Pathfinding a Soft Landing to Energy Descent

Intentional Communities Pioneer How to Do More with Less
Laird Schaub

As the US economy claws its way out of the hole left when it imploded in 2008, there have emerged some bright spots amidst the rubble. In times of economic uncertainty—which is becoming more the norm than an anomaly—we’re going to need better strategies than the free market to manifest a decent quality of life with significantly smaller slices of the energy and resource pie all around.

There’s much more to it than just learning to be frugal, and there’s a thin, yet vibrant and growing slice of society that’s actively pioneering how to get off the materialistic merry-go-round and still enjoy the world’s fare: the Intentional Communities Movement.

For many people, the dominant story the last few years has been recession—hard economic times. Housing values have fallen across the country (in some places by more than 50 percent) and unemployment has swelled to the highest levels in decades, topping 10 percent in late 2009.

While no one wishes for these conditions, the promise and hope of community stands out all the brighter in bleak times, and the potency of what’s being learned is enhanced by predictions that recession and constricted access to resources may become more permanent than temporary.

Intentional communities are groups of people who live together on the basis of explicit common values. Typically—though not always—they own land together or control a long-term lease. The nature of their common ground can be all over the map: economic, political, ecological psychological, spiritual, or social, in any combination. They can be rural, urban, or suburban. They can be a group house of four, or a village of hundreds. What they all have in common is a commitment to doing things together. In essence, to cooperatively building a life centered around common values and beliefs, which offers the sweet promise of local resiliency in the face of international uncertainty.

In hard times it becomes more readily apparent how a strong social web can also become an economic safety net. When the normal job market is disrupted, many people need to scramble to make ends meet. While some of this may be accomplished with belt tightening (or perhaps buying fewer belts), there are more creative options—all of which intentional communities are excellent at fostering:

  • Barter (and non-monetary local economies)
  • Sharing (instead of owning)
  • Economies of scale (buying together)
  • Meeting more of your needs within walking (or biking) distance 
  • DIY (with a little help from your friends)

The ultimate security is not a fat bank account (just ask those whose house equity or retirement accounts have dropped precipitously); it’s relationships. Security is the people who will be there for you when you need help. Like right now.

The beauty of this approach is that it applies just as well when times get better. It turns out that sharing—and figuring out how get along better with one’s neighbors—is always a good idea.

The Jump to Warp Speed: Trends in Community Listings

Whenever the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) releases a new edition of Communities Directory it’s an occasion to take a snapshot of the Communities Movement and report on how things compare with the last time we looked. FIC published its first directory in 1990, which coincided with a surge of interest in community living that continues today. Even though we’re nearly two decades into this upswing—an unusually long run—instead of ebbing, the tide is on the rise again. The following table summarizes information from our six editions, and tells the story:

EditionNorth American Listings

Percentage Increase from
Prior Edition

1990304
199556586%
20055854%
20006145%
200790848%
2010105516%

As you can see, there’s been a double rise: an initial wave in the 1990-95 range, followed by a 10-year plateau, succeeded by a near doubling the last five years. In fact it would be been an actual doubling when you take into account that FIC overhauled its listings in 2009 to bring everyone into alignment with fair housing laws (both federal and state). As a consequence of navigating those tricky waters, we dropped about 150 listings, where wording ran afoul of anti-discriminatory statutes and the groups were unwilling to modify their listings to comply with the law. Adding those back in (to compare apples to apples), our listings this time would have topped 1200, and the percentage increase over the 2007 edition would have been a handsome 33%.

Fasten your seats belts—here come the communities!

To be sure, there are important caveats about how to interpret this data correctly:

• The 1990 Directory was the fledgling FIC’s first project and we hadn’t yet established ourselves as an ecumenical, even-handed collector and displayer of community information. Thus, we didn’t get as good a response rate in that first attempt as we do now. This is an example of the observer influencing what gets observed. Now that more people know we’re around and trust us, more information comes our way.

• The Internet was embryonic in 1990 and wasn’t much more than a novelty in 1995. Today it’s the information superhighway and it’s much easier for groups to pass along descriptions and updates, which translates directly into much more comprehensive and up-to-date listings.

• Another, perhaps less obvious consequence of the Internet is that it’s far easier to find out what others have learned making it significantly less daunting to start a community. In recent years the trend has been: if the information comes, they will build it (an intriguing twist on the aphorism made popular by the hit film Field of Dreams, which appeared 24 years ago—right while we were assembling the Directory’s first edition).

Despite all these cautions however, the main story is clear: interest in cooperative living is growing steadily. Visits to the Fellowship’s family of websites now exceeds 2700 unique visitors daily, requesting an average of seven pages per visit. What’s more, this number is growing at a rate of 10-15% annually. Providing people with accurate information about who’s doing what and where is one of FIC’s primary missions.

A Moving Experience

One thing about the Communities Movement is that there is a lot of movement, and not all of it is orderly or predictable. Like the Web itself, the Communities Movement is a vehicle with no one behind the wheel. While the Fellowship has consciously taken on the challenge of describing what we see, it’s not like we’re steering, and the accuracy of our picture is no better than the information that the communities voluntarily provide.

Here are some stats about the listings in our latest (2010) edition:

• The portion of groups reporting some form of affiliation with cohousing is 362, or 34% (which is the same percentage we reported in the 2005 edition). As there are about 130 cohousing groups built and occupied in North America, that means that roughly 2/3rds of what’s listed are either forming or have some cohousing-like features that have inspired use of that label.

• There has been a big jump in the fraction of groups that identify as “ecovillages,” or that have latched onto that term to describe some of their features. Though only 7% used that term in their listing three years ago, in the current edition that number jumped to 32%. Because there is no uniform definition of what practices a group needs to have in order to qualify for that label, it is problematic knowing what this means beyond a measure of rising interest among communities to commit to sustainable practices.

• The ratio of rural groups to urban has increased from 4:3 in the 2007 Directory to 9:4 in this census.

• The portion of communities making decisions by consensus appears to have held steady as the most popular form of decision-making—though it manifests in more varieties than Heinz has pickles. Five years ago 82% of the listings reported using consensus; that percentage shrank to 68% in 2007; and it has bounced back to 73% in this edition.

• Groups that practice some form of income sharing are in the distinct minority. Where only a scant 7% practice total income sharing, the proportion swells to 20% if you include groups that practice partial income-sharing. While only a small fraction of the total, these groups are particularly significant as experiments in radical economics, as they treat all labor as worth the same (whether washing diapers or teaching permaculture courses) rather then relying on market rates.

Just as people aggregate to form communities, there is an increasing tendency for communities to locate near one another. Savvy forming groups are noticing where established communities have already developed good local relations, and can ride those coattails for a smoother entrée into their new neighborhoods.

(In northeast Missouri, Dancing Rabbit bought land three miles away from Sandhill Farm, a 23-year-old community at the time. Eight years later, Red Earth Farms bought land adjoining Dancing Rabbit. Today, the combined adult population of the three neighboring communities approaches 2% of the voting population of Scotland County, and candidates for local elections are starting to make it a point to swing by to discuss their positions.)

Webs Within Webs

Paralleling the movement among groups, there is movement among networks. Here are snapshots of some of the more active ones:

• The Cohousing Association of the US typically hosts national conferences annually, and works closely with FIC to maintain a robust online directory. Get the latest on them at www.cohousing.org.

• The Federation of Egalitarian Communities (around since 1976) has been exploring greater involvement in political activism. Meanwhile their affiliated communities have remained steady at about a dozen. Check them out at www.thefec.org.

• The Global Ecovillage Network is busy promoting their Ecovillage Design Education curriculum worldwide. It’s the culmination of a multi-year effort to regularize what is taught as the fundamental precepts of sustainability broken down into four major components: social, economic, ecological, and world view. Find out about them at http://gen.ecovillage.org/.

• The North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) is experiencing ever-increasing numbers attending their annual fall Institute in Ann Arbor. While NASCO’s foundation has always been student co-ops (in both US and Canada), there is a growing fraction of their membership that is focused more on affordable housing than student housing. In addition, NASCO has also been tackling head-on the question of minority representation and distribution of power—all the more potent because they are one of the few segments of the overwhelmingly white Communities Movement to be doing so. Get the low down on them at www.nasco.coop.

Community Service, Inc (CSI) was started in the 1930s and was built on the legacy of Arthur Morgan and his premise that small community is an integral element of sustainable culture. Today CSI has been restyled “Community Solutions, Inc.” They are focusing on community-based responses to the challenge of Peak Oil, and you can get informed about their latest doings at www.communitysolution.org.

Casting a Wider Net

Last, but not least, there have also been shifts within the FIC. Back in 2005 we broadened our mission beyond the focus we’ve always had on servicing intentional communities and the people drawn to them, to include those wanting to create more community in their lives right where they are.

We figure there are roughly 100,000 people in the US today who self-identify as living in some form of intentional community. In contrast, there are probably 100 million in the US who hunger for a greater sense of community in their lives yet will never get to the place of jointly owning property with others to create it. Rather than waiting for them to come to community, FIC is now committed to bringing the tools and inspiration of cooperative living to them. All of which is to say there’s no danger of our running out of stuff to do.

About the author: 

Laird Schaub helped found Sandhill Farm—a small agricultural income-sharing community in Rutledge, Missouri—in 1974, and has lived there ever since. He has been integrally involved with the FIC since its revitalization in 1986, and has served as its chief administrator since 1995. He was Managing Editor for the first two editions of Communities Directory, and has become a nationally recognized expert on consensus and meeting facilitation since starting a career as a group process consultant in 1987. He can be contacted at laird@ic.org. His blog can be read at communityandconsensus.blogspot.com.

Citations: 
When citing this article, please use the following format: Laird Schaub (2013). Pathfinding a Soft Landing to Energy Descent. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 16.
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