Why academia needs ecovillages p.5: Proximal v intimate community


\"\"\”I\’m so lonely.\” she said, from across the lunch table.  \”Really?!\” I responded in disbelief.  \”How can you be lonely among thousands of fellow students and faculty and in such a dynamic and interesting town?\”  This was the early 80s and I was a sophomore at Cornell.  The conversation that followed changed how I think about community and, in some ways, led to my work today with Living Routes, which partners with the University of Massachusetts – Amherst to offer college-level study abroad programs based in \”ecovillages\” around the world. More on that in a minute.

In this 10-part blog series, I am exploring howecovillages tend to be more aligned than traditional colleges and universities with the core \”stories\” of sustainability.  So far, I have compared the hidden curriculum of academia and ecovillages in the following ways:

  1. Conservative vs. Experimental
  2. Heirarchical vs. Heterarchical
  3. Competitive vs. Cooperative
  4. Fragmented vs. Transdisciplinary

Now I would like to describe a core distinction between these two environments as:

5. Proximal vs. Intimate

\"\"Experiencing a sense of community (away from home and family) is a major reason many students choose to attend college.  I certainly formed life-long friendships in dormitories, classes, extracurricular activities, and off-campus housing.   Many also make strong connections in coop houses, fraternities/sororities, sports teams and residential \”living and learning communities.\”

While I don\’t mean to trivialize these friendships, let\’s also recognize that academia tends to support relationships among students with peers typically not more than a few months or years older or younger than we are and within narrow roles, such as student/teacher, classmate, fellow researcher, etc.  This lack of diversity can make academic communities feel somewhat artificial or shallow.

And this can feel lonely at times.  Getting back to my lunch conversation, I slowly came to realize this person was confusing proximity with community and that we probably all do this from time to time. Being around people – even thousands of people doing really interesting things – is not the same as being in community.  Especially in academia with its transient and me-focused culture, it is easy to get swept up in the river of registration, classes, studying, and exams and not take the time to really live with others.

Often, all it takes is intention.  It can be the simple difference between asking \”Is anyone sitting here?\” in a cafeteria and \”Would you like to have lunch with me?\”  But there is no intrinsic incentive to invite others into your life in academia and, consequently, it can be a solitary journey for many.

Going further, I wonder if academia actually limits our understanding of community.  We are taught to \”show up\” for classes, exams and activities, but rarely are we involved in their creation. I wonder how many graduates go on to feel it is enough to vote, but not get more involved in their local or broader communities.

This is not just about creating good neighborhoods.  Being in community — not just with each other, but with all life — is at the very core of creating sustainable and fulfilling lives.  And yet, I often find this a difficult concept to get across.  When I talk about ecovillages, people tend to think they are interesting experiments, but the idea of really living in community with others is often perceived as somehow old-fashioned, passé, perhaps even a bit intimidating.

When I hear people say ecovillages are not relevant to mainstream society I encourage them to step back and take an evolutionary perspective.  Community is not a new invention. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead noted, for 99.9% of human evolution, we lived in tribes.  We are social animals!  Humans have a built-in cognitive limit of being able to only maintain stable relationships with approximately 150 individuals (Gladwell 2002:179).  Facebook notwithstanding, it seems humans are hard-wired to “belong” within human-scale communities in which they can both know and be known by others.

Tragically, many people in modern, “developed” countries have lost this sense of community; some so thoroughly that their closest acquaintances are characters on TV shows. I believe this lack of connection is at the source of our unsustainable and often violent cultures. As individuals and as nations, I don\’t think we could do what we do to each other or the environment if we fundamentally believed we all belong here.

\"\"Ecovillages offer “living” communities in which members share common visions and needs and have a wide range of relationships with others committed to their long-term growth and development. Immersing students within ecovillages allows them to rekindle this sense of community and interdependence.

Living Routes\’ use of small class-size, authentic assessment methods, and the creation of “learning communities” within these “living communities” further supports students\’ growth and development. The sense of belonging that Living Routes students experience within ecovillages often awakens and fulfills a need that many did not even know they had. And once nourished, this sense of belonging tends to expand to include ever-broader communities—both human and non-human.

Next up: “Theoretical vs. Applied.”  Please share your thoughts, questions, and counter-arguments in the comments.  Thanks!

In community,
– Daniel


  • Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York, 2002.
(This series is adapted from my forthcoming chapter in “Localizing Environmental Anthropology: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillage Design for a Sustainable Future”, edited by Joshua Lockyer and James Veteto and published by Berghahn Books)