The lyeand the lies of boarding schools

Todd J. Broadman

I did it again this year. I went to the mall, saw Santa, and managed an awkward smile. Amidst the noise, the credit card swipes, the milk frothers on sale for a not-to-be-believed 25 percent off, Santa’s grin still retains a residue of purity. The kids will get their gifts and we’ll do our ethical best to recycle the plastic, metal and glass in six months’ time.

I’ll spare the kids the loathsome sermon on the suffering that the carbon-laden supply chains bestowed upon their glitter and polyester socks. At least I can write about it; that this is a good time of year to take stock of lifestyle choices and the ethics involved or absent. Over a holiday dinner, a friend shared with me an eye-opening visit she had made to Kailash Ecovillage in Portland. The falafel blended well with the conversation.

We talked about the contrast between mainstream lifestyles and those who opt for an alternative, an ecovillage. The need to redefine what is practical and basic to daily living. What is natural?

On occasion, some adventurous reporter ventures into one of these intentional communities and we mainstreamers get a peek into those choosing to leave Santa behind. What she had shared was mostly positive: how paradise was reclaimed in the form of a community farm when the parking lot asphalt was removed. The great return to nature of our post-carbon landscapes is at hand.

Unless we check out some of these more successful ecovillages, how are we to know what alternative community choices are available? Left to our imagination, we might conjure up children huddled in a root cellar, threadbare, reciting verses from the Book of John while canning applesauce. Pa is upstairs taking inventory of the ammo. Or perhaps a commune of iconoclastic hippies is what comes to mind, free of a moral compass and all sense of responsibility, growing a patch of illegal weed to make ends meet.

When I dispatched with my own preconceptions and discovered what is actually unfolding at Kailash and other proven community models, I became convinced that there is a sane and practical way forward. That is, these intentional communities have much to teach those hell-bent on finding the holy grail at the shopping mall. Deep social bonds and a nurturing of the land among the lessons.

I have limited first-hand experience: I spent a couple of weeks on various kibbutzim in Israel, a Hare Krishna farm in Pennsylvania, a day with the Amish. Each advocating their own brand of utopia. Those tastes though, coupled with the knowledge of the many thriving eco-communities globally, leads me to conclude that a return to our connection to soil and to loving one another is inevitable if we are to thrive.

I’m taking notes. Between 2010 and 2016 the number of intentional communities in the U.S. doubled to about 1,200. Notable among those is Ecovillage Ithaca, established three decades ago in Ithaca, N.Y., on 175 acres. There are more than 200 residents and a long wait list. “We’ve managed to create a quintessential human community,” boasts Liz Walker, one of the founding members.

She talks about how typical suburban developments are driven by the economics of maximizing square footage and perceived resale value. “We flip that paradigm,” she explains. Housing is clustered on just 10 percent of the land and 90 percent is green space: three farms, forests, ponds and gardens. Residents grow food together and play together. Imagine that. Prompts me to ask: would we even recognize an American society that did not view land, housing and our work relationships through an economic lens?

The owners of the residential apartment buildings at Kailash Ecovillage, for example, took out a $1.7 million dollar bank loan and yet they rent out the units to residents at below market rates. That ought to inspire. That’s the kind of crazy business modeling we need to address social injustice, because everyone wants to grow tomatoes together, not just those in J.Crew straw hats.

I received a friend’s holiday card and update yesterday. He had chosen to exit a corporate career in the U.K. as a chemical engineer to live in a Cambodian village. What timing. I remember having asked Andy, “Why did you opt out?” Feigning confusion, he had smiled, “I didn’t opt out, I opted in!”

After years of globetrotting, Broadman finds himself writing from his perch on the Palouse and loving the view. His policy briefs can be found at US Renew News: https://www.usrenewnews.org.

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