Post Magazine: Another Way

Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 20, 2006; 12:00 PM

A band of idealists in the mountains of North Carolia is trying to build a low-energy life style with Earthhaven, their "ecovillage."

But, asks Joel Achenbach, whose story about Earthhaven appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine, must we all live like hippies in the woods to make a difference? Achenbach will be online fielding questions and comments today.

Joel Achenbach is a Magazine staff writer.


Joel Achenbach: Greetings! I hope you had a chance to read the magazine story on Earthaven and the future of human civilization as we know it. And the fate of the universe. I will do my very best to answer your questions and be responsive, though it's tricky operating this computer with foot-power. I'm pedaling as fast as I can, trust me.


Washington, DC: Thank you for an excellent analysis. In your article you pointed out that new technologies have to compete with old ones. In today's post an article pointed out that the photovoltaic industry, while still small, is adding capacity and jobs to compete with utilities. Why do utilities in the Washington area obstruct the use of photovoltaics? Specifically, why does PEPCO not allow feedback to the power grid? I have been informed by solar engineers that my Mount Pleasant row house, because of its southern orientation, would generate as much or more electricity than I presently use. There are thousands of similiarly aspected row houses in DC.

Joel Achenbach: I'm going to answer with my favorite phrase: I don't know. But I do know that nationally there's a huge movement to pump solar-generated electricity back onto the grid, there are companies that specialize in this, and if you were to visit Amory Lovins's house in Colorado (or maybe it's the HQ of Rocky Mountain Institute -- I forget) you'd see someone who generates more electricity than he uses. My own house has a great Southern orientation and heats up like a poker every summer afternoon; I'd like to find a way to turn it into an energy generator rather than an energy sink.


Los Angeles Calif: Thank you for your informative article. I tried to read the article as if I was hearing about an ecovillage for the first time. I appreciated your research on energy statistics, carbon issues, American consumerism and waste. I especially appreciated that you pointed out the difference between energy efficiency and conservation, a rare distinction of late. And I enjoyed the fact that you helped your readers get a sense of what it's like to live with solar without a back-up into the utility grid.

Had I been a newcomer to the concept of an ecovillage, I would surely have had the idea that Earthaven was an isolated example. But, of course, it's part of a worldwide movement of more than 20,000 ecovillages in urban, suburban and rural areas, in both industrial and developing societies. And each is unique in the way it is working toward lowering its environmental impact while significantly raising the quality of community life. Lots of information is available ( You gave your readers no clue about where to begin looking.

You made no mention of the quite phenomenal cohousing movement within Earthaven as well as throughout the country and the world

( You talked about the problems of consensus, but not the beauty of it or the strength of decisions made using this form of decision making. You talked about about some of the problems of

living in community and a few happy moments, but shortchanged your readers on the joys of community living ( overall.

You forgot to mention Earthaven's extensive program of workshops and training opportunities which is common in many ecovillages throughout the world. Overall, it didn't seem on your radar screen that teaching and demonstrating how it is possible to radically lower one's environmental impact while radically raising one's quality of life is really what ecovillages are about. Earthaven, along with several dozens of other ecovillages around the world, are modern prototypes-in-process, a set of on-going dynamic interactive processes, never a done deal! But most of us have learned enough in the past few decades that we are beginning to know how to help others accomplish similar things in a much shorter timeframe.

Most importantly, you left your readers high and dry on how to access more information on the ecovillage, cohousing and intentional communities movements or that these are movements. Permaculture too was downplayed in your article, and is rapidly entering the mainstream ( See the cover story "It's kind of easy being green: The renewable-resource lifestyle known as 'permaculture' is taking root in L.A. -HOME EDITION] Los Angeles Times, Jul 22, 2004.

Lastly, in spite of the fact that so much of the hippie culture of the 1960s and 70s is mainstream today (e.g., natural foods, appropriate technologies, participatory decision making, midwifery, alternative healing, organic farming, etc.), there is still an automatic turn-off by so many at the labeling of anything hippieish. Although you redeemed yourself through much of your reporting, no doubt many many didn't get far enough to learn what you had to teach.

Nonetheless, thanks anyway. It was a fascinating piece.


Lois Arkin


Los Angeles Eco-Village,

Western U.S. Council Member, Ecovillage Network of the Americas

Joel Achenbach: Thanks for this interesting post. If you or others have more contact info you want me to put on this chat I'd be happy to do that.

I am sure I could have written about many more aspects of Earthaven and the ecovillage movement, but "comprehensiveness" is not the paramount aim of a newspaper article, which is, as they say, the first rough draft of history (as opposed to being a textbook).


Laurel, Md: OK, so this was primarily a human interest story, not a study for a scientific journal. But one point of potential importance is the trade-off between being able to use energy and using land.

Pre-industrial societies could only support a fraction of the population we do today, and our ability to use energy is a big part of it. I can earn many times what my grandfather did working in a 10x8 foot cubical, because it's connected to a computer terminal and telephone. I live in another box far from my work because I can commute between them, and be happy there because there are many appliances to fulfill my eating, sanitation and entertainment needs.

We could never support 300 million Americans in anything like our current lifestyle on 1/3 the energy.

Joel Achenbach: I think the point is that we don't have to use as much energy as we do to live a decent lifestyle. Many ways of saving energy actually improve our lives. I am guessing that the folks stuck in traffic for 90 minutes each way as they commute to work are not in favor of traffic jams.

One of my favorite moments in doing this story was when I was in the newsroom early on a Saturday morning, tinkering with the article, and it was dark in here except over in my section of the newsroom. Someone came in on the far, far side of the newsroom, threw a switch, and the whole place lit up, like maybe 200 lights at once.

I'm sure they were energy-efficient lights.


Arlington, Va: Interesting people there in Earthaven. Is their major goal to reduce energy, or just retreat from the world? It would seem to me that you can work to reduce energy use without living in the woods.

Joel Achenbach: Earthaven has a good web site that explains its purpose. I think they want to live an existence that fits with their ethics on many fronts. It's not just being ecologically oriented.


Ashburn, Va: In your experience, does Earthhaven attract the average American to the idea of sustainable living, or does it repel them?

Joel Achenbach: Just judging by my email traffic, I think the example of Earthaven has at least caused people to stop and think about their ecological footprint. I don't think many people are going to go live in the woods.


Silver Spring, Md: Your article was very educational and has really gotten me interested in this notion of "intentional community". How exactly did Earthhaven begin? Was it just a few individual investors or a larger group who pooled money together to buy the land?

Joel Achenbach: Again I'd refer you to the Earthaven website, as I don't want to be imprecise during a chat. I believe about 11 people pooled their resources circa 1994 and purchased the 300-plus acre site. Many had had experiences with intentional communities.


Alexandria, Va: Were the people you interviewed aware how dependent they were on the modern, energy dependent economy for their "experiment"? All those technologies they are utilizing didn't come from the Amish, after all.

I found it particularly amusing that a denizen of an eco-village would have an electric coffee grinder. I use a turkish coffee grinder and a stovetop expresso maker - about $100 altogether online.

Also, pedal-powered washing machines have been developed by students at MIT and elsewhere.

Maybe I should move to the woods..

Joel Achenbach: Yes they are completely aware of that. They know that solar panels aren't fashioned together with saplings and roots. They buy propane. They are not completely divorced from mainstream culture. But as one of them said, "The perfect can be the enemy of the good." Here's an interesting statistic: In the summer they have at least 80 people on site all the time, and in a week (someone told me) they only fill up six garbage cans -- because they are very focused on recycling and not using products that come with lots of packaging.


Arlington, Va: Mr Achenbach, about 2/3 of the way through your story, I started frowning. It may have been the part where the mothers are hopping into the car to go to town to do their laundry and errands? "Isn't he going to mention cities?" I thought to myself. And then you did! Marvelous. Lemme ask you a question, though. Would it be at all possible to change the discourse in this country from what we as individuals should change (the lightbulbs, our driving habits) in order to minimize our impact on the environment to what legislators have a responsibility to mandate? You talked about the whole people-won't-change, this-is-just-the-way-things-are school of thought. But when it comes to pressing issues like the environment, is it really more effective to try to entice individuals into acting responsibly or to make it very difficult or impossible for them not to? Is it truly better for an individual to go live in the woods, or for her to remain a part of society and fight for change at a higher level? Did any of the folks you talked to struggle with the fact that their own withdrawal from the world may not be the most effective kind of action? (I'm not criticizing. I admire them. But when it comes to the environment, I also think personal choice is sadly ineffective. Kind of like allowing Virginians to vote on gay marriage...government exists for a reason! Although I'm happy you're turning off lights!)

Hope this question wasn't too convoluted. I got interrupted a bunch of times. I did enjoy the article and am looking forward to your chat (submitting early).

Joel Achenbach: Your question is no more convoluted than my answer is going to be. I think you hit on a key point: Shouldn't government take the lead on this, rather than sitting back and letting individuals bear the brunt of making the world more environmentally friendly? A carbon tax or BTU tax or somesuch thing is one idea, obviously, but I don't know if it has political legs (I haven't reported on that but others here at The Post probably have). Kyoto-type agreements could also play a role. At some point individuals have to pick political leaders who care about these issues.


Earthaven, NC: Greg, On-line

Joel Achenbach: Go for it.


Alexandria, Va: Just a big thank you for the great article. I recently decided to pick one small, easy green thing at a time to commit to and it's amazing how conscious you become of how wasteful we are just by changing one little thing. I bring in cotton or hemp grocery sacks for food shopping now and they're so much easier to carry that I can't imagine how the disposable grocery bag trend ever got started. Have you changed any habits of your own (and stuck to them) since you visited the Ecovillage?

Joel Achenbach: I turn out more lights. And I don't gripe as much when my wife turns the thermostat down to, like, 87 below. I wrote a column about that a while back -- in my house in winter we practically have to wear parkas and ski masks.


Washington, DC: In your very interesting article, near the beginning you note that about 20 gallons of gasoline can be made from a barrel (which is about 42 gallons) of crude oil. That's true- but it's not like the rest of the oil is thrown away. It is made into jet fuel, kerosene, diesel, fuel oil, petroleum coke, asphalt, and many more refined products. Just about the whole barrel of crude oil is made into some kind of refined product. So when you fill your car with 20 gallons of gasoline, you're not using a whole barrel of crude oil. Just a little clarification.

Joel Achenbach: Good point.


Joel Achenbach: Greg, if you're there, post a comment.


International Falls, Minn: Is it possible to have this community in any climate?

Joel Achenbach: It's more of an attitude than a fixed thing. I'm guessing that in deep forest you can't have solar panels and in northern Minnesota you might want plenty of propane or whatnot. I don't think it would work in some parts of Greenland.


Reston, Va: If my only option is "living by consensus with lots of other people" then bring on the Roving Cannibal Hordes, and the sooner the better. Right now I'd at least have the satisfaction of raising their bad cholesterol. Just wanted to share.

Joel Achenbach: Thank you.


Alexandria, Va: The article mentions the carbon output of different energy sources which is very interesting, but did you run across any source that mentions how much CO2 it would take to raise the Earth's temperature 1 degree? (all other things being equal)

Joel Achenbach: The IPCC is constantly wrestling with what happens if you double CO2 in the atmosphere from pre-industrial levels. The best guess is a range of something like 2 to 8 degrees C. on average at the surface, though you hear higher numbers too (and I'm pulling that from memory).


San Antonio, Tex.: You mentioned Jimmy Carter's cardigan. Good.

But the only impact the trip and reporting experience made on you, as you yourself say, is that you now use fewer lights in your own household.

Were you kidding, or did the time in Earth Haven really have a deeper impact on either your thinking or your actions? Are you happy with the size of your own carbon footprint?

Do you ever foresee a time in the future when domestic energy consumption may be regulated or will that be left pretty much to market forces? Do you believe in the feast (we'll develop alternative technologies) or famine (conserve now for the future) scenario?

Joel Achenbach: My general operating principle is this: I'm optimistic that future generations will live in a better world, but I think it will require some pessimism to make that world come about. In other words, worrying is probably an adaptive trait that is good for the long-term health of a species.


Earthaven, NC: I enjoyed the article. Thanks for research and for raising the issues for folks to consider.

Joel Achenbach: Thanks, Earthaven!


Pasadena, Calif: One of the things you mentioned multiple times was the psychological impact, and the resulting energy-conscious behavior, of constant ad visible energy metering. It seems like if we all had our energy meters on the fridge (and labeled in dollars), instead of out back or in the basement, we could create significant gains. We'd notice when all the lights (or computers) were on.

Joel Achenbach: Exactly. I still haven't tracked down my gas meter. I think it's on a wall outside hidden behind a very dense camelia.


Warrenton, Va: Does the village have part-timers, i.e. people who only live there in the summer?

Joel Achenbach: Yes they have interns etc., and folks who are there just a few months a year.


Silver Spring, Md: Joel, is the population pretty stable -- as in roughly the same number of children and adults? Do the members of Earthhaven talk about it? In my neighborhood, there are 4 houses, 4 couples. One house has 3 children, one has one, the other two have none. It's just worked out that way -- a good way.

Joel Achenbach: They have 60 members and want to grow to at least 100. And maybe further. They realize they don't have quite the critical mass they need to a sustainable village. An interesting question that we talked about was, What's the right size for a village? What's the right size for any human community? Chris Farmer, one of the Earthaveners, noted that once you get beyond about 600 people you no longer can know everyone personally.


Seattle, Wash: Hi Joel,

Wondering what you think of less intensive but just as serious efforts at relocalization and powering down? I volunteer with Sustainable Ballard, a 600-member community building group,, that actively partners with other organizations to deal effectively with decreasing energy supplies. There are about 7 other groups in the Puget Sound area, most affiliated with the Post Carbon Institute.

Joel Achenbach: Thanks for the info.


Hood River, Ore: Thanks for an interesting article; it reminded me of the "back to the land" movement of the 60's and 70's (in fact I wondered how many of the participants had a past experience with that). You describe the "ecovillage" also as an "intentional community", but by the end of the article I wanted to ask what exactly the intention is? To see how energy-efficient one can live off the grid? Or maybe just to ramp down on energy usage (a worthy intention)? Or just to become more aware of where our energy comes from? It doesn't seem from your article like they are very interested in being self-sufficient in other ways. As a person who makes a living farming, I gulped at the description of their farming attempt...there are much better ways to learn about these things.

Joel Achenbach: Many of them have roots in the Back to the Land movement of the 1970s. In fact one reason I liked doing this piece is that my parents -- my mom and stepfather -- were part of that movement, and we had a huge garden and composted all our scraps and heated with wood and had a solar powered hot water heater (um, sort of worked, sometimes) and in general lived a kind of Earthaven-in-Gainesville lifestyle. Precisely why that movement went into a lull is something I never managed to figure out. There are still a few communities in existence from those days, but not a lot, I'm told.


Ithaca, NY: No, we don't need to live like hippies in the woods to make a difference!

Check out our Ecovillage of 60 families only 2 miles from a great town:

There are Ecovillages in suburban and urban (and rural) settings all over the US and the World!

Joel Achenbach: Thanks.


Dunn Loring, Va: Joel, I just read your article this morning. I wanted to let you know about friends of mine outside Ashville who run The Long Branch Environmental Education Center ( They started in 1970....self composting toilets, orchards, gardens, solar energy homes, trout pond, etc. It is run by Paul Gallimore (PHD in environmentalism). It is known statewide as an education center on how to live with less energy. Thought you and your readers might be interested. Thank you! Lani Browning

Joel Achenbach: Thanks for the info.


Los Angeles, Calif: In your article about Earthaven, you mention technological solutions like photovoltaic cells and batteries. But what about low-tech ways to lower energy consumption like the bicycle? Or stationary bicycles hooked up to electric generators (like those used by UC Davis students in the green dorm)?

What about clotheslines? Solar ovens? Eating low on the food chain?

I posted some thoughts generated by your article at

Joel Achenbach: Good points, though I'm not sure that most Americans are going to go back to using clotheslines. In Florida I spent half my childhood running out in the rain to take down the clothes as they were getting soaked.

But I could be wrong, and as a reader service i will post an excerpt from your blog:

Most of the homes in Earthhaven have energy meters in a prominent place so that residents can easily monitor their current energy usage. Why do conventional homes have their electric meter on the outside and not also on the inside of the homes?

A Swedish study showed that drivers adjusted their driving style and improved their fuel economy by an average of 10% when current MPG (or liters/100km) was displayed. An internal display of real-time electricity and gas usage could similiarly influence behavior.

Secondly, sustainable living will be attractive to more people if they feel like they are gaining something rather than giving up something (or wearing a hairshirt like Jimmy Carter's sweater). I live in a dense neighborhood because it frees up time that I would have otherwise spent on commuting and running errands. Everyplace I absolutely need to go is in a very tight radius. It is both time and energy efficient and a sanity saver. Plus, if I walk or ride my bicycle, I get exercise without taking any additional time out of my day.

We use a clothesline because it saves time. We start up a load of laundry after everyone in our family has bathed and before going to sleep. In the morning, I toss the shirts and small items into the dryer and hang up the heavy items up on the clothesline. After breakfast, I pull the shirts out of the dryer and hang them up to dry the rest of the way. When I get home from work, I take the clothes off the line and fluff them up in the dryer for a few minutes. We chat while Mark cleans up after dinner and I fold the laundry. It seems to take no time at all compared to the whole days that other households spend waiting for their clothes to dry in the dryer.


Washington, D.C.: I work for the electricity industry, and I thought your description of our society's disconnection to the source of electricity was as good as anything I have ever read. You meanwhile offered a vivid description of the other extreme -- living entirely off the grid at Earthaven. The answer, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, and it lies, of course, with all of us -- individuals, society, government and industry alike. Here's hoping that you keep writing incisive articles like this one and that the shift we're all starting to make continues.

Joel Achenbach: Thanks for the comment. "Somewhere in the middle" seems to be an idea with a lot of political currency these days. Revenge of the Centrists.


Silver Spring, Md: I never quite understood how these people afforded to live without having, at least what it appeared from the article, steady jobs. How do they afford to kit out their houses with solar panels, which despite coming down in price over the last decade, are still pretty expensive? How do they afford to buy food? The whole thing would make so much more sense if they all were truly "off-grid" in every sense and not dependent on the outside world. I don't see why they need to live in the woods to accomplish what they want since they aren't really using the land to farm, etc.

You're article was very interesting, don't get me wrong, but I would be much more interested in reading about people in every day society that are making sacrifices that I could possible apply to my own life.

Joel Achenbach: Some do have steady jobs outside Earthaven, some have jobs or duties inside. But most get by in part by not requiring a lot of income. I didn't mention them in the piece, for space reasons, but a couple of folks who were original members of EArthaven and who live down the road now have the most fabulous little farm and home with solar panels etc., lots of goats and ducks and whatnot, bees, fruit trees, it's a real spread, and they talked about the great bounty of their lives even though they are, as they put it, below the poverty line. Technically they're impoverished. But it looked like a great life.

You make a key point that I was aware of throughout this piece: the folks at Earthaven aren't role models for most people, they're an extreme. But I think what they do is thought provoking and I decided that I could use them in a broader article about alternative energy. The point isn't that we all have to live in the woods. the point is that it might be a good idea to be more energy conscious, more aware of what sustains us.


Bangalore, India: The native residents of Natural Eco-habitats have a 'cosmic world-view' and because of that they can 'accord themselves' with harmony amongst themselves - other humans and other animal and material creations around inclusive of the astronomicals. Given this fact - the metro humans moving over to live in the eco-habitats by itself may not benefit them much. It is sure to cause them mental-confusions which they have necessarily to tackle 'intellectually' as an objective social scientist or else it will cause an emotional displacement uneasiness - I suppose. Regards, Vedapushpa -Social Anthropologist, Bangalore - India

Joel Achenbach: Thanks for sharing that.


Fairfax, Va: I'm not ready for an ecovillage; never will be. But there are so many ways we can begin to walk the walk. We just had our kitchen redone. Contractors put in six 90 w. and three 65 w. recessed lights -- 735 w if all on full power. We were horrified, checked around and found that there are now compact fluorescent flood bulbs for recessed fixtures. We spent the time and money to find and buy them, and now instead of 735 watts, we burn about 150 watts if all are on (6 x 18 w and 3 x 14 w). We turn off the power strip to our computer and printer every time we're done using them. No "vampires" there, and safer in a lightning storm. Similarly, we keep vcr and other seldom-used appliances unplugged.

These are all absolutely painless, nmo-brainers that help use less power.

Don't get me started on population!!!

Joel Achenbach: No, please start on population.


Rockville, Md: Did you mean for these people to be laughable? I mean, really, roving rogue cannibals are about to emerge in this country? I wonder if any of them ever read a little book that came out in the 70's, The Limits to Growth, that foresaw enormous shortages of food and other basic commodities, starting sometime in the 80's. Do these morbidly depressed people realize that it would have made more sense to hook up to the electric grid than to purchase solar panels (the manufacture of which has an impact on our environment) and which have an approximate 40 year pay back, but only about 25 years of usable life? It would have made a lot more sense if they had hooked up to the electric grid and used compact flourescents. All I can say is that having these people in their ecovillage is saving the rest of us from having to deal with them on a day to day basis. A lot of naive good intentions, but no economic sense whatsoever.

Joel Achenbach: There is no grid where they live, just fyi. Solar makes more economic sense in places that are remote. And it will likely make even more sense as the technology improves (see the Mufson story in today's paper).


Madison, Wis: Did I miss it, or did you not include how many folks live in the ecovillage? I'm curious how many people are there now, what the trend has been--and if there is a reason you omitted that.

Joel Achenbach: The number dropped from the story inadvertantly as I was monkeying with it on deadline. There are 60 people there. I think we had the number in a caption.


bc in dc: On a quick note, being more conscious as to how much energy you use can be made into a game.

For example, I keep track of my car's fuel mileage and try to get more and more range out of a tank of gasoline. I've learned a lot about how driving style has a siginificant impact on fuel usage, and I'm continually trying to better my previous "record". Makes the daily commute a little more interesting as well.

I was doing this long before I ever heard the term "supermiling".

On Wednesday I will try an experiment to only watch one minute of every 10 of "Lost", and spend the other 9 minutes sitting in the dark making up my own story about what's happening until the next minute I can pop the TV back on and do a quick reoncile. I don't think I will wreck the integrity of the story that way.


Joel Achenbach: What bc doesn't tell you is that he normally drives at 130 miles an hour.


Atlanta, Ga: Some think the cost of electricity is 9 cents and gasoline is $2.30. However, the cost of our oil and gas consumption is much, much higher. Consider who pays for the billions$ of "protecting our interests", the trillions$ of US deficit. And, there is the human aspect of death, atrocities, ill will, and fostered terrorism. The total cost of our consumerism is very high.

Joel Achenbach: Yeah, the "real cost" of energy is something everyone probably ought to ponder.


Earthaven, NC: I'm the woman in the article who hops into her car on Monday mornings to pick up my son from his dad's house and do all my errands for the week. That allows me to spend the rest of my time in my village, and I earn my living from there.

I know the person who built my house personally and all the houses around me. I know who built the roads, bridges, who laid the waterlines and which neighbor to call if I am having power issues in my solar system.

People here know me better than sometimes I know myself. They know the best I have to offer and my most annoying habits. They are not afraid to confront me if they have an issue with me, with a level of honesty that is startling at times. And they accept all the good and hard parts of me. They come visit me with food when I'm sick. When my son and I did a ritual where we told each other what we were grateful for, he was grateful for his "thousands of friends." He wants to live at Earthaven for the rest of his life.

Turning off a few lights didn't satisfy me when I lived in a single family home in a mainstream lifestyle. I was searching for a way to be true to myself, to the sadness I felt about being part of the problem, part of the devastation of our natural resources. This lifestyle isn't totally sustainable, but it is so much less wasteful than I could pull off in the mainstream on my own. I live with people who share my values, who passionately and radically want to conserve resources, and I feel part of the solution...not the whole solution, but I live much, much less wastefully and much, much more fulfilled by my relationships. By the way, we host visitors every Saturday and by appointment through the week--we have hardly retreated!

Thanks, Joel, for sparking this thoughtful discussion!

Joel Achenbach: Thanks for that great post. I should probably reiterate what she has said here: Earthaven seeks to be a demonstration project, it has tours, it has a website, it has internships, etc.


EcoSwitzerland: I would like to participate in this chat, but I'm starting to feel guilty about all the electricity my PC is using. I'm shutting down...

Joel Achenbach: Don't feel guilty!

I find that shame is a much better emotion.


Washington, DC: Hi Joel,

I'm currently researching sustainable communities at Worldwatch Institute--a sustainable development think tank in DC and am very glad to see your great article on ecovillages. I'm also glad to see Lois Arkin's comment that the ecovillage model can work equally well in urban settings--using solar hotwater and PV panels, composting toilets (which are much more than outhouses), and green roofs (to improve insulation and reduce water runoff), along with being situated near public transporation or walking distance to commercial areas.

As well, I'd like to accentuate the point that ecovillages--whether urban or rural--are more than just communities that have lower ecological footprints. They provide a social support network that encourages ecological behavior even when it can be difficult. Trying to be 'green' in a typical American suburb can often be a painful experience--if possible at all. No one would be even allowed to build a 100 square foot house in many suburbs, like the resident at Earthaven did. But living in a likeminded community, where people celebrate a low-impact lifestyle helps people to make the tough choices, and stick to them. Moreover, as you note, there are also many positive side effects from this type of living too.

For example, some cohousing communities have storage rooms for all types of tools, or have a shared car, or shared laundry facilities so that instead of everyone owning a washing machine or a drill or even a car, the community only needs a few. Yes, that means occasionally you'll have to come back later to wash your clothes, but it also means that you'll save a lot of money as an individual consumer as you won't have to own many of the 'necessities' that you would if you lived alone.

Thanks again for the great article.

Erik Assadourian

Research Associate

Joel Achenbach: Erik, thanks, good luck with your research.


Joel Achenbach: I'm going to wrap this up. Thanks for joining in. I'll first post a couple more comments that I didn't have time to get to.


Alexandria, Va: Okay, sixty people on 300 acres, and they're hoping to get to a hundred people.

That's three acres per person.

The earth has about six billion people, and about 5.4 billion acres of arable land, roughly one acre per person. Seems to me the Earthaven model falls down when you try to get everyone to do it. What's the point of this experiment?

Joel Achenbach: The story says that pretty explicitly. Did you read it?


A Middle Way: I live in a cohousing neighborhood (, which is a variety of intentional community that is closer to a suburb than to Earthaven-- but is still much more environmental than a traditional suburb. We have privately-owned homes and a commonly-owned large clubhouse/commonhouse. Everything is pedestrian-oriented (cars at the periphery) and is based on having real relationships with your neighbors (though still with private homes to retreat to). Although having a supportive community around is the main point, we are also much more environmental. The fact that we have a nice commonhouse with guest bedrooms, a kids' playroom, a large great room for parties, etc. means that our own house can be much smaller. We moved from a 2400 square foot house to an 1800 square foot house and feel that our smaller home works much better for us.

Unlike Earthaven, we feel that living in cohousing makes life much easier as well as more environmental. Our kids go to preschool 5 days a week, but because of carpooling with 2 other families we only have to drive 3 out of the 10 trips. We swap childcare, meals, and often pick up items for each other at the store so that they don't have to get in the car just to get eggs. We have a CSA that delivers farm-fresh veggies to our neighborhood every week. We are large enough to create a market and so the farmers come to us. Best of all, we live next door to some of our best friends, and have impromptu parties all the time.

This kind of neighborhood is unusual in America, but very common in other parts of the world. In Denmark, 20-30% of the population lives in a cohousing neighborhood.

Joel Achenbach: Thanks for the cohousing info.


Arlington, Va: Very interesting article.

The residents of the ecovillage speak enthusiastically about a massive global economic depression (perhaps even economic collapse), the assumed benefits of which would be a radical change in consumption of natural resources.

Did you see any evidence of realization on their part that such an economic collapse would surely cause milliions, if not billions, of deaths? Given that Earth's 6.5 billion person population depends upon a world economy that provides food, drinking water, and medicine for common diseases (i.e., those life saving benefits that are only made possible with a robust world economy), their hopes of a global economic collapse neccessitates a massive amount of global death. Are the residents ignorant of such consequences, or do they believe that the supposed "benefits" of a global economic collapse outweigh the potential deaths of billions?

Joel Achenbach: Our conversations were actually much more positive in tone than that. Which I tried to convey in that passage of the story.


Washington, DC: I'm writing from the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that has promoted energy efficiency for nearly 30 years. As our board member Dr. Marilyn Brown of Georgia Tech indicates in your cover story, energy efficiency is not about deprivation and discomfort.

Energy efficiency IS about using the technological advances of the past 30 years to increase indoor comfort while reducing energy bills and carbon footprints. Indeed, despite the proliferation of energy-using products, energy efficiency has reduced our nation's energy use by some 40 percent in the past 30 years and is our most abundant energy resource.

The beauty of energy efficiency is its availability to folks at all income levels and lifestyles. In that vein the Alliance invites your readers to "Take the 6 of Energy Efficiency Challenge" at to learn more about how energy use affects all aspects of our lives, from the individual to the planet, and about cutting energy use, costs and pollution.

The Alliance also endorses "conservation" measures, like turning off electronics that are not in use, and "smart energy practices," like regularly cleaning or replacing furnace filters. For those able to make a bigger investment, ENERGY STAR windows increase indoor comfort and reduce heating and cooling bills and, in 2006 and 2007, generate a federal income tax credit up to $200 - one of a number of tax credits for specific energy-efficiency home improvements. (See for details.)

Ronnie J. Kweller

Joel Achenbach: Thanks for that.


Chester, SC: If you awoke tomorrow and were somehow transfigured into a scientist, what would you be studying, and why?

Joel Achenbach: Hair Science. You know: The physics of having freakishly straight hair. And the sociological implications thereof.


Langley, Va: Joel, have the Earthaven people taken a look at various low-technology religious communites such as the Amish? I would think this might help them answer questions such as the minimum size of a sustainable community and so on.

Joel Achenbach: Not sure. But good question.

THANKS everyone. Check out the blog sometime:

You can post more comments there.

And everyone please have a HAPPY THANKSGIVING. Cheers, Joel


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company