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April 1998

Sustaining a Pattern of Alternative Community Initiatives

Based on their differences from the conventional economic rationale

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An earlier version of this document, with regard to a proposal for the creation of a University of the Earth, was prepared for the Spirit of the Land Foundation. The operation of a University of Earth as a meta-organization for post-crisis action was described in earlier documents. Subsequent presentation in University of Earth: Questing for a more comprehensive dream (1999)

A. Design considerations

Pattern of initiatives

The purpose of this document is to sketch out some ideas for the design of a pattern of initiatives. These initiatives are to be "positioned" at different "stages" between western economic rationality and a cultural framework more congenial to local or traditional cultures. The paper was originally inspired by the extreme challenges faced by the Aboriginal tribes people.

Those closest to the economic rationale would naturally be easiest to develop and sustain according to conventional business approaches. Those closest to a traditional cultural framework would require most creativity in ensuring their economic viability. They might however offer the greatest opportunities for challenging new insight to conventional mindsets -- as well as being of most value to the local and traditional communities themselves.

Interface contexts

These initiatives can best be understood as interface contexts, whatever their organizational or material form. They are to be designed to facilitate interaction between cultures or paradigms. It is expected that people and processes would transfer with greatest facility between neighbouring initiatives. Cultural acclimatization at any particular "stage" might be required before transferring on to another stage - whether towards western economic rationality or towards a local traditional community cultural context. The pattern of initiatives might therefore be understood metaphorically like a sequence of sub-surface staging posts at which divers can work -- or like a series of camps required in the course of climbing the highest of mountains. They might also be thought of as a paradigm "bridge".

Design challenges

More generally, the sequence of initiatives might be seen as a social experiment in providing institutional staging posts between paradigmatic extremes such as economic materialism and psycho-cultural well-being: Recognizing that ultimately one extreme cannot survive without the other, a first challenge to design feasibility is to find ways to step up or down between them, reframing the design criteria at each level.

A second challenge is to describe the stages meaningfully in relationship to one another and as a whole -- for without creative imaging the pattern as a whole will lack credibility. This is probably as important in terms of economic rationalism as it is, for example, in terms of any Aboriginal Dreamtime perspective.

A third challenge is to recognize the constraints on development of projects according to purely economic criteria -- and the corresponding need for resource-light projects capable of responding both to the progressive erosion of social safety nets within any purely economic context as well as to the increasing demand for meaningful lifestyles. Transitions between paradigms

This transition between paradigms and logics is far from being abstract or unfamiliar. It is most familiar to everyone in daily life when moving between contexts. In some, such as management of a business, the economic criterion may be fundamental. In others, such as recreation, then interest, relaxation or amusement may be the criteria. And again, in community contexts, the well-being of others may be the prime criterion. Spiritual concerns may determine other criteria. In personal relationships, quite other criteria may apply, notably with respect to children and parents. The criteria of one context may be totally neglected in another.

However, in each of the contexts indicated, economic or other "external" criteria may nevertheless have a strong influence - whether beneficial or not. Similarly, even in a purely economic context, other criteria may exert an influence, whether ethical, aesthetic, spiritual, ecological -- or to give form to a personal dream.

The challenge here is to see the proposed initiatives as stepping stones, allowing people to move one way or another.

Initiatives - and their distinctiveness

In envisaging how a pattern of initiatives might be designed, several distinct concerns need to be kept in mind: Differences in domain or focus (eg health, education, etc), which could contribute to the complementarity of the initiatives.

Ways in which each particular initiative could involve more or less resources, whether as initial investment or in its ongoing activities. For example, visitors, participants or residents might be present in a high resource ("first class"), a low resource mode, or somewhere in between.

Differences in preoccupation, communication, attitude or expectation of people who might be simultaneously present and involved in any one initiative.

Ways in which any pattern of apparently external differences amongst the initiatives is in fact a reflection of a pattern of internal differences within each individual - whether consciously active at any one time or not. These considerations make it clearer that the notion of "tethering" initiatives at different "levels" (as discussed above) needs to be treated in a more subtle matter. For a start the notion of "level" can be criticized as unnecessarily hierarchical when the complementarity of the pattern of distinct initiatives offers a more fruitful insight. To the extent that the initiatives can be compared to community energy "chakras", for example, any competitive evaluation could only marginalize vital energy foci. It is not useful to perceive one chakra as "better" than another.

Avoiding any commitment to "better", the general concern is to create environments that allow for initiatives and ways of being that are less governed by economic criteria and their problematic future. This means that whilst each initiative might be said to have a presence at every "level", the main focus or centre of gravity for many of those involved might be at a quite distinct level. It is there that the sustaining processes would be most apparent -- and through them the credibility of that initiative to those participating most actively in it.

B. Initiatives

A preliminary outline

In considering the following pattern of initiatives, it is important to bear in mind the points of the previous paragraphs. Thus whilst an initiative may have an apparent economic dimension, this could be quite secondary to sustaining processes important to key participants - for whom other criteria would apply. And whilst even in the least economically focussed initiative, some participants may be found who are well-resourced or with strong economic preoccupations, of far greater importance is the level of subtlety at which most participants there choose to operate - or the level at which some there may be able to operate. It is that which ensures the "tethering" at various "levels" of meaning -- or degrees of opening to the unconscious.

  1. Lifestyle initiative: This could be envisaged as a blend of intentional community (semi-permanent residents) and alternative eco-tourism facility (1 to 7 day visitors). Aspects of eco-villages provide models of the first dimension; features of the Club Mediterannee offer models of the second dimension. It could be succinctly described as a spiritual or ecological Club Mediterannee, of which Findhorn might be considered an economically viable example. Clearly the purpose would be to attract paying visitors to offer them an experience of an alternative lifestyle in relation to the land and those who choose to live there. It would be an essentially safe environment, although distinctly less commercial than the main tourist complex at Yulara. In contrast to Yulara, for example, special attention would be given to the interface through which visitors and Aborigines interacted. The style might be usefully compared to the complex at Muligatawny (near Katherine). As with Findhorn, the infrastructure might be initially limited to caravan facilities sensitively designed to blend into the environment. The centre would be used as a base for eco-tourism exploration of the land.
  2. Healing initiative: This would be partially inspired by the traditional model of the mountain sanatorium for convalescents and the terminally ill. A relevant economically viable model is Nowo Balance (Kreuth, Tegernsee) which specializes in alternative therapies. There are many other interesting examples of health centres. The purpose here would be to create an environment offering temporary and more permanent residence, at different resource levels. This assumes that a range of patients and illnesses would benefit from desert conditions and the healing properties of the land - on which attention would be focused, if only with respect to psycho-spiritual healing. For the terminally ill, the aim is to offer a hospice environment conducive to death with dignity and meaning, in contrast to death in institutions, however well-resourced. This initiative could also respond to the challenges of substance abuse that affect many traditional communities - if only as a "drying-out" centre. Another possibility is to provide a context for the mentally challenged (as with the Steiner Camphill community model).
  3. Information initiative: This initiative is inspired by the manner in which Aboriginal culture uses the land as a mnemonic device to carry large amounts of information. In that case, one purpose would be to explore ways of holding and representing Aboriginal songline information, experience and insight using modern multi-media technology. A corresponding purpose would be to explore ways of using insights from songline (and analogous) forms of organization as a means of devising new approaches to organizing knowledge - notably on the Web. This could extend into using virtual landscapes onto which information could be embedded and configuring such landscapes in meaningful ways. This initiative could also offer a context for other new approaches to information inspired by non-western mind-sets -- notably as a means of exploring ways in which Aborigines could be jump started into the information society, using advantages from their own cultural framework not available to those basing themselves on the western model. This work would be designed to anticipate the development of broadcast media facilities accessible to local communities into forms integrated with computer-based forms of communication.
  4. Arts / Design / Culture initiative: Rural areas can be a major inspiration for art and design (as with the outback in Australia). Sale of arts and crafts is often a major source of income for local communities. This initiative would create an environment to encourage further artistic exploration, both by those in local communities and by those visiting them. There are a number of artist colonies that are worth critical examination as possible models. The envisaged scope would include painting, music, song, dance, theatre, story telling and design (including architecture). Special attention would be given to new multi-media possibilities of experiencing the significance of songlines. Emphasis would be placed as much on experience as on production, recognizing that for many traditional communities art has a vital role in relation to celebration of the land -- rather than being a consumer product. Means would be sought to honour the role of local cultural exemplars.
  5. Adventure initiative: In rural areas, there are often locations with the potential for adventure initiatives. These include short camping tours into the national parks and trekking. The challenge is to transform such models into ecologically and culturally sensitive opportunities and to design out their destructive features. This initiative could offer numerous possibilities for involvement of local people, especially given the necessity to avoid or protect sacred or heritage sites. The purpose would be to present, notably for young people, the kind of existential challenge sought and experienced by climbers. Features of these have been adapted to management education experiences (for example at Pecos River near Sante Fe). As with Outward Bound and white-water rafting, graded experiences could be offered, including survival courses. These could be associated with the developed format of vision quests. Semi-permanent desert bases could be established using features of desert pioneer camps (as in Israel).
  6. Retreat initiative: The desert retreat formula is one of the oldest known to modern civilization, dating back to Biblical times. There are many contemporary models of retreat centres serving different needs. These range from western models through eastern ashrams, with both contemplative and secular (academic) extremes. The purpose of this initiative would be to offer a mix of three kinds of retreat: collective, based on shared facilities and residence; separate, based on units scattered over walking distances with optional shared facilities (notably at Crestone, Colorado); isolated (hermitage), based on units scattered over longer distances. People could move between the three experiences according to need and could remain there according to need and resources. The focus would be on experiencing solitude in relation to the land, although it would be for the individual to determine whether this was seen primarily as a spiritual experience or simply as an opportunity for relaxation, writing or the like.
  7. Research / Educational initiative: This initiative would provide an environment for research and education inspired by the relationship to the land - especially in the light of Aboriginal understanding of it, but taking account of other traditions (deep ecology, Chinese geomancy, etc). Steps in this direction already include the establishment of various forms of rural (or bush) in which visitors learn from local people of the land. The focus could include: ecological and resource management issues; land-harmonious architecture and construction; exploration of traditional cosmology and its relevance to the wider world; strategic issues common to indigenous peoples faced with encroaching cultures; development of human relations skills in working across cultural and economic interfaces; development of low-resource lifestyles. A central concern would be to explore attitudes appropriate to the interaction between the dominant western culture and traditional paradigms as inspired by the encounter with the land. In this respect work would be as much concerned with underlying mytho-poetic and archetypal issues as with more obvious material matters. Whilst some preoccupations might be recognized (and approved) by mainstream educational authorities, and therefore be eligible for funding, every effort would be made to explore issues beyond such boundaries (even to facilitating, to the extent appropriate, the training of ngankaris as cultural exemplars). One interesting model is the ecostery, which is a facility, stewarded land, and nature sanctuary where ecosophy (ecological wisdom and harmony) is learned, practiced, and taught.

C. Image

Initiatives -- an integrating story

As noted above, it is vital that this pattern of initiatives be presented through an integrating story meaningful in local cultural terms. The pattern becomes viable only as an emanation of the story -- as a part of the dreaming.

As an extreme example, in the case of the Aborigines, one widespread story that might be appropriate for this purpose is that of the Seven Sisters. Briefly, each initiative could be presented as one of the sisters. As sisters they are however naturally related and form a coherent whole. More challenging is that the sisters are pursued by the shape-shifter Wati Nyiru. Learning from this tale requires understanding of the ambiguous status of the pursuer and his uncontrollable desire to have intercourse with the sisters. Vigilance is required by the sisters to forestall him.

It might be possible to configure the role of western economic rationality, and its uncontrollable greed, as Wati Nyiru. The economic rationale constantly pursues initiatives on which it seeks to work its will and from which it hopes to derive selfish benefit. However, more positively, it does evoke a discipline from such initiatives -- hence the necessary vigilance they must practice together if they are to survive. It is the threat of being individually overcome that keeps them together.

Image development

Whilst a story is vital for credibility within a local culture, a distinct image is necessary to give credibility to the outside world. Great care is required in articulating such an image. There is merit in making this an ambitious image of which interested parties can be proud.

As an illustration, a clue towards a possible image, in a particular Aborignal case, can be taken from the existing image of the Angatja Bush College, to which visitors are taken for learning experiences. One way to encompass the variety of initiatives proposed in that context is under the umbrella of a "University of Earth".

This name has several advantages. By using the term "Earth", the obvious link to the Spirit of the Land is stressed. Since it may well start very modestly, using packed earth and mud brick types of construction, use of this term would be doubly appropriate. The name also has merit in honouring indigenous peoples who honour the Earth -- offering the possibility of developing the initiatives to carry the concerns of indigenous peoples from other countries.

It is possible that Australian regulations concerning the names of institutions place restrictions on use of the term "university". This might prove to be an issue -- but possibly less so on Aboriginal Freehold Lands. It could very easily be argued that Aborigines have a right to a university that specifically honours their culture.

D. Feasibility and practicalities

Clearly the range of initiatives above may be seen as overly ambitious and unrealistic, especially at a time of budgetary constraints and severe economic challenges. However part of the interest of this pattern of initiatives is to seek ways past such constraints through approaches which take advantage of non-economic priorities. It may well be the case that, in the desperate search for a new paradigm to remedy inadequacies in economic rationalism, there are features of the favoured administrative conceptual language that themselves inhibit success. Specifically, there may be something in the way that "proposals", "programmes" and "projects" are envisaged and implemented which is incompatible with the kinds of initiatives which can survive despite economic rationalism. There maybe something wrong with the "pro" mode or at least something incompatible with what is to be learnt from local community cultural reality.

In considering options, it is useful to reflect on the contrast between top-down implementation of complex projects and means of growing initiatives in a bottom-up mode.

From this perspective, despite the overall, long-term ambition, each of the above initiatives could start small. Again the Angatja Bush College is an example. The challenge would be to clarify exactly what was the minimum infrastructure required to support semi-permanent and permanent initiatives through different stages of growth. Starting small might also be seen as a way of progressively obtaining approval for further stages from partners such as the interested local communities.

Another major consideration is the concern for low-impact environmentally-friendly structures, especially if they have to be moved during early, more experimental, phases of growth. The challenge might then be to work in terms of how small such initiatives could be and still offer possibility of growth.

In reflecting on this, several models could be combined: In the early phases of Israeli desert community development, volunteer pioneer groups initiated communities that later acquired more substantive form. This model points to the challenge to some people to engage in unusual initiatives under arduous conditions for little economic reward. Such challenges have been virtually designed out of western societies to the considerable disadvantage of many, notably young people.

Well-established intentional communities, such as the 250 people at Findhorn (Scotland), were housed for many years in caravans. Based in a conventional caravan park, the requirement imposed on the community (before the land was acquired) was that any structure could be moved within 24 hours.

Major construction projects in isolated areas also make use of temporary construction, often based on "porta-cabins".

These models all point to the possibility of flexible, tentative growth using portable units. The Australian national parks authorities have skilfully demonstrated ways of minimizing impact of campers needing water, toilet, fire and waste facilities.

Whilst an approach along these lines may be feasible, it is far from clear that it is desirable. What factors would make semi-permanent habitation in the rural, or arid, areas desirable -- especially in the light of the complaints of permanent residents in luxurious versions of such locations? What would make people want to be there for extended periods of time? The answer to this question clearly has much to do with the relationship to the land and the quality of community.

The question is how communities can be designed in rural and "desolate" environments so that people can both survive and thrive. The material challenges associated with work and accomodation units are clear. Closely related to these are the aesthetic and environmental challenges of how such units blend into the land in an attractive manner. Somehow the clutter of recti-linear porta-cabins and/or caravans needs to be overcome creatively.

Options for consideration in some locations include the use of mud-brick breaks and sails - which could also be the basis for more permanent eco-friendly structures when appropriate. But beyond these are the major psychological challenges of living and working in such communities. Aspects of all these challenges are also characteristic of permanent Aboriginal communities, for example, for which corrugated iron seems to have become the preferred mode of construction -- despite the manner in which clashes with the environment (and lacks any design referents to traditional Aboriginal accommodation).

The resource requirements for any such initiatives need to be considered under several headings:

The availability of any resources will above all be determined by the manner in which the image of this whole initiative is developed. It will succeed to the extent that it is perceived as a challenging social project for the daring who are weary of the promises of economic rationalism, its failing social safety nets and the erosion in quality of life and sense of well-being. But the special quality of this challenge lies in the response it evokes to the land and to the understanding of it in rural communities.

NB: The order of the above sections is based on thinking out the idea. This may not be the appropriate order required for useful presentation to certain parties. B might become A, for example.

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