Who hasn't dreamed of leaving behind city life for a peaceful village setting? It's the kind of daydream that many have, but few carry out. Jack Santa-Barbara, professor, entrepreneur, and Hamilton-area resident, decided to take the plunge in 2007, and not just to any old peaceful village either - Atamai Village in New Zealand aims to be both a pleasant place to live, and a model village for creating a decentralized and sustainable society.
We had a long-distance discussion with Jack about the VIllage concept, its pros and cons, and what motivated him personally to take part in this venture.
Hassan Masum: Jack, Atamai Village sounds like an interesting concept. What's your 60-second pitch for it?
Jack Santa-Barbara: Thanks, Hassan. Well, Atamai Village is a project for anyone seriously committed to contributing to a sustainable way of living as we face the challenges of peak oil, climate change, and a host of other ecological challenges. Our notion of sustainability is based on ecological principles of living within the limits of the planet, and as much as possible, within the limits of the village site itself.
Using a permaculture design we are looking at capturing the existing energy flows on the site (solar, wind, rain and soil), and rather than wasting them as now happens, putting them to good use in meeting the critical needs of village residents. The project is about creating ways of living that are satisfying and enjoyable, while respecting the limits of what the local and surrounding ecosystems can provide.
Considerable research and thought has been put into the design phase of the project. We anticipated the current economic meltdown, we expect it to continue rather than rebound, and we feel that settlements like Atamai will be absolutely essential to living well on a planet that has been pushed to its ecological limits.
HM: Let's see how that would work in practice. Suppose I were to apply and be accepted to move into the village: what are the top few advantages I would experience in my daily life?
JSB: First of all, let me clarify that it is not a matter of applying and having to meet some specific set of criteria to become part of the village. It is an open village concept - anyone who shares the vision and is willing to abide by the covenants is welcomed. We are hoping that people will largely self select.
It is also important to clarify that the village is in the very formative stages - the land has been purchased, considerable research has been done to inform the design process, and a formal application has been made to local council for the first phase of 11 dwellings - later planned to grow to about 40. So there is still lots of opportunity to participate in the design and development process if someone is interested.
The area is physically very attractive - a bike ride to the coast (and neighbouring town of Motueka), surrounded by snow-capped mountains in winter. This is the sunniest part of New Zealand - summers are in the low 20's (Celsius) during the day, and low teens at night. Winters are the wetter season (about 1000mm of rain a year), with very few frost days and the temperature getting into double digits most days - all in all, pretty pleasant.
As for advantages of living in the village - let me list a few:
- You will enjoy food security - the permaculture design of the village area itself, and the adjoining garden areas and orchards will mean healthy, local organic food is available year round.
- You will enjoy energy security - firstly because your home and the other infrastructure of the village will be frugal by design, requiring minimal energy inputs; also by design, the energy inputs required will be provided by renewable sources - the sun, the rain and the soil.
- You will enjoy water security, as the rainfall captured on roof tops and in ponds and dams will provide for domestic and garden use; the dwelling grey water systems will ensure good use is made of all water resources; adequate water storage for fire safety will also be included in the design.
I emphasize these advantages, although many people might take them for granted - in a future challenged by climate change and energy descent, these basic necessities will become increasingly difficult to secure.
HM: Aside from the security aspect, can you be more specific about any positive points I would experience if I moved there?
JSB: Yes, there will be many other advantages of the village as well:
- You wouldn't have to commute to work because you would likely work in the village.
- Your home will be low maintenance and heated with a passive solar design - so very efficient to keep comfortable.
- You would stay healthy by walking or cycling around the village sites.
- You would have use of village equipment to transport goods - eg a small electric vehicle for hauling goods or people if necessary.
- If you need to travel outside the village, you could make use of the village car sharing program - greatly reducing your transportation costs.
- As a villager, you are automatically a member of the village trust and participate in decisions about how the village commons are developed and managed.
- You will be living in a community where people share some common values about sustainability, but where diversity is embraced and where individual initiative and perspectives are appreciated.
- You will be able to enjoy the many amenities the village provides - hiking trails, shared equipment for work and play, recreational ponds and fields, a community centre with sophisticated communications equipment.
- You will have a direct say in decisions about where you live, play, and likely work.
HM: It certainly sounds attractive. A number of potential disadvantages come to mind, though, such as cost, remote location, extra responsibilities vs a traditional dwelling, and risk of an untried model. How would you address these?
JSB: You've got lots of questions there - and good ones. Let me take them one by one.
Costs are always an issue, but what we are striving for is diversity, as there would be in any traditional village - only we hope this one will be more egalitarian and without a hierarchical structure. So while the costs of the individual land titles will vary and be comparable to similar titles elsewhere, we are also looking for ways that can involve people with limited financial resources.
Rental accommodation will be one option, or a lease to rent approach. We are also looking at co-housing, as well as a sweat-equity option. We are very aware that a genuine village will not work if only people with financial resources live here, but who do not have any real skills that will be essential to sustain a functional village economy. While a final decision has not yet been made, we are looking at reserving a certain number of titles for key trades people - carpenters, electricians, plumbers, permaculturists, etc - to ensure the village has room for these folks. We recognize the need to be creative with attracting people with the necessary skills, and given the current economic downturn, the village actually presents an attractive option for people with these skills, as the village becomes a base for them to both live and work.
The site is less than a half hour bike ride from the neighboring town of Motueka - it's small, but we have been really surprised at the variety of activities and events here. Not only do we have terrific Indian and Thai restaurants, two movie theatres (one offering alternative movies), and two bookstores, but there have also been string quartets, a guitar-violin duo, wonderful marimba performances, gospel choirs, Tibetan flutist, etc. And this is just Motueka - in the neighboring town of Nelson (just under an hour by car) there are regular arts and film festivals, and any products and services you would expect in a town of 50,000.
If you need a Toronto or Vancouver to be happy, this is probably not the place for you. But we are not feeling deprived in any way by the rural character of the area. This area has been a draw for alternative lifestyle people for decades, so there are a lot of interesting folks around. And because the population is relatively small, we have access to politicians at all levels.
You also ask about the extra responsibilities associated with being part of the trust. If someone sees this as a disadvantage, then the village is not for them. If someone sees this as an opportunity to be part of their community, contribute to its well-being, and actually enjoy the working through of issues with like-minded people, then involvement in the trust is an advantage. In the village, people will take responsibility for local decisions and their family's well-being.
Your question about an untried model is also an interesting one. If the climate, energy and economic changes we anticipate come to pass, much of our civilization will be going through considerable upheaval - many people will be in untried waters. The size and structure of the village trust makes the adaptations needed more manageable - local people making local decisions about local issues. We think that this will eventually evolve as the most sensible response to changes that will be difficult to anticipate. The village model provides an opportunity to get ahead of the curve and begin practicing, before driven to it by dire necessity - village life is how most people lived sustainably for most of human history.
Let me also come back to the question about isolation, in terms of New Zealand rather than just the rural setting. Again, this is not for everyone, but the geographic isolation of New Zealand has some distinct advantages, along with the features of a relatively small population (4+ million) and the capacity to produce food and fibre. The country is capable of being self sufficient in essentials - a good thing in a uncertain world. Because it is physically difficult to reach, we will likely not see large numbers of environmental or economic refugees (although New Zealand has taken in many people from the south Pacific whose islands seem to be disappearing). And with a maritime climate, many of the direct impacts of climate change will be reduced. The relative isolation will also push for greater self sufficiency - before economic globalization took off a few decades ago, New Zealand did most of its own manufacturing, and that is possible again.
Whether the "potential disadvantages" you suggest are in fact disadvantages depends on many things - personal tastes, to some extent. But we see some big changes coming for industrialized societies as we know them - changes triggered by more severe climate patterns and the consequences of climate change, energy descent, and the economic turmoil that is likely to ensue from these two major developments. We also think that the current pattern of industrialized societies are unsustainable - even the so called "green economy" initiatives now being promoted. We take ecological limits seriously, and are looking for ways to respect them while living comfortably. We think we will all be forced to face these challenges sooner rather than later, and feel that the sooner we struggle with these challenges, the better off we will all be - this is really the key vision of the village.
HM: Quite a diverse range of factors at different scales, from personal tastes to global trends.
What have you learned from previous intentional communities, regarding what works and what doesn't?
JSB: I should first say that Atamai is not an intentional community in the traditional sense, and we generally don't describe it that way. It is only an intentional community in the sense that there will be covenants to support the ecological design of the village infrastructure and the dwellings.
Most intentional communities are organized around shared social issues - religious beliefs or philosophies. Atamai is organized around diverse ways of living sustainably. A central issue will be creating businesses in the village that fulfil this goal - whether it is organic food production, sustainable forestry, or even an engineering operation geared toward appropriate technologies. We would like to support and encourage these types of sustainable businesses that focus on providing essential services.
Over a year ago, we had a facilitated visioning exercise. It was initially designed for interested parties to articulate their ideal village. In the process it became evident that, while there were many common elements, individuals' ideal villages were very idiosyncratic. It is unrealistic to meet individual ideals. So we stepped back from the question of what is the ideal village from individual perspectives, and refocused on what the common elements were.
What we came up with was the focus on the broad issues of sustainability, social justice and aesthetics - and a healthy respect for individual differences, and acceptance of those differences. In fact, we see the diversity of interests and orientations as strengthening the community, as long as the basics are respected - and we hope to accomplish that with the basic design features, and the formal covenants.
HM: Let's focus in on your own personal story. How did the idea for this village come about, and what motivated you to get involved?
JSB: After a friend gave me a copy of Herman Daly's "For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future" back in the mid 80's, I became very interested in [ecological economics], and came to see it as a very important approach to many of the major challenges humanity is facing. So at the end of 1999 I sold the company I had founded some 20 years earlier, and immersed myself in ecological economics. It led me to view climate change and peak oil (along with a number of other major challenges - see my website Sustainable Scale) as critically important issues that we were not dealing with in any reasonable way.
The role of relocalizing the global economy became a unifying theme for moving toward a solution. If part of the problem was ecological overshoot driven by a focus on profits through economic globalization that only exacerbates inequity, then part of the solution had to be integrating the economy and the environment at the local level. My understanding of the implications of peak oil (and other fossil fuels sooner rather than later) made it clear that we were going to be forced to relocalize - whether we want to or not. Our entire industrialized civilization is based on cheap oil. And that is coming to an end, despite the current slump in oil prices.
When you understand peak oil, and the issue of net energy, and the time and effort it will take to reorient our complex societies to these new realities (along with the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss), you realize we are already behind schedule by a significant margin.
The relocalization movement was sticking its head up in a variety of ways - The Natural Step for Communities movement is perhaps one of the older versions of it. More recently, Michael Shuman's work on the benefits of relocalizing the economy, and the relocalization work of the Post Carbon Institute, have all brought relocalization more to the foreground. And the Transition Towns initiatives inspired by Rob Hopkins has a lot of vigour right now.
All of these more recent versions are in addition to what has been happening with the intentional communities and ecovillage and co-housing movements that have been going on for some time. I see all of these as different expressions of the need to reconnect with each other and with the natural world on which we depend - each with its own emphasis and perspective.
While I had been working at the national and international NGO level on these global issues, progress was slow and frustrating. So I decided to rebalance my activism portfolio if you will and put more energies and thought into relocalization. I looked around for a project to get involved with and came across the Atamai project that had already begun in New Zealand. I visited the project and worked with the group for a month, then went back to Canada to discuss the issue with family and friends.
After a lot of discussion we decided to give it a go and make the move to New Zealand and contribute to Atamai. Aside from the benefits of New Zealand, the Atamai project had a unique feature that added to the attraction - the idea of creating a traditional village settlement. Humanity has endured in these traditional village structures for millennia and across continents, so there must be something useful about village life that we need to learn more about.
A lot of thought and research had already gone into the design for Atamai when I arrived, so my involvement has been more with the implementation - working with the local council, beginning to market the project, etc. There is still quite a bit to do so if there are people interested in what we are doing, there is still considerable scope to contribute to many aspects of making the village a success.
HM: It sounds like you decided you could do more good through building an actual community than through advocacy, and perhaps get more fulfilment at a personal level as well.
Could you say more about your personal decision to "give it a go"? How specifically did you move from thinking about the idea to taking the leap from Canada to New Zealand? What factors went into your decision?
JSB: Well we don't see it as an "either or" situation. We are still involved with advocacy at national and international levels, but whereas those areas were where we spent most of our time before, now they are clearly secondary to our main focus of the village. There is no doubt in our minds that advocacy at the larger levels is essential -but we also believe a lot of the solutions are local and providing a local working model is a way of connecting the two. It is not a matter of fulfillment as much as where the need is greatest and we feel we can have the most impact.
At a very personal level there is another element at work - our family - grown children and our grandkids. We think there is a more than even chance that industrialized societies are unravelling and that there will be considerable chaos - economic and social. So having a sustainable community - frugal by design I like to say - plus a supportive community, is one way of providing security in an uncertain future. So aside from seeing the issues from a broad societal perspective, there are very personal concerns for the safety and well-being of our extended family. One son will be joining us early in the new year, and we remain hopeful that the other two will in the future.
The area where the village is being planned is a Transition Town, and there are three Transition Towns nearby, so we feel it is an encouraging sign that communities around us are concerned with the same issues and looking at relocalizing existing communities. Although our experiment is starting de novo, I suspect we will learn a lot from each other.
We don't pretend to know what the future will hold - except that there is likely to be much more uncertainty just about anywhere you look. And given the range of uncertainty - from just requiring minor adaptations to a general breakdown of modern civilization - we thought a risk management approach made the most sense. If we believe the future will have some dramatic changes but we cannot predict with any certainty when they will occur and just how dramatic they might be, then the best approach is one where we do things that will leave us better off regardless of what happens.
We think we are doing that. The sustainable village as planned will provide considerable resilience against the vagaries of climate change and energy descent. So if it happens we will be well placed. If the changes take a long time to develop and lots of adaptations occur in the broader society, then we will still have provided a demonstration of how to live comfortably and well with a much reduced footprint - and live in a beautiful place to boot. At the same time, we continue to be involved at the national and international levels on these issues, so there is nothing escapist or isolationist about what we are doing.
HM: That seems like a carefully considered approach. It's interesting, though, that you had to move halfway around the world to find the right community. Shouldn't it be relatively easy to set up a similar community in Canada?
JSB: There is an ecovillage movement in Canada, but it is relatively young and there are not a large number of examples. Some are quite small groups - a dozen or so families - and many are clearly counterculture in orientation. All of these initiatives are important experiments and should be nurtured and supported. Due to municipal regulations, it is not always easy to up the structure for an ecovillage. There is a group in Caledon, Ontario that took 10 years to get local council approval for the dwelling design they wanted.
But the local authorities are only one of the challenges to establishing a new type of human settlement - and these challenges exist in New Zealand as well as in Canada. I think it could be done in Canada, and I would encourage more people to get involved.
Our reasons for choosing New Zealand had less to do with the ecovillage movement in Canada than with the idea of what North America would be like if there was a major economic and social unravelling. As the epicenter of the high consumption lifestyle, the shocks of climate change and energy descent are likely to be resisted in North America more forcefully than in other parts of the world. My intuition is that North America may be one of the last places to voluntarily make the adaptations to a sustainable lifestyle. I suspect the notion of entitlement to the "good life" is too ingrained to be relinquished in favor of a comfortable and sustainable frugality.
I don't know what will happen in the future, but it is easy enough to envision a very shaken North America - with significant unemployment, economic depression, social unrest, and increased violence. Concentrations of people in too many large cities could make it difficult to adapt with the changes that are needed - more local food production, focus on the real economy of essential goods and services (now less than 10 % of the overall economy), supportive communities working together to solve problems, and so on. It is not at all clear to me that the number of people now living in North America is sustainable, even with a localized economy - one not dependent on large imports from other countries.
Again, I am not trying to make a prediction about North America, but merely identifying what I think could happen there. If there is any reasonable chance that such a scenario could play out, I would rather be working elsewhere to develop a sustainable form of human settlement that might have some chance of succeeding. Not that New Zealand is a utopia by any means - there are environmental as well as economic and political difficulties here too. But the scale is so different that it makes a difference in terms of the impact you can have, and in some ways it is a simpler society to deal with. Also, the fact that it is an island nation means that it is not far from most people's consciousness that they have to be relatively self-sufficient.
The reasons we ended up in New Zealand are because we first spelled out the criteria for where it might be feasible to successfully establish a sustainable settlement of some sort. We wanted a place where a lot of energy did not have to go into keeping warm. We wanted a place that had a biocapacity surplus - that is, where the lifestyle consumption is less than what the land can provide. While the New Zealand ecological footprint is high by world standards, New Zealand does have a surplus.
We also wanted a place with a small population - just in case there are large migrations of people searching for food and jobs, as in the Great Depression. We wanted a place with a tradition of a parliamentary democracy. Ideally, we also wanted a place that had a tradition of exploring alternative lifestyles - so there would be lots of local examples to learn from, as well as to provide mutual support. If you search the planet for those particular criteria (which others may or may not share), then there are not a lot of places to consider.
These are clearly very personal decisions and I am not suggesting everyone should move to New Zealand. But I do hope knowing about what we are doing and why will encourage others to take these issues seriously and work out what they think is best for their families. Everyone's risk assessments and risk management approaches will be different - and this is as it should be.
HM: Could you expand more on how you engage globally while acting very locally in this way?
What strategies and tools do you suggest to others in a similar position? And what role, if any, do you see for the internet and video-conferencing?
JSB: Both Joanna and I remain active with organizations we have been involved with in the past. Jo is a long time member of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and the Canadian chapter of that organization, Physicians for Global Survival. We are both involved with the Centre for Peace Studies at McMaster University (a peace through health project in Afghanistan), as well as Transcend: A Peace and Development Organization; each of us is engaged in writing books with the founder of Transcend, Jo on reconciliation, and me on peace business. I am also on the board of a couple of environmental NGOs, and last year wrote a monograph on biofuels for one of them, the International Forum on Globalization. Both of us also continue supervision of students from various universities, and Jo has been invited to do some guest lectures in Wellington later in the year.
I guess one of the lessons here is that you don't have to disengage from many of the activities you are already engaged in- many of these are not location dependent. And if the organizations you are involved with are truly international, then you have a readymade network wherever you go. While we may not have the same face to face contact with former colleagues, the histories we have with them remain meaningful. And internet with video calls and conferencing can go a long way to staying involved.
Another activity that is planned is that the village will engage in educational work. This will be both onsite, as well as via the internet. This educational work is part of the mission of the trust that is developing the village. That is one of several reasons for planning a major communications facility within the village. In our wilder moments, we envision consulting on developing sustainable villages in other locations.
Another aspect of the larger-picture connectivity is that international experts actually come to our area. Last night, we had our second dinner in as many weeks with two Transition Town trainers from the UK who are on a world tour of existing and potential transition towns. Today. we had lunch with a local colleague who spent several weeks at Schumacher College last year and is planning to return there for more workshops later this year. We discussed his giving a public lecture when he returns. A few weeks ago, a local colleague who is involved with the World Health Organization and looking at the relation between climate change and human health on a global level led a discussion over dinner, along with a visiting Australian member of the IPCC on the climate - health connection.
The internet also plays a continuing role in our connecting with colleagues over proposals to the new US administration, as well as formulating and endorsing petitions on a variety of issues.
So you can see we have no sense of being isolated or removed from the "broader society." I think it is a bit of an illusion that one has to be in any particular place to remain active globally - indeed, it is an illusion to assume we can act "globally." We can only engage with specific issues - some of which are local and some of which are elsewhere. But, other than for strictly local issues, engagement can be done from anywhere, even the sun-drenched hills of Motueka.
[HM] Thank you for your time, Jack - and best of luck in your efforts!