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Living Sustainably: What Intentional Communities Can Teach Us about Democracy, Simplicity, and Nonviolence.

Living Sustainably: What Intentional Communities Can Teach Us about Democracy, Simplicity, and Nonviolence


Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2017. 292 pp. ISBN 978-0-8131-6863-0 ($50.00 cloth; $50.00 ebook; $50.00 web PDF).

In Living Sustainably, A. Whitney Sanford takes her readers on a tour of twenty-one contemporary intentional communities around the United States that she visited as part of her quest to address questions of how we can "live together in ways that are healthy and sustainable for people and the planet" (1). In the process, she considers how the experimental practices of people in these communities can help us address ways "we can all be more deliberate about how we live our lives, as individuals and as neighbors" (2). Rather than providing in-depth case studies of individual communities, Sanford's narrative skips around to different communities she visited as she considers particular topics and explores the ways that different intentional communities deal with them. The result is a wideranging narrative that provides significant insight into the ways contemporary intentional communities attempt to serve as demonstration centers for ideals of democracy, simplicity, and nonviolence.

Having spent the last fifteen-plus years studying contemporary intentional communities ethnographically--including visits to over forty such communities while also keeping up with literatures produced by both scholars of these communities and communitarians themselves--I can say that Sanford does generally "get" intentional communities. She presents an accurate picture of what life in community is like and what it encompasses for many contemporary communitarians. She also hits on many of the main topics and issues at the heart of contemporary communitarian life, and her discussions of these topics and issues do a good job reflecting the complexity and nuance that surround them. While I am not personally familiar with all of the communities Sanford covers, I have spent time over the last eight years visiting and conducting research at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, a community that Sanford discusses extensively, and I can say without reservation that Sanford's multiple descriptions of that community are generally accurate. At the same time, the sample of communities she chose to spend time in was, by her own admission, not systematic but rather based on convenience. The author's limited sample of communities and her lack of in-depth engagement with any one community leave the work somewhere between a deep ethnographic treatment and a general survey. However, as stated above, the author does do a generally good job of representing community life while working with a limited sample.

Readers of this journal may wish to consider that the book appears to be written more for a lay audience than for experts in the field of communal studies. For example, the narrative is often written in first person and is significantly organized around personal anecdotes detailing both the time the author spent in the communities she visited and times in her personal life when she confronts dilemmas about how to live more sustainably. This is not meant to be a criticism of the book, as the author's aim appears to be informing members of the general public who are interested in sustainability about what contemporary intentional communities have to offer. This is a laudable goal, but it does not result in a book that is as informative and incisive as it could be for a reader of this journal. On the other hand, the expertise of many readers of this journal lies in historic rather than contemporary intentional communities. If this description applies to you, Living Sustainably may be a good choice if you are seeking an overview of contemporary, sustainability-oriented intentional communities. Sanford's book will likely take its place among a small set of books that also provide coverage of contemporary intentional communities, such as Jonathan Dawson's (2006) and Karen Litfin's (2013) books about ecovillages in general and Liz Walker's (2005, 2010) books about Ecovillage at Ithaca. Along with Litfin's work, Living Sustainably will distinguish itself among these books for being written by a scholar and for its relatively broad coverage of multiple communities, including those not identifying explicitly as ecovillages.

One limitation of the book for readers of this journal is that the author makes very little reference to the communal studies literature. while Sanford does cite scholars like Tim Miller and Dan McKanan, she makes few references to other major scholars of contemporary intentional communities and only cites one article from Communal Societies. In this reviewer's opinion, the book would have benefited from a stronger engagement with the literature in our field. On the other hand, the author does reference work produced by well-known authors within the contemporary intentional communities movement such as Diana Leafe Christian, Albert Bates, and Jonathan Dawson. Additionally, Sanford traces multiple interesting connections between issues in intentional communities and broader scholarly topics such as environmentalism, spiritual ecology, and sustainable agriculture. These connections help the reader identify the significance of intentional communities with regard to broader theoretical and socio-cultural issues and shine the light on resources for exploring these topics in greater depth.

This reviewer found the presentation of the material in the book to be less systematic and structured than he would prefer. The chapter titles and subtitles do not lead the readers to discrete treatments of specific topics; rather Sanford returns to the same topics repeatedly in different parts of the book. For example, there is a chapter ostensibly on food ("Asking What's for Dinner"), but that topic is covered in significant depth in multiple chapters in the book, while that specific chapter extends its treatment to a variety of other topics. This may be a matter of personal taste, and it does not detract much from the ability of the author to accurately address any given topic, but this reviewer would have preferred a more consistent structure to the book--one that would more easily guide readers to full treatments of individual issues and topics.

I found the appendices included at the end of the book to not be constructed in a particularly informative or systematic way. Appendix A is entitled "Communities Discussed in This Book" and ostensibly aims to provide a brief overview of each of the communities the author discusses. However, the few sentences offered for each community provide too little information to really be informative. In addition, the quotations and descriptions included for each community seem not to have been chosen systematically. For example, the one sentence quotation for Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, the community in the book that I am most familiar with, leaves out significant components of the nature of this community, such as its feminist orientation, its emphasis on permaculture principles, or its significant deployment of renewable energy technologies. Appendix C, entitled "How to... " provides links to web pages that readers could consult if they wished to obtain more information on how to do things that the author found in the communities she writes about. However, the appendix includes only three topics--"clay plaster," "build a cob oven," and "build a rocket stove"--when it seems that many additional topics directly related to the main subject matter of the book (consensus decision making, nonviolent communication, community scale renewable energy technologies, sustainable agriculture, etc.) could easily have been included as well.

My perusal of the appendices also leads to consideration of another inconsistency with the book. While Appendix A lists twenty-one communities covered in the book, the bulk of author's narrative focuses on a minority of these communities: Twin Oaks, Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, Cherith Brook Catholic Worker, Los Angeles Ecovillage, Possibility Alliance, Red Earth Farms, and Sirius Community all receive significantly more coverage than the other fourteen communities listed in the appendix. This has the effect of reducing the author's survey of twenty-one communities to an even narrower sample. Along similar lines, the author begins each chapter of the book with a quotation from a community member she spoke with during her research, but seven of the ten chapters start with a quotation from one of two members of Possibility Alliance. As there is no explicit explanation for this in the book, the reader is left wondering if the author spent more time in this particular community, found its members' activities more directly relevant to the book's subject matter, or if the members of this particular community were simply more articulate about the topics the author most wishes to consider.

Finally, this reviewer wonders if there is a disjunction between the first and second parts of the title. Can "living sustainably" only be considered in terms of democracy, simplicity, and nonviolence? Are these the main strategies the members of the communities considered in the book have adopted for achieving sustainability? For example, is simple living the only path to ecological sustainability? Some communities are using technologies such as solar photovoltaics that are complex but work with nature to meet human needs in more sustainable ways. This reviewer can think of a variety of other terms that characterize the approach to sustainability taken by the communities under study--cooperation, communalism, and green building among them--and that are likely part of any fully effective strategy for living sustainably. Ultimately, the author's choice of title and focus boils down to areas of expertise that she has cultivated over the course of her career and her research conducted elsewhere in the world and to the need to reduce a complex topic to something that can be encapsulated in a single book. In the end, Living Sustainably provides a valuable contribution to the relatively small but growing body of literature on contemporary intentional communities. It is certainly an informative introduction to the topic for people who are unfamiliar with it and will likely be a welcome addition to the libraries of scholars who are already more versed in this area.


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Author:Lockyer, Joshua
Publication:Communal Societies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2018
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