When the municipalities do not go bankrupt | JSTOR Daily


Think of an intentional community and you might imagine dazed hippies trying to survive on a meager crop of kale, or gullible followers enslaved to a charismatic leader. Bill Metcalf, an Australian researcher who has been personally involved in a number of intentional communities while researching and writing about them for decades, is trying to set the record straight. He writes that community life has a long history and in some cases has created strong institutions that serve members well.

What is an intentional community? According to Metcalf, it must have at least five members, from more than one family, and the members must consciously adopt a lifestyle outside of the mainstream to try and resolve social issues.

Living together in the service of building a better world has a long history in the West. Metcalf writes that the first intentional community in recorded history was Homakoeion, created by Pythagoras in 525 BCE. The members tried to create an ideal society, although we didn’t know much about what this meant to them other than the fact that they gave up private property and meat and were interested in numerology. The first Christians lived in community. A few centuries later, Christian monasteries became a major form of intentional community. Between the 12th and 18th centuries, many communes were created by religious and political minorities, notably Vaudois ascetics in France, Socialist Diggers in England and Shakers in North America.

Then, in the 19th century, in an era of widespread utopian thought and writing, hundreds of intentional communities formed across Europe, the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. Today, most of these groups are gone, but new ecovillages and communities of all kinds continue to appear all over the world.

Contrary to popular belief based on horrific cases like the Jonestown Massacre, Metcalf writes, members of intentional communities are rarely led by manipulative “gurus”. Over thirty years of research, he writes that he has only met a few people who fit this description.

“In a few rare intentional communities, leaders exploit members, but this is probably less common than in the general workplace,” writes Metcalf. He notes that rape and child abuse sometimes occurs, but much less frequently than in other settings.

“Free love”, a common characteristic of communes at one time, is rare today in intentional communities. And, while the incomes of people living in communities are generally lower than the average for the countries where they are located, other researchers have found that members have more access to material goods since many resources can be shared.

It’s true, Metcalf writes, that most intentional communities don’t last long, and people often come in and out of them. But long-standing communities with relatively stable members also exist. For example, Israel’s first kibbutz, Degania, established in 1909, and Bon Homme, a Hutterite community in South Dakota formed in 1874, are still active today.


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By: Bill Metcalf

RCC Perspectives, No. 8, Realizing Utopia: Ecovillage Endeavors and Academic Approaches (2012), pp. 21-30 (10 pages)

Rachel Carson Center

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