Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
of Laetus in Praesens
Laetus in Praesens Alternative view of segmented documents via Kairos


Gardening Sustainable Psycommunities

Recognizing the psycho-social integrities of the future

-- / --

Report on the international conference on 'Eco-villages and Sustainable Communities: models for 21st Century living' (Findhorn, October 1995) organized under the auspices of UNESCO and with the support of the Gaia Trust. Also distributed under the title: Cultivating Sustainable Psycommunities


There has long been grassroots interest in the formation of eco-villages and sustainable communities -- partly as a further development of experimentation with intentional communities. Internationally the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) placed an emphasis on 'sustainable communities' and embodied strategies in support of them into Agenda 21 -- now being adapted by local authorities in many countries. There is an international conference series on eco-cities.

In October 1995 some 350 people from over 40 countries gathered at the Findhorn Foundation (Scotland) for a conference to clarify these concerns and explore opportunities for the future. Many participants represented existing communities and eco-villages from around the world. Since its foundation in 1962, the Findhorn Foundation has itself become internationally known for its experimentation with new models for holistic and sustainable living. A specific intention was to provide support for such initiatives through a Global Eco-village Network.

The Findhorn conference was recognized as a preparation for the United Nations Habitat Conference (Istanbul, June 1996).

Confusion of definitions

Much effort can be devoted to establishing definitions of different types of 'community' and their respective degrees of sustainability. The term community alone is used in a confusing variety of ways: neighbourhood community, religious community, economic community, scientific community, intelligence community, etc. Stress may be placed on particular dimensions: residential community, community of discourse, business community, intentional community, ethnic community, traditional community, Internet community, international community, NGO community, etc. Emphasis may be placed on the built environment, notably housing, as a way of giving new meaning to what may otherwise be termed 'human settlements'. At the other extreme, emphasis may be placed on the spirit of community binding groups of people together within the human community.

Similar confusion is associated with the use of the term 'sustainable'. It may simply substitute for 'economically viable', even for a short period, or for 'socially viable' in other contexts. It may stress the conservation of non- renewable resources, possibly in response to the envisaged needs of many future generations. Businesses, and even nations, may strive for 'sustainable competitive advantage'. The focus may emphasize preventing further damage to the environment, or may be extended to include measures to restore the natural environment to a healthier state. Sustainable may simply be used as a euphemism for endurance.

Eco-village communities can be understood as human ecologies that are sustainable: spiritually, culturally, economically and ecologically. For some they are 'human scale, full- featured settlements in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of human development and can successfully continue into the indefinite future' (Context Institute, Eco-Villages and Sustainable Communities, 1991). Healing the Earth and healing the human spirit may be understood as one and the same thing (Jonathon Porritt, Save the Earth). In practice however, different initiatives may stress such dimensions to differing degree, and notably by excluding non-residential forms (Bill Metcalf, From Utopian Dreaming to Communal Reality, 1995).

Conference breakthrough: consistency of process with thematic content

Many of the participants came in order to share innovations in building techniques and bio-technologies. Many were skilled in permaculture as exemplifying sustainable small- scale agriculture. Some were part of the international network concerned with eco-cities. Many came from communities that considered themselves eco-villages, or aspired to this label.

The most remarkable feature of the event was the manner in which such understandings were adapted, for the first time, to provide a new approach to the organization of the conference structure and process. The organizers and participants recogized the limitations of the conventional conference format of presentations by speakers to plenary sessions and workshops. This format might usefully be termed the 'missionary position' in any Karma Sutra of speaker-audience intercourse (or 'gang rape' in the case of a sequence of such speakers, where the process is designed to avoid audience feedback). As with feminine criticism of insensitive intercourse, premature withdrawal by speakers following dissemination of their message, accompanied by apologies from the organizers concerning 'lack of time', reflects a primitive understanding of possibilities yet to be described in a Joy of Congress.

The following sections describe various ways in which the conference was reframed in the light of the thematic emphasis.

Conference as community

As with many conferences, the participants rapidly formed a community. More precisely, this was composed of a variety of overlapping and interweaving sub-communities. Some pre- dated the event, or had previously only taken the form of e-mail communities. Many participants became members of several such sub-communities through different aspects of their personalities (sub-personalities in the terms of transpersonal psychology).

The formation, dissolution, and re-formation, of sub- communities was deliberately facilitated by innovative self- organizing processes during the course of the event. Extensive behind-the-scenes use was made of computer techniques to enable people to profile themselves and to modify such profiles during the event. This was deliberately complemented by the psycho-social skills of a team of practitioners of what might be called the 'salon hostess' role. This made it possible for participants to identify fruitful interaction partners (and make arrangements to meet fruitfully), and for new sub-communities to emerge in response to the pattern of communications during the event. Emergence of micro-communities was skilfully enabled even at meals, in bus journeys, walks and in the occasional queue.

The computer approach built on a technique developed by **** and used in meetings of the European Commission. As part of this process, use was made of an hourly Participant Viewsletter to circulate brief comments, questions, wit and wisdom, emanating from individual participants and speakers (whether physically present or via the Internet). The mixing and matching process was monitored and extensively facilitated behind-the-scenes by a number of facilitators with appropriate psychological and group dynamic skills.

Inspired by the theme, great attention was given to ensuring that each participant developed a sense of place and identity within the community -- a sense of psychic home- space. The environmental architect Christopher Alexander (A Pattern Language, 1977) best articulated this as that quality 'without a name' which makes a place welcoming. Specialists in community, especially residential communities, frequently stress the built environment as providing such a sense of place, to the exclusion of other less tangible dimensions (which are assumed to be largely a consequence of physical design). Increasingly however organizers of large conferences with a transpersonal dimension recognize the value of developing a 'home group' for participants as a counter-actant against any sense of isolation.

Internet has also demonstrated the value of non-physical places through which people can gather -- to develop and sustain a sense of identity. This phenomenon is however familiar to members of groups and associations, whether locally or internationally. Many of these are valued as communities which may endure for decades, or even centuries, as in the case of religious orders (eg Jesuits) and secret societies (eg freemasons).

Preoccupation with the built physical environment for community was thus transposed during the conference into a preoccupation with the 'built' psycho-social environment -- namely the formation of what were named for the first time as 'integrities' or 'psycommunities'. This transposition fruitfully reframed many of the concerns of the builders and technologists -- and gave much valued precision to some discussions about integrities and psycommunities. This was notably the case with respect to psycho-social systems of insulation, heating, cooling, drainage and recycling, and generation of power.***

Psycho-social permaculture: identifying the five kingdoms

A major achievement of the conference arose from adaptation of insights into sustainable forms of agriculture as exemplified by permaculture. They key to this was expressed by Peter Harper, a representative of the Centre for Alternative Technology: 'The way we organize our gardens reflects the way we organize our lives, our society, our politics, our businesses and our knowledge' (Resurgence, 164). The challenge was to use this insight to reframe understanding of the conference process as exemplifying a sustainable community. Any failure to build a sustainable conference community was seen as a failure to generate insights of relevance to the wider world.

Harper stressed that sustainable biological systems are composed of the five kingdoms: protozoa, bacteria, fungi, plants and animals (see for example Lynn Margulis, Five Kingdoms: an illustrated guide to the phyla of life on Earth). Of these some 90 percent by weight are plants, with animals (mainly insects and worms) constituting but a few percent -- and serving mainly to decompose plants into forms that may be easily recycled by fungi and bacteria. Without such decomposers the system would seize up, but, as Harper notes, their work is viewed with 'distaste or even horror...This revulsion is almost universal, but in another light can be seen as a projection of an infantile refusal to face the realities of death and decay, or (as a species) to face honourably the need to clean up after ourselves. This metaphor is starkly underlined by the basic fact that most of the decomposition processes take place under the ground...But just as the natural order would grind to a halt without its dark side, so would we: the dark side suppressed raises demons and pathologies. There can be no growth without decay, no resurrection without death.'

Applying such insights to the psycho-social system of a conference community, the five kingdoms of sustainable natural systems were recognized as five complementary forms of attention or engagement on the part of participants. This approach is consistent with some the Eastern epistemologies of Buddhism and Taoism, with respect to hindrances to understanding, practices for overcoming them, and the nature of the resulting insight. It recognizes that the patterns of sustainable organization elaborated over millenia in biological systems are likely to entrain (or necessitate) isomorphic pattern organization in sustainable psycho-social systems. In this sense innovation is to a large extent a question of giving conscious human expression to patterns long used unconsciously in biological organization. Few patterns of organization have not already been exemplified in nature. It is therefore useful to explore and work with those long-tested patterns, guided by the ways that they are embodied in natural processes.

In experimenting with its own processes, the conference tentatively recognized five forms of attention or engagement as:

Fundamental to this approach was a sensitivity to the time dimension, notably in the form of attention span. For an individual, psycho-social engagement of the shortest duration takes the form of an immense number of virtually unconscious observations -- each, like the protozoa, a brief flash of life as a momentary vehicle for attention (which the conference recognized as a form of 'nanopsychology'). Every human community is of course characterized in part by this level of engagement. Some spiritual traditions stress its fundamental importance through practices focussing on attention to the 'present moment'.

At the other extreme, individual attention within any community may be held, shaped and channelled over extended periods of time by belief systems. Like plants, these depend on their ability to synthesize and give coherence to perceptions of social reality in the 'light' of conscious awareness -- the equivalent to photosynthesis, which could have been termed 'psychosynthesis', if this did not already have other connotations. And as with the branching structure of plants (and petal formation in flowers), such belief systems take a multitude of forms, patterning psycho-social reality in two-fold (dualities), three-fold (trinities), four-fold (quaternities), and higher, forms of organization (exemplified by the many systems of categories).

Such belief systems develop, replicate and evolve. As the organization of individual or collective attention, any particular manifestation (as with an individual plant) is of limited duration and is vulnerable to other forces in the community. The attention span of a person reflecting a particular belief system (whether through discourse, meditation or some other practice) is a matter of hours at most -- before that particular manifestation must necessarily pass away in favour of some other mode of attention essential to thriving in a community.

As recognized in the current call for a return to core values, the coherence created by particular manifestations of belief systems is a prime source of nourishment for other forms of attention and social engagement -- namely those unable to synthesize coherence directly through any form of psychosynthesis. Like animals, such forms of engagement consume living manifestations of belief or practice on which they may be totally dependent for their survival. A member of a community may of course engage in 'plant-mode', providing coherence (eg in the practice of some discipline) that the same member may subsequently consume in 'animal- mode' (eg as when a morning meditation sustains a person throughout the day). But the duration of this mode is also limited and must necessarily pass away, possibly as the prey of some 'carnivourous' form of 'animal-mode'. Presentations at a conference (often expressed as planting seeds) may then be usefully understood as providing food for the nourishment of an audience -- usefully to be understood as operating in 'animal-mode', usually as 'herbivores'.

The active manifestation of plant or animal-modes of engagement finally ceases however, with other modes then coming into play to breakdown structures that are no longer sustained and which would otherwise clutter up psychic space. These are of course the 'fungi-' and 'bacteria-modes' which, as Harper noted, were above all characteristic of the unconscious, unless the subject of psychotherapeutic or spiritual disciplines.

As a community, the conference skillfully avoided the traps of over-definition in exploring these possibilities. Of greatest importance was the recognition of the importance of a balance between anabolic and catabolic processes, through whatever forms of social engagement these were expressed. This ensured an appropriate balance between the 'positive' processes through which structures were built up, and the 'negative' processes through which they necessarily passed away -- to be subsequently regenerated in some new manifestation. Avoiding the usual demonization, this balance met the needs of both those concerned with affirmation of existing patterns (typically in plant-mode), and those concerned to replace them by new patterns (typically in animal-mode). But as a dynamic balance of processes, this could only be achieved through the insights of permaculture rather than through vain attempts at manipulation of static structures.

Playful exploration of such insights was possible because many participants were more than familar with the tangible manifestation of these patterns in nature. They were seen as a web of insights and interactions through which psycho- social organization could be more explicitly and effectively rendered congruent with nature and the challenges of community. There is a charm to 'gardening' one's own community rather than relying on the narrowly-focused skills of community-building and community-development.

Harper stressed the shift from a focus on 'standard of living' to 'quality of life'. The conference highlighted the need for what was termed 'quality of attention' or 'quality of engagement'.

Reframing 'community glue': the pattern-that- connects

It is increasingly recognized that the psycho-social coherence of communities depends on mysterious processes that have been labelled 'community glue' (Context Institute, op cit) -- a metaphor reinforced by a number of participants. This is related to 'shared values' (Context Institute, op cit) and to the Holy Grail of many community builders, namely 'consensus'. It is the community glue which is seen as the underlying guarantee of the fruitfulness of approaches to community economics and governance. Without it, no matter how well thought out, such approaches can only result in sterile initiatives that are essentially unsustainable. As such it is the guarantor of sustainability.

Unfortunately, because of its elusive nature, community glue cannot be manufactured like any other product. However, labelling it so reinforces the belief that this is possible. The assumption is that bonds can be produced through suitable bonding processes -- the physics and chemistry of 'bonding' become part of the glue metaphor (presumably including the property of 'tackiness'). Many community building facilitators and 'animators' have processes that they believe build community bonds -- seen as a psycho- social analogue to the operation of glue. Whether these bonds are appropriate for sustainable community is another matter -- as is the kind of community that can be glued together in this way. This is also true of efforts to identify and, if necessary, impose shared values -- portrayed as the royal road to sustainable community challenged by fragmentation.

Fortunately the conference sought ways to move beyond the abiotic metaphor of glue (and its production through what are often the simplest of processes -- including the rendering of bones). The conference recognized this to be a metaphor imbued with the mind-set of industrialization -- an industrial-era approach to the challenge of post- industrial community organization. The limitations of the 'community glue' metaphor were readily seen through the question: 'what is the glue that holds together a natural ecosystem?'. Can species be glued together to form an ecosystem? In Gregory Bateson's terms, the 'pattern-that- connects' in nature is identical with 'quality'. 'Glue' was recognized as about the most primitive and reductionistic metaphor for such quality -- especially if the connecting pattern has something to do with a quality of attention or engagement.

Restrictive understandings of sustainable community

The conference was able to highlight the ways in which disciplines and practitioners, with vested interests in a narrow understanding of community building, were able to portray themselves as the key constructors of the pattern- that-connects:

Most challenging are those who stress the intangibles -- the process people -- because they claim to strive to address the pattern-that-connects basic to sustainability. But they do it in a variety of simplistic ways, brooking no challenge to the subtlety of their preferred process, and unwilling to recognize any limitation or shadow to their approach. The most charismatic and power hungry end up creating sustainable communities that others readily label as cults - - whether or not they have abusive features or collapse disastrously.

In contrast to 'glue', a renowned American social scientist, Amitai Etzioni, has stimulated a 'communitarian' movement with his book The Spirit of Community (1993). Although the connotations of 'spirit' are a welcome substitute for those of 'glue', he too is reduced to discussing the subtlety of bonding in simplistic terms. Faced with the fragmentation of society, he sees shared values as essential to 'shoring up morality' -- a strange metaphor in a society renowned for tearing down any construction that was so decrepit that it needed to be shored up. As with the bonds in glue, there is no ability to distinguish different types of bond nor the differences between the entities so bonded. This favours a monoculture of equality designed to sanction out all difference as part of the 'shoring' process -- however vigorously Etzioni attempts to deny it. There are key values that are not about to be shared, as has been demonstrated over centuries of violent relationships between religions -- the key difference between vegetarians and meat-eaters is but a simplistic example.

Any future science of bonding (as exemplified below in relationships between species) must also allow for the possibility that Person (or Role) A, that does not share significant values with C, nevertheless can be held in relationship to A by Person (or Role) B acting as an intermediary. This does not require that B should seek to eliminate valuable differences of perspective by 'conflict resolution' to satisfy a pathological need for consensus. A chain of many intermediaries may be required to bridge radical differences between A and C. As in chemistry, different types of atoms and bonds allow for the construction of complex molecules. Those sensitive to patterns of group 'chemistry' therefore have more complex insights. This accepts that each role necessarily undermines the community in some way, but that other roles are able to develop, precisely (if not only) through responding to counteract such excesses. Although valid in simple situations and homogeneous cultures, Etzioni's vision therefore reflects a 'Newtonian' limiting case at a time when the equivalent of 'relativity', 'quantum' and 'chaos' theory insights are required to encompass the complexity of contemporary community.

Despite such potential conflation of categories and distinctions, essential to specialized interests, the conference was nevertheless able to dissociate the quality of attention basic to the pattern-that-connects and essential to the sustainability of community.

Psycho-social permaculture: gardening a community

It was appropriately symbolic that the conference should be held at Findhorn. As a successful community, the Findhorn Foundation achieved early worldwide publicity for the quality of its gardening under adverse circumstances. Its emphasis has since shifted to educating people in the spirit of community. The conference process took a step beyond that to focus explicitly on the challenges of 'gardening a community' -- for which a community garden may offer many insightful metaphors. One of Bill Mollison's principles of permaculture is: 'Everything gardens, or has an effect on its environment' (Permaculture; a designer's manual, 1988).

As a gardener, Peter Harper was again helpful by drawing attention to the political metaphors implicit in conventional approaches to gardens. He pointed out that the best ground, most visible from the house, tends to be given to the flowering plants with no utilitarian function, namely that cannot survive without constant attention: the 'ruling elite'. Less genteel, and therefore placed at a greater distance, are the herbaceous perennials and shrubs: the bourgeoisie. At greater distance, and possibly hidden behind a hedge, is the vegetable garden, namely the herbs and vegetables 'that carry the crucial stigma of being useful' to the preceding classes: the petty bourgeoisie and the artisan class. And 'beyond the garden gate, or in the wilder parts of a large estate' are the wild flowers tolerated provided they keep their place: the yeoman peasants. And finally comes the riff-raff, for whom there is no place and which every effort is made to eradicate, namely the 'urban mob': the weeds.

As a community a conference also has its 'flowers' -- the keynote speakers, gurus and VIPs to whom attention tends to be drawn by every means. Less visible are the 'herbaceous perennials' -- the workshop leaders. Then come the 'herbs and vegetables' -- the regular participants whose presence sustains and nourishes the life of the conference. Then there are the 'wild flowers' -- the non-persons who provide the infrastructure for the event (the receptionists, helpers, cooks, ushers and cleaners), whose presence is tolerated to the extent that they can be treated as invisible, or seen but not heard. And finally there are the 'weeds' -- the gate-crashers, hangers-on and other ill- behaved undesirables, who always seem to manage to insinuate themselves into a gathering, no matter how well-planned, providing a continuing headache for organizers (the 'gardeners').

The conference had the great advantage that a high proportion of participants was familiar with the principles of permaculture -- a number were permaculture designers. The organizers had put a great deal of effort into envisaging a permaculture design for the event, mapping out fruitful relationships between the different 'species' participating in a succession of stages through the life of the conference as a community. The challenge on the spot was to enable the participants to discover through what roles they could most fruitfully participate to ensure the sustainability of the community. Especially challenging in a self-organizing event, was enabling participants to distinguish the occasions on which they might each function as flowers (wild or cultivated), weeds, vegetables, herbaceous perennials -- or gardeners.

Permaculture takes a radically different approach to that of conventional gardening and horticulture. A key principle is that of 'companion planting' whereby apparently quite unrelated plant or animal species are carefully juxtaposed because of the benefits that accrue from their relationship. The intention is to avoid the need for artificial intervention by the gardener in the form of fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides, which are costly and have negative and unsustainable environmental impacts. For example ***

Inspired by such concerns, the conference organizers were able to avoid the need either to periodically stimulate participant productivity artificially (through 'warm-up', 'ice-breaking', 'bonding' or motivating processes) or to depend on application of artificial control procedures (pre- defined rules and sanctions) to restrain unruly, unplanned or spontaneous behaviour. The major challenge was to recognize and balance a number of interlocking cycles vital to the sustainable growth of the species effectively represented in the conference ecosystem by the participants in their different capacities.

Permaculture focuses carefully on cycles linking different elements of a natural system. The conference responded to the challenge of how as a self-organizing system it effectively 'gardened itself' by enabling participants, through one or more of their individual capacities, to position themselves within the conference community. As suggested by the principles of permaculture: 'To enable a design component to function, we must put it in the right place. This may be enough for a living component, eg ducks in a swamp may take care of themselves, producing eggs and meat and recycling seeds and frogs. For other components, we must also arrange some connections, especially for non- living components, eg a solar collector linked by pipes to a hot water storage. And we should observe and regulate what we have done.' (Mollison, p. 39) Imitating nature offers the best guidelines in design. It is recognized that good initial patterning leads naturally to unforeseen, serendipitous results.

The conference built its explorations on permaculture's selection of a 'guild'. A guild of plants and animals is defined as a species assembly that provides many benefits for resource production and self-management. Mollison builds on Ed Haskell's recognition of 9 possible interactions between any species (ranging from symbiosis, through commensalism, predation, parasitism, to synnecrosis). The art of designing a permaculture system lies in the appropriate combination of species to benefit from the consequences of each type of interaction -- avoiding a simplistic focus on 'symbiosis'. For Mollison, the key to this lies in configuration of species such that intervening species are placed between mutually hostile species (see also: Rolfe A Leary. Interaction Geometry: an ecological perspective. USDA Forest Service, General Technical Report NC-22, 1976). The conference put a lot of effort into configuring relationships between those present to ensure fruitful interactions that improved the productivity of the event as a whole.

Patterning in time

Essential to the final success of the conference as a community was its use of time. Initially the community was a relatively unfruitful gathering, since complex systemic linkages naturally had to emerge from a communication space with relatively sparse connections. As in any challenging environment, people tended to participate through their hardier roles. In permaculture terms, such pioneer species assist the area by stabilizing water flow in the landscape, later giving shelter, providing mulch, or improving soil quality for their successors.

Over the life of the conference, the community evolved through a succession of conditions toward a long-term stable state. In the early stages, the hardier participant roles served to stabilize the emotional flows in the conference, providing shelter for the emergence of less hardy species (as it became a 'safer' space), and improving the ground conditions from which other roles could emerge.

Essential to the permaculture approach is an understanding of patterns (Mollison, Ch. 4). The conference made sophisticated use of visual and computer techniques to develop the patterns that sustained its self-organization and development processes as a community. For Mollision: 'Patterning is the way we frame our designs, the template into which we fit the information, entities, and objects assembled from observation, map overlays, the analytic divination of connections, and the selection of specific materials and technologies. It is this patterning that permits our elements to flow and function in beneficial relationships.' (Mollison, p. 70). Of great importance to the conference, in avoiding a naive pursuit of 'consensus' and 'symbiosis', was the application of the permaculture principle: place an intervening, mutually-compatible component between two incompatible systems, to maximize interdependence -- recognizing that 'stupidity is an attempt to iron out all differences, and not to use or value them creatively' (Mollison, p. 80).

Conference community as a living machine: treating psycho-social sludge

Communities generate waste products, as do any living systems. Psycho-social communities are no exception to this. Just as processing sewage and toxic wastewater have become a major environmental challenge to many residential communities, so the processing of the negative emotional and conceptual by-products of psycho-social activities (however well-intentioned) is increasingly problematic in communities throughout the global village. A conference is itself no exception to this challenge, despite assumptions that such a gathering only produces positive results.

According to permaculture principles, a pollutant is 'an output of any system component that is not being used productively by any other component of the system. Extra work is the result of an input not automatically provided by another component of the system' (Mollison, p. 38)

The focus on 'glue' obscures insight into the emotional quality or tone of the community and the manner in which it can be 'polluted' by negative emotions and 'bad vibes' -- eroding the quality of engagement and possibly leading to the eventual breakdown of the community. As with sewage, it is usually considered quite inappropriate to discuss such negative by-products or their treatment by a community. As Peter Harper noted, the topic is embedded in denial and quaint euphemisms like 'going to the little boy's room' -- matched by corridor use of 'shit' as a compensating macho expletive.

Such attitudes are both unhealthy and exceptionally dangerous in any effort to achieve sustainability. Framing the challenge as one of 'resolving' or 'eliminating' conflict is another way of avoiding recognition that 'negative', 'breakdown' products are a natural part of the life of a community and cannot be magicked away by using 'spirit of harmony' like some psychic detergent.

A unique achievement of the conference was explicit recognition of the need to treat the psycho-social 'sludge' continually generated as part of its life as a community. This recognition was triggered by the opening, during the conference, of a 'living machine' (the first in the UK) for the Findhorn Foundation. Such machines (of which 17 are now in operation worldwide) treat sewage and wastewater using a whole systems approach to biological technology -- possibly in a greenhouse containing a series of tanks. They utilize a set of sequenced, complete ecologies which are reliable, robust and aesthetically pleasing.

The approach represents a shift from high energy, chemically intensive treatment, to the adoption of the principles of ecological engineering. Diverse communities of bacteria, algae, micro-organisms, numerous species of plants and trees, snails, fish and other living creatures interact as whole ecologies in tanks and bio-filters. The ecological network of species creates internal biological rendundancies, improving efficiencies and providing greater resiliency. These breakdown the sewage and toxic products as they move through the tanks, resulting in water which can be recycled, as well as fish and plant products for consumption. No chemicals are required.

The research behind this technology was carried out by John Todd (From Eco-cities to Living Machines; principles of ecological design, 1994). The conference was able to adapt these design principles to develop a pattern of community structures and processes which could function as a 'living machine' to process its own psycho-social sludge. They key to this was the provision of a sequence of contexts or spaces for the interactions between different forms of attention, ranging from 'bacteria-mode' through to 'plant-' and 'animal-mode'. This succession of contexts enabled these different modes of attention to feed on the negative, toxic products, gradually stripping out 'odours', 'pathogens' and 'solids' in order to clarify the quality of communication and attention. Some of these contexts tend to emerge naturally in a community, but the achievement of the conference was to design them into a pattern which processed the sludge to a higher standard of clarity, providing a template for sustainability in any psycho-social community.

Todd's work, as with permaculture, is based on the principle that biology is the model for design. The ecological design that he advocates is the design for human settlements that incorporates principles inherent in the natural world to sustain human populations over a long span of time. The conference breakthrough was its ability to demonstrate how such principles could be adapted to sustain intangible psycho-social communities -- irrespective of their value to the tangible biological communities and their built environments, which are the focus of Todd's work.

Building a conference community: the architectural challenge

'Sustainable community' has become a topic for which the agenda is defined and nourished essentially by architects, planners, and those concerned with the tangibles of community design and construction. Historically, at the international level at least, it is a redefinition of 'habitat', 'shelter' and 'settlement', in the light of 'sustainability'. For public relations reasons, 'community' puts a valuable gloss on the tangibles and has therefore been used to package their concerns to garner wider support from those with other sensitivities. As noted above, architects, especially those of the environmentalist school, are not renowned for their interest in psycho-social dynamics, and for what makes a community live. They operate best when they are free to assume that such dynamics follow from the forms that they design. Many sterile town centres are memorials to such approaches. There are eco-villages which may become similarly sterile in psycho-social terms as a consequence of this mind-set.

Within the conference, the complexities of community design, the limited time available, and the multiplicity of apparently conflicting perspectives, were directly addressed with the assistance of computer facilities. Sophisticated use of design packages was made by participants, working as a complex team, to integrate into a coherent framework what would normally be perceived as disparate, conflicting and incoherent views. This was largely achieved by a highly innovative reframing of the way in which such design packages are normally used.

Characteristically such design software is used by architects and planners to build up material frameworks within which spaces necessary for particular economic and social functions can be positioned. In this conference the software was used to design a framework to position and interrelate the spaces (including the 'tanks' of the living machine) within which quite distinct forms of communication and dialogue could be maintained. In effect it was used to develop a context to ensure the 'self-management' of the differences characteristic of a sustainable community as collective understanding of it emerged.

The design process itself became part of the design because of the sharp differences in perspective held by the range of participants. As with any complex building or city, the 'framework' which emerged from this process remained a continuing challenge to comprehension from any particular perspective. It was recognized that it could not be seen as a finished design product to be presented and imposed as a kind of blueprint for sustainability in the 21st century. Rather the framework was seen as a way of interrelating emergent perspectives and styles of order, and as such necessarily subject to continual challenge. This challenges were seen as essential characteristics of a learning community.

As with the team design of major new software products (such as Windows NT), participants were obliged from the start to use the design they were producing as the only means available to them to integrate their own disparate views -- effectively a bootstrap design process. Individual frustration with that design was at each stage a further incentive to amend it to accommodate what would otherwise have been excluded or rejected. The elegance of the emergent framework therefore derived to a great degree from its ability to give design significance to the differences in perspective of those contributing to the design. Alternative perspectives, and the ability to integrate them, were therefore a fundamental and necessary feature of the design -- and its value to those subsequently expected to benefit from it.

At the core of the conference's achievement was the recognition by participants that many aspects of material design could be reinterpreted as essential to the design of psycho-social structures -- even to the design of 'sacred spaces'. One of the insights was that in conceptual terms gatherings had to be 'constructed'. A meaningful policy or planning conference was one which provided appropriate conceptual spaces for different purposes -- and ensured communication between them. In part the task of the conference was to build anew such a pattern of spaces. And in this sense the conference was subject to daily redesign rather than being locked into a design frozen, weeks or months before, by organizers insensitive to the spontaneous responses of participants.

To some degree this is already common in some conference programme design. But in this case, the conference made 'conference architecture' into an art form at the conceptual level. The conference had to be designed and built by the participants -- the viability of the resulting 'built environment' was a measure of their success in sustainable policy design.

This is not the place to discuss their approach to the 'foundations' or to many other features of the resulting conceptual construct or its affective dimensions. Most striking perhaps was their use of space. Each participant faction (and there were some radically opposed views) found it reasonably easy to design a space for itself and its own 'wares' -- somewhat as do major exhibitors in designing their stands at an exhibition associated with a conference. The first real challenge was to be able to design with others a conceptual context in which participants with similar priorities and values could successfully explore their relationships. In this phase, corresponding to the meeting of sub-plenary groups, the design views of participants were constrained and inspired by their immediate peers. Then followed the challenge of relating that space to those of other groups with other priorities, so that participants could move from space to space. At this design stage, each group had to take into account requirements of other groups -- compromises had to be made.

The most challenging phase was the construction of the collective conceptual space in which all viewpoints were interrelated, providing integrity to the whole, namely the equivalent of a plenary conference room. A central architectural insight lay in the means of constructing an arch -- or a series of arches which could be roofed over to protect the space. In effect, even for the smaller spaces, participants were often obliged to retrace the history of architectural principles and techniques. The challenge was to use opposing conceptual elements as columns and to use various ways of bridging between them to create the desired space -- whatever scaffolding was temporarily acquired to install keystones or their equivalent.

For the smaller spaces this tended to call upon principles from the very early history of architecture. To create a space for all views -- the conference in plenary form -- required a much more sophisticated understanding because of the wide expanse that had to be covered with minimum intervening supports.

The achievement of the participants was to use opposition between policy and other perspectives on sustainable community as 'compression elements' and to use mutually supportive perspectives as 'tension elements'. Their skill, inspired by physical buildings, lay in finding ways of using the dynamic interplay between two types of element to create structures which would be impossible with either of them alone. They effectively used the elements of a duality so that the 2-dimensional stresses between them -- which normally render any conceptual construction impossible -- could only be resolved by engendering a space in 3- dimensions. This opened the way to the design of new kinds of psycho-social structures. In some cases this resulted in 'gothic' structures -- 'cathedrals of the mind' as envisaged by Katherine Forsythe -- in others it resulted in what might best be understood through Buckminster Fuller's tensegrity structures (basic to his geodesic domes).***** In its own way the Universal Hall, the venue for the conference constructed by the Findhorn Foundation members, became a symbol of what the conference was able to achieve using architectural principles to structure itself.

In preparing inputs for the United Nations Conference on Habitat (Istanbul, 1996), the gathering deliberately extended understanding of 'shelter' to encompass the vital, intangible dimensions to which Christopher Alexander had drawn attention in The Timeless Way of Building (1979) as a prelude to his discussion of pattern language (see above). He argues: 'There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named....And when we have this quality in us, we tend to make it come to life in towns and buildings which we help to build. It is a self-supporting, self-maintaining, generating quality. It is the quality of life.' It is this dimension which has hitherto been absent from any discussion of 'sustainable community' or 'habitat'. Without it, and however long they endure, such communities are as sterile and unsustainable as refugee camps, and as incapable of providing significant 'shelter' to the human spirit.

Enriching community ecosystems

It is one thing to emphasize psycho-social structures and processes, it is quite another to ensure that a sufficiently diverse ecosystem emerges within such niches to ensure sustainability. As the living machine and permaculture illustrate, the key question is: what species capable of interacting in what ways.

The conference recognized that the prevailing emphasis on equality of individuals, with all its political connotations, was obscuring differences vital to the survival of any community. These are however increasingly recognized in management programmes concerned with team building within a corporate culture. Different forms of thinking are recognized (Edward de Bono), as well as different contributions to team operation (B Meredith Belbin). The psychological types identified by the Myers- Briggs test may even be used as a basis for culling employees as part of downsizing programmes. Such personality typing is however very simplistic, being capable of identifying only a handful of types -- often with little sensitivity to the web of relationships in which they operate most fruitfully.

The conference seized on the possibility of using a wide variety of species in the natural environment as patterning templates through which community ecosystems of great richness could be recognized, engendered or cultivated. The principle of 'equality' could be seen as appropriate to the individual, but not to the many species of behavioural role into which the individual incarnated simultaneously or on different occasions. It was the individual's ability to activate, and shift between, quite different roles -- in response to other roles -- which was a key to the sustainability of the community ecosystem.

An awesome challenge for humanity was seen by the conference to be the need to recognize or engender a range of role species within a human community commensurate with those in the natural environment -- if the human community was to be able to genuinely recognize the value of the range of species to be conserved in the natural environment. Any appropriate response to nature was recognized as dependent on engendering the patterns of nature within a sustainable psycommunity. But achieving this was, at the same time, the royal route to meaningful sustainability within any psycommunity. The key lay in appropriately mirroring nature, rather than in 'dominating', 'domesticating' or superseding nature.

Conference participants then playfully explored such behavioural patterns as those of: birds, reptiles, insects, rodents, fish, arthropods (crustacea), coelenterates (jelly fish), nematodes, molluscs, plants, fungi and bacteria. The question was what patterns of interaction were encoded in their behaviour and lifecycles which provided a scaffolding for understanding vital interactions between roles in a human community.

To some degree, participants were inspired by the attitude of some tribes people to totemic species and the need for an individual to acquire maturity through relating, in some deeply meaningful way, to a species in the natural environment (James Cowan. On Totems). But, although playful, the essential challenge was understood to be recognizing the ways in which such patterns already existed in one form or another in any community -- it was not necessarily a question of engendering new patterns. However, although some patterns might be present, they might not be present in a form essential to sustainability or to the richness required of a mature community. Like a gardener encountering a new environment, the challenge was how to work with what was there, and how to build on it, if that was appropriate. And, perhaps crucially, what phyla and species could be considered 'expendable', and by what criteria?

Reframing employment, unemployment and psycho-social security

In moving beyond conventional fascination with the environmental and construction dimensions of sustainable community, the conference addressed the most intractable issue threatening to undermine sustainability of any kind. With an estimated 20 million unemployed in Western Europe alone, and with the predicted collapse of social safety nets and increase in civil unrest, the need for a radical reframing of community was reinforced. Responding to this post-industrial world with the logic of the industrial era can only be doomed to failure.

As the insights from permaculture and the living machine made clear, the 'bonds' defining relationships in community are not like the simplest 'stick' representations of molecular bonds. Like the latest models of molecular bonds, they can better be understood as transactions or field effects, moulded in this case by the quality of attention and engagement between those concerned. In contemporary society it is economics which defines the nature of such transactions in terms of (input/output) exchanges of valued products or services. This understanding is codified in legislation governing employment, social security and the operation of the monetary system. The question addressed by the conference was whether this codification had dangerously reduced the possible range of transactions through over- simplification and rigidification -- eroding the pattern- that-connects to a degree that makes sustainability impossible.

By drawing upon biological insights, the conference focused on how a person could 'incarnate' into a community many times through a variety of often co-existing roles which lived, grew, propagated and died. The question was how to grasp how a role was 'employed', 'nourished', 'sheltered' and 'sustained', through the pattern-that-connects -- and how to distinguish fruitfully between an individual and the many roles through which he/she participated in the community.

One breakthrough was the recognition that, whether the individual incarnated in 'protozoa-', 'plant-' or 'animal- mode', each such temporary engagement or expression ultimately ended as another role's 'lunch' -- possibly nourishing another role in the same individual's repertoire. From this perspective, the naivety and rigidity of 'win-win' approaches to sustainability became apparent. In a learning community, it is only through short-term 'losing' that long- term learning is possible -- but the loss is at the role level of engagement, whilst it is the individual and the community that learn.

In such a context, how is 'productive work' to be distinguished from other kinds of role activity? How is the individual to manage and develop the ecosystemic pattern of roles through which he/she is engaging in community at any one time? And how are the values exchanged through transactions to be evaluated and recompensed? Whereas marketing has long valued the concept of a niche, this understanding has met with less favour in relationship to employment. And yet there may be much of relevance to the employment crisis that could be understood by investigating how nature 'employs' a particular species. Niches in nature may be usefully seen as equivalent to employment opportunities in a sustainable community. The current destruction of environmental niches by humanity may in fact be closely parelleled by the destruction of role opportunities in psycho-social systems -- the same mind-set may be responsible.

Dematerializing community: emphasizing intangibles

The conference made use of the new thinking on the need for the 'dematerializing of society' whereby well-being is dissociated from levels of material consumption. This features in Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities. As envisaged there, a first step in a dematerialized economy is to shift from a society in which production and consumption are based on the use of primary raw materials to a society in which production and consumption become based on the use of secondary raw materials. In a sustainable community this process can however be taken much further. This can be summarized by a phrase from a corporation executive quoted by Tom Peters: 'If you can touch it, its not real' (Liberation Management, p. 8). Corporations, according to Peters, are increasingly concerned with the opportunities represented by intangibles. Those concerned with sustainable community may find themselves obliged to follow this lead.

The challenge was seen by the conference as one of delinking quality of life from the tangibles promoted by economists and commercial interests, and clarifying how it might be carried by the intangibles of community life -- and without being exclusively associated with a single belief system. To this end experiments were envisaged to reframe exploration of 'voluntary simplicity' and 'living lightly' to determine in what ways well-being could be maximized whilst reducing dependence on tangibles. This calls for a clearer understanding of the pattern-that-connects and how people engage their attention in it and are nourished and sustained by it. As many have discovered, the quality of tangibles is no guarantee of quality of life, although it is in the interests of conventional economic growth to present it so. But since such growth is now only sustained by what amounts to a global 'pyramid selling' scam, alternative perspectives merit exploration.

The question the conference addressed was: 'what makes for a sense of well-being in those for whom tangibles are of secondary significance'. Extreme cases are perhaps hermits and austere religious communities. Contemporary examples include New Age travellers, gypsies, and young people exploring newly acquired independence. Others include those obsessed with scholarly, artistic and sporting (surfing) pursuits, as well as inventors and adventurers. Most striking is the case of those in love or imbued with an ideal. Like any sense of well-being, it has occasionally been noted that 'falling in love' does not contribute detectably to GNP or economic growth -- in contrast to a costly divorce or an accident involving hospitalization. Little wonder that the role of intangibles in community life remains unexplored except as an advertising gloss to assist the sale of tangibles.

Some presentations at the conference focused on the possibilities of de-monetarizing community life -- a good example being the Local Exchange Trading System (LETS). The conference used these to explore other exchange processes that would not be dependent on trading in goods or services. The question is what is exchanged to sustain community life. Extreme clues include the savagery of urban violence attributed purely to the 'lack of respect' or 'honour' important to gang pecking orders. In religious movements, charismatic effects may be fundamental. Repressed cultures have been sustained through song and humour.

A major opportunity for the future was seen to lie in dissociating 'poverty' from 'well-being'. For many this might prove to be the only route offered in the savagely competitive global environment favoured by economists. The challenge is then not how to 'reduce poverty' (according to the standards of homo economicus) but rather how to 'increase well-being'. The challenge is not how to produce tangibles but how to nurture the intangible pattern-that- connects by which people feel sustained as members of a community -- raising the question of the sustaining capacity of a community and its relationship to administrative 'safety nets'. This is as much a choice for the individual as a choice for a community, as those who choose to leave the 'rat race' have long established.

A striking, but little-known, contemporary example was provided by the Swadhaya Movement, notably active along the western coast of India. As described by Shri R K Srivastava of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (New Delhi): 'Swadhyaya is neither a cult nor a sect; it is neither a party nor an association; it is neither messianic nor limited to a particular section of society; it is neither directed against centralising state power nor to overcoming flaws in Indian society, though such consequences may follow. Swadhyaya is both a metaphor and a movement. It is a metaphor in the sense of a vision, and a movement in terms of its orientation in social and economic spheres.' Building on qualities long articulated within the Hindu spiritual tradition, emphasis is placed on the quality of relationship between people, especially within the context of the most impoverished villages. This has led to a remarkable, and growing, capacity to regenerate village life. Refusing any economic assistance from either Indian government or foreign sources, unusual achievements have been made in thousands of villages, even in such physical terms as replenishing wells and managing farms.

Such an example raises the question whether it offers lessons to be learnt for sustainable communities in the west. Perhaps more challenging is whether such an example, and that of The Farm and the Amish communities in the USA, could be understood within a context like the UN Conference on Habitat (Istanbul, 1996). Community sustainability is as much a question of psycho-social patterns as of a appropriately designed built environment -- but the former may in many cases be secondary to the latter. The latter is not necessarily capable of engendering the former.

Gardening community

The conference's efforts to highlight the quality of engagement were reinforced by Henryk Skolimowski's The Participatory Mind (1994). He argues that: 'Participatory philosophy is the ultimate courage of man to surprise himself by creating realities surrounding him/her; the ultimate courage to realize that all is a web of dreams, but dreams so tangible and lucid that we cannot distinguish them from reality because they a reality....Participatory philosophy declares that to be a person in the participatory universe entails the recognition of the bond of participation' (p. 380-1).

It is the varieties of attention which weave together in a community to constitute the pattern-that-connects thus ensuring the quality and sustainability of community life. Vigilance is required to ensure that community 'bonding' does not become 'bondage'. Gardening community is the challenge of the future -- it should not be confused with community gardening.

The Findhorn conference on Eco-villages and Sustainable Communities was a success precisely because it was able to use its structures and processes as a laboratory to explore new understandings of patterns basic to community. The conference medium became its own key message. It is to be hoped that future conferences on this and related issues will be as courageous and innovative in their explorations.


Christopher Alexander:

Gregory Bateson. Mind and Nature: a necessary unity. E P Dutton, 1979

Meredith Belbin. Management Teams: why they succeed and fail. Heinemann, 1981

Diane Gilman and Robert Gilman (Eds.). Eco-Villages and Sustainable Communities; a report for the Gaia Trust. Context Institute, 1991

James Cowan. On Totems. Resurgence, 138, pp. 30-34

Amitai Etzioni. The Spirit of Community: rights, responsibilities and the communitarian agenda. Crown, 1993.

Peter Harper. A Microcosm of Life; the way we organize our gardens reflects the way we organize our lives, our society, our politics, our busineses and our knowledge. Resurgence, 164

Jon R Katzenbach, and D Smith. The Wisdom of Team: creating the high performance organization. Harvard Business School Press, 1993

Rolfe A. Leary. Interaction Geometry: an ecological perspective. USDA Forest Service, General Technical Report NC-22, 1976

Lynn Margulis and Karlene Scwartz. Five Kingdoms: an illustrated guide to the phyla of life on Earth. W H Freeman, 1982

Bill Metcalf (Ed.). From Utopian Dreaming to Communal Reality: cooperative lifestyles in Australia. Sydney, University of NSW Press, 1995

Bill Mollison. Permaculture; a designer's manual. Tagari Publications, 1988.

Tom Peters. Liberation Management: necessary disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties. Ballantine Books, 1996

Jonathon Porritt. Save the Earth. Andrews Mcmeel, 1991

Henryk Skolimowski. The Participatory Mind. Penguin Arkana, 1994.

R K. Srivastava. Swadhyay Movement. Delhi, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 1992

Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd. From Eco-cities to Living Machines: principles of ecological design. North Atlantic Books, 1994

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

For further updates on this site, subscribe here