On SBS VICELAND's 'Jungletown', an American entrepreneur and hundreds of young people are building the "world's most sustainable modern town" in the depths of the Panamanian jungle. Tune in Tuesdays at 9.30PM or watch via SBS On Demand.
When I set out to spend a year touring the world's communes I expected anarchic, possessionless wanderings. I wanted to burn my Air Maxes, quit Facebook, and forsake hygiene. I imagined dancing around a Druid pyre while downing cups of elk blood. What I found was a bureaucratic internet maze of credit card payments, application forms, and groups of middle-aged people making sure they washed at 30 degrees.
Communes have grown up. Gone is the time when you'd drive off in your parents' car, sell it, and give the money to some all-supreme leader before being treated to a welcoming orgy in a goat shed. Now communes patiently ask visitors to only come on designated "Welcome Weekends" and not make any noise after 10 PM.
In reality, true communes are almost extinct. A commune is only a commune when the members share all their possessions. In order to understand how today's communes function we have to call them by their proper name: intentional communities.
Intentional communities are places where people come together to live out a specific cause. This cause could be a commitment to shedding their fingernails in order to achieve their idea of peak physicality, but more often than not it's something far less irrational and cult-y, like a desire to live with more ecological awareness, environmental sustainability, or to only eat vegan.
Unlike communes, intentional communities are willing to use the tools of the privatized world to achieve their aims for sustainable living. But sometimes the power of these economic tools gets too much to handle and the community ends up destroying its own values in the process.
Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California is the archetypal story of how youthful socialism decayed into middle-aged conservatism. It began, in 1962, as a radical alternative living retreat where thinkers from Aldous Huxley to Fritz Perls experimented with theories of behavioral psychology and human communication. Now it acts as a five-star holiday spa charging $100 a night to stay in a shared dorm, where the only way you can visit is if you sign up for an expensive mediation/healing/mindfulness workshop.
Esalen discovered that what they had created was marketable, and that they would have a much easier time "living different" if they only allowed the rich to take part in their game.
Grow Heathrow, a protest squat in a derelict greenhouse complex near Heathrow airport, is a community that's pushing the other organizational extreme. Environmentalists seized the land in 2010 to oppose the building of a third runway, and since then the community has been truly anarchical: There are no fixed jobs, no cooking schedules, and no formal application policies.
Sounds great, until you see how the lack of government lets the strong exploit the weak, and the lack of a positive raison d'être—as opposed to its negative stance against the airport—has caused micro-politics to flare. The most charismatic members of the community use the space as a playground for pet projects; they design geodesic eco-domes or DJ-booth bicycles, while those with less self-confidence and entrepreneurial vision make sure everyone has enough firewood and aren't bothered by rats. The in-crowd feels little loyalty to the squat because they know it's only a matter of time before they're kicked off the land. The wood choppers and rat killers are the residents who want Grow Heathrow to be their home and their family, and so are prepared to do the dirty work. No one means to exploit anyone, but without a collective future aim the community is unable to manage the workload fairly, and this leaves the "working class" alienated and bitter.
Other communities are doing a better job of balancing egalitarianism with environmentalist progress, but have lost some of the flair, mystique, and openness that draws in a younger crowd.
Sieben Linden is an eco-village in central Germany that's home to 100 adults, 40 children, and almost no 20-somethings. They live in pleasant houses and each use only 33 percent of the electricity of an average German citizen; they're changing the world, but it doesn't smell like teen spirit.
When they first arrived at the site everyone imagined their ideal future house: turrets, slides, balconies, domes; creativity was abound. But when the eco-kids found out that the most sustainable way to build a straw-bale house was to make it rectangular, two-storey and covered with solar panels they succumbed to their higher vision and threw out their romantic designs. Now they're left with the uniform aesthetic of Soviet Russia and a content asceticism that frowns on art for art's sake.
Tamera is the hotter, brasher sister of Sieben Linden. Started by a bunch of Germans in the hills of southern Portugal the mid-1990s, Tamera calls itself a "Research Centre for Realistic Utopia." Much like other progressive living experiments, they believe that one route to this utopia is to encourage the open and honest communication of personal fears and desires. They've also got some kookier policies, such as talking to animals to stop them from eating crops, using a stone circle to communicate with siblings in Palestine, and an avowed belief that polygamy is the surest way to avoid jealousy.
But its not these eccentricities that cripple Tamera's utopic dream, it's their ironic lack of willingness to question their own system. I visited with 200 other curious newcomers on a 12-day "get-to-know-us" immersion course. On the last night us greenhorns were allowed to creatively express how the community had made us feel. One group of plucky amateur actors made a satirical theater piece that poked fun at the German strictness of the "camp," the awkward complexity of how to invite a potential partner to a "love space," and the overall self-importance of the eco-village. The jovial mockery hit a nerve. Instead of reflecting on this honest but critical feedback, the Tamerians rejected the satire as offensive and disrespectful. This community—one that preached the importance of deep and intelligent communication—was letting pride and self-righteousness block it from reading the lesson in the art. There is no summer immersion course planned for 2015.
Tamera's self-protectiveness may block them from attracting inquisitive allies, but shedding your radical beliefs altogether seems a surer path to entropy. Sunburst Sanctuary in southern California is (only just) living proof.
Los Angeles, 1968. Three-hundred free spirits follow Kriya meditation guru Norman Paulsen into the Santa Barbara foothills. They herd sheep, weave baskets, and live celibate. Ten years later they've had kids, bought houses and started businesses. Now they're a 20-strong community of lovely 60-somethings whose grown-up children—long bored of meditation—have joined the modern world. With no heirs and no new followers, the community has no one to maintain the meditation center or look after the collective farm. By diluting their zealous poverty with the comforts of modern life they offer no inspiring ideology to tempt in the young questioners of the world.
But if young hearts are what's needed to keep a community alive, where better to start one than a city? Lois Arkin founded the Los Angeles Eco-Village in 1993, and has been leading the urban house-sharing project ever since. The intentions are the same as many eco-villages: use bikes, re-use grey water, have solar panels, eat together at least once a week. The difference is that people can do normal jobs—lawyers, electricians, journalists—because they're not stuck out in the wilderness. The Los Angeles Eco-Village is a perfectly reasonable way of dealing with the cost and loneliness of living in an urban jungle, and a great example of how to live more sustainably in the modern world. It's just a little too close to normal life for the radical romantic in me.
Ironically, the most wildly expressive place I visited on my tour of communes wasn't actually a commune. Burning Man is an arts and music festival you'll have already heard of. If you haven't, the basic vibe is that thousands of people gather at a location in the Nevada desert where money is banned and everyone is encouraged to share. The people are extraordinarily friendly, extraordinarily drunk and have spent so much money preparing for the party that sharing isn't much of an ask.
When 60,000 people enter a desert, rich and jobless for one week only, craziness is easy to come by. Thing is, when you're trying to build a sustainable plan for new ways to manage humanity and tend the Earth, you need patience, discipline, and sobriety.
Emerald Earth, a tiny Redwood-shrouded community in northern California, has a new members policy to match the Illuminati. One of the four permanent members (two more are on a year-long probation period) gave me a checklist of what they look for in new recruits: lived in nature before, have a business project that uses the community land to earn an income, be familiar with physical labor, experience of living in another intentional community, have good email decorum, and admin skills. This might seem paranoid, elitist and businesslike, but it is simply a way to ensure the community stays strong enough to sustain itself.
This is what I've learned from my journeys to communities: they are not hippy playgrounds for kids who hate their parents. They are serious endeavours by committed activists who want to experiment with sustainable ways for humans to live together and look after the planet. And in order to achieve this aim within our global capitalist society they've had to open bank accounts.
There is a simple impasse between the practicalities of intentional living and the image of rebellion one might expect from a commune. If you're more interested in feeling like you're breaking the rules than working for real change, head to Secret Garden Party, take acid, get naked, and climb a nine-meter statue of a fox. Like this guy.
All the communes I've visited were started and maintained by thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive people who have a commitment to a cause. This doesn't mean they are particularly welcoming, self-effacing, irreverent, or happy: they are not showmen, they are not entertainers, and they're not all that wild. They are normal people living a slightly different life to the rest of us, struggling to live more consciously and simply in this increasingly mechanized world.
To read more about Rich's adventures in intentional communities, visit his blog.