What is an intentional community? (pt. 2)

(This is the second of a four part series on the history of Intentional Communities in the US.  If you haven’t read it, I suggest starting with part 1)

Religion has had a strong hand in the formation of intentional communites, stemming from a sense of both protestant acetiscism and prosecution.  In the last post I made about the history of intentional communites, I noted that early Pilgrims and other relgious migrants could be considered an early “wave” of ICs that occured in the United States.  The second wave swelled similarly during a time of religous fervor in the US, around the early 1820s Progressive Era, though it was just as heavily influenced by the waxing of socialism on the industrial landscape.  The same sense of acetiscism prevailed, as the newly formed ICs of this time were concerned about “right” living, though in a distinctly secular fashion through maximizing the satisfaction of the human condition in contrast to the rise of grueling factory conditions.  Similar to earlier relgious communities, there were a few charasmatic individuals that led the charge with various views of what the ideal social arrangement should be in order to maximize the sense of satisfaction and achivement in the human condition.  

Robert Owen and Charles Fourier were formative figures in this period, both for their experiments in collective living and writings that addressed the human condition in response to industrial capitalism.  Henri de Saint-Simon and Marx could be considered contemporary to this movement, though neithers legacy generated the grand collective experiments of workers in the way the former were able to, and both addressed the need for change from the vantage of class rather than individual.  Because of the association with these historical figures, this wave of IC formation is often referred to as “utopian socialism,” though in the broader sense arc of ICs, calling them utopian might just be a little redundant.

A successful British merchant in his time, Owen had a (by all accounts) somewhat mysterious transformation halfway through his life.  Though his purchase and management of New Lanark Mills in Scotland made them highly profitable under his tenrue, his utilitarian tendencies meant that such success didn’t lead to massive accumulations of wealth but rather re-investment in the workers of the mill.  At New Lanark, he implemented reforms to improve the quality of life for the some 500 workers there, most notably were an 8 hour work day (compared to the 12 or 14 hour days contemporary factor workers faced) and a school for the children of mill workers (raising the age of child labor).  Owen believed that elevating every individual in society elevated all of society, which placed him as a radical among his contemporaries.

That all hitherto fundamental principles on which society has been hithterto founded are erroneous, and may be demonstrated contrary to fact… the change which would follow the abandonment of these erroneous maxims which bring misery to the world, and the adoption of principles of truth , unfolding a system which shall remove and for ever exclude that misery, may be effected without the slightest injurt to any human being.

- Owen (in Morton 1969)

He invested most of his money in this ideal, traveling to the US and purchasing a plot of land in Indiana, and recruiting hundreds of volunteers to follow him.  This community, New Harmony, was actually the third IC built at the site, the previous two being religious settlements of the German “Harmonist” tradition (so maybe it should have been called “New New” Harmony).  While the appeal of socialist tendencies had begun to migrate to the United States, New Harmony never got off the ground and failed after two years. Biographer A.L. Morton (1969) summarizes his failed endeavor as the result of taking anyone and everyone that would join, rather than selecting for the healthy, sane, and hard working.

Owen’s ideals of evelevating the condition of the common worker persisted, even if his experiments in building settlements to express that in its truest form never did.  He made several further attempts throughout his life to raise funds from British elites for new experiemnts in worker’s settlements, but with modest and ultimately insignificant support.  His greatest benefactors were Quakers, including Jeremy Bentham, whom represented a major segment of intentional communities at the time, and so generally supported Owens idea.  They balked, though, at the kinds of leisure he wished to afford workers, like dancing, which limited his funding.  Though he only had a direct hand in New Harmony, Owen has often been called the founder of Socialism, and his ideals influenced a generation radicals - both communitarian and otherwise.

On the other hand, Fourier was never a wealthy man but nonetheless quite successful in the influencing the foundation of many intentional communities.  

"Fourier, too,  convinced that work was essential social problem and the labor was key to human happiness.  But he would not join the chorus of classical economists, Bourgeois moralists, and socialist theorists who were singing the praises of work. He scornfully rejected any attempt to infuse human labor, as it was practiced by civilization, with fraudulent theological or social value, and he despised as hypocrites and charlatans the philosophers who tried to deceive the masses into loving work because it was a religious or social duty. Work was a man's destiny, but so, too, were happiness, comfort, and rich and passionate fulfillment.”

(Beecher and Bienvenu, 1971)

His work never bore concrete results - the formation of a community - in his lifetime the way Owens did.  But, shortly after his death in 1837, a book by Albert Brisbane in the US based on Fouriers works sparked the formation of at least 30 phalanxes” through the 1940s - from the French “ phalanstère,” named for the basic military unit in ancient Greece because they were the same size of 500-1000 as the size goal of the community.  These were meant to be self-sustaining and highly integrated in terms of social life and cooperation.  

Phalanxes, unlike Owenite communites, had a strong architectural component to go with the social component.  The image above is an artist’s rendering of what Fourier describe as his ideal layout - one big building with two wings, a lot of courtyard space, and great halls for common space (thanks, Wikipedia!).  It would be surrounded by rural land that would be farmed to feed the community.

None of these communities lasted more than a decade, and few lasted more than a year or two.

What Owen a Fourier disdained in common, besides the arrangement of industrial society, was intellectuals.  Owen hardly read anything besides the London dailies, while Fourier was convinced that all previous philosophers had done nothing to solve the problem of human happiness.” (Beecher and Bienvenu, 1971)  Both were rather singular in their pursuit, and doggedly stubborn.

One way in which Fourier stands out, though, is in his specific focus on the role of women in society.  Of this, he says “social progress and changes of period are brought about by virtue of the progress of women towards liberty, and social retrogression occurs as a result of a diminution in the liberty of women.” (Beecher and Bienvenu, 1971)  So, while he was inclined to eschew the works of previous philosophers pretty much to a fault, at least he was able to see what few others could about the position and progress of women in the Western world.  He is also credited for laying the foundations of the word “feminism."

Neither mans work was borne out through success in those who tried to build on their ideas to create the perfect arrangement for human society.  But then again, such is the general folly of utopianism in trying to manage such a complex beast as an assembled mass of humans - and this wave was certianly indiciative utopian visions.  We’ll see that again in part 3, where the intentional communities that formed in the 1960s and 70s started from a the notion that there was somehow a correct arrangement of humans, both physically and socially, that could achieve a maxiumum of harmony and happiness, but derived from the works of prominent social psychologists.  Those that survive to today - and this is why none of the Owenite nor Fourierist ones did - do so because they quickly abandoned the search for perfection and instead began the search for “better”.


Beecher, Jonathan and Richard Bienvenuw, eds. 1971. Utopian Visions of Charles Fourier. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press.

Morton, A.L. 1969. The Life and Ideas of Robert Owen. New York: International Publishers.

The Replicable Sustainable

Why go visit an ecovillage if I’m not going to live there?  It’s great what they’re doing and all, but what relevance does that have to the rest of us that live here in Babylon?

Well, the first question is not settled.  I could very well end up moving back to DR at some point if that’s where life and career take me.  Regardless, I’ll be back there at some point for some period of time.  But those questions, which I tend to get pretty often, have a distinct relevance to academic praxis and what exactly I wanted to get out of this research for myself.  DR is not a retreat, nor retreatist, so there would be little point in the community existing if it wasn’t able to export at least some of the good ideas they’ve come up with.

There are a lot of challenges in translating the innovations at DR in to adaptable practices in other areas.  As I’ve said before, DR is rural.  Very Rural.  This limits the materials on hand, and also how easily new materials can be acquired.  It limits the services available and the person-power that can be mustered for larger projects.  Nonetheless, there are several practices at DR that I think are ripe for use in urban areas of all sizes.

Energy Awareness

First and foremost, rabbits are aware of their consumption patterns and talk openly between each other about them.  About 5 years ago, the village established their own utility called BEDR (better electricity for Dancing Rabbit), a micro-grid that services the village but also ties in to the larger grid and allow them to eliminate battery banks without losing power when they weren’t generating.  I got an email the other day over the DR listserv from BEDR detailing the total power production, consumption, targets, with an interpretation of what affects those numbers.  How many of you can say you’ve ever gotten something like that from your utility?  The promise of the utility was that the village would produce two times as much clean energy back to the grid as dirty energy they used.  This has never been accomplished, though the village has a surplus of electrical production in general. 

That’s not to say there aren’t drawbacks to BEDR.  For one, electricity through them costs four times what it does in surrounding Scotland County, in part because the infrastructure was built in loans instead of grants, and upfront costs were quite high compared to the number of users.  Additionally, the dozens of solar panels now spread throughout the village were not quite at cost parity in cost per kilowatt-hour with coal or natural gas at the time they were purchased, and so paying for them over time is more expensive than it would be if the same panels were purchased today.

The cost and the amount of effort put in to establishing this infrastructure has led to an ethos of acute awareness of electrical consumption. Very often, activities requiring electricity were delayed until the sun was shining so that solar power could be used rather than drawing from the dreaded larger grid and it’s provision of coal-fired kilowatts.  I heard from longer-term residents that the village of 2015 was much looser with electrical consumption than the village of 2010 because of the transition away from battery banks - that since electricity automatically comes out of a socket regardless of the time of day, more rabbits have taken to habits of using it at their convenience than when it is most sustainably produced.  On the other hand, many saw it as a boon for the village because it allowed online work occur unabated by cloudy days.  Cob, my host, described his first few years there trying to run an online business as quite trying: on cloudy days the family would cook by candlelight in order to reserve battery power for the router and laptop so he could return vital emails.

Almost everybody used laptops.  There were perhaps 3 desktop computers that I knew of - one was for gaming, another was for professional A/V production, and the final in disrepair.   This is not to say that laptops are necessarily eco-friendlier as a whole since they are far less repairable than desktops, but they do consume far less energy.  And people kept their computers far longer than the industry-typical three-year replacement cycle.  The Nissan Leaf (discussed below) is set to forego charging, even when plugged in, while the sun is down.  The washing machine in the common house is plugged in to a power strip you can turn off when you’re done doing laundry so that the display on the front isn’t drawing power, and the common practice is to unplug the printer in the office when you’re done.  And so on, and so on.  If it consumes electricity at DR, you better believe that someone is paying attention to how much and when that device draws juice. 

Water Conservation

Do you shower every day?  Maybe twice a day?  Do you know how much water that uses? Where does your water come from?

When I went to turn on the sink in Thistledown, the water that came out had fallen on the roof over my head days prior.  It was pumped up from the cistern through a carbon filter, a UV filter, and in to a pressure tank, from where it went to the rest of the house.  It tastes different than city water, a fact lamented by Caleb when he left to find seasonal work in Florida.  He would miss the unflouridated, rich taste of the stuff that falls from the sky.  I tended to agree with him, that it had a fresh, less chemical-ly taste, even though there were times immediately after a rain stirred up sediment below that I didn’t feel quite right swallowing the brackish yellow stuff that would come up. 

At DR, most people shower far less than daily, with some people only cleaning their bodies in the pond during warm weather.  A big part of this is cost - not necessarily the fact that the $11 per month was too steep, but that it was a line item which one could eliminate from their budget if they so chose.  Most people don’t have their showers as a separate expense from water in general.  Smelly or clean alike got along fairly well, though, and I took the middle ground of showering weekly.  It’s amazing how little scent impacted me after a time - I really expected to hate how I smelled, but hardly noticed it.  Until our Bath and Body Works' and our Yankee Candles go by the wayside and people start to become open the odors their own bodies produce, this practice is only marginally adoptable in the wider society.

People still washed their dishes, laundered their clothes, watered their gardens, and did all the normal things one would use water for.  Yet, Brooke’s research showed that the average water consumption was somewhere around 81% less than the typical American.  Is this all from going stinky, from not having flush toilets, or more from just being more judicious about one’s water use?  Though you can fill your with county water from one of the many spigots dotting the village for pennies, rain water is free.  Rabbits would make the most of that.


This is a subject I will address in a future post, as there are many varied lessons to be learned from both natural building and high-efficiency conventional building that come from DR.  Suffice it to say that when you have a wood stove that must be stoked at night, lack an air conditioner in the hottest parts of summer, are subject to 80 mile and hour winds in tornado alley, and experience flooding in the spring, you want an efficient and solid house.  Natural building is not unique to DR, but has certainly found an excellent vantage point from which to disperse.  In my time there, two houses were under active construction, with another in the planning stages.  Many of the houses there were build as part of extended workshops or demonstration projects that brought in dozens of people from around the world. These are certainly replicable anywhere, as they are replications themselves at DR.  At least four people I know back home in Columbia have plans to begin building natural homes this coming year, and there may already be natural structures in the city that I’m unfamiliar with.  

The main problem with exporting this that most places don’t have building codes which incorporate natural buildings.  A few states, like New Mexico, do.  But as far as I know, Missouri does not.  So, you can build a structure, but you risk eviction and demolition if an authority discovers you living in it.  That’s what makes DR a great testing ground - they live far out in a rural county where there’s no enforcement body for any of those codes.  They may or may not be legal, but no one in the county could or would do anything about them if they were.  The Milkweed Mercantile even found a specialized company to insure their structure.

In other words, there are distinct limits to the replicability of the housing experiments at DR.  However, whenever someone comes to learn about it and get some hands-on practice, two things happen.  First, the idea spreads and people explore the option of making it happen in their own home towns, perhaps beginning a movement towards changing those prohibitive codes towards something more inclusive of diverse housing forms.  Second, learning how to build a house leads to ideas about how to improve the performance and green-ness of existing houses.   Does your house have R-50 (an measurement of energy transfer resistance) of insulation in your attic? If it doesn’t, you could take a cue from building at DR and use woolen or recycled denim batting to fill it in to that point of maximum energy savings return.  Have south-facing windows?  Those can be tweaked like the ones in Ted and Sara’s house to allow maximum insolation in during winter and block the excess during summer.  Build a greenhouse on the the south side of your existing structure to bring in more energy from sunlight in the winter.

Maybe you can’t build an entirely straw bale building where you live, or you already own a house and don’t want to build another.  The lessons from DR need not be about what is worth building, but what methods provide sound energy management to any given structure.


If you’ve had to cook for yourself (and who hasn’t?), it’s something that you need to do everyday and is often accompanied by a fair amount of waste as fresh vegetables or even canned goods don’t really come in quantities tailored for individual meals.  When you cook for a group, you only have to do it once or twice a week, and there’s a lot of room to fudge the quantities so that there’s little waste.  There are two aspects here that I think are of particular importance: eating in groups and composting.

Cooking co-ops at DR rely pretty heavily across the board or dried bulk goods like beans and rice, which make more sense when you’re preparing a big pot than when you’re boiling one tiny one for yourself.  Buying in bulk saves money, and allows for more creative use of dried ingredients.  It also uses the energy in cooking more efficiently and reduces waste.  Pressure cookers, a kitchen device I became intimately familiar with in my time there, were in common use.   By increasing the pressure of cooking to 15 psi in the sealed pot, the boiling point of water goes up by 40 degrees and shortens the cooking time of beans from hours to minutes.

No food is wasted, even if it’s the inedible parts or spoiled beyond human consumption.  It all gets fed to the chickens in Critterville, or lands in personal compost bins.  This contributes, in part, to DR’s low trash production, and is perhaps the most exportable aspect of the village.  Pretty much anyone and everyone can compost, unless you’re in a high rise apartment in a city that doesn’t collect organic material separately.

Moreover, just as there is an ethos of watching one’s electrical consumption at DR, there is also a general ethos around eating lower on the food chain.  Fewer animal products in general are consumed.  Part of this restraint is in resistance to industrial agriculture, where cheap meat is seen to be less healthy because it’s assumed to be loaded with artificial hormones and antibiotics, and where organic grains or legumes can be gotten cheaper.  Local meat, whether from the very few producers on farm or neighbors with observable and trusted practices, comes at a premium and is therefore reserved for special occasions.  

Car Sharing

DR has a co-op called DRVC, which stands eponymously for “Dancing Rabbit Vehicle Co-op.”  There are four vehicles: two Volkswagen passenger cars equipped to run on biodiesel in the warm months, a big truck with the same, and a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle.  Between 40 or so adults, none of whom had to commute regularly for jobs, there was pretty much always a vehicle available to check out.  Similarly, with that many people there was seldom a day in which no vehicles were used.  Several times a week, and on occasion several times a day, people took a car to neighboring Rutledge or Memphis for errands.  Less frequently were trips to Kirksville for specialty items or to pick someone up at the airport, or La Plata to pick someone up from the Amtrak stop there.  On occasion, the cars would make longer trips to St. Louis, Ottumwa, Quincy, and a plethora of towns beyond.

Joining the co-op was easy, requiring a $100 deposit and three ride-alongs with existing DRVC members to prove one’s competence in the car.  Once you actually take a trip, though, things can get expensive rather quickly as you are charged per mile at a rather steep rate.  (Note: I never joined DRVC, so I don’t know the exact rate  Maybe a rabbit could provide that in the comments?)  But that rate was all-inclusive: maintenance, fuel, insurance, and weekly service checks were all taken care of by the DRVC point cos.  

Car sharing is not an innovation of DR, though its existence in such a rural area is certainly unique.  These sorts of arrangements have found great homes in cities of most sizes with companies like ZipCar or Greenwheels.  Critter Radio at DR recently had an interview with current IC transient, and former member of 4 years, Liat.  In it, Kyle asked her what she though the most significant innovation DR had to contribute to the landscape of ICs focused on sustainable living. Her answer, almost immediately, was the car sharing co-op DRVC. (Starts at about 24:00)

What Could You Do?

This list is by no means a comprehensive one, but one which contains what were (to me) the major strands of eco-conscious living at DR.  Does any of this look like something that could work where you live?  Hopefully, the answer to this has leapt from the screen towards you at some point.  If you’re not composting, that’s a good place to start.  That’s an urban-friendly practice.  Car sharing is probably best if you live in very urban area, or at least some place dense enough to be typically walkable.  But beyond that, think of innovative ways to incorporate the ethos of DR in to your own life. Be ok with going stinky for just a little longer than you normally would.  Make big meals and share them with groups, or maybe buy a pressure cooker.  There’s no one way to do sustainability right, but there’s a wrong way and that’s doing nothing.

Go on.  Be a rabbit where you live.  Scoot!  Do it!

Zach Rubin, 2018