Awhile back, Alex Steffen posted an interesting riff speculating on the potential for a new kind of sustainability movement, “a crusade of open sharing” that would spread the brightest green practices to decaying cities and flailing suburbs around the globe with “missionary fervor.” It would be a sort of inverse of the medieval crusades – he dubbed it “The Outquisition,” borrowing the name from Cory Doctorow and the mission statement (“the ruins of the unsustainable are the 21st century's frontier”) from Bruce Sterling.
It put me in mind of a recent trip I’d made to Queensland, the vast, wild state in northeastern Australia. Like many Aussie states, Queensland includes a wider range of landscapes than all but the most enormous of nations, from the modern metropolis of Brisbane to the dense rainforests of the far north, from the teeming shoals of the Great Barrier Reef to the forbidding wastes of the Outback.
My wife and daughter and I decided to include in our itinerary a few days’ stay at Crystal Waters, one of the oldest and most renowned ecovillages on the planet. Crystal Waters serves as a sort of living lab for the “permaculture” design philosophy of Max Lindegger. Founded on a broad patch of denuded hillside about 90 kilometers northwest of Brisbane in the mid-1980s, Crystal Waters today is a lush, semi-agrarian township of about 200 souls that sprawls across 640 acres of thick forest and deep valley. The populace delightedly shares the land with grazing wallabies and kangaroos, deadly venomous snakes and an increasing abundance of indigenous plants, trees and birds.
Crystal Waters was, on the surface, a stellar example of classic conservation in action – a human settlement so finely tuned to its natural setting that it verged on William McDonough’s lofty design goal of becoming a restorative enterprise. The ecovillage was actually improving the biodiversity of the valley in which it was situated. What’s more, Crystal Waters was a charming place, achingly beautiful like a series of postcards of Edenic perfection and populated by bright, friendly and engaged citizens. The sky filled each night with a billion stars, and in the first light of dawn the wallabies came out onto the green lawn next to the little guest cabin where we were staying to graze on the wet grass. It made you kind of wish you lived in a place like this, a place so pretty and pristine, so committed to the earth’s health that dogs had been banned to keep them from chasing away the valley’s rightful inhabitants.
I couldn’t help but feeling, though, that whatever future Crystal Waters pointed to was already all but lost. It was geared to a conservation model that still hasn’t been fully recalibrated for the realities of the Anthropocene Era, and it was difficult to see many core lessons it might offer to The Outquisition.
There was, for example, the tricky fact that the place was all but unreachable except by private automobile, and that the nearest purveyor of even rudimentary supplies was half an hour away at highway speeds. (Crystal Waters has a small café at its community center, but it keeps sporadic hours and is in any case no kind of general store.) We were there for the 20th anniversary party, and we were a little surprised to find that even the pizza dough being fed into the community center’s nifty handmade cob oven was store-bought prefab stuff, as was every topping piled upon it. And of course there was the omnipresent 800-lb. Anthropocene gorilla of the earth’s population, seven billion strong and ratcheting steadily upward and already long past a number the earth could hope to carry if we all lived in semi-agrarian townships.
Not long after arriving, my wife and I met a young couple with a daughter about the same age as ours, and they invited us to their Crystal Waters homestead for dinner. They’d just bought the place, selling a dream home in suburban Brisbane close enough to the ocean they could hear the waves. He was a media rep for a national organic agriculture organization, and they worked together on an organic food delivery service. They were still half in love with their Brisbane lives, and you could feel the ache of their decision even as they delighted in the details of their new abode –the verdant vegetable garden, the little pond down the hill, the passive solar design.
To hear them tell it, the harsh realities of the global climate and energy crises had finally left them with no choice – wherever sustainability was, they reckoned it was emphatically not in Brisbane’s sprawling suburbs. They were after something closer to self-sufficiency. They’d kept chickens even in Brisbane, and they’d brought their brood of roosters and hens out to Crystal Waters. They had one too many roosters now, though, and they’d been agonizing over the inevitable necessity of its demise. Neither of them had yet found the stomach for the ax and chopping block.
It struck me that neither needed to. Their goal, shrouded as it was in practicality and undeniable virtue, was misaligned on some fundamental level. The village butcher is an institution that predates not just the curvilinear suburban avenue but the internal combustion engine. It exists in part because not all of us are cut out for killing our own dinners. Self-sufficiency of the sort my new Crystal Waters friends were chasing in fact predates agriculture, and it might well predate what we regard as humanity. We have always lived together – there is no precedent in human history for the self-sufficient nuclear family – and we have always divvied up the community’s tasks to some degree. I wonder if even among our hunter-gatherer ancestors there were some who’d preferred to just fire the initial shot and others who excelled at seizing the fallen beast and delivering the fatal blow, others who found skinning and carving and cooking more to their liking.
A few days later, we were guests in another home – a classic postwar bungalow in suburban Brisbane. Australia is nearly a decade into its worst drought in at least a century, and water conservation has become routine in much of the country. In this Brisbane bungalow, the showers stalls had little hourglasses the size of AAA batteries suctioned to the tile. As I recall, they were freebies – I never learned from which level of government – and the idea was that you flipped the hourglass as you started your shower. It gave you a visual cue when you’d reached your recommended four-minute limit.
The shower hourglass was one tiny but ubiquitous example of how Brisbane was slowly learning to adapt to the new realities of the Anthropocene. I have to wonder whether it isn’t a more valuable tool for The Outquisition than keeping a chicken coop, than anything devised in a rural ecovillage. I mean no disrespect to our Crystal Waters hosts, nor to the idea of permaculture. I just wonder whether the truly sustainable ecovillages that fuel The Outquisition won’t look more like suburban Brisbane than like a pre-industrial Eden.
Chris Turner is the author of The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, a global tour of the state of the art in sustainable living. He lives in Calgary. He keeps a poorly maintained blog and can be reached by email at cturner [at] globeandmail [dot] com.
Photo credit:Ashley Bristowe
I live in the Last Green Valley, the Quinebaug-Shetucket heritage corridor in eastern Connecticut, USA. Broken mills crowd around the rivers in a string of market towns that hug the river; hill communities dot the landscape on either side, little settlements with woods and farms surrounding them. Even here, suburbia is creeping in.
There is so much potential for sustainability here, and so much opportunity for permaculture — the dams and canal along the rivers could be resurrected, the mills could be rewired for solar power and high-tech work, as well as green-style manufacturing, and the populace is educated and hungry for something new. Yet as in the 1850s through 1870s, the region must function together: the harbor of New London must connect to the transfer point at Norwich, must connect to the mills further up-river. We need to think of ourselves as a region bound together by common history and common future, and that will build the kind of sustainable culture in which 4-minute hourglasses exist alongside chicken coops and green energy. We cannot think of ourselves as villages; we need to be larger than towns, and smaller than states, to accomplish these new goals.
You raise some interesting points in this post. I was wondering why the Crystal Waters family didn't ask one of their neighbours to help them out with the rooster - or even sell it/give it away rather than kill it.
A new sustainable village is being built closer to me, and I think has taken on board the lessons of earlier attempts at environmental communities. Somerville is planning ahead to have a village centre, which (theoretically) should provide employment for about half the residents. They're hoping to attract a doctor, butcher, grocer, etc and set up regular car pools to the nearest bus station for school kids, etc.
Interesting thoughts chris but i must say i would like to have heard more from the people themselves rather than your reflections. no diss but i feel that inside out writing is better than outside in writing.
also in regards to water whilst brisbanes water restrictions have worked wonders in reducing the consumption it's not the be all and end all. in fact it would be smarter to deck out houses with a timer that turned the shower off after four minutes rather than the hour glass which the individual can turn over. this is done in pools and sports ground around australia.
Chris - you bring up some valuable points but I think you come just short in your final analysis of where sustainable living needs to go:
"I just wonder whether the truly sustainable ecovillages that fuel The Outquisition won’t look more like suburban Brisbane than like a pre-industrial Eden."
I contend the sustainable future we need to strive for looks like both; the suburban 'wherever' model and the ecovillage model. Population densities will be high regardless of what overpopulation measures occur. Yet high population densities do not restrict homes from permaculture practices or even a modern ecovillage model.
In order to persist as part of an ecological system we need to mimic ecosystem services in our lives. Meaning some folks live in densely populated areas with systems that improve ecological services. The technology is there. Just takes organizing and willpower. Thanks.
I think there is an essential misunderstanding of permaculture. Permaculture does not necessarily demand us to return to a pre-industrial eden, although many adherents of permaculture think this way.
Permaculture is a set of design tools that enable us to become more sustainable within the limits posed by the ecosystem within which we operate, and the social demands we have. Good permaculture design unites the possibilities dictated by the environment, with the day-to-day realities of society in today's world.
In other words, an urban sustainable lifestyle is just as much part of permaculture as a pre-industrial eden.
Permaculture was born in an era where being sustainable was equated with rural self-sufficiency, so the design manuals all talk about farm design and nature conservation. If permaculture was born today, in a city, it would treat zones not as parts of your farm, but parts of your community.
All permaculture really demands from us is that we take a long hard and critical look at our needs (not wants), and try to satisfy them in whatever way is most sustainable. If we live in a rural area, then local eco-friendly food production may be the answer. If we live in cities, then collective action aimed at improving efficiency may hold solutions.
What we don't want, though, is for everyone to misunderstand what permaculture demands, and all head out into some rural paradise. If we all did that, whare would the rural paradise be? In our dreams and history books only.
Crystal Waters seems to be an interesting combination of the pre-industrial Eden and alternative suburban living. It made me wonder what all the people there do for a living... do they all work from home, or are many of them commuters that drive to work like everyone else? How would the residents' vehicle miles pencil out, carbon footprint-wise, in comparison to living in NYC and buying food from a local farmer's market?
As much as the people at Crystal Waters enjoy their lifestyle, which is likely much more sustainable than the average suburbanite, I'm not sure that is replicable. As Chris pointed out, the village butcher was a good idea centuries ago and still remians a good idea. Convincing people to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle is easier and more realistic if it involves buying sustainably raised chicken than if it involves killing your own chicken.
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