Changing It Up For Real, Part 2   Leave a comment


[If the upshot of watching the video about Yury, the “Russian Hobbit” featured in yesterday’s post, has you most concerned about whether Petrushka, mentioned only in passing, is actually Yury’s rabbit, I’ve still achieved something. Something very small, but still something.]

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This post examines some of the arguments, examples and ideas in a recent (Jan. 15, 2017) essay in The Atlantic with the unfortunate title “Seeking an Escape from Trump’s America.” I say “unfortunate”, because the problems the “escapees” face neither originate with Trump nor will they end with him. His name here is merely a red flag to a bull.

In the previous post, Yury aspires to, and achieves, a personal solution to his problem. For some, that may be enough. For others, community is a less selfish choice. It can also prove much more viable if you don’t have the means to drop out and move to Maine, as the previous post begins to suggest.

More importantly, the intentional communities the article investigates are not all “escapist” by any means. Rather than retreat, some attempt to engage the larger culture and model more viable and saner alternatives. Several got their start years and in some cases decades before Trump had entered the political fray. You could even call the title clickbait, because it does a disservice to the writer, who very probably didn’t choose it, and to the substance of the article, which grapples with some real and compelling concerns.

Twin Oaks, a community of some 100 members, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The community founded in 1967 can speak with particular authority — experience and evidence of its survival and “thrival” — about almost every issue facing intentional communities today. I believe the video below really is worth your next 16 minutes.

Now it may be that the video, or this post and some of the previous posts don’t speak to you. Perhaps you’re largely immune to the accumulating economic, political and cultural upheavals of our era. Possibly you’ve made your pile, your mortgage is paid, you have diversified investments, or other secure-enough sources of income. Along with those bulwarks against poverty and despair, you’re healthy enough to garden or handicraft your way through the next few decades until mortality relieves you of the challenges of this particular incarnation.

If so, please consider how you can help others. You don’t need to subscribe to false-Christian ideas of giving away all you own, unless you’re entering an intentional community, monastic or otherwise, for which this is the admission ticket. Why plunge yourself into poverty out of guilt or misguided perceptions that this will help someone else? Instead, use your position and privilege to accomplish something you choose to do for others.


One group has “given an official name to their search for an alternative to consumption-heavy American life: the Downstream Project, with the motto to ‘do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.'”

That’s one measurable goal. Rather than trying to “change others”, live so that your life doesn’t make other lives harder. I know that’s certainly more than enough for me, some days. A negative goal troubles you? Think of the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm.”

Can we aim for something larger? Of course. “… instead of continuing in passive despair, as many Americans seem to do, the people in these communities decided to overhaul their lives.” What would a “life overhaul” look like for you? The beauty of the question is that the answer is wholly up to you, if you let it be. Why not your answer, rather than anyone else’s?

Many of the Druids I know give more than lip service to this ongoing question. Despair just gets boring after a while. And that’s one of the reasons I love them: they don’t merely go through the motions, but bring courage to their own lives, and find worthwhile challenges in engaging bigger questions than “Where will I vacation this year?” or “What’s on cable?”

If you still haven’t let go of “Trump?!”, consider this observation by one member of an intentional community the article considers: “When there’s a Democrat in power, social-justice-minded people go to sleep, because they feel validated by what they hear on NPR.”

We can even practice Trump-gratitudes: I thank Trump for waking me up, for kindling useful anger, for provoking self-examination, for puncturing my weak political stances, for making me doubt, for unsettling the false comforts of middle-class-dom, for X, Y, Z …


So what can we do with these gratitudes once we affirm them? Feel just as alienated, if not more so?

Alienation is “othering”, and not all bad. (Trump himself is a delicious example of a Monty-Pythonesque “Now for something completely different”.) One thing becomes another anyway: it’s how the world works. Alienation? “The Living Energy Farm runs on a different philosophy of alienation: If they can prototype alternatives to modern life, they believe, they can eventually remake the world.”

Any real re-making happens at home:

In the summer, [members of one community] cook with a small solar dish and a rocket stove behind the kitchen; they’re building a bigger dish, taller than a grown man, nearby. They hooked up an exercise bike to a washing machine and rigged a pair of old tractors to run on wood gas rather than gasoline, although they aren’t quite functional. They built their own food-drying room off the kitchen, where they process vegetables grown on their 127 acres, and they graft fruit-tree branches onto wild stems.

‘We refer to it as neo-Amish, or Amish without the patriarchy,” another member says.

Some of what we see as solutions are inextricably bound up with the problem:

“The way we choose to live has far more impact in terms of our environment … than any particular technology,” [one community member says]. “If Americans bother to talk about the environment at all, it’s usually in terms of a technological perspective.”

We’re conditioned, after all, to expect technical fixes for most problems, when some of the best alternatives simply don’t originate in technology.

…  mainstream environmentalism is too focused on incremental reform and modest lifestyle choices, like driving Priuses. “For us, the question is: How do I live comfortably with what renewable energy can do? … If you ask it that way, you can’t drive to D.C. and work in a cubicle,” he said. “But the environmental groups want to tell you that you can, because then you’ll send them donations.”

Ouch. But useful ouch, I hope. For Deanna, another community member,

“I envisioned being remote, being able to keep to ourselves, not being involved in whatever strife is going on in cities,” she said. She was glad to leave behind Boston and demonstrations like the ones that took place after Trump’s election; she’s also glad they now drink from a well, she said, because “it feels safer to be in a place where we have control over our water.” Hers is not a search for ideals, but for something tolerable—something better than what was available elsewhere.

If such retreats from what mass culture offers can provide something better, why not try them out? Another community named Cambia (“change”) isn’t just retreating.

To some extent, they’re trying to spread their knowledge and their project. They’re writing a wiki, nicknamed “commune in a box,” outlining legal and tax details for income-sharing communities—Cambia, it turns out, is both a commune and an LLC. They want people to be able to start new communities, tailored to their own needs; Cambia is not the model, they said, but a model.

Viable experimental models of alternatives are crucial at hinge points in the human experience. We certainly seem poised on one right now.

Another commentator concedes a signal challenge of making any change.” It takes a lot of cash to get off the grid,” he says. Putting it another way, you almost have to start rich to become poor.

… becoming untangled from capitalism also means becoming much more vulnerable. It’s tough to imagine a comprehensive way of replacing health insurance, not to mention programs like welfare, in a world without government.

“What we have now is an embryonic global civilization that’s totally ecologically, socially, and economically unsustainable. … There’s no escaping into your own little enclave.”

Once again, at the risk of sounding a theme many already know and others label a facile fiction, I’ll quote Tolkien’s Gandalf as he counsels Frodo: “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot forever fence it out.”

Some people use the term “lifestyle politics” to describe these communities—“the belief that if you live your values, then you will be able to make effective change, or at least express your political perspective,” [University of Washington professor of political science Karen] Litfin said. “I think that’s a good place to start, but if that’s where you end, you actually don’t have much impact at all.”

Meaningful change, I find, has to start with me, or it literally doesn’t mean anything, or not for long. It stays on the page (or the blogpost). I’m the center, just like everyone else is, where any transformation takes place.


Reactions? How can we continue this conversation? (The most important arguments we have are with ourselves.)

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