The Baby Boomers were convinced we could do things better. Growing up under a nuclear cloud of McCarthyism, Civil Rights, and a reckless adventure in Vietnam, we dreamed of a place where we could live together meaningfully.
Diana Leafe Christian is the author of Building a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities and Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community (New Society Publishers, 2003 and 2007).
In the mid-’60s, Christian was an extra in bikini and biker movies. She hosted a talk radio show about health and alternative therapies, taught a human potential technique involving a hot tub and snorkels, and translated academic articles about spirituality into plain English for the Institute of Noetic Sciences.
In 1991, she helped start a newsletter about intentional communities. Two years later, the Fellowship for Intentional Communities hired her to edit Communities magazine, which she did for 14 years, visiting places like The Farm in Tennessee, Twin Oaks in Virginia, and Findhorn in Scotland.
Intentional community is “when a group of people live close enough to carry out a common purpose together.” Christian uses the term as an umbrella for a variety of living arrangements—ecovillages, cohousing, retreat centers, etc.
Only 10 percent of intentional communities survive. Building a Life Together presents the strategies that Christian saw succeed.
She describes community living as “the longest, most complex personal growth workshop you will ever take,” requiring the kind of planning needed for marriage, a business, or an international trip with a complex itinerary and a lot of baggage.
Christian trains people around the world in “sociocracy,” a Dutch decision-making strategy based on Quaker consensus process. It’s meant to be as efficient as hierarchy, while valuing each individual and each subgroup equally.
An intentional community needs clear, written agreements about how members treat each other, handle conflict, manage money, assign labor, and respond to people who don’t abide by these agreements.
The stakes are high. Among the 90 percent of communities that fail, many include lawsuits.
Christian strongly suggests that potential communitarians understand and support the community’s vision.
There should be a “long engagement”—a period of provisional, non-voting membership during which the community and the prospective member can get to know each other.
Christian makes her home at Earthaven Ecovillage near Asheville, North Carolina, where 50 residents live on 329 forested acres. They hope to grow to 150 people on 56 home sites. She describes Earthaven—and most, if not all, ecovillages—as “aspiring,” meaning the community’s businesses don’t entirely provide for its needs and/or the community is not entirely “integrated into the natural world.”
Earthaven buildings are constructed from on-site timber, and permaculture figures into the design. The community is “spiritually diverse.” Its businesses include a permaculture nursery, construction, plumbing, solar installation, and consulting. Earthaven considers itself a “seed” for something larger.
We live in a sprawling society that has sunk a lot into existing buildings. New ones—even solar-powered homes built from sustainably harvested timber, straw bales, or cob—push the edge of the human footprint. If you’re building something new, it has to be with the intention of making that net footprint smaller. If ecovillages have merit, it’s because they try strategies we can adopt in the city—when they work.
Community living is a vocation, and a communitarian has to have something to contribute. Christian thinks that, if intentional communities will provide any refuge at all from a post-peak oil crisis, it will be minor. “Don’t count on it, sweetheart,” she says.
Communitarians want to be together because they have a different and better vision of how we can live. “So, what is our group going to do to bring about that vision of a better world?”