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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.'”


I have been living in Sadhana Forest, a reforestation-focused community in the Auroville ecovillage in India for the last two months. There is so incredibly much to say and so much learning to share, but I wanted to start by sharing just three morsels that have evolved over the past two months, in accordance with The Watson Philosophy:

“To remove oneself from the comfort and stability of Home, exploring the World selectively in focused pursuit of one’s Passion, and discovering along the way one’s potential for humane and effective participation in the world community.  The Watson journey is a “solo” experience, to be lived independently but shared broadly with those who cross your path.”

In the spirit of sharing my experience broadly, while at Sadhana I created an “Ecovillages around the World” PowerPoint presentation about my experiences in the first five ecovillages I traveled to: Crystal Waters in Australia, Findhorn in Scotland, Tamera in Portugal, Damanhur in Italy, and Torri Superiore in Italy. Though it is basically a rough first draft attempting to comprehensively document my travels thus far, I wanted to share a copy in order to quench your update thirst. Two test audiences of roughly 50 each eagerly lapped up the first and second manifestations of my presentation, so I hope you enjoy it as well!

Another thing I would like to share, which I also presented while at Sadhana, is an essay I pulled together as part of a weekly “This I Believe” essay-writing series. The theme of this essay was my beliefs concerning “the environment.” I used it not only to cover this, but also my thoughts on the environmental movement being a human potential movement aimed at the full expression of Life (all in 531 words!) After presenting, many people came up to me and said “sign me up,” genuinely expressing their wholehearted acceptance of what I spoke, which was humbling. See what you think by reading it here: Environment This I Believe

Finally, I wanted to take a moment to promote the Watson Fellowship. Wow, what a godsend. I am being paid to live my dreams; the freedom is unbelievable and vital. It has been amazing in my life personally and I think also bodes well for the rest of humanity and for the planet. In my opinion, it’s actually one of the best things happening on the planet and should be available to everyone. To this end, I wanted to share a list of resources that could allow you to craft a similar experience for yourself. It is from one of the most important slides in my presentation, the connections page. I have been receiving quite a few inquiries about finding communities or about opportunities for travel or volunteering, so here is a list of great resources to these ends:

Great resources for traveling and/or exploring other ways of life:


Get out there! The world outside your country is gigantic and begging to be known. As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Purposeful travel and intentional exploration are powerful educational experiences – I can attest to this firsthand. You could argue that instead of spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on University education, you would learn more by using significantly less money to travel for a few years and do things you’re passionate about listed on the sites above.

I have formed a goal to have visited at least as many countries as I am years old for the rest of my life. Even though I have been traveling fairly extensively for the last 5 years, I have only been to 16 countries in my 23 years. And that’s only if you count England and Scotland as separate countries. There are roughly 200 countries, depending on how you count them, so that is far more than a lifetime of exploration – not to mention that many of the countries are so large that you couldn’t explore one in its entirety in a lifetime! To again quote Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

I offer you my friendship, personal correspondence, and support in whatever journey you want to undertake. I want to spread the goodness of this Fellowship and my associated experiences and thoughts as broadly and deeply as possible, to make it alive and relevant for many lives besides my own. This blog is the main avenue I have for doing so; I will continue to update it whenever I am able. Send me an email at thequestionofwhy (at) and I will reply in full.

Has it really been over two months since I last updated this blog? Is my travel year really one-third complete? Is 2010 really over? Since I last wrote, I have spent three weeks in the famous Findhorn ecovillage/spiritual community in Scotland, three weeks in the Tamera ecovillage/peace research community in Portugal, and almost three weeks between the Damanhur federation of ecovillages in the snowy mountains of northern Italy and Torri Superiore ecovillage, a restored 13th-century medieval village in the foothills of the Ligurian Alps of Italy. Currently, I am enjoying a Spanish Christmas and New Year’s spent in Barcelona with my friend Monica (who I met in Crystal Waters) and her family.

Too much has happened to capture everything in one post, so I will attempt a sweeping overview of some aspects of my travels. I have been writing intensely in my journals along the way, but have been far too busy with the onslaught of new experiences to synthesize my thoughts or capture my impressions in blog form.

I have learned, however, that it is better to be doing more living than blogging (sorry to my impatient faithful readers). Blogging can always be caught up with later, at least in theory, whereas the experiences I have when I should be writing are irreplaceable. I am also learning that it may be a good idea to avoid writing about a place until I am leaving or have left, in order to get the fullest possible impression and allow my experience to unfold in its entirety.

This is something that my readers can rest assured knowing: my posts may be infrequent, but when they come, they will have breadth, depth, and be well-considered, unlike the more frequent but frenetic nature of something like Twitter updates. So sit back, relax, read slowly, re-read, enjoy, imagine, and ruminate on each word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph. In this way you will read my blog as I have written it and as it is meant to be read – think of it as the Slow Food movement, but applied to blogs.

When I told one of the dozens of new companions I met in Melbourne that I would be heading next to Findhorn, he replied: “And now, for something COMPLETELY different!” This comment stuck with me because this was exactly the case.

I traveled 40 hours, a total of roughly 11,500 miles (18,500 km for my non-American readers), from southern Australia in Tasmania to northern Scotland via Melbourne, Singapore, Dubai, London, and Inverness. I went from Spring to Fall seasons, from 41 degrees South latitude and 146 degrees East longitude to 57 degrees North latitude and 3 degrees West latitude, from a place where the face of the full moon shows a horizontal bunny rabbit to a place where there appears to be an upside-down bunny rabbit.

Penultimate leg from Dubai - London. It was intense.

The cultural changes were also noted: going from an atheist Permaculture farm to a full-fledged spiritual community. Example: Findhorn celebrates the many small miracles of “manifestation,” as they call them, along their nearly 50-year community history, such as acquiring exactly the right amount of money at the right time to purchase a nearby hotel building to use as a much-needed expanded guesthouse. They celebrate serendipitously meeting other timely financial and material needs through spiritual willing and under seemingly divine auspices. While I was at Bill Mollison’s farm, I told him I would be going to Findhorn and he replied with a story about how he had given a talk to Findhornians in which he called Findhorn a “black hole in the universe of manifestation” because they only manifested things for themselves and their community, while there was a big world out there that could use their help. I suppose that his own lifetime of work in places throughout Africa and other parts of the developing world serves as an example for the kind of manifestation that he was suggesting needed to be done.


Bill Mollison, the co-founder of Permaculture (center), along with teacher Greg Knibbs and me before my departure from his farm in Tasmania. I thanked him for starting the movement, to which he replied: "I have this feeling of, 'my God, what have I done?'"

As many people have pointed out to me, this journey from Tasmania to Findhorn was quite a jump and it would have made more ecological and physiological sense to stop at various points in Asia to see communities there along the way. However, I wanted to attend a Permaculture Design Course in Melbourne from September 20th – October 2nd and an Ecovillage Design course in Findhorn on October 16th, so I had to make this jarring journey in the way that I did. Once more, as with my journey from the States to Australia, it took me a full week to recover from the jetlag, so I have learned my lesson to avoid these kinds of mind-bending/body-draining journeys in the future.

what just happened? Where am I?

Nonetheless, that kind of journey really makes an impression on you with its long transit and intense transitions. I was once again “out there in the world,” being away from the remote comfort of rural ecological communities with their mostly organic food, fresh air, pure water, and healthy ecosystems. I was also away from the social comfort of people with shared values, which was underscored when I found myself sitting next to a Turkish oil businessman on my flight from Singapore to Dubai. He was quite a nice man and we had a relatively lengthy conversation in which I found out that he aspired to study philosophy or social anthropology at some point in his life, maybe after he finishes making his money, and that he had a son who was studying abroad at an American high school in Minnesota through an international exchange program. Whether he was aware of how destructive and deleterious his industry is to our planet, I don’t know. Maybe he was another example of someone who understood the downsides of his career, both for him personally and for environment/society generally, but undertook it anyway because of the financial imperative of our society… I didn’t have the courage to ask.

I saw firsthand what an incredibly vast, incredibly varied, and incredibly complex place our world is, whether you are talking about human society or landscapes/ecosystems. I saw a range of human society, both up close and from above, in all its splendor and squalor, in all of its cultural diversity and developmental homogeneity (transport infrastructure and styles of development are mostly indistinguishable from one another whether you are in Melbourne, Singapore, Dubai, London, or any other global metropolis). I sat in the consumerist nightmare that is the Dubai airport and was one of the few white faces there, keenly aware of my minority status. There I began to understand just how large the human population is and attempted to comprehend its collective effects on climate and ecosystems.

God's eye view over Melbourne at no extra charge.

However, I am also learning to embrace contradictions as an inevitable part of the world in which we find ourselves living. For example, my own ironic heavy reliance on oil-consuming, carbon and pollution-spewing plane travel in order to visit inspiring examples of positive solutions to our ecological and climate crises. One response to this is embracing complexity, for example from Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Another strategy of embrace is justification. One way to justify this is utilitarian: that my potential for global environmental benefit by visiting these places is greater than the global environmental harm inflicted by visiting them. A second justification could be called the “best use” scenario: if the planes are going to be flying whether or not you use them, which they are, you might as well hop on them for a purposeful exploration of the world (i.e. with the intent of transforming yourself and the world) rather than, say, Spring Break partying. In other words, while fossil fuels are still cheap and available (neither of which will be the case for very long), you might as well put them to the most important possible use.

A third justification is something I came across while in Australia called the Transition ethic. I learned from an inspiring young Canadian Permaculture teacher named Delvin Solkinson that the Transition ethic is a fourth Permaculture ethic employed to supplement the to supplement the original three Permaculture ethics of care of People, care of the Earth, and fair share of abundance. The Transition ethic, as written by Delvin, states: “in times of transition it is okay to use unsustainable means when creating a sustainable system. For example there is a machine for use to dig a hole, it might make more sense than spending hundreds of human hours hand digging it. Likewise if we have left over paint it might be wiser to use it up instead of garbaging it and purchasing expensive new eco-paint. The goal is not to use unsustainable technologies, but the reality is that this is okay when in transition” (

More than these justifications, however, I am learning to look at things from several different and complex perspectives, including perspectives outside the traditional environmentalist worldview. For example, from one lens, fossil fuels are a blessing that have allowed us unprecedented advances in knowledge, materials, and even health. You and I probably wouldn’t exist without them: I remember reading somewhere that roughly ¾ of the world’s population wouldn’t have been born without the discovery and rampant use of fossil fuels starting with the industrial revolution (does anyone know the source of this statistic? I think it was connected to a discussion of the so-called Green Revolution, possibly in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma).

As Bill McKibben writes in his recent book Eaarth, a sobering account of the observable global reality of climate change: “One barrel of oil yields as much energy as twenty-five thousand hours of human manual labor—more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses twenty-five barrels each year, which is like finding three hundred years of labor annually… It’s why most of the people reading this book don’t do much manual labor anymore, and why those who do use machines that make them hundreds of times more powerful than their forebears.”

Talk about miracles of manifestation! One such machine of power multiplication is a computer. That is incredible enough, but then you have the emergent level of millions of connected computers (and accompanying humans) that is the internet. It is impossible to comprehend the embodied amount of energy and knowledge and information in the internet! Just imagine what the world would be like if we each and collectively used this UNWIELDY amount of power for good. Another example of using possibly deleterious energy/technology for good would be consciously using planes to expand your consciousness, global consciousness, and with this increased awareness transition the world towards healthier technological, economic, political, social, industrial, and personal systems. That is to say: a healthy human ecology.

so much more power than ever before. Use it well.

But I digress; back to my narrative. On the plane, I was preparing text for a blog post:

“Here I am on this seemingly interminable journey from the very south of Australia to the very north of Scotland. The long-leg transits are seemingly interminable but also very temporal, just like my Watson year itself, one-sixth of which has already elapsed. I am on the penultimate plane leg, having traversed Tasmania – Melbourne, Melbourne – Singapore, Singapore – Dubai, and now Dubai – London before I head from London to Inverness, Scotland. From Inverness I take a bus to Forres, where I will have my first official CouchSurfing experience with an interesting man named Torsten who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Germany. He has since traveled the world widely and been impressed by the unrelenting kindness, hospitality, and intrigue of all those he met along his way; he now wishes to return those favors by hosting travelers himself.

I signed up for CouchSurfing because I think it is an example of one of the noblest possible uses of the internet – to bring people together virtually to make the real world a better place through cultural exchange. CouchSurfing basically connects people who are willing to host total strangers traveling through their home area with travelers looking for a free place to stay with a local willing to tell them about or show them around the area. Though I could have stayed relatively cheaply at a Findhorn Bed and Breakfast with people likely to be very interesting themselves, there is something more adventurous that requires more of an abandon and blind faith that gives CouchSurfing its potential for unique/excellent experiences. I hope to incorporate CouchSurfing experiences along my way to broaden my experiences of people, their ways of life, and the places in which they live.”

The CouchSurfing experience was interesting indeed. Torsten picked me up in Forres at 6 p.m. in his giant tourism business van (“Experience Scotland Differently” emblazoned on the side) and took me back to his farmhouse. He was a very lively and amicable chap, engaging me in vibrant conversation, which I did my best to reciprocate despite my fatigued state. He offered me coffee and snacks and we conversed for a while. I received fascinating perspectives from him on Findhorn, as he had lived in the community with a wife and child for two years before they separated and he left. He had problems with community members who thought they knew the best, most spiritual way for him to live. He told me that he had enough of people knowing the answers to the right way of living when he was behind the wall in Germany and that he felt a GDR vibe in Findhorn.

Though I probably should have crashed at this point after 40 consecutive hours of transit, Torsten asked if I wanted to go out to the pub with him and some of his friends. I heard him say that one of his friends would be playing music there. Feeling unreasonably awake at that moment and abiding by my decision to say yes to every new experience possible, I said sure, why not? Normally I would not have gone for this, but as the truncated Gandhi quote on the Watson guiding philosophy card reads, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself…” The part they left out was “in the service of others.” Perhaps a more relevant quote would be: “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time” – André Gide. Basically, in order for this journey to have the maximum transformative effect on me, I am trying to put myself into situations that I would not normally be completely comfortable with in order to expand my horizons.

The pub turned out to be nothing more than a pseudo-club at which his friend was deejaying, which was nothing I hadn’t seen before in a place where and at a time when I didn’t want to experience that. However, I suppose I did get a sense of (one particular subset of) the local population. Most importantly, through Torsten I met an awesome young guy named Alex who is involved with Permaculture projects in Mexico City! I have been blown away by all of the switched-on young people who I have been meeting in droves during my travels. I am going to craft posts on amazing and inspiring youth, featuring interviews with a few of them.

We ended up staying way longer than we should have, getting home at 3 a.m. The next morning, my alarm didn’t go off at its intended 10 a.m., but luckily Torsten woke me (“are you dead?”) and offered me a fresh cup of coffee. Between the jet lag and the late night, I was fairly obliterated, but I did my best to grab a bite to eat and get my things together before he drove me to Findhorn. All things considered, the late night at the pub-club was probably not the best way to start my Findhorn experience, but it was the first of many contrasts that made my visit all the more interesting.

I will detail my Findhorn experiences in a future post, but for brevity’s sake and to stick to the themes of this post, I will here only outline a few of the interesting contradictions that I observed and experienced. One is that Findhorn, a famous international mecca of ecospirituality and peace, is located next to an air force base, which I found out on my first day there. I was looking at their wind turbines, when all of a sudden to my complete astonishment a fighter jet took off and ripped through the air! “What is that?” I asked. “A Scottish Royal Airforce base,” someone replied. “Are you serious?” I asked in disbelief. Why had no one told me this before? This juxtaposition made no sense to me; it was too blatant and drastic to be true.

wind turbines at Findhorn. Airforce base lies just behind.

On another occasion, we were participating in a “council of all beings” where we made face masks of an animal or plant whose spirit called to us and we were supposed to represent this being in a meeting of all beings to discuss the state of the world as seen through the eyes of a particular non-human species. While I was drawing the shape of a frog face on cardboard with crayons in a serious atmosphere of silence with 25 other adults, the thought occurred to me: “my God, I have officially gone off the hippy deep end.” (Sorry, but I don’t think any pictures of this exist.)

Once our masks were complete, fastened to our faces, and we had gotten into the character of our chosen being by hopping, scurrying, slithering, barking, swaying, or whatever the appropriate behaviors may have been, we began a somber single-file procession to the fire circle out in the sand dunes. While we were in the circle, we each introduced ourselves along with the concerns of the species we were representing. There was quite a gravity to the situation; many non-human beings of the world are imperiled, after all. During the speech of my favorite character “one-eyed stray cat,” as played by my wonderful friend Val, the ever-skeptical atheist Bulgarian man, a fighter jet tore through the air above our heads, probably breaking the sound barrier at Mach 3 and completely drowning out our dialogue.

Finally, I remember going on a walk one evening before sunset. I set out through the woods and felt a serene feeling come over me as my solitude and the cool damp canopy of the pine forest enveloped me. Thoughts and reflections began to emerge. A few steps in, I started noticing orange markers on the trees. Then, I started noticing that the trees were planted in rows at regular intervals. I realized that the pleasant natural environment in which I was finding rejuvenation was most likely a lumber plantation that was planted solely to be harvested for wood. I enjoyed my walk anyway, perhaps even more after having this contradictory revelation.

I came to understand that contrasts such as those described above in my plane travel, my CouchSurfing experience, and my selected Findhorn experiences are necessary. They are not distinguishable as simply “good” versus “bad” – these words represent human judgments and are not real distinctions in nature. These categories are black and white; our world is a multidimensional spectrum of kaleidoscopic color. As I later learned in Tamera, “everything is Vasudeva,” or all is divine/everything comes from God. My friend Chiara, an Italian woman who told me this phrase, explained to me that ancient gods and goddesses such as Shiva and Dionysus were intrinsically ambivalent. They were neither good nor bad, but rather both simultaneously: creative and destructive, masculine and feminine, life-giver and death-giver. Only thought and morality and religion allowed separation between these contrasting forces, which had previously been understood as being interconnected. Like what Hamlet says: “there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Fossil fuels have ironically and in a roundabout way brought us closer to understanding just what our role as a species in ecosystems is: though we have been the facilitators of systematic and systemic global environmental degradation, we can become (and are recognizing that we need to become) healers of ecosystems and facilitators of abundant living systems for ourselves and the rest of life on Earth. Similar to the way in which we learn from every experience, good or bad, the mixed blessing of fossil fuels has taught us many things at great ecological and health expense, including that we have to find a different basis for our civilization if we hope to live healthy lives in healthy environments into the indefinite future.

Dolomite Mountains in Italy, en route to London. Thank God for fossil fuels - airplanes offer an experience of divinity

Interestingly enough, the airforce base is being shut down because of the economic crisis. Some may be prone to celebrate, but this means the loss of about 5,000 jobs and a potential economic crisis in the region. Apparently the airforce base provides two-thirds of the jobs in the region, while Findhorn accounts for the other third. There are actually representatives from Findhorn meeting with regional government to discuss local economic responses to this emergency situation. Thus, Findhorn may have an important hand in redesigning the local economy! I will get more information on this for a future post.

To quote Les, the awesome local baker of Crystal Waters, “Funny old world, this one.”

I love it.

Caspar David Friedrich's painting "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" pretty well encapsulates my feeling upon winning the Watson Fellowship

On Friday, March 12, 2010 at approximately 1:50 p.m., the course of my life dramatically changed for the better. I found out that I won a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to travel the world for a year!

It was a drowsy day for me, having stayed up past 3 a.m. the night before, not being able to sleep for anxiousness over the weighty, life-altering decision that would announce itself to me the next day at an unknown time. Sitting at my computer node in the Washington, D.C. offices of The Wilderness Society, I held my breath while booting up my computer, loading Firefox, and entering my Gmail credentials in anticipation of a 9 a.m. inbox check for the email that would change my life. Gmail’s screen was blank, save for the blue indicator bar that told me “Loading ‘…'” Out of the white void, my inbox appeared. Nothing was there, at least nothing that my future was looking for.

I went on to wearily execute my tasks for the day, checking my email at fifteen-minute intervals (or, perhaps, a lot more frequently). Noon rolled around, I refreshed my inbox once more, and: nothing. Not being able to keep my eyes open, brain crumpling from exhaustion, I announced to my intern colleagues David and Jyhjong that I would be heading home for lunch to my apartment, conveniently located two blocks away. Lunch turns into an hour-long nap, which I half-heartedly cursed upon waking. I ate a hurried lunch and headed back to my office sometime after 1:30.

Enter communal cubicle. David and Jo-Jo (the rendition of her name used so as to be pronounceable to American tongues) greet me. I sit down in front of my screen, refresh my Gmail inbox, and see “Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Announcement” sitting at the top of my inbox. “It’s here!” I exclaim. They swivel in their chairs to watch as I execute the mouse click of fate.

Message loads. First word seen: Congratulations! “I got it!” I yelled, instantly swiveling up and out of my chair, turning to David behind me and giving him a huge hug. Jo-Jo is also out of her chair, cheering and hugging me from behind in what becomes a Tim sandwich. Short, swift breaths escape my lungs in rapid fire to decompress the anticipation. I settle back into my chair to read the rest of the email along with the attached documents that outline the new direction my life will be taking.

I have been awarded a Watson Fellowship to travel through seven countries on five continents over the course of a year, independently carrying out my self-designed project “Holistic Environmentalism: Community Approaches to Sustainability,” which can be summarized as follows:

Holistic Environmentalism: Community Approaches to Sustainability
Argentina, Australia, India, New Zealand, Nicaragua, United Kingdom, Thailand

“Permaculture communities, ecovillages, and Transition Towns are three types of communities that have emerged as international movements in order to attempt ecologically, economically, socially, and spiritually sustainable lifeways. I will travel to five continents living in these three types of communities in order to study the theory and practice of sustainability in intentional and conventional communities across cultures. I intend to explore the ways in which human life can become more holistically sustainable with respect to environment, economy, society, and self.”

In layman’s terms, I am going to live in communities that are trying to lead environmentally-adapted lifestyles to see how and how well their visions of sustainability translate into reality. Click here for a more detailed project description, here for the personal narrative I wrote explaining the development of my project, and here to see all the other awesome projects that were accepted.

This all started last year, when I received an email from my Dean on April 14, 2009: “$25,000 to Go Anywhere in the World–Interested? See Below!” Hell yeah, I was interested. I read about this thing called the Watson Fellowship that allows graduating Seniors to explore a long-standing, deep-seated passion of theirs in the form of a self-designed project involving travel to any countries outside of the U.S. where one has not previously visited.

The email contained an attached “Watson Description Memo,” which read: “The mission of the Fellowship Program is to offer college graduates of unusual promise a year of independent, purposeful exploration and travel outside of the United States in order to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership and to foster their humane and effective participation in the world community.” I was completely intrigued and thoroughly appreciative of their mission.

I continued reading: “The Program provides Fellows an opportunity for a focused and disciplined year of their own devising—a period in which they can have some surcease from the lockstep of prescribed educational and career patterns in order to explore with thoroughness a particular interest. During their year abroad, Fellows have an unusual, sustained, and demanding opportunity to take stock of themselves, to test their aspirations and abilities, to view their lives and American society in greater perspective, and, concomitantly, to develop a more informed sense of international concern.”

Surcease from the lockstep of prescribed educational and career patterns? The phrase struck me and firmly resonated. It was as if someone had designed this Fellowship precisely for me. This was obviously the opportunity I had been waiting for to test my ideas about how life might be. What other chance would I get to break away from the set path and really try out my own ideas about how life and the world might be? Who would pay me to explore my path of inquiry in the world? Who would pay me to live my dreams?

As the Watson Fellowship press release said, “FORTY COLLEGE SENIORS ARE AWARDED WATSON ‘DREAM’ GRANTS.” Nothing could be more accurate. That is how the Watson Foundation should market their Fellowship: the Watson Dream Grant. It is this exactly.

As cliché as it sounds, I’ve always been a dreamer. I try to systemically analyze the problems and then craft creative, intelligent, holistic, systems-thinking solutions. As an environmental activist and as a philosopher, there is nothing more pleasurable to me than making an idea become a reality. I love it when my ideas or words on a page become manifest in the real world. So far, this project has proved to be my best and most valuable idea: 6 pages turned into $25,000; many years thinking turned into a year of traveling. I will milk it for all it is worth and begin spinning the web of a life’s work out of all that arises from my inquiry and activity along the way.

I sometimes wonder whether the achievement of an idea or an ideal would spoil its intrigue and motivating power. I’ll soon find out, I suppose. Do the thoughts in my head and the letters on my pages translate into lived experience in the world? Is the actuality of traveling the world exploring your passion really as dreamy as it seems when it is in your mind? Are the utopian-esque attempts to live ecologically harmonious lives really amounting to anything in their physical manifestations?

Environmentalism seeks to deliver the fullest, healthiest expression of human existence in the context of a robust, thriving non-human community that includes a variety of organisms, soil, water, and air (collectively: what we call the “environment”). Up until this point, (the most dominant strain of) humans have lived in ignorance of or at least in opposition to their broader environmental context. They sought to tame nature and appropriate all things non-human solely for human use. That which was useful became commodified, and that which had no place in our collective affairs and pursuits (collectively: the “economy”) were discarded or overrun by the human community. The environmental movement simply seeks to establish (or re-establish) a provident human place in nature that is healthy for humans and non-humans alike. We cannot harm the environment without harming ourselves. We cannot help the environment without helping ourselves. We are an integral part of nature and have always had an appropriate place in ecosystems; it is only recently within the last 10,000 years that we have overstepped our capacity or “overreached,” as Aristotle would say.

It’s easy to forget why exactly we engage in the struggle for creating a sustainable society amidst the doom-and-gloom, often negatively reactive work that can characterize environmentalism. Quite simply, it is about one thing: life. Life, individually and collectively, existentially and biologically, in all its complexity and diversity and beauty, in all the different species manifestations in the plant, animal, and bacterial worlds. Life, the only thing that could matter to us as living organisms. And yet, so much seems to impede this visceral, joyous imperative to live and flourish among the expansive wonder of this planet we simply call Earth, the source and stage of our existence. To live life fully amongst life lived fully: this is the ultimate spirit of environmentalism. To breathe in the 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. Without these things, life is meaningless. Ecovillages, permacultures communities, and Transition Towns are three small attempts at living environmental lives.

But let me not get ahead of myself. There will be plenty of time to wax philosophical, and there’s certainly no way to figure it all out (tonight in this blog post, this year, or even in a lifetime). If you’re interested in reading more about my thoughts on sustainability and the environmental movement, check out this abridged version of my Haverford Senior thesis in environmental philosophy entitled “Beyond Environmental Morality: Towards a Viable Environmental Ethic(s).”

I’ll undertake this journey for those who don’t have the privilege to, for those who might already be locked into the career lifestyle or path-to-career training that we call education. Everyone should be able to have a Watson year or more. Perhaps a Watson lifetime would be ideal: to constantly pursue your interests and grow and develop and travel and explore and learn and think and write and experience and live. I will do so for the next year and more, sharing what evolves here.

I’ll leave you with the closing lines of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day“:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”



p.s. if you have ideas on how to best capitalize on this unprecedented windfall opportunity that is the Watson Dream Fellowship, do share them with me by email: thequestionofwhy (at)