My Watson year is now officially over, unbelievably enough! The Returning Fellows conference at Carleton College in Minnesota just closed this morning. It was incredible to connect with the other 39 fellows who have been pursuing the projects they were passionate about all over the world over the past year. Many fascinating people, projects, and stories, which I will cover in a future post.
For now, I wanted to share my final presentation, which was supposed to be a 10-minute summary of my experiences of the year. A 60-photo slideshow accompanied the below speech I read, which I will post once I shrink all the images to upload.
“While I was an environmental activist in college, I became convinced that the solutions to the global crises we are facing could only be achieved on a local level. In the course of my community environmental activism, I heard about the ecovillage movement that pursues this grassroots vision for sustainability.
My Watson was called “Holistic Environmentalism: Community Approaches to Sustainability.” By holistic environmentalism, I mean ways of life that are ecologically, economically, socially, culturally, and spiritually/psychologically sustainable all at once. For the past year, I have been living in communities where people are trying to live lives that are more connected to themselves, each other, and nature.
I have found that no one ecovillage has successfully integrated all the aspects of holistic sustainability. However, each place has its area of specialty or “one piece of the puzzle.” When these pieces are taken together, a sense of what is necessary for combining the component parts of sustainability into a cohesive whole begins to crystallize.
Along the way, one of the most crucial lessons I’ve learned is that “sustainability” is not the best word for what the environmental movement is seeking. Once I was asked the question: “why do you want to live sustainably?” This was fairly disarming, as I had taken sustainable living to be an obvious goal given our global environmental predicaments.
Upon reflection, I came to realize that living sustainably is necessary but not sufficient as a goal for human life. If someone asked how your relationship is going, for example, you would hardly want to answer “well, it’s pretty sustainable.” Is “sustainable” life really what we are seeking? If so, what is it we are seeking to sustain – the current consumer lifestyle, just stretched over millennia? Though sustainability has become the buzzword of the environmental movement, it does not qualitatively describe the kind of life we want on this planet.
In my opinion, and in the opinion of most ecovillagers, consumerism is a state of being that does not represent the realization of human potential. Based on my experiences this year, I’ve come up with a different notion for what the sustainability movement is seeking to articulate and achieve, which I call vibrancy. I define vibrancy as living life fully amongst life lived fully, or to experience all aspects of human being in healthy social and natural environments.
Quite simply, I believe that environmentalism is, at its core, is about one thing: life. Life, in all its complexity and diversity and beauty, in all its manifestations in the plant, animal, human, and bacterial worlds. Life, the only thing that could matter to us as living organisms. The visceral, joyous lust to live and flourish among the expansive wonder of this planet we simply call Earth, the source and stage of our existence.
I believe that what the environmental movement strives for is not so much sustainability, but rather vibrancy. Humans living as if Life was the principal thing that matters in life: their own lives, the lives of other humans, the lives of organic beings generally, the vitality of the living systems that produced and continue to sustain us. To breathe in fresh air, to drink clean water, to eat delicious food from the healthy soil, to mindfully inhabit, care for, and contribute to the systems that create and sustain us, to live well together in the broader community of life. Without these things, life is meaningless.
We can seek vibrant rather than merely sustainable lives because doing so makes for a more enjoyable life for ourselves and the rest the species on this planet, right now. The achievement of indefinite inhabitation, a cleaner environment, the well-being of future generations, and so forth are results of this more satisfying way of living, rather than being the primary aim.
If activism becomes concerned with the full experience and enjoyment of life right here in the present, then activists don’t become martyrs or burn themselves out. No preaching or conversion is necessary because vibrant lifestyles are naturally more appealing and speak for themselves.
In this way, the ecovillage experiences have represented a breakthrough for my activism. E.B. White once said, “Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it.” This classic dichotomy collapses within the setting of these communities. People are living savory lives while effectively doing their small part to save the world. This has helped me recover from burnout and make my sustainability activism more sustainable.
My Watson has also made me think about the idea of freedom. Ostensibly, I was free this year – traveling the world pursuing my passion for sustainable living. The Watson allowed me, in its brilliant phraseology, “surcease from the lockstep of prescribed educational and career pursuits.” This freedom from the rituals that comprise life for the overwhelming majority of humanity in industrialized nations is precisely what drew me to the fellowship initially.
My year has been a success in that I experienced many ways of living that don’t involve just going to school or getting a job. This has been compelling and enjoyable enough that I have no plans to live a life someone else has designed for me. I am planning to continue the Watson lifestyle – which is to say a free life – for the foreseeable future.
I immersed myself in communities that themselves were trying to achieve freedom. The freedom they sought was freedom from systems with which they disagreed – social, political, economic, and industrial systems that they saw as eroding the human and natural fabric that hold the world together. The initial move away from the old systems was a saying “no,” but the establishment of an alternative is a saying “yes” and building a life they desire.
For many, this meant starting from a blank slate – a piece of land upon which a human life had to be forged. In New Zealand, the toil of communities wanting different lives was rewarded with what has been called “A Hard Won Freedom.” Essentially, this freedom means having an enjoyable, ecologically sustainable, socially rich, and economically viable life that has been created together with other people who share the same vision.
Though some people I talked to said that they were glad they went through the arduous labor to establish sustainable community, they said that given the choice, they would not do it all over again. It’s also worth noting that the freedom that they worked so hard to enjoy was enabled only by living in a well-off industrialized society with benefits like social welfare and developed infrastructure provided by the state.
One ex-communard related to me his feeling of irresponsibility at having created their “alternative” lives thanks to the benefits enabled by a tax-paying society, which he viewed himself as not contributing to by not having a proper job besides working the land, thus living an illusion. Others expressed resentment at being part of a nation living off the backs of developing countries.
Similarly, the freedom of my Watson year was enabled by the excesses of an untenable economic system as well as an industrial infrastructure that is changing the ecological conditions under which civilization and life as we know it have evolved. In this way, my happy year studying feel-good solutions of vibrant human life was only possible thanks to everything that is unraveling human and non-human life on Earth.
For these reasons, I will need to do more thinking and acting as I move forward, doing the best I can to exit deleterious systems while simultaneously building systems which are conducive to life. The questions I hold include: what is actual freedom and how can it be realized? How does it feel to be fully alive and how do I bring that celebration of life into the creation of vibrant systems?
Some people have called me brave, but being paid to live my dreams is more luck than bravery in my opinion. The true bravado will be determined by what I do next, whether I am able to stick to my high aspirations and craft this free vibrant life for myself.
The Watson has given me the courage, possibly the demand to live differently. How could I go back to a heteronomous way of life, knowing what I now know and experiencing what I have experienced? For me, the blessed surcease demands creative lifestyles moving forward.
To close, I want to share a Howard Thurman quote, who is a fellow Haverford alumnus. This quote has been relevant to me as an activist, but is also relevant to anyone thinking about what to do next: ‘Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.’”