Why Academia needs Ecovillages p.6: Theoretical v applied



I have a confession to make.  If I had to blindly choose between two experienced candidates to teach a Living Routes\’ ecovillage-based program, one with an M.A. and the other a Ph.D., I might very well choose the one with the M.A.  While this preference does not win me many friends within conservative universities, I feel it reveals another core difference between academia and ecovillages as campuses for sustainability education.

So far, I have offered the following five comparisons


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

My sixth is:

6. Theoretical v applied

So, why might I prefer someone with an M.A. over a Ph.D.?  Two reasons:

First, Ph.D.s sit at the top of the discipline-centric pyramid of academia.  Given they have spent years researching very specific topics, it is understandable that they tend to draw discussions back to their own field of study.  While such \”vertical\” rigor is honorable and necessary, sustainability educators also need to focus on a \”lateral\” rigor and tie together Earth, life, social and health sciences along with philosophy, economics, business and more.  I find M.A.s generally more willing and able to connect these dots, build these bridges, and share our fundamental stories of interdependence.  For more on this topic, see my 4th blog post in this series on fragmented vs. transdisciplinary thinking.

\"\"The second reason I like to hire M.A.s is they often see their degree as a passport to interesting work in the \”real world.\”  Doctoral programs on the other hand tend to attract and train “armchair theoreticians” who can maintain a detached, abstract perspective of the world.  To many Ph.D.s (especially those who become professors), knowledge appears passive, decontextualized and best transmitted through didactic lectures, textbooks, and multiple-choice exams.

While noble in intention, the idea that it is possible to keep our opinions and feelings objective and separate from that which we study, is more a theory than reality.  No research is value free. The problems we choose to explore, how we observe, extract and order information, and how we present our findings are all reflections of who we are. “We don’t study nature.\” said Rollo May.  \”We investigate the investigator’s relationship to nature.” (May 1975).

Today’s emerging young leaders face a changing and challenging world in which technological advances are outpacing our collective wisdom and maturity. Of course we need to train (and sometimes even hire!) Ph.D.s.  But also, and perhaps more importantly, we need to train community builders – applied scientists – with the knowledge, skills, and commitment to create sustainable models of living and working together in peaceful and productive ways.

Ecovillages, in order to survive and prosper, must focus on practical knowledge and wisdom that can be applied in real-world settings. Theory is in the service of “what works.\” Ecovillages are inherently participatory, discovery-based and experiential.  While few ecovillage educators have doctoral degrees, I feel many have multiple Ph.D. levels of expertise gained from decades of experience and experimentation.


These are the educators that have taught Living Routes students to regenerate the tropical dry evergreen forest in Tamil Nadu, India; to design and implement permaculture gardens for schools in Brazil; to build recycling centers in Mexico and greenhouses in the U.S. using local natural materials; to help create the first written fairtrade contract in Peru.  And it is clear our students learned more real-world knowledge and skills through these internships and service learning opportunities than in even the best classes or seminars.

Having said all this, I want to also acknowledge that environmental and social responsibility is on the rise in academia.  The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) currently lists 47 Bachelor\’s, 40 Master\’s, and 8 Doctoral programs in sustainability.  So, perhaps it will be possible to hire applied and generalist sustainability Ph.D. in the coming years.  This would be a good thing, not only for Living Routes, but for the Earth as well.

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

In community,
– Daniel


  • Bateson, M. Our own metaphor: A personal account of a conference on effects of conscious purpose on human adaptation. New York, 1972.
  • May, Rollo. Opening remarks at session one of the association for humanistic psychology theory conference. Tucson, AZ, April 4, 1975.
(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)