t suit me, well, some of your reasons also fit my situation; also, to put it bluntly, I don’t have the money. But far more important than those is my need for freedom to roam; a need for more solitude than is likely to be acceptable to other members of an IC. I’m neither an introvert nor an extrovert (and I detest labels); people are important to me but I need and am comfortable with my own company. I get the sense that people with those characteristics simply aren’t suited for life in an intentional community.

  4. Paul says:

    “I would hope that an IC could operate with most of its land in wilderness, open and inviting to wild creatures.”Dave, it’s going to be really tough designing wilderness into our communities. Wilderness means large expanses of land that are allowed to exist in a fairly natural state, with minimal human interference. Yet so much land is needed just to grow the food we need for a simpler life. The pressure to use wilderness areas for agriculture will be stronger than they are now, once we can no longer rely on cheap energy to squeeze most of us into cities and suburbs and to transport foods from distant lands–and especially when immigration balloons as tropical areas become less habitable and starvation grows in “developing” countries.The only way I see wilderness being protected or increasing is following a great human die-off. Until then, I don’t think many communities will see a wilderness in their back yard. Agriculture and nature will continue as enemies until our numbers are reduced significantly.

  5. Paul says:

    I have always been attracted by the idea of living communally, so an intentional community makes sense to me. But making the switch would be tough, especially since my partner is not thinking in those terms in the least. She has values regarding career and home and security that are similar to those of most other professionals in the US; switching to an IC would be wrenching. (Our sons would probably be comfortable remaining on their own rather than joining, so they’re not a big factor.) If we moved we would also have to leave my parents, who have been increasingly relying on us for support of various sorts.So I think it would, perhaps, take a catastrophe to force a move. Living our current comfortable middle class life would have to become untenable. Meanwhile we take very small steps to shape or anticipate the future. We are starting a vegetable garden, buying more local and organic foods, bicycling more often for our commutes–nowhere near a sustainable lifestyle.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Very wise comments, everyone — thank you. To me the idea of establishing an IC has always been to be a model that others can learn from, not now, but when they’re ready, which probably means when the existing order falls apart and there is no other choice. At that point, hopefully, we will be able to incorporate wilderness in our ICs. because without it we will continue to live unnatural, disconnected lives. Hopefully at that point, too, we will not be able to afford NOT to move to ICs.Daniel: Belize will fail because of 2 recent phenomena: (1) foreign trawlers have devastated fish populations, wiping out the livelihood that has sustained these people for 300 years, and (2) foreign tourists have pushed up the price of land by tenfold, so that people who live there can not longer afford to live there.

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