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“It’s hard to make things that don’t already exist,” Daniel Connell, the 32 year-old inventor of the SolarFlower told me one day as we were building the third ever prototype of his device, “It’ll be a while before I want to do it again.” He’s spent last two years developing this home-makeable parabolic solar energy collector from scrap materials in order to revolutionize energy production in the developing world.

 

Father and son: Daniel with the SolarFlower

 

Daniel is a professional 3D animator who normally works five or six weeks per year, though for the last two years he has chosen not to have a job. During this ample free time, he travels the world pursuing personal projects. This allows him plenty of time to invent things that don’t yet exist. The elegant functionality of his device is so brilliant in its simplicity that it’s hard to imagine it is the product of a long difficult design process.

 

completed SolarFlower number three at Riverside community in New Zealand, May 6

 

However, his toil hasn’t been in vain. In the process of making the SolarFlower, he has invented possibly the world’s simplest to construct heat engine, possibly the world’s most efficient water wheel, and a solar trough collector that is one of the easiest and cheapest to build in the world. All of this using things like an old bicycle, discarded aluminum sheets used to print newspapers, and energy drink cans. “A bicycle’s like a buffalo,” he says, “you can use every part.”

 

two of the mechanisms responsible for turning the unit as it tracks the sun

 

The key innovation is to automatically track the sun without the use of electronics or clockwork, through a simple mechanism that uses the sun to boil a small amount of ethanol and produce motion. This is constructed from materials such as a peanut butter jar, some bike parts, and aluminum foil.

 

wheel made from energy drink cans which turn the main collector when heated ethanol cycles through them

 

The SolarFlower collects sunlight in a parabolic trough, focusing it on a central fixed black copper pipe, heating a liquid which could be water or oil. This energy can then can be used for anything from water heating and purification, electrical generation, cooking, bio-char, heating, gasification, and so forth. Here is Daniel giving a basic rundown of how it works:

 

 

You can watch a time-lapse video of the SolarFlower tracking the sun here:

 

 

The device is open-source, which means opening up the design process from one of privacy for the purpose of profit to openness for the purpose of global collaborative innovation. The full 3D design and detailed instructions are available for free to everyone.

 

explaining it to the masses

 

Daniel says he accepts that no matter how simple the device, ninety-nine percent of people will likely not be willing or able to build one. But if one in every hundred produces enough for a hundred people, then that’s everyone. He encourages the development of small-scale manufacturing and installation companies to spread the device.

 

a community effort

 

The SolarFlower, along with the open source design approach and deployment it represents, marks the emergence of a new type of technology with a pioneering spirit of independence. The focus is on devices that can be built by normal people and employed in their lives now to achieve decentralization and resilience in the way that things are made and done. It is a perfect manifestation of an emerging movement called Open Source Ecology.

 

a resilient future powered by beams of light

 

The guys at Open Source Ecology are working to develop an entire array of devices like Daniel’s – not just renewable energy producing devices, but also tractors, steam engines, sawmills, laser cutters, and 46 other home-makeable machines designed to re-make civilization according to an open-source, decentralized, sustainable model.

This “Global Village Construction Set” can be seen as a life-size Lego-like building kit of “modular tools that can create entire economies, whether in rural Missouri, where the project was founded, in urban redevelopment, or in the heart of Africa.” Of course, the approach is much the same as the SolarFlower: open-source, low-cost, do-it-yourself, closed-loop manufacturing using scrap materials, distributed economics, and more (read the OSE crash course.)

Daniel and the Open Source Ecology guys are prime examples of what might be called “bioneers,” people who are among the first to research and develop truly sustainable solutions to our global problems. The Bioneers conference is a yearly gathering of such people – it’s similar to the popular TED talks, but purely for social and environmental sustainability innovators.

However, we can’t rely exclusively on bioneering people like Daniel and OSE – it’s a big world with lots of solution building and spreading to do. As the Bioneers conference organizers point out, “Today’s challenges are so huge and complex that they require collaboration and cooperation on large scales.” Open-source approaches to sustainability like SolarFlower and OSE are about intelligently doing the work of world-changing together as a world. That means stepping up and contributing your piece, whatever your skills, talents, and passions might be.

The point is this: we don’t have to wait for corporations to design the solutions we need and sell them to us at high cost; we don’t have to petition the government to do something about changing our energy sources. These institutions are too large, too slow, and too caught up in playing their own games to be able to achieve the changes that need to happen.

The most powerful institutions of our time are missing in action, but we don’t need them anyway. We can be the designers and implementers of a new world, solving the greatest problems of our time for ourselves right now. We can show them the way forward: “when the people lead, the leaders follow.”

this is a future I like

 

There are many ways to be a part of the movement for real solutions:

1) Spread the word about SolarFlower and Open Source Ecology by emailing, Facebooking, Twittering, etc.

2) Contribute financially to the movement, as both rely on what is called “crowd funding” or funding in small amounts by many people in order to do their work.

  • Open Source Ecology is supported primarily by its “TrueFans,” people who are essentially patrons of their work and allow its continuing development. They will also be kicking off crowd funding projects on Kickstarter this June to help meet their 2-year goal of developing all 50 Global Village machines by 2012 with $2.4 million.

3) Contribute your skills and expertise to the open source design of these devices. If you see a design flaw in the machine or have an idea of how it could be better, contribute to the forums. The online communities are crucial to the development and continual innovation of these mechanisms.

4) Build and install SolarFlower and the OSE machines for yourself and others! Not only will you be more self-sufficient, but you could make some money in the process if you wanted.

5) OSE has a comprehensive list of how to get involved.

6) Make your own world-changing solutions and share them widely with others!

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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) gmail.com 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” (http://www.gaiacraft.com).

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.

Last week, I learned an important lesson about sustainability. I had the privilege of visiting the Tarkine rainforest in Tasmania, the largest temperate rainforest in Australia at roughly 447,000 hectares (1,104,561 acres). The forest has been around for 65 million years (!) since Australia was a part of the ancient continent of Gondwana, which included modern Antarctica, South America, Africa, Australia, and more. The Tarkine was inhabited for over 40,000 years (!) by the indigenous people of Tasmania.

me absorbing the wisdom of a giant tree in the ancient Tarkine rainforest

This is the timeframe we are looking at in order to achieve sustainability – our goal should be to create a society that survives until our sun burns out (and possibly after – we could become quite crafty in that multi-billion year timeframe). But the question is: what society or way of life is it that we are trying to sustain?

I ask this question because unfortunately, the settlers thought they knew better than this incredibly long-lived culture that successfully inhabited ancient land. In the 1830’s, at the order of the Governor of Tasmania, they rounded up the tribes and literally drove them off cliffs, destroying their entire culture in less than one generation. They proceeded to fell trees for timber and clear land for agriculture, but luckily didn’t take out very much of the place, unlike less fortunate areas in the world.

Do we really want to continue the kind of culture that destroys ancient cultures and even older environments? Though for the most part we are no longer actively extirpating indigenous people, we are still clear-cutting old growth rainforest worldwide for toilet paper and other equally superfluous uses. The present consumer lifestyle places economy as the sacrosanct purpose of human life while eroding community, family, health, and the environment. It scarcely needs to be pointed out how egregious it is to destroy the robust products of billions of years of evolution for a flimsy human product that will be carelessly used once and then permanently forgotten.

the place reminded me of the movie Fern Gully - a place so pristine and ancestral, who could think to disturb it?

That night back on the farm, we spent quite a while building a campfire to ameliorate the damp chilly weather. When we victoriously finished and sat down to warm up, a downpour of rain commenced. We all went back to the chilly kitchen area, where the farm intern Jose said of our extinguished fire: “it took ages to put it on, and seconds to put it out.” I immediately connected this comment with the aforementioned extinguishing of aboriginal culture and rainforest. What makes us think we are wiser or more important than ancient cultures and prehistoric landscapes? Who could have had the brazenness to make the first tree cut, or the malevolence to kill the first aboriginal instead of starting a dialogue? Wouldn’t it make more sense to align ourselves and our society with these primordial, time-tested ways of human life and living systems? The processes and products of evolution of the natural world (which includes humans and our diversity of cultures) offer billions of years of wisdom, so long as we are intelligent enough to observe, learn from, and honor this vast repository of life experimentation.

three youth chillin' on the spongy soft forest floor - Eric (from San Francisco), Sam (from Tasmania), and myself. We're all keen to use nature as a teacher in our design of vibrant human systems.

On a separate but related note, I realized that I passively adopted the ubiquitous buzzword “sustainable” in my lexicon and blog title without critical reflection. Pretty ironic for a self-described philosopher, no? Anyhow, I realized that perhaps what the environmental movement strives for is not so much sustainability, but rather vitality. Read: a society centered around Life. Humans living as if Life – their own lives, the lives of others, the lives of organic beings generally, the living systems that produced and continue to sustain us – was the principal thing that matters in life. Imagine that! Not the economy, or jobs, or things as being the stuff of life, but Life itself.

When stated so simply, it seems to be a truism, but when we zoom out and take a look at the bigger picture, the patterns of human life and society as they presently exist are not centered around Life – neither in the way that they function, nor the goals toward which they operate. In fact, our modus operandi tends towards lives and livelihoods that are not only completely out of touch with the modus operandi of biology and ecology, but often in opposition to these foundational life sciences. What does it mean for us as organisms when our systems sabotage the living systems that created us, the systems upon which we rely for our continued and healthy existence?

How complex yet unintelligent of a system we have created! How abundantly easy to call its bluffs! How difficult to craft and inhabit alternatives. However, we are intelligent beings and we will creatively rise to the challenge – I have seen examples of ecologically-grounded living in all three of the places I have lived so far in Australia. I am still trying to work out the language for what it is that the environmental movement is seeking – not just sustainability, which is an obvious necessity, but also viability, vitality, and/or vibrancy. We are seeking not merely to survive and continue our present systems for as long as we are able, but also to thrive in the context of a human society recalibrated to function within the contexts of Life broadly speaking (I first start to elaborate this concept in the last four paragraphs of my first blog post).

Seven weeks have elapsed since I arrived at my first destination in Australia, so the time is ripe for the first update from my travel year. I’m now in Tasmania for a Permaculture practical course, having just been in Melbourne completing a two-week Permaculture Design Course (PDC). Before that, I spent five weeks in the rural Crystal Waters Permaculture village. For now, suffice it to say that Permaculture is a holistic design system that creates sustainable and abundant human settlements in harmony with nature. The idea and movement originated here in Australia in the early 1970’s from David Holmgren and Bill Mollison (who is now 84 years old, taught the first PDC in 1972, and was one of the two teachers of my course). Much needs to be said about Permaculture and the rural/urban contrasts in Permaculture living that I have been observing, but for now let me start at the beginning of my trip. Forgive me in advance for the length; the sprawling intro is meant to convey the enormity of the time and energy investment it took me to get here and the disorientation/re-orientation process I have been going through since my arrival Down Under.

On Friday, August 13, I packed my material life for the next year into one 85-liter, 48-pound backpack, another 51-liter, 34.5-pound backpack, and a Baby Taylor travel guitar into its hard black case and hopped in a car to catch my plane to Brisbane, Australia. 32 hours later, on Sunday, August 15 (Saturday the 14th didn’t exist for me because I crossed the international date line), I found myself in the paradisiacal Crystal Waters community, a Permaculture village of 83 residential lots located on 640 acres of bushland about two hours north of Brisbane.

Happy to be traveling

A car, three planes, two trains, and a bus took me as far as Maleny, a small inland town with a beach-town vibe about 25 minutes drive from Crystal Waters. From here, I was to find a ride by asking around at the local food co-op and adjoining restaurant. The workers were very friendly and accommodating, but no customers in either place seemed to be headed to Crystal Waters. The mutual suggestion from each place was to hitchhike, as it was a sunny Sunday and I was assured that someone was sure to pick me up on his/her way out of town into the country. The woman at the co-op helped me make a “Crystal Waters” sign with a black permanent marker on a brown folded paper bag and I headed towards the roadside.

The day was gorgeous, the town idyllic, and the people smiley; I thought the first car to pass would pick me up. The traffic was sparse and I held up my sign in between eating a bag of sweet potato chips and drinking a bottle of organic carrot-apple-ginger juice. After about 10 minutes of standing, eating, sign-raising and thumb-upping, and still no ride, I started to wonder if I looked suspect. I looked at my reflection in a shop window – tall lanky white dude with slightly tousled, slightly greasy curly blond hair from a long overnight, mostly sleepless plane ride, teal t-shirt, khaki shorts, hiking boots, and sunglasses – nope, nothing too alarming or out of the ordinary for this area. The southern hemisphere sun beat down on me and I contemplated pulling out my sunscreen. Patience, I told myself. The clock read 1:10. At 1:30, I told myself, you will return to the co-op and try to find someone there; failing that, call Christopher, my host-to-be in the community.

Eventually, a friendly-looking guy named Chris pulled over in a small Kia-like SUV. I loaded in my huge backpack, my smaller backpack, and my guitar, occupying the entirety of the remaining space in the cargo area. We got to talking as we drove through the winding narrow country roads, his friendly and frequent eye contact making me a bit nervous around the turns. Automatic small talk kicked in, though I was a bit disconnected from what I was saying. While my mouth moved, my eyes alternated between trying to take in the expansive landscape that was somewhat reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and making momentary eye contact with my benevolent chauffeur. I was approaching my 32nd consecutive hour of travel. The jet lag, the unfamiliar landscape and people, my lack of knowledge of where we were going, and the fact the steering wheel was on the right side of the car instead of the left and we were driving on the left side of the road instead of the right all contributed to a state of thorough disorientation.

Chris and I were amicable and our conversation was convivial, despite a barely detectable note of mutual suspicion. He informed me that I was only the second hitchhiker he had ever picked up. The first one he picked up had a guitar in tow; I found out that the reason he picked me up was because I was also carrying a guitar, which indicated to him that I must be at least somewhat of a good person. Kudos to my awesome Aunt Beth for insisting that I take a guitar with me and buying me a very nice travel guitar! It has proved to be a valuable travel companion, both practically and emotionally.

Chris told me as we wound through the scenic countryside that there were tons of kangaroos in the area and that I was bound to see many during my time there. I didn’t really believe him, as kangaroos were the stuff of Discovery channel shows that inspired me to want to travel to Australia as a kid. We entered Crystal Waters, not really sure where to go, neither of us having been before. All I had was a number – lot 65. As we carefully wound through the roads in the neighborhood, scanning for lot numbers and following them incrementally, we saw a tribe of kangaroos in an open field! He stopped at my request and I snapped a few photos in amazement. I knew that I was in a special place and kept my senses as open as they could be in my hazy dream-like state.

Kangaroos in the field

Kangaroo with Joey in tow

Soon, we found lot 65 and pulled in. No cars were in the driveway. We got out of the car and walked around the property. I called out to see if Christopher was home, but the whole place was quiet. I was unsure if I was in the right place, never having been there before and not really knowing what to look for, but somehow the yoga mats on the porch, the construction tools in the garage, and the Aum symbol painted on the glass door indicated to me that I was in the right place, based on what I had seen on his website. I assured Chris that I was in the right place and bid him farewell.

pulling into the driveway

I set all of my accoutrements on the porch, pulled out my camera, and walked around the property, beginning to process my new surroundings through the lens of photography. This was necessary as somewhat of a defense mechanism against the overwhelming lushness of my new surroundings.

view from the road

view of front of Christopher's house

Having sufficiently surveyed the property, I was unsure of what exactly to do next. I set out with a blank agenda and walked further along the road. Walking along the hillside, I looked across the valley over the scenic dam and observed several interesting homes. As I wound along the road which carefully followed the contours of the land, I was greeted by a host of foreign yet pleasant sights and smells and sounds: unusual human dwellings of all shapes, all of which had solar panels and solar hot water heaters, sweet scents of eucalyptus and gum trees, and all kinds of birds singing the strangest songs I’ve heard. The day was pristine and the feel of the landscape was Edenic. No cars or people could be seen, smelled, or heard.

After quite a long walk in the blazing sun, I saw a white van pass me on the road. I couldn’t quite see the person who waved at me, or read the writing on the side of the van, but I was fairly certain it was Christopher. I turned around and walked back to the house, greeted and met him, and moved into an awesome loft space in the cabin he had lived in while building his house.

Crystal Waters is an ecologically designed subdivision – an “eco-suburb,” if you will. There are 83 privately-owned lots and two commonly-owned lots, which occupy about 20% of the total 640 acres, while the rest of the land is held in common for organic agriculture and conservation purposes. The developers spent nine months observing and even camping on the land to observe all aspects of the environment in order to determine what kind of development would be best for the land, including microclimates, rainfall and drainage patterns, soil profiles, existing plant and animal communities, and so forth. Buffer zones were established along the river and creeks and ponds to prevent runoff. The areas with the best soil were set aside for common use including agriculture and grazing. The most ecologically unique and sensitive areas were established as conservation zones. Wildlife corridors were established to allow broad roaming for the local fauna.

Only after this process was complete were the lots for human structures selected. This is quite the opposite approach to conventional development, which is solely focused on human use and develops land by bulldozing everything and then imposing a grid pattern. Located on formerly degraded dairy pasture, the land is now covered in trees and ponds established by the developers, which created a panoply of new habitats for humans and a host of other animals.

There are over 175 different species of birds, most of which have arrived after the 1988 inception of the development. There are dozens of frog species, both tree frogs and ground frogs – their sounds are almost deafening at night in certain parts. After it rains, one has to watch out because the ground becomes alive with all kinds of frogs and toads, as if they sprout out of the soil. One also sees salamanders skittering around, another species which is having a hard time in conventionally developed parts of the world. Both of these amphibians are indicators of ecosystem health – when they are thriving, the ecosystem is thriving, and when they are absent or declining (as is the case in most other parts of the world), the ecosystem is faltering. I saw (and often worked outside next to) kangaroos and wallabies every day! There are platypuses and eels in the creeks. Bandicoots, wild bush turkeys, and echidnas (little hedgehog-like fellows) hop, meander, burrow, or scratch in the shrubs.

The ecosystems, most of which were created or encouraged by the development (rather than debilitated or destroyed), are INCREDIBLY alive, right down to snails and centipedes and grubs and worms and spiders and ants in the soil. The land is so rich that the development is actually a government-designated Wildlife Reserve. The magic of the place makes me want to see subdivisions designed like this all over the world. Development doesn’t have to be ugly and detrimental; it can be beautiful and ecologically beneficial. I can only imagine what the development behind my home in Mt. Airy would be like if it had been designed by ecologically-minded developers.

I loved life in Crystal Waters. I met many fascinating people, participated in a host of great conversations, and richly engaged in diverse experiences, observations, and thoughts that I will document in greater detail in a separate report. I am working on an assessment of the holistic sustainability of the community – not only environmental sustainability, but also social, economic, and psychological/spiritual sustainability. For now, I’ve got to keep having new experiences in new places with new people.

In a way, my Watson project is an extension of my thesis: I am exploring in 3D whether and how humans can live sustainably on Earth. Crystal Waters is a shining example of a central assertion that my thesis relied upon: not only can humans and nature live in harmony, but also the human presence can actually increase the species richness of an area, as it has done on the village land. It is inspiring to see examples of people building healthy lives for themselves and the land and to be a part of these solutions.