Monday, October 13, 2008

Chasing Utopia

(Walking paths at EVI meander through the village.)

While staying at the Wild Goose, I leafed through "Eco Village at Ithaca: Pioneering a Sustainable Culture," written by one of the community's founders, Liz Walker, in 2005.

It took about three years for an idea to develop to the point when land was purchased and construction began. In 1994, this mission statement was adopted:
"The ultimate goal of EVI is nothing less than to design the human habitat. We are creating a model community of some 500 residents that will exemplify sustainable systems of living - systems that are not only practical in themselves but replicable in others. The completed project will demonstrate the feasibility of a design that meets basic human needs such as shelter and food production, energy, social interaction, work and recreation while preserving natural ecosystems."

Walker's book describes the community's innovative efforts in energy production and use, conflict resolution and economics (dollars are stretched by sharing resources). But she also writes about the problems common in all of society - problems that even the smartest, best-educated and well-meaning people cannot avoid. In any community, there are those who must have their own way and are intolerant of others' opinions. She cites a rift over whether the community dining hall should offer some meals containing meat, and how that led to three families pulling up stakes, despite tireless efforts to reach compromise. And then there are those who just won't turn down the volume on their stereos.

In the little neighborhood where the Wild Goose is, the closely packed houses all face toward a common area with footpaths. All kitchens face this area so that it's possible to see who's home and what the kids are doing and with whom they're playing. This closeness has its advantages, and it's easy to imagine how it might drive someone crazy.

There may be no Utopia, no perfect way for humans to live together. But that doesn't mean that people should stop chasing it.


Ellipses said...

So, what was the decision on the meat?

Park Burroughs said...

As Walker tells it, there were three families who moved to EVI, and they were very close. The three men would often team up in community meetings to blackball proposals that didn't benefit them. One of these men was a vegan. When it was finally decided to allow some meals with meat, with the stipulation that meat dishes would be prepared using separate cookware and utensils, he was so upset that he refused to enter the dining hall, and eventually to participate in any EVI activities. The three families began to withdraw from activities and eventually were not on speaking terms with anyone other than themselves, this despite an effort that including bringing in a counselor and conducting conflict-resolution workshops. Much to everyone's relief, the families moved out.

Ellipses said...

Park, I appreciate your well told travel stories... and this is interesting and all... but these people, well, they sound like weirdos... I am looking forward to the rest of the tale... but the "3 families" are forever branded with "weirdo" despite my strongest effort to reconcile "different" with "normal" and simply see them in a way that mind will not presently allow. Unfortunately, I am also struggling to prevent the "weirdness" of those 3 families from spilling over into my perception of the rest :-)

It's hard to describe without sounding like an ignorant redneck... I apologize, I'm working on it :-)

Park Burroughs said...

All people are weird, in one way or another, but there is nothing weird about wanting your kids to grow up in an environment where they can safely play outside, in the woods or the neighborhood where they are not going to be hit by cars or preyed on by drug dealers or bullies. It's not weird to actually want to be close to your neighbors and help them out and be helped by them when the need arises.

Ellipses said...

I agree wholeheartedly... I am just admitting that there is a bias that occurs as soon as the word "commune" comes up.

It's no different than my wanting to live in an "off the grid" sheep farm...

This is the part of your story where you relate an event that "localizes and universalizes" your subjects... you know, where your audience takes a contented breath and says "They are just like ME"