Q of the Week: Back to the Land

As I help out with the work of getting Raven’s Knoll ready for next year’s festival and events season, I find myself thinking about all various attempts by ecologically conscious people to go “back to the land”. That is, I’m thinking of all the people I’ve met over the years who have dreamed of building eco-communes, intentional communities, and the like; those who dreamed of living in an environmentally sustainable or low-impact home, on a mostly self-sustaining organic farm. On Philip Carr-Gomm’s blog I saw a link and a video about That Round House, a low-impact “deliberate peasant” home in Pembrokeshire, Wales. My girlfriend then sent me links to a cob home in British Columbia, and also a cordwood home in eastern USA.

I must admit, these are beautiful homes. Indeed I’d be delighted to live in a place like Hobbiton, making my own bread and wine, and raising money through a few carpentry projects, and through writing philosophical books and traveling to book-signing and speaking gigs. I’d be following the footsteps of a few philosophers who I admire, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, who walked across the Alps alone as he composed his early works, or Henry David Thoreau, who wrote the first ‘modern’ environmental philosophy texts in his cottage by Lake Walden. A simple life close to one’s landscape can be a good life, and indeed a happy one.

But I’m also skeptical about such a life. For one thing, there are certain amenities of civilisation and modernity that I really like: running water, flush toilets, electricity, central heating (especially in winter), the internet, and so on. Not that I’d have to give up all of those things in order to live in a low-impact rural home: the builders of That Round House have electricity and running water, for instance. Speaking personally, were I to move to a place like it, I would be giving up rather a lot: a prospective career in academia or in government, as my various qualifications make possible for me, for instance. I also suspect I’d be giving up other things too.

Living in an eco-village would also require great psychological resources, for instance to prevent loneliness and isolation, and to preserve relationships like marriages and families. But a lot of the people I’ve met who dream of building eco-sustainable houses in the countryside are people I wouldn’t want to live with: people motivated by resentment, begrudgery, even hatred, of modernity. They understand quite astutely that modernity has serious problems, but the solution they offer is to drop out of it altogether, and “return to the old ways” of mediaeval or iron-age peasant life. But with solar panels.

I think we can’t ask everyone in society to give up modernity and return to peasant life that way: not just because most people no longer have the traditional farming knowledge anymore (that knowledge could be re-learned), but because most people benefit from modernity, and are glad to have the material prosperity and comfort it brings to most of us. The emphasis on individualism, as a social value, which we have all learned from an early age, probably presses against the kind of community values that would be necessary for an intentional eco-community’s success. But if we ask people to give up some of their individualist values, then we would be in effect asking them to give up a major part of their identities too. That might be too much to ask of most people.

Well, I understand that a lot of modern life is socially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable. And like most of you, I want to see a more ecologically conscious, artistically flourishing, economically prosperous and socially just world too. But I’m not sure if going “back to the land” is the way to make that world happen. So, let me put the question. If you have ever had a dream for an ecologically low-impact, mostly-self-sustaining rural community, of if you know anyone who has such a dream, what motivates it? Why is such a place appealing? What do you think its problems are likely to be? Would such a place turn the wheels of history backward, or usher it ahead? Could such a life truly serve as a better alternative to modernity? Why, or why not?

This is one of my photos of the hills and farms
to the south of St. Gallen, Switzerland.

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