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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.'”

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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!

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.

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.

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 ‘thequestionofwhy@gmail.com…'” 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?”

Cheers,

Tim

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) gmail.com.