Do We All Have To Live Like Hippies in the Woods to Save this Damn Earth?

"The Key to Modern Life is Strategic Ignorance."

That's a quote from Joel Achenbach's story, "Another Way," in the Washington Post this weekend about an off-the-grid eco-settlement in North Carolina. (Some good pictures here.) He writes about Earthaven, an eco-village, that considers itself an "intentional community" (as opposed to a commune, said commune encouraging a vision of dirty hippies who are probably lazy pot-smokers too, right?) . The quote about ignorance is apt - we are sustained in our consumer habits by the illusion that we are autonomous beings, separated from the source of our energy supplies in comfort and with ease. Not so, of course, and decades -- and more than a century, really -- of ecological scientific discoveries have shown otherwise. Yet on we go.

But what's striking about the article is that I suspect it's the exact kind of piece that causes as many problems as it highlights. That is, the people at this Earthaven place seem pretty wise to the situation - they don't actually think their community is a total solution to the world's energy and consumption problems, nor that what they're doing is entirely feasible for any massive segment of the population. They require the next town over, for example, to do some laundry and to get some emergency supplies, when necessary. They had to clear acres of land to cultivate, which doesn't seem like a bad thing to me, since in itself that is not unsustainable - growing and cultivating food is not in and of itself the problem - but which one of the guys there considered "ecological brutality." Again, this is nothing against the people there - it was the guy who realized they had to clear acreage to grow their own crops that reflected upon it as ecological brutality. I'm not putting words into his mouth. Like I said, and as Achenbach explains, the people at Earthaven are not insipid idealists. They know the world they live in and the one they don't want to live in. They understand limitations. But my point of interest, then, was more in the author of the story than in his subjects.

What are we to take from this story? Achenbach has a series of really sharp lines, statistics, good quotes, and strong insights. I thus offer the article as an odd abridgement of quotes. To wit:

"THE KEY TO MODERN LIFE IS STRATEGIC IGNORANCE. There are so many things we don't know about our lives and that, frankly, we don't want to know. We don't know much about the basic things that sustain us. We are clueless "end users" in elaborate industrial supply lines. Energy comes from distant power plants and oil refineries and pipelines and electrical grids, but we don't think about them when we flick on a light or turn the key in the ignition."

"Americans make up 5 percent of the global population, and use about 25 percent of the energy. You wake to an electric alarm clock. You grab your cellphone, which has been charging overnight. Your computer monitor is dark, but it's not really "off," because it's one of those vampire appliances that operate in standby mode all the time (the average house has 20 of them, a Cornell study says)...."

"National electricity use has doubled in the past three decades."

"Appliances are far more energy-efficient these days, but we make up for that by having more appliances."

"If everyone lived at the lifestyle of Americans," says Jim McMillan, who works on alternative energy for the Department of Energy, "we'd need five planets."

"What if we could do with less? Part of the problem is that we never run out of new ways to use energy. Free-market advocates point to a confounding fact about energy efficiency: It often leads to more energy use, not less. The reason is that a technology that makes something more energy-efficient can also be used more broadly, in novel ways."

"There are technological optimists who say we have the know-how to solve the climate problem. They say it's a matter of political will. Many argue that the government has to find a way to factor in the long-term cost of climate change. Right now, carbon emissions are what economists call an "externality," a cost not included in the price of energy (just as health-care costs aren't factored into the price of cigarettes). One possibility would be some kind of carbon tax, or a "cap and trade" system that gives companies a financial incentive to cut emissions. The convoluted details of such schemes tend to be a bureaucrat's dream."

"The U.S. Department of Energy recently came up with a comprehensive blueprint for future action. Five years in the making, the "Climate Change Technology Program Strategic Plan" is what you'd expect from the title: a technophile's handbook. The word "conservation" pops up in passing on Page 2 of the introduction, but this is not the place you'll find advice to turn down the thermostat in winter. We can finesse the global warming problem with "the power of markets and technological innovation," the report states. Human beings are essentially nowhere to be found in the document. In the calculations of energy use, Americans are not a variable but a constant. There's an assumption, stated explicitly at the outset of the report, that there will be "a continuation of existing patterns and trends in energy use."

"We won't change. That's the official word."

"Humans require food. Earthaven would never be sustainable, never be a real ecovillage, until it could feed itself. Farmer had a guiding principle: It is essential, he says, to "bring the effects of our actions within the horizon of lived experience." Translation: Someone who can't stand the idea of cleared land should give up eating vegetables. "They're not growing under tulip poplar trees.""

"Individuals -- the "end users" in this whole energy drama -- can create one of those billion-ton carbon wedges. And being green doesn't necessarily mean suffering. Many of the things that save energy also improve lives. City planners are trying to design communities with less distance between where people live and work; less time stuck in traffic jams saves energy and sanity simultaneously. Green architecture places an emphasis on natural light -- a nice thing in and of itself. Greg's house at Earthaven is pleasant without any artificial lighting during the day."

And? And so where are we after reading this?

I ask, to clarify, not because I don't have sympathy with the Earthaven folks, nor that I don't have sympathy with Achenbach for writing a good story. But I'm not sure what we're supposed to take from this.

On the one hand, this portrait risks providing an image of the exact kind of back-to-the-wilderness viewpoint that allows the rest of us to say, 'See? It's all of one or all of the other. We either live cozy lives in pre-fab homes with R-19 insulation or we live without freezers or TV in the woods of the Carolinas.' That's the prevailing viewpoint in arguments about energy consumption reduction - that we either use energy or we don't. It's an either/or mentality, and one I've pointed to before on this blog. And, to reiterate a third time, I don't really pin this on the people at Earthaven. They are living their ideals, and making do, and trying to work on a system that could be feasible. For them. I make note of this reading of the article because it is just that, a reading of an article - what is the author trying to get out of it? What is the reader supposed to take away fro it?

Because on the other hand, if we are to take from this the awareness that we use too much energy ad that if we don't stop using so much we're all screwed, then I'm not sure it was successful. At one point Achenbach makes the apt point, quoted above too, that "Free-market advocates point to a confounding fact about energy efficiency: It often leads to more energy use, not less. The reason is that a technology that makes something more energy-efficient can also be used more broadly, in novel ways." And this is just it: energy efficiency on a machine-by-machine basis (a technical fix), instead of decreased energy consumption brought upon by a shift in dominant and prevailing values (a social and technical fix), not only won't be the solution, but more likely will simply add to the problem.

The article, after noting the confounding fact that more efficiency leads to more energy use - we don't just give up the extra space gained by using less energy; we instead fill it in with more energy; for example, if our car can go that much farther on a tank of gas, we don't decide to drive less; instead we are rewarded from our conservation and then end up driving that much more, to even things out; it might not sound like a big deal on an individual basis, but when understood as the basis for our economic system, it is quite the big deal - later goes on to say that:

"[Our savings in BTUs] can come from energy efficiency and conservation: cutting electricity in homes and businesses; doubling fuel economy from 30 to 60 miles per gallon; driving 5,000 miles a year on average instead of 10,000."

Not quite, and for reasons just explained.

So what are we left with at the end of the story? Achenbach gives us a '70s-era, turn your lights off comment. Fine, I will do so. And many of those who replied to my earlier posts about energy and consumption patterns said the same. But that individual action is not a solution to a structural problem.

I'm left again to think about what it would take to shift our ideals away from hyper-consumer values - ones that lead us to find meaning in our consumption behavior, to define our identities in terms of consumers - to ecological ones, since the former are opposed to the latter. And usually these posts end with a big, so let's go do something. But how does it happen?

(You're waiting for the answer, aren't you?)

It doesn't happen all at once. Or easily. But you thought I knew the answer?

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It's true that to grow vegetables, or to do much of anything, it's necessary to clear land. The question is "How much?"

Tilling the soil, that 10,000 year-old tradition on which "civilization" is built, is obsolete and extremely destructive of the thin layer of life spread over the surface of our planet. Vertical farming, using environmentally friendly closed-system technologies, would allow us to return vasts swaths of land to forest and savanah.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 20 Nov 2006 #permalink

Given human nature both at a governmental as well as an individual level, there is probably nothing we can do. We are probably doomed to continue our destructive ways until war, disease, famine, "cures" the planet from its infestation of humans. The ultimate problem is that there are too many of us. Sustainablilty will return when our population is reduced and civilization collapses. Then we will not consume more than the planet can provide.
Not a pretty picture, but a realistic one IMHO.

It's easy to get depressed if I focus on our culture's perception of probability of change. And I can get sidetracked by that. I find it more satisfying to focus on the mechanism of change, which helps to highlight the possibility of change.

The only outcome that's worthwhile to me is the one in which our children and grandchildren have a sustainable quality of life.

That outcome is possible. It's probability is nonzero.

So I focus on improving the odds of the one possible outcome I want. Other outcomes don't require my attention. For me that's a more satisfying way to focus my attention.


I'm pleased that you're engaging your readers with these questions. They're important questions, and we all benefit when more of us pay attention to them.

Since Earthaven is in my home state, I've been pondering whether to comment on the Washington Post article at my group web site, Reading your reaction has been helpful. Thanks.

It occurs to me that I can sum up my own reaction as "Praise by faint damnation."

I cringe whenever I see Ye Olde Mainstream Media attempt to describe people like Earthaven residents. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that Achenbach did make some effort to delve somewhat deeper than the easy, superficial stereotypes. This article could have been worse. Many are worse.

It seems to me the value of an article like Achenbach's is to focus readers' attention on our strategic ignorance, even if only for a few minutes. Structural change -- cultural change -- results from a tipping point of individual people who change their own attitudes and values. Repetition over time seems to bring about that change. But, yeah, it's also frustratingly slow, isn't it?

It would be great if just one newspaper article or just one blog post could reliably trigger that compact-fluorescent-lightbulb-over-the-head moment of epiphany. I don't recall how many such articles I read, nor do I wish to admit how long it took to reach my own "Aha! I get it now!" moment. I know I spent too much time being snarky and indifferent, and too much time trying to play the get-rich-quick-and-buy-happiness game. But eventually I got it, and others will, too. So we carry on, yes?

Thanks for contributing. It's worthwhile.

While I appreciated the article, I also saw it as presenting a dichotomy of lifestyles. There are many ways one can live more environmentally than the average population, without moving to Earthaven.

I live in a cohousing neighborhood (, which is a variety of intentional community that is closer to a suburb than to Earthaven-- but is still much more environmental than a traditional suburb. We have privately-owned homes and a commonly-owned large clubhouse/commonhouse. Everything is pedestrian-oriented (cars at the periphery) and is based on having real relationships with your neighbors (though still with private homes to retreat to). Although having a supportive community around is the main point, we are also much more environmental. The fact that we have a nice commonhouse with guest bedrooms, a kids' playroom, a large great room for parties, etc. means that our own house can be much smaller. We moved from a 2400 square foot house to an 1800 square foot house and feel that our smaller home works much better for us.

Unlike Earthaven, we feel that living in cohousing makes life much easier as well as more environmental. Our kids go to preschool 5 days a week, but because of carpooling with 2 other families we only have to drive 3 out of the 10 trips. We swap childcare, meals, and often pick up items for each other at the store so that they don't have to get in the car just to get eggs. We have a CSA that delivers farm-fresh veggies to our neighborhood every week. We are large enough to create a market and so the farmers come to us. Best of all, we live next door to some of our best friends, and have impromptu parties all the time.

This kind of neighborhood is unusual in America, but very common in other parts of the world. In Denmark, 20-30% of the population lives in a cohousing neighborhood. I do think that these neighborhoods could help folks find a middle way-- to live more sustainably, without leaving society. Of course, like Earthaven, it's not a self-sustaining neighborhood-- but it is an approachable step in the right direction.

I think that my reaction to "editor, Sustainability Southeast "'s comment of November 20, 2006 03:58 PM is best summed up by, "damnation by faint praise".

What, I wonder, does "editor..." consider to be a not-surprisingly pleasant piece by the Ye Olde MSM?

Ummmmm...thanks? It's gratifying to be noticed, I guess.

What do I find unpleasant and unsurprising? Well, television, for example.

US television, including the phenomenon of local affiliate "newscasts", comes to my mind as an especially egregious reinforcer of strategic ignorance. From my painful observation of local newscasts, particularly in smaller markets, it seems they rarely bother to go past cliches and stereotypes.

Here's how I think local TV news would handle a story about Earthaven:

"Are there weirdos in our woods?! Join us at 11 to gawk and giggle at concepts we don't care to understand!"

My recollection of the WashPost article is that it used the word hippies as an attention-grabber at the beginning, but after the first few paragraphs the stereotypes seemed to be downplayed.

It seems to me what makes "mainstream media" mainstream is that most journalists participate in mainstream culture and they address an audience who participates in mainstream culture. The result is a feedback system that tends to echo our cultural values back at us.

So it's easy for stories about people outside mainstream culture to fall into easy out-group mockery. Sometimes it's veiled and subtle, sometimes remarkably blatant, but the usual effect is to reinforce the barrier between us and them.

In-group peer pressure seems so pervasive that I'm pleasantly surprised to see any attempt to say anything different. I thought the article demonstrated that Achenbach made an attempt to say something a little different. And I think it's helpful to recognize and encourage any such attempt. Seems to me, it could have been worse...

Thanks for asking. Cheers

Unless there is a driving force to change human behavior and social trends, change cannot occur. The question now should be what IS or WILL BE the driving force or imputus for social and human behavioral changes.
A excellent example of social change that has occured, or imputed as ongoing, is behavior changes due to the commonality of the internet.
I see this as a positive change and one that should be made available to every human on earth. Why? May we eventually approach each other with curiosity instead of suspicion, fear and hate? Could there be a day when hate cannot be taught?
Fear and hate can be a natural outcome of isolation. Could it be natural to desire to learn about others and our environs? Could govenments or cultural trends then dictate, or teach, ignorance and hate, if there is no isolation?
Ah, such dreams!! Yet, each of us, no matter the lack of isolation, meet individuals who cannot cope with differences. Just look at our politic! The vitrol alone could power a war.
So, can behavioral or social change be legislated? Can legislation by itself be the motivator? NO - Motivation for change must be first taught by self survial. We are, unfortunately, still animals looking toward "What's in it for me?"

I think the theoretical problems presented by this one article are best addressed if the Washington Post, the respective websites, and other media, take it upon themselves to cover OTHER ecovillages of different sorts, other intentional communities and experiments in sustainable living, as well. Not everyone can live as "hippies in the woods." Not everyone would want to. The Earthaven crew ARE hippies, more or less, and they like living in the woods, so that's the format they're starting from. (I'm not sneering; I probably share a lot of their inclinations myself.) It's not the only format available, and it's not the only being practiced by someone, somewhere. Let's hear some more of the story.