Tempest Tossed Covid
Covid, climate and war migrants have validated the “ecovillages-as-lifeboats” metaphor.
In one little body
Thou counterfeit'st a bark, a sea, a wind:
For still thy eyes, which I may call the sea,
Do ebb and flow with tears; the bark thy body is,
Sailing in this salt flood; the winds, thy sighs;
Who,--raging with thy tears and they with them,--
Without a sudden calm, will overset
Thy tempest-tossed body.
—Romeo and Juliet, Act III Scene V
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Though his bark cannot be lost, yet it can be tempest tossed.
—Macbeth, Act I, Scene III
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…
About 20 years ago the Australian futurist Ted Trainer wrote something to the effect that, “Ecovillages are perhaps the most important invention of the 20th Century.” Ross Jackson has said—most recently in his opening address at the International Communal Studies Association (ICSA) triennial meeting last Thursday—that it is because ecovillages are like lifeboats. That is how master planner George Ramsey, who coined the word “ecovillages,” envisioned them when the Club of Rome came out with their Limits to Growth study in 1972 that predicted we would reach several important limits in about 50 years. Well, 50 years is now. Ecovillages provide an alternative to the culture built on endless growth, depletion of non-renewable resources, military aggression, and social hierarchies. Ecovillages are accessible and friendly alternatives that actually work. Are they the most important invention of the past century?
We are seeing that lifeboat metaphor playing out now as ecovillages in Ukraine go from communities of fewer than 100 residents to several hundred families overnight. The same is being repeated across Europe as a collapse of energy and food systems raises anxieties about this coming winter.
Findhorn is very proud of being energy self-sufficient, treating its own waste and producing much of its own food in northernmost Scotland. They are well positioned for the tempest ahead. In Sri Lanka, there are several thousand ecovillages in the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement that has been going on since the 1950s. Today they provide desperately needed lifeboats for a very large segment of that population.
I have personal issues with the lifeboat metaphor, however, because a lifeboat is not designed for long-term living. Its purpose is to get you from a sinking ship, tempest-tossed, to some safe harbor. Ecovillages are designed to be those safe harbors. They are not temporary but regenerative, like ecosystems. So, for instance, Findhorn has taken on the challenge of restoring the Caledonian forest. Solheimer is restoring Iceland at the rate of a million trees per decade.
Besides Scotland, Sri Lanka and Ukraine, some of the fastest growing ecovillage regions today are in Brazil, China and Russia. I would posit that one response of people to authoritarian government is to carve out their own independent, self-sovereign local domains.
In Europe, the ECOLISE network has joined communities of ecovillages, permaculture and transition together. Like a modern Library of Alexandria, they maintain an open source collection of databases on many of the subjects of greatest interest for our time.
At the ICSA meeting last week, I was fascinated to listen to presentations by many scholars on the responses to intentional communities, ecovillages, Camphill, and co-housing to Covid restrictions. Rural communities tended to be the least affected by Covid, with 21% living life pretty much as normal. The majority made some changes to preserve their health, and the experience of Lasalle-Gardens Indigene Community in Montreal is typical:
Our 700 children play with each other unimpeded & go to public schools mostly unimpeded on school buses. Most of our 2000 working-age adults are holding meetings on Zoom within their particular fields of expertise. Small companies of trades, building, sciences, warehousing, cleaning, etc each have different situation-specific guidelines for COVID-19 hygiene. Our 500 elders are mostly self-isolating within their extended family networks. We have 20% of our 3200 population who live in intergenerational proximity within our neighborhood or 640 people = 215 apartments & townhouse dwellings. These extended family & friends form bubbles of known contacts, usually with masking. Some are getting vaccinations while others are not, depending upon the research each has arrived at.
There was a divide between pro-vax and anti-vax communities. For instance, Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia said:
There have been many points of tension throughout the process since we have had a population of about 65-70 adults this past year, which means many different ideas about risk tolerance. Because of our communal living situation, we have been generally more careful than one would be if they were living by themselves.
Atlantis, in the Andean Mountains of Colombia, said:
We are militantly on the side of the doctors, scientists and ordinary people everywhere who have fought against the outrageous scaremongering since the beginning. We believe in natural health and immunity through good living, organic vegetarian food, natural medicines, good treatment of our bodies (no smoking, drinking, drugs, meat, or pharmaceutical drugs). Grow our own food organically.
The Holy Smoke Tribe said:
Our policies about this fake pandemic were easily set. No one who has received the fake vaccine shots is allowed into our community and they are not allowed to visit unless it's been at least 6 weeks since they had the experimental drugs injected into their bodies. Masks and social distancing are NOT allowed in our community.
There were also splits within communities. So for instance, Innisfree Village in Crozet, Virginia reported:
There are several different views and opinions, some in favor of the vaccination and others who are not. We did not make the vaccination a requirement of our community members, and only a small handful of our community did not receive the vaccination when it came available to us. We also found it important not to alienate any of those individuals who decided not to get vaccinated but did choose to make a few guidelines specific to them in regards to taking vacations and quarantine/testing requirements upon re-entry into the community.
Sieben Linden in Beetzendorf Germany said:
Many of our members are skeptics concerning vaccination in general, and especially with Covid19 vaccines, mostly because they think these vaccines are not tested enough. Around 1/3 of the population will get a vaccine as soon as possible.
We had a week of so-called "intensive time", where we met and talked and tried to repair relations between several persons, with medium effect. Now that vaccines are available to the most vulnerable of us, and that we had some experience with Covid19 within our community, the discussions soften a bit.
Nubanusit Neighborhood & Farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire said:
It has been very difficult. We have just approved the 4th version of our Covid guidelines. We have had many meetings about the issues involved, some of which have been quite intense and emotional. Some members have been very determined to require that others adhere to their own standards. There have not been good boundaries about allowing people determination over their own choices. There has been significant social pressure to go along with rules that don't make sense to everyone.
Caballos de las Estrellas in Rodeo, New Mexico, said:
We do not censor our library or our Bulletin Boards. Diverse opinions and information are welcome. We consider well informed residents considering different views a huge plus.
WOW (Wild Old Women) in Seattle said:
We talk and laugh about it…among ourselves.
Most of the pro-vax communities drew the line at residents who were so militant as to refuse to mask around the more vulnerable or to even attend Zoom meetings. Those members were booted. Other members who chose to go unvaccinated or engage in risky behavior were tolerated but restricted from some group activities.
During Covid, the lifeboat metaphor broke down for most of these enclaves. Many closed their doors not only to potential new residents but to causal visitors. Those they let in were closely monitored and isolated. By contrast, climate and war migrants entering Europe from the Middle East and Ukraine have validated the lifeboat metaphor. They have for the most part been welcomed in, or even organized into lifeboat flotillas like the Green Road.
Through reckless public policy globally— “the pandemic is over, take off your mask, it is okay to go back to normal public life,” mirroring the same mistakes of previous pandemics—governments accelerated natural selection in a virus that relies upon copy errors during replication to confer an evolutionary advantage. It gains no advantage by becoming more lethal—lethality occurs after it has already fulfilled its biological mandate by replicating and shedding its offspring. It gains evolutionary advantage—selectivity— by becoming either more transmissible or by evading the immune response.
By hoarding vaccines for the first year and then failing to mask, distance and contact trace consistently, the world created every virus’s Xanadu. Countries could have chosen a zero-tolerance stance like China, or a border quarantine like New Zealand. Instead, in an optimal incubator environment—8 billion human hosts and billions more potential animal hosts like horses, cows, dogs, cats, mice, and bats— SARS-CoV-2 was allowed—even encouraged—to reach a heightened stage of contagion rarely attained in history. Now one variant finds itself infecting a host, or a cell, already infected by another variant, and able to expose its RNA codes to a smorgasbord of nucleotide transcription possibilities. From this felicitous interaction cascade nucleic acid variations upon variations, not just novel coronaviruses or coronavirus variants but variants within strains of variant—Omicron B.1.1.529, BA.1, BA.1.1., BA.2, BA.3, BA.4, BA.5, BA.2.7.5. Some new variants find they achieve selection advantage and better propagation if they are more transmissible or evade immunization conferred by previous strains or by vaccines. We are now in a cycle of generating more variants that are generating more variants in a target-rich environment, be it humans or their pets. Any talk of “herd immunity” or a “universal vaccine” is just science fantasy—wishful thinking. This is how a wildfire escapes containment—by slow responders who fail to assess the danger and act until it is too late.
“It does not signify the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end, but that we have way too many people that are breeding variants around the globe.”
— John Ma, Varian Medical Systems
I anticipated we could eradicate the disease altogether and got that bit completely wrong. That's not happening in the foreseeable future. And then I anticipated we would reach a stage of sort of equilibrium of endemicity and so far that hasn't happened either. So, um, quite a few things I’ve got wrong there, and a lot of other people have got it wrong as well.
— John Campbell, RN
Ecovillages could be a population-scale remedy to this problem of viral spread. One of the respondents to the ICSA surveys, Twin Oaks, said:
More or less, our lives were 85% the same as before the pandemic, and 15% different, whereas for many people, their lives were 85% different and 15% the same as pre-pandemic.
By isolating themselves at village scale and avoiding outside infection, communities like Twin Oaks dampened the rate of mutagenesis, to the benefit of us all. That could show us a light at the end of the tunnel. Or maybe a lifeboat would be a better metaphor.
Towns, villages and cities in the Ukraine are being bombed every day. As refugees pour out into the countryside, they must rest by day so they can travel by night. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place, or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. So far there are 62 sites in Ukraine and 265 around the region. They are calling their project “The Green Road.”
The Green Road also wants to address the ongoing food crisis at the local level by helping people grow their own food, and they are raising money to acquire farm machinery, seed, and to erect greenhouses. The opportunity, however, is larger than that. The majority of the migrants are children. This will be the first experience in ecovillage living for most. They will directly experience its wonders, skills, and safety. They may never want to go back. Those that do will carry the seeds within them of the better world they glimpsed through the eyes of a child.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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