“Glocalized” Utopia, Community-Building, and the Limits of Imagination


Introduction: Thinking Out a “Glocalized” Utopia

Can communitarians still dream? This article examines what happens when intentional communities break from lingering associations with socialism in favor of supposedly more savvy or self-conscious forms of utopianism. In an effort to rehabilitate utopianism and reorient it away from defining it as static and subject to the paradox of multiple, conflicting “goods,” some scholars propose that a postsocialist utopianism be imagined as processual, conflictual, “everyday,” or “critical.”1 This is against the view that the collapse of so-called programmatic utopias, such as twentieth-century state experiments with European and Soviet socialism, signaled the end of utopia. Programmatic utopianism is overarching, systematized, and concrete; programmatic utopias are sociopolitical projects that are worked toward with measurable signs of progress, such as those underlying state and governance models. Programmatic utopias are “totalizing,” usually requiring some form of boundedness to keep them separated from forces that could spoil or counter a supposedly coherent, all-encompassing vision of a better society.2 Intentional communities are often seen as small-scale examples of programmatic utopias by prominent utopian scholars.3 In contrast, the “everyday” or “critical” utopianism, championed notably (and masterly) by Michael Gardiner, imagines the battleground for a better future in the everyday, suggesting that in a sociopolitical landscape increasingly defined by neoliberal, global capitalism (itself a utopian program), we look at comparatively micro instances of the better as signs of the potential for utopianism to act as a form of critique, resistance, and escape.4

Krishan Kumar is critical of this extension of utopianism into the everyday, lamenting that “virtually anything to which ‘hope’ or ‘desire’ can be connected has been blessed as utopian. . . . When utopia, in a travel brochure, becomes the experience of staying in a particular pousada or when advertisements for medicines promising perfect health or the perfect body are styled utopian or when Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday is discussed as a ‘bourgeois utopia,’ then one begins to wonder whether the approach isn’t straying beyond useful limits. The territory of utopia, as a cultural device, is broad but it is not limitless.”5 Kumar argues against the use of a fractured, processual, conflictual, everyday understanding of utopia and rejects the claim that transforming utopianism into the study of everyday micro acts in some way saves it from the cutting-room floor of social theory. Kumar writes on noted utopian studies scholar Fredric Jameson’s focus on the fleeting, momentary forms of utopianism we [End Page 68] might call “everyday”: “Jameson therefore rejoices that today ‘Utopia seems to have recovered its vitality as a political slogan and a politically energizing perspective.’ But why then does he find it so difficult to show convincing evidence of this? Where are the utopias that are performing these functions?”6

As quickly as Kumar presents the problem, he offers a potential avenue for solving it. In his article exploring the possibility of widespread rejection and declining interest in utopian forms—literary, theoretical, and otherwise—Kumar issues a challenge, invoking the term glocalized utopia to describe a savvy, socially and politically conscious form of contemporary utopian praxis:

“The “glocalized utopia” has not yet found its theorist or chronicler, nor has anyone attempted to delineate imaginatively, as a fully realized utopia, a glocalized world. But there are some descriptions now of the various intentional communities, ecovillages, permaculture plots, religious and secular retreats, cohousing projects, projects for “low-impact” housing, and squatters projects in town and country, to give us some flavor of these modest but yet self-consciously utopian ventures. What these show are designs for a better world in full consciousness of the failures of the past and the need to heed those lessons. What they also show is that the scaling down of ambition, the move to the local in the light of the global, needs not less but more imagination, more thought.7

Kumar’s use of glocalized draws on Roland Robertson’s theorization of an emergent social orientation toward the local or particular in light of the global or universal, characteristic of a variety of ways of engaging with the phenomenon of globalization in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.8 This “glocal” orientation valorizes and celebrates locality, often inscribing it with qualities of escape, resistance, and salvation in the face of globalization’s homogenizing influences. While I am admittedly ill-equipped to paint a complete picture of a glocalized world, in reflecting on Kumar’s challenge, I nonetheless wish to add something as a chronicler. Whereas Kumar may have seen his challenge to document and mythologize the glocalized utopia as a study in an enduring form of programmatic utopia, perhaps with its own ability to enliven and revitalize sociopolitical thought, a close look at an intentional community in British Columbia, Canada, shows glocalism in operation as a blend of the programmatic and everyday. [End Page 69]

Ecovillages and Cohousing

Ecovillages and cohousing are two alternately complementary and conflicting intentional community movements that emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century. The ecovillage movement has been somewhat nebulous and hard for scholars to pin down. Ecovillages are communal attempts at bettering human-environment relationships, and those who seek to claim the label “ecovillage” are often judged only according to whether this pursuit is deemed genuine and often only by others within the ecovillage movement.

While intentional community-building is generally taken by scholars as an act with clear utopian links, few studies have examined the particular utopian character of individual ecovillages. Ted Baker’s contribution to Lockyer and Veteto’s notable edited volume Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages is an exception, in that it explicitly addresses the legacy of utopian socialism in relation to contemporary life in a Canadian ecovillage in Ontario.9 Furthering discussion on the utopian character of ecovillages, I will analyze below the notion that one of the greatest contributions ecovillages make to contemporary sociopolitical discourse is through their ability to turn the micro, routine, and ordinary acts characteristic of everyday utopianism into a program in their own right.

At times running parallel to the ecovillage movement, at times intersecting with it, the cohousing movement emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century as a somewhat formula-driven solution to a perceived lack of social connection in postwar European housing developments. Cohousing employs a combination of architectural and social features to create “community” through self-conscious, intentional, physical, and social design strategies. Lucy Sargisson’s article on what she calls “second-wave cohousing,” its contemporary North American form, is an important reference point in utopian studies work on cohousing.10 In contrast to the proclamations of some insiders in the cohousing movement who declare cohousing neither utopian nor a form of intentional community, Sargisson points out that cohousing communities articulate notions of the good life and that imaginings of the “better” abound, suggesting that cohousing is indeed utopian and quite clearly a form of intentional community. However, one may notice Sargisson’s emphasis on the cohousing movement as a whole, through a focus on community mission/ethos statements, which tend to reproduce the language of North American cohousing pioneers McCamant and Durrett’s seminal 1988 [End Page 70] North American cohousing text rather than reflect the frequently conflicting interpretations of cohousers themselves, and get the misleading impression that cohousing, or indeed any form of intentional community, adheres easily to the “programmatic” label.11 Nonetheless, Sargisson’s study skillfully achieves its aim of cutting through the marketing bluster contending that cohousing is anti-utopian or wholly “mainstream.”

Cohousing in North America is often associated with environmental consciousness and progressive politics. In this way, cohousing is a complementary approach to ecovillage living. Indeed, many ecovillages in North America integrate cohousing architecture and design features, with the Ecovillage at Ithaca in Upstate New York being the most well known. While an environmentalist ethic often permeates both ecovillages and cohousing,12 ecovillages may be marked by a stronger connection to do-it-yourself culture,13 though cohousing is more likely to be resident-financed.14 While ecovillages are usually rural, and cohousing is usually more urban or suburban, exceptions to both rules exist. Graham Meltzer’s attempt to compare and contrast ecovillages and cohousing provides excellent observational points about the two movements on the whole but leaves much of the analysis or interpretation of what the differences between these two movements might mean for scholars largely unquestioned; Meltzer’s article—like Sargisson’s—may leave readers with the impression that both ecovillages and cohousing must be understood as programmatic utopias.15 Turning to examine how those at the Yarrow Ecovillage, in British Columbia, Canada, have attempted to negotiate the relationship between these two movements and make sense of their dual identities as ecovillagers and cohousers reveals residents’ nuanced understandings of their chosen communitarian lives and suggests that many contemporary intentional communities signal a blending of programmatic and everyday utopianisms.

The Yarrow Ecovillage

Located roughly one hundred kilometers east of the major urban hub of Vancouver, the Yarrow Ecovillage is situated in the small community of Yarrow, a suburban-agricultural fringe area of the municipality of Chilliwack, British Columbia. Founded in 2002 as a cooperative under the British Columbia Cooperative Association Act, the Yarrow Ecovillage Society Cooperative [End Page 71] (YESC) was established with the purchase of an old twenty-five-acre dairy farm near the popular summertime destination of Cultus Lake Provincial Park. The community was not formed with a singular vision, and even when the guiding principles of the community were discussed (and sometimes written down in early community documents), stated intentions for the community were varied and, occasionally, mutually incompatible. Central to the early project were notions of social and structural experimentation, egalitarianism, and ethical labor relations. The community had no official leader, defined itself alternately as secular and spiritual (but nondenominational), and fluctuated in the degree to which it imagined alternative social norms or sought to put into practice antiestablishment political values.

In the early days of the Yarrow Ecovillage’s existence, few people lived on-site. Following two rezonings in 2004 and 2006, including the establishment of a new “EV(Ecovillage)” zoning category by the city of Chilliwack, the community sought to expand the infrastructure and housing by developing five acres of land into housing and commercial space, keeping the other twenty acres part of British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve. It was largely during this early period of expansion and the development of on-site housing that financial and social disputes led to a shift in the community’s direction. Community members at the time had considered purchasing and transporting houses from a nearby military base to their community but after making a down payment discovered that the houses had asbestos in them. A disagreement over whether the community had the ability to adequately remove the asbestos resulted in the community abandoning the plan to move the houses. Subsequent attempts to allow residents to design their own houses on a case-by-case basis turned into a crisis when the community signed contracts for the necessary infrastructure and servicing right around the time of the 2008 global financial collapse, and then the financing expected from the chosen lending institution failed to materialize after work had already gone ahead. Many of the community’s founders and members at the time left the Yarrow project shortly after, pulling investments and expressing concern over the decision making of community members and the direction in which the community was headed. Several of the founders who departed at the time expressed concern with a proposed move toward a cohousing model as a solution to the housing issues and as a stable path forward for the community.

My long-term fieldwork in the Yarrow Ecovillage took place in the midst of its transition from a “pure” ecovillage to a hybrid ecovillage/cohousing [End Page 72] community. When I arrived in summer 2012, the community had approximately sixty full-time residents, many of whom took an interest in Yarrow right around the time the community hired famed cohousing architect Charles “Chuck” Durrett to reinvigorate the community’s membership and expand its residential plans in response to its dire financial problems.16 Chuck hosted a series of “getting it built” workshops in 2010, drastically altering the course of Yarrow’s development. When I first toured the community on a sunny August day, the first phase of the new Groundswell Cohousing development at the Yarrow Ecovillage had been built, adding five units to the community in Chuck’s architectural style, with another seventeen units expected to be built in the second phase, which was in the planning stages at the time of my arrival. The so-called cohousing push not only greatly expanded the population of the Yarrow Ecovillage; it also threw much of its supposedly collective, guiding ethos (articulated in several documents produced in the early years of the community by its founders and early arrivals, many of whom departed the project prior to Chuck’s involvement) into question. Considering, explicitly, the differences in the community’s perceptions of what made life different after the arrival of cohousing will prove helpful in defining the kinds of utopianism practiced in the Yarrow Ecovillage.

Contesting and Negotiating a Utopian Community

Several of the residents during the thirteen months of my fieldwork had arrived either directly before or directly after Chuck’s “getting it built” workshops; many of these newcomers were galvanized by the community’s adoption of cohousing principles and architecture, and the introduction of these new members to the Yarrow Ecovillage came at a time when longer-term ecovillagers who had helped shape the community’s vision in the early going were departing or else fatigued from years of community uncertainty. In the vacuum created by the lost voices of the founders and early members of the YESC, a new wave of residents and standby residents (called Neighbours in Waiting, as they either resided in temporary rental housing on-site or else lived off-site while they waited for more housing units to be built in the community) sought to inject energy into a community with a tumultuous past.

In 2012 and 2013, two years removed from the initial reimagining of the community as a hybrid ecovillage/cohousing venture, there existed an often [End Page 73] unspoken, occasionally whispered tension. While it must be clearly said that dual ecovillage and cohousing identities were seen by many in the community to be wholly reconcilable, and that the debate was not as simple as a “founders versus settlers” dynamic (as almost all of the founders had left the community), several residents often used the community’s early identity as a “pure” ecovillage as an example of an overly idealistic, utopia-as-fantasy-style intentional community. One resident, in a conversation over lunch in a nearby park, told me that she associated ecovillages with “failed projects,” while another community member told me that the old (pure ecovillage) vision of the community was “dead” and that many in the community needed to come to grips with that.
Several of the residents during the thirteen months of my fieldwork had arrived either directly before or directly after Chuck’s “getting it built” workshops; many of these newcomers were galvanized by the community’s adoption of cohousing principles and architecture, and the introduction of these new members to the Yarrow Ecovillage came at a time when longer-term ecovillagers who had helped shape the community’s vision in the early going were departing or else fatigued from years of community uncertainty. In the vacuum created by the lost voices of the founders and early members of the YESC, a new wave of residents and standby residents (called Neighbours in Waiting, as they either resided in temporary rental housing on-site or else lived off-site while they waited for more housing units to be built in the community) sought to inject energy into a community with a tumultuous past.

In 2012 and 2013, two years removed from the initial reimagining of the community as a hybrid ecovillage/cohousing venture, there existed an often [End Page 73] unspoken, occasionally whispered tension. While it must be clearly said that dual ecovillage and cohousing identities were seen by many in the community to be wholly reconcilable, and that the debate was not as simple as a “founders versus settlers” dynamic (as almost all of the founders had left the community), several residents often used the community’s early identity as a “pure” ecovillage as an example of an overly idealistic, utopia-as-fantasy-style intentional community. One resident, in a conversation over lunch in a nearby park, told me that she associated ecovillages with “failed projects,” while another community member told me that the old (pure ecovillage) vision of the community was “dead” and that many in the community needed to come to grips with that.
Several of the residents during the thirteen months of my fieldwork had arrived either directly before or directly after Chuck’s “getting it built” workshops; many of these newcomers were galvanized by the community’s adoption of cohousing principles and architecture, and the introduction of these new members to the Yarrow Ecovillage came at a time when longer-term ecovillagers who had helped shape the community’s vision in the early going were departing or else fatigued from years of community uncertainty. In the vacuum created by the lost voices of the founders and early members of the YESC, a new wave of residents and standby residents (called Neighbours in Waiting, as they either resided in temporary rental housing on-site or else lived off-site while they waited for more housing units to be built in the community) sought to inject energy into a community with a tumultuous past.

One criticism I heard from residents more closely aligned with the cohousing movement was that the ecovillage movement tended to think too broadly, too radically, and too absolutely. There was a sense among these cohousers in the Yarrow Ecovillage that the ecovillage vision was a totalizing one, aimed at an unrealistic (due to scope) revolution and reformation of North American society.17 This criticism is not without basis in ecovillage literature, as we may consider how Guy Dauncey’s contribution to Jackson and Svensson’s seminal edited collection Ecovillage Living: Restoring the Earth and Her People on the growth of the ecovillage movement runs into the paradox of multiple goods: “The biggest challenge, which still lies ahead, is to turn the anonymous, boring suburbs, where so many people live, into ecovillages, so [End Page 74] that everyone can begin to experience ecovillage life, not just a tiny few. . . . There will be huge opposition at first, as people resist the change, but once the new villages begin to emerge, people will start to love them, just as they did in the past.”18 Depending on where one stands, and which notion of “the good” one subscribes to, Dauncey’s prognostication is either the trumpeted arrival of a glorious new era for North America or a somewhat terrifying, dystopian, and paternalistic erasure of difference. Moos and Brownstein, writing of the utopian paradox of multiple “goods,” state that “it is this authoritarian and coercive aspect that has led strident critics to argue that utopias are in fact antiutopian because of their lack of freedom and human spontaneity.”19 For some in the ecovillage, cohousing represented something far less radical, less totalizing, less naive, and less likely to rub people the wrong way.

Conversely, detractors of the shift to cohousing highlighted the exclusivity inherent in more expensive housing, expressing concerns that the community would now attract an already privileged strata of society and derisively referring to the pricier approach of cohousing as “community for dentists.” Some lamented the fact that it appeared to them that cohousing was little more than a branding strategy, which occasionally attracted (in their eyes) less environmentally conscious or communally focused residents. Residents who located themselves closer to the ecovillage movement expressed skepticism about the cohousing “package,” pointing out how significantly the Yarrow Ecovillage’s vision changed when the price of housing made living in the community unaffordable for many of those who had been involved prior to 2010. Some community members who subscribed more to the vision of the community as pure ecovillage were also critical of the labor system—a Community Contribution System (CCS)—introduced at the “getting it built” workshops in 2010 and again by Chuck on a follow-up visit in 2014, in what he called a “happily ever after in cohousing” workshop, attended by many who had arrived after the initial workshops and were less familiar with the cohousing movement. The CCS is a variant of a labor system Chuck proposes to all communities he works with: an agreement that each adult community member will contribute a certain number of hours of labor on community projects or maintenance or else face a penalty of some kind (usually monetary). A number of community members told me that they saw this extension of the cohousing “package” into the community’s division of labor as unwelcome; the CCS threatened to commodify labor in a community that, under the eco-village model, could have experimented with a combination of approaches [End Page 75] that would have kept labor voluntary and an extension of community pride/love of community.

There were also concerns that cohousing created too much of a business culture in the community. During my time in Yarrow, resident Andre Bakker, who holds an MBA and also serves as a managing investor in the community’s prospective commercial development, acted as a project manager in the development of Groundswell Cohousing. In community meetings, Andre would frequently present the community with spreadsheets about the finances of Groundswell’s resident-owned development company, as well as update community members on the bureaucratic hoops the city of Chilliwack was asking the community to jump through before granting it the construction permits, strata titles, and occupancy permits needed to complete Groundswell’s next phase of development. While this was a seemingly useful practice that kept everyone in the community informed, several community members privately (and occasionally publicly) relayed their concerns that community meetings were placing too much emphasis on infrastructure development issues and not enough time was spent discussing the social and interpersonal dynamics of community life. During my fieldwork period, the community’s Welcome and Membership Team occasionally called itself the Marketing and Membership Team, and strategies for attracting new residents (and thus new investors) seemed to become more “professional.” Roz Beauchamp, a resident who arrived around the time of Chuck’s workshops, took the lead on the Marketing and Membership Team for much of my time as a resident in Yarrow. Roz printed business cards, set up booths at nearby community events, secured press opportunities in local newspapers and magazines, and applied for recognition in the form of awards from the city. While those who aligned closer to the cohousing model saw these moves as signs that the community was finally taking its financial health seriously by adopting more “grown-up” community management and marketing strategies, several community members who identified primarily with the community as first and foremost an ecovillage worried that there was an inherent superficiality and inauthenticity in marketing and selling their community to people rather than having the relationship between community and prospective resident progress (as they saw it) naturally and evenhandedly.

I was surprised to find among my informants such strong characterizations of two fledgling social movements, hardly on the radar of the average [End Page 76] North American. In Yarrow, ecovillages and cohousing were spoken of as if critiques of the two movements were well known rather than simply being opinions born out of a particular community’s history. How were ecovillagers in Yarrow coding the two movements in a way that might express something other than alternating concerns for whether the ecovillage model or the cohousing model was best suited to guide their community’s growth? What did these characterizations—of ecovillages as naive fantasy and of cohousing as expensive, packaged commodity—say about these communitarians’ understandings of utopia? Before addressing this question, I turn attention to presenting a different facet of the Yarrow Ecovillage: its daily fostering of a “good life.”

Finding the “Good Life” in Yarrow

Despite the seeming contentiousness of the shift to cohousing among residents during my fieldwork period in 2012 and 2013, I noticed that residents’ actions and daily rhythms tended to minimize the divisiveness of allegiances to either a primarily ecovillage or cohousing model. Indeed, when enmeshed in the communal lifestyle of the Yarrow Ecovillage, these larger narratives of whether the community ought to be called a cohousing community or an ecovillage, or some combination of the two, seemed very marginal. As I sat with longtime residents Ray and Amy Castor in their dome-style house several months into my fieldwork, Ray reflected on his perception that the community functioned in a way that made aligning with either the ecovillage or cohousing movement irrelevant: “You know what? Maybe we ought to just forget the word ecovillage and the word cohousing and the term intentional community and stop worrying about labels. Maybe we ought to just let it be what it is.” Instead of focusing on the community as an expression of a programmatic social movement, with resulting concerns about how close the community adhered to the tenets of either cohousing’s social and community philosophies or the blueprints and expectations of an ecovillage model, residents focused their attention inward, on fostering the kinds of daily interactions that strongly suggested that life in the Yarrow Ecovillage was about seeking the “good life” while in a state of constant change and flux—what ecovillagers characterized as collective growth and which they expressed using key concepts including “raising consciousness” and “creating space.” [End Page 77]

Cass Evans was one of the younger adult residents of the Yarrow Ecovillage.20 During my time in Yarrow, she and I were two of several housemates in a large, shared house called the Quad. Throughout my fieldwork period, Cass was largely responsible for facilitating a series of informal community meetings called Courageous Conversations. Courageous Conversations were often organized a few days before they were to take place. In some instances, a topic was given beforehand, while in other cases community members met to discuss a recent event or conflict in the community. The guiding subject of a Courageous Conversation was always to do with the social fabric of the community, in contrast to the larger Groundswell or YESC community meetings, which blended social life with financial and development concerns for the community. As Cass was the facilitator, her place at the meetings was a combination of chair, question-asker, moderator, and guide. She told residents to “bring their whole selves” to meetings and to be “mindful” of their thoughts, words, and actions during group discussion. Cass spoke of the gatherings as attempts to “create space” for meaningful engagement between community members. In several Courageous Conversations, difficult social and interpersonal issues, often of a private nature (and so not subject to elaboration here), were discussed, resulting occasionally in yelling or crying or another overt display of emotion. Much of the concept of “creating space” seemed to reflect this presence of emotion, something many in the community felt was not a welcome part of everyday discourse outside the community and so required effort on the part of community members to encourage and accept it; “creating space” was, in the eyes of many of my informants in Yarrow, a term designed to reflect the community’s somewhat radical effort to alter what was an acceptable comportment or way of being in society, which was occasionally framed as a communal pursuit of authenticity and honesty. When I joined the community, several community members sought to ensure that I, too, would bring my “authentic” and “honest” self to the research process.

Globalization and the Limiting of Imagination

Jameson has claimed that “the more surely a given Utopia asserts its radical difference from what currently is, to that very degree it becomes, not merely unrealizable but, what is worse, unimaginable.”22 In a postsocialist context, utopianism has had to grapple with the possibility that globalized capitalism—itself a utopian program—may foreclose certain visions of the future.23 The promise of uncontested globalization is hardly the replacement most communitarians would desire, leaving intentional communities like the Yarrow Ecovillage stuck in a kind of no-man’s-land. On the one hand, projects like Yarrow are antagonistic toward a globalist agenda, securing the idea of locality as “where utopian communities can be built in the midst of a cold, impersonal, market-driven global domain.”24 Yarrow holds the promise of resisting the seeming inexorable pull of neoliberal capitalism and putting globalization “back inside history and social science.”25 It is in a very important sense a form of critique and protest, and it is in this way that we may view the Yarrow Ecovillage as representative of a “glocal” orientation. [End Page 80]

On the other hand, the Yarrow Ecovillage appears wholly caught up in the techno-bureaucratic machinations of that very same neoliberalism. The packaged and marketed approach of cohousing has fundamentally altered the way intentional communities are conceived. Jonathan Dawson writes that today, would-be communards have to file applications with planning authorities detailing not only the technical specifications of the completed settlement, but also details of a financing package that has been worked out in advance. Navigating these obstacles is a world away from the spirit of spontaneous innovation in which most of today’s established ecovillages were created. So great, in fact, are barriers to entry that in most parts of the industrialized world the formation of new ecovillages has slowed to a trickle. Those that are being created are tending to adopt cohousing or other similar models in which the design is established in advance and the models are more familiar to planning professionals.26

One might consider Brosius’s observation that “national elites and transnational capital interests . . . are engaged in attempts to displace the moral/political imperatives that galvanize grassroots movements with a conspicuously depoliticized institutional apparatus that is by turns legal, financial, bureaucratic, and technoscientific.”27 It is this charge of co-option that has led thinkers such as Žižek and Suvin to characterize contemporary utopianism as ineffective and hollow.28

Gardiner, drawing on a study by Boltanksi and Chiapello,29 frames this encounter as the product of capitalism’s ability to appropriate anticapitalist movements and notes that contemporary capitalism is not simply a superstructure hovering above social life, existing only in the realm of the “global,” but, rather, also infuses the rhythms of ordinary lives, structures society temporally and spatially, and even modifies the body.30 If this assessment holds weight, contemporary political ecology scholars and eco-agri activists emphasizing the “local” as a politically charged arena for cultural change, with the potential to resist and critique globalizing capitalism, may find that capitalism’s recuperative quality—its ability to absorb competing utopian visions into a commodified lifestyle—has beat them to the punch by operating at multiple levels, including what we may call the hyperlocal/corporeal. [End Page 81]

Ecovillager Cass Evans, among those in the community more focused on the theoretical implications of their communal lifestyle, argued that one should be careful not to equate the optics of a middle-class cohousing community with its potential to effect systemic change through everyday praxis. Positioning the Yarrow Ecovillage as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” project, Cass suggested that the everyday collaborative ethic cultivated in the daily rhythms of ecovillage life is an effective starting point for challenging globalized neoliberal capitalism and its negative sociocultural dimensions:

“It’s not some commune out in the bush: it’s here, it’s now. We live in houses with electricity. My god, we have natural gas coming onto the property. There’s a lot of things that seem pretty status quo about this place that somedays, when I’m in my hypercritical, activisty mood, I’m like, “Fuck that,” wanting to push the limits of alternatives even more, but then there’s this part of me that’s thinking, “OK, how can we infiltrate the mainstream and start getting collaborative thinking more accessible and acceptable?” That will happen by having normal-looking people practicing it effectively. I think that decision makers, politicians, businesspeople, people living the dream with a single-family home and a big-screen TV, for them to move towards a more collaborative experience, they’re not going to take tips from someone who lives off-grid, hasn’t washed their hair in three years, grows all their own food, works on totally a gift economy, and milks a cow every morning. That’s not where they’re going to take tips from.

Considering Cass’s words, we may agree or disagree with the transformative potential of self-consciously adopting the mode of being associated with a commodified, consumerist culture in order to effect transformation away from that same culture, but we must also be struck by how different this form of utopianism is from the blueprint model of yesteryear, where thinkers like Fourier constructed ideal societies down to the very last detail.

We may see in the everyday, critical utopianism of the Yarrow Ecovillage a broader concern with questions of free will versus determinism, agency versus structure, and the limitations of sociopolitical imagination. In a postsocialist context, utopianism has had to confront the possibility of a globalization that has—in a Marxist sense—greatly curtailed agency. Hayden and [End Page 82] el-Ojeili, in line with Bauman,31 write that “our experience of globalization is akin to that of passengers on a plane who discover that the pilot’s cabin is empty—globalization as unstoppable, uncontrollable, untouchable by human agency, and thus ultimately incomprehensible.”32 In this context, the concessions made to globalized capitalist practices, such as embracing a commodified version of cohousing over the DIY culture of the “pure” ecovillage, are not choices at all but impositions thrust onto Yarrow by forces outside of its—or anyone’s—control. In contrast to what one might imagine is a confident attempt to change the world, ecovillagers were more likely to wonder whether actors like them have had any impact at all. In their daily lives, they saw signs that they were indeed capable of acting on the world and impacting those around them. Borrowing the words of Gardiner, residents of Yarrow recognized “that it is exceptionally difficult to cultivate a critical consciousness in a world in which everyday life itself is increasingly fragmented, privatized and commodified,” but it is possible.33 For some ecovillagers, this has meant reframing the challenge of confronting neoliberal capitalism by casting its recuperative force as an asset: the Yarrow Ecovillage, as “glocalized utopia,” becomes a Trojan Horse rather than a road map. Once it is absorbed by the dominant culture, argue those who adhere to this view, space within that culture will be created for subversive ideas to take root, slowly (or quickly) reshaping it from the inside out.

Conclusion

Reflecting on Jameson’s concern for potential futures becoming “unimaginable,” it is evident that recuperative capitalism has had a profound impact on the kinds of utopianism found in contemporary intentional community movements such as cohousing and ecovillages. Certain utopian programs may indeed be difficult or impossible to imagine, given the current state of affairs. Gone are the radical visions of socialist paradises; programmatic utopias in the twenty-first century invariably must confront and negotiate with neoliberal capitalism, this antagonism resulting in the breakdown of the very category of “programmatic” utopia as it has been understood. But in place of the more imaginative and, in some cases, idiosyncratic blueprints of a totalizing “good place,” the shift to everyday utopianism has made the consideration of daily life, and a certain self-conscious comportment, a project in [End Page 83] its own right. The “glocalized” utopia of the Yarrow Ecovillage, in its shift from a “pure” ecovillage to a hybrid ecovillage/cohousing community, has blended the categories of “everyday” utopia and “programmatic” utopia in line with other late modernist efforts at making daily life a form of “conscious” praxis rather than unreflective routine. That utopianism is not the purview of unique, expansively imaginative individuals but, rather, a more democratic, if imaginatively limited, unfolding experience is not cause for concern. Rather, as those in the Yarrow Ecovillage would have it, it is a utopianism that echoes what many reformers and utopians have championed in previous generations: basic decency, thoughtfulness toward one’s neighbors, and an abiding belief that the course toward the future is not charted without human influence.

STEVEN JAY SCHIFFER is an independent scholar living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Schiffer recently completed his doctorate in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge, where he wrote his dissertation based on a thirteen-month ethnographic fieldwork residency in a British Columbia eco-village. After the completion of his dissertation, he was the Harrison McCain Visiting Professor in Environmental and Sustainability Studies at Acadia University, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Schiffer’s research interests include the anthropology of religion, environmental anthropology, intentional communities, urban/suburban agriculture, and utopianism. He also holds degrees from the London School of Economics and Acadia University.

Notes

1. For discussion of utopia as a static phenomenon, see Robert C. Schehr, Dynamic Utopia: Establishing Intentional Communities as a New Social Movement (Westport: Bergin and Garvey, 1997), 3; Marius De Geus, “Utopian Sustainability: Ecological Utopianism,” in The Transition to Sustainable Living and Practice, ed. L. Leonard and J. Barry (Bingley, U.K.: Emerald Group, 2009), 77–100, at 80; Lucy Sargisson, “The Curious Relationship Between Politics and Utopia,” in Utopia Method Vision: The Use Value of Social Dreaming, ed. T. Moylan and R. Baccolini (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007), 25–46, at 31; Naomi Jacobs, “Utopia and the Beloved Community,” in Utopia Method Vision: The Use Value of Social Dreaming, ed. T. Moylan and R. Baccolini (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007), 223–44, at 223–24.

See also John Law and Annemarie Mol, “Local Entanglements or Utopian Moves: An Inquiry into Train Accidents,” in Utopia and Organization, ed. M. Parker (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 82–105, at 84; Davina Cooper, Everyday Utopias: The Conceptual Life of [End Page 84] Promising Spaces (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014); Wayne Hudson, The Reform of Utopia (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003); Michael E. Gardiner, Weak Messianism: Essays in Everyday Utopianism (Bern: Peter Lang, 2013).
2. The notion of “boundedness” is of central importance in the anthropological study of community. It refers to what Cohen calls “the symbolic construction of community” and attempts to capture the quality of “community” that tightly delimits what may be considered “community space” as well as the community’s composition. This may be contrasted with Anderson’s contribution on “imagined communities,” where “community” is not defined by a keen awareness of boundaries and limits to its composition but, rather, is imagined more diffusely and where the potential exists for encountering a member of one’s community in distant and unfamiliar circumstances. See Anthony Cohen, The Symbolic Construction of Community (London: Routledge, 1985); and Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983).
3. See Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005), for discussion on programmatic utopias.
4. Gardiner, Weak Messianism. Examples of this kind of “everyday” utopianism are Jameson’s idea of a “utopian corporeality” (Archaeologies of the Future, 6) and Cooper’s examples of everyday nudism as a utopian intervention (Everyday Utopias, 82).
5. Krishan Kumar, “The Ends of Utopia,” New Literary History 41, no. 3 (2010): 549–69, at 562.
6. Ibid., 552.
7. Ibid., 563.
8. Roland Robertson, “Glocalization: Time-Space and Homogeneity and Heterogeneity,” in Global Modernities, ed. M. Featherstone, S. Lash, and R. Robertson (London: SAGE, 1995), 25–44.
9. Ted Baker, “Ecovillages and Capitalism: Creating Sustainable Communities Within an Unsustainable Context,” in Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages, ed. J. Lockyer and J. R. Veteto (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), 285–300.
10. Lucy Sargisson, “Second-Wave Cohousing: A Modern Utopia?” Utopian Studies 23, no. 1 (2012): 28–56.
11. Katherine McCamant and Charles Durrett, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1988).
12. Angela Sanguinetti, “Transformational Practices in Cohousing: Enhancing Residents’ Connection to Community and Nature,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 40 (2014): 86–96, at 88.
13. Bella Marckmann, Kirsten Gram-Hanssen, and Toke H. Christensen, “Sustainable Living and Co-housing: Evidence from a Case Study of Eco-villages,” Built Environment 48, no. 3 (2012): 413–29, at 419.
14. Maria L. Ruiu, “Differences Between Cohousing and Gated Communities: A Literature Review,” Sociological Inquiry 84, no. 2 (2014): 316–35, at 323.
15. Graham Meltzer, “Co-housing and Ecovillages: A Personal Take on Their Similarities and Differences,” in Living Together: Co-housing Ideas and Realities Around the World, ed. D. U. Vestbro (Stockholm: Royal Institute of Technology, 2010), 105–13. See also [End Page 85] Graham Meltzer, Sustainable Community: Learning from the Cohousing Model (Bloomington, Ind.: Trafford, 2005).
16. With the exception of Charles “Chuck” Durrett, who must be considered a public figure in the context of cohousing in North America, personal names of those whom I encountered in the Yarrow Ecovillage have been changed to protect privacy.
17. The degree to which residents of the Yarrow Ecovillage saw themselves as revolutionaries or reorganizers of North American society is a complex area of investigation. On the one hand, residents were cognizant of the ways in which their chosen way of life bracketed them off from some of the “mainstream” patterns of social change in North America. On the other hand, as this article explores, many members of the Yarrow Ecovillage community saw their lives in complex relation to the mechanisms and messages through which social and socioenvironmental change takes place. Full exploration of the ways community members engaged with processes of social change and moral reform is beyond the scope of this article but is the subject of the wider dissertation that resulted from my fieldwork in Yarrow.
18. Guy Dauncey, “Building an Ecovillage Economy,” in Ecovillage Living: Restoring the Earth and Her People, ed. H. Jackson and K. Svensson (Devon: Green Books, 2002), 79.
19. Rudolph Moos and Robert Brownstein, Environment and Utopia: A Synthesis (New York: Plenum Press, 1977), 30.
20. Cass was twenty-five when I moved into the community. Aside from Cass and a couple of others, most adult residents tended to be clustered rather evenly into their mid-thirties to early forties or else were between fifty and seventy.
21. See Marshall Rosenberg, Living Nonviolent Communication: Practical Tools to Connect and Communicate Skillfully in Every Situation (Boulder: Sounds True, 2012); and Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (Encinitas: PuddleDancer Press, 2003). Avoiding moralistic judgments often sounded like the right thing to do in the social context of the Yarrow Ecovillage, though of course the community was not without a host of assumed—and some very clearly agreed-upon—moral standards. The force of these standards often created a moral imperative to speak up against (and occasionally castigate) a community member. Thus, there was a difference in the rhetoric of nonjudgment and the lived necessity of judgment and enforcement of norms and standards.
22. Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future, xv.
23. For discussion on the interplay of capitalism and utopianism in a contemporary context, some starting points would be Lucy Sargisson, Fool’s Gold: Utopianism in the Twenty-First Century (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Barry Smart, “Made in America: The Unsustainable All-Consuming Global Free-Market ‘Utopia,’” in Globalization and Utopia: Critical Essays, ed. P. Hayden and C. el-Ojeili (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 117–36; Marius De Geus, “Ecological Utopias as Navigational Compasses: On the Importance of Ecotopias for the Current Debate About Sustainability,” in Contemporary Utopian Struggles: Communities Between Modernism and Postmodernism, ed. S. Poldevaart, H. Jensen, and B. Kesley (Amsterdam: Askant, 2001), 65–80. [End Page 86]
24. Ronaldo Munck, “Glocalization and the New Local Transnationalisms: Real Utopias in Liminal Spaces,” in Globalization and Utopia: Critical Essays, ed. P. Hayden and C. el-Ojeili (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 207–19, at 209.
25. Jeffrey C. Alexander, “‘Globalization’ as Collective Representation: The New Dream of a Cosmopolitan Civil Sphere,” in Globalization and Utopia: Critical Essays, ed. P. Hayden and C. el-Ojeili (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 28–39, at 28.
26. Jonathan Dawson, “From Islands to Networks: The History and Future of the Ecovillage Movement,” in Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages, ed. J. Lockyer and J. R. Veteto (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), 217–34, at 227. Others, too, have noted the shift to a more repeatable, commodified type of intentional community design and implementation. For example, see Christina Ergas, “A Model of Sustainable Living: Collective Identity in an Urban Ecovillage,” Organization and Environment 23, no. 1 (2010): 32–54; Baker, “Ecovillages and Capitalism; Lisa Nathan, “Ecovillages: Information Tools and Deeply Sustainable Living,” in Ecopsychology: Science, Totems, and the Technological Species, ed. P. H. Kahn Jr. and P. H. Hasbach (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 173–94.
27. J. Peter Brosius, “Analyses and Interventions: Anthropological Engagements with Environmentalism,” Current Anthropology 40, no. 3 (1999): 277–309, at 278.
28. Slavoj Žižek, “From Revolutionary to Catastrophic Utopia,” in Utopia: Steps into Other Worlds, ed. J. Rusen, M. Feher, and T. W. Reiger (New York: Berghahn Books, 2005), 247–62; Darko Suvin, “Theses on Dystopia 2001,” in Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, ed. T. Moylan and R. Baccolini (London: Routledge, 2003), 187–202. See discussion in Sargisson, Fool’s Gold, 31–39. It is also this entanglement with neoliberal and globalist forces that has caused more sympathetic writers, such as Meltzer, to qualify cohousing as a “mainstream” movement, in contrast to the countercultural experiments of the 1960s and 1970s. See Graham Meltzer, “Cohousing: Linking Community and Sustainability,” in Contemporary Utopian Struggles: Communities Between Modernism and Postmodernism, ed. S. Poldevaart, H. Jensen, and B. Kesley (Amsterdam: Askant, 2001), 197–208.
29. Luc Boltanksi and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2007).
30. Gardiner, Weak Messianism.
31. Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998).
32. Patrick Hayden and Chamsy el-Ojeili, “Introduction: Reflections on the Demise and Renewal of Utopia in a Global Age,” in Globalization and Utopia: Critical Essays, ed. P. Hayden and C. el-Ojeili (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 1–9, at 7.
33. Gardiner, Weak Messianism, 23. [End Page 87]Copyright © 2018 The Pennsylvania State University

“Glocalized” Utopia, Community-Building, and the Limits of Imagination


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

EnglishFilipinoBahasa Indonesia