INVESTING IN THE ‘HOW’

by horsleyrichie

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Deloitte. JP Morgan. The World Bank

Yep, this is still ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS A NEW WORLD, but today we’re brainstorming the top places for Economics graduates to further their career.

What’s that I hear? An intentional community! Don’t be daft, those hippies hate making money.

Not about money, you say? What the lucifer?! Money is our most expedient tool for exchanging goods and services. It’s so flexible and useful and easy to count. How can you learn about economics if you’re not dealing with money?!

How indeed.

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Emerald Earth is a small intentional community in northern California. It consists of six adults, three children, two cows and a smattering of chickens and deer.

Every three months, the community members open their doors and invite the public to stay for a weekend. They provide food and accommodation, and visitors donate their sweat. A leisurely nine to five of wood-stacking and weed-clearing gets you two nights sleeping amongst the redwoods and a steam in the sauna.

Instead of the visitors paying to visit, or the host paying employees to work, labour is swapped for experience. This is not unique. Work exchange programmes are common amongst rural businesses, and the deal is simple: escape the city for a few days, and give your labour instead of your money.

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But Emerald Earth have a different approach. This community is looking for something subtler than muscle. It’s not about the labour they extract from their visitors, it’s about servicing their own need for an audience, and revealing their true selves in return.

When people visit intentional communities there is one thing they want to see more than anything else: the people.

Sure, permaculture is fun, communal cooking hearty, and mediation groovy – but visitors are already sold on that. What they really want to know is whether living in an intentional community would make them go insane. Sartre famously dramatised that ‘hell is other people’, so forget all the cold showers and goat shit – the question on the visitor’s lips is: will this place turn me into a murderer?

Emerald Earth understand this desire and have created a space where interaction occurs more freely.

Work party guests spend the whole day in close contact with the residents. Lubricated by the soft rhythm of monotonous work, the visitors are warmed and ripe to ask more honest, probing questions – and in doing so build a deeper understanding of how these residents feel in the community. In fact, most of the time questions are unnecessary. You don’t need to be Freud to diagnose if someone is welcoming, irritable, defensive or arrogant – but you do need some immediate contact so you can collect your evidence.

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All good workshop practitioners know the value of an ice-breaker. And the best ice-breakers get everyone moving their bodies before they move their mouths.

Emerald Earth start each work-shift with a group game, then when the visitors are asked to choose which resident they’d like to work with (the only socially awkward part of the day), they feel more confident in their selection. They are less afraid of judgement and invisible social energy shifts.

Once at work, they feel little pressure to break their backs and more freedom to question the lives and methods of the residents.

The result of this laissez-faire work ethic is that everyone’s happier, but less work gets done. But this is just the key: the work parties are less about the work and more about the party – but less dance party, more party of souls.

So if Emerald Earth don’t want their visitors’ labour, what do they want them for?

Morale.

Emerald Earth is a 15-minute drive from its nearest village – Boonville, population 1,086 – and over an hour’s drive from its nearest proper town, Santa Rosa. Although the community’s been around for over twenty years, it lacks consistency – none of the founders live there, and one of the three couples who do have only just arrived. The community isn’t bound to one specific religion or code of practice. Yes they eat natural, but there’s no overarching ideological vision – or at least nothing explicit.

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Luckily, some of the residents of Emerald Earth are experienced communards. They know that the best way to sustain community is to have a shared goal and embed that goal through ritual. The work party is a ritual which gives an unimposing evangelism to the lives of the Emerald Earthlings. Through inviting newbies into their fold, they demonstrate the working and social patterns of living in community.

Outsiders join in day-to-day practices of life on the land, and the residents enjoy the attention and look back into the mirror of time. Veterans of any pursuit can look to freshmen for hints on how they themselves started out – what did they fear, what did they hope for? Every three months, Emerald Earth is nourished with a collage of enquiring hearts and heads that help put the residents’ lives into focus and help punctuate their projects. If the new chicken coop STILL isn’t built after six different work parties, perhaps the community is missing a trick.

I was born into a society which told me to produce and progress, and to seek reward for my achievements. The residents of Emerald Earth were born into the same society. Despite their choice to shake off this latent pressure to achieve (by practicing a slower way of life), I believe they are still motivated by a praising audience. If you hide away in the woods and do novel things, it still feels good when someone comes along and congratulates you.

Emerald Earth, subconsciously or otherwise, are aware that they need some outside eyes and voices to nourish their egos and keep them moving. I know I would struggle to write this blog if I thought no-one was reading it.

Under the guise of a labour-for-experience work-exchange programme, the community practice something even less capitalistic and utilitarian: they create a space for human interaction that enriches both parties with no finite output. And yet, both parties gain more than a traditional work-exchange: the visitors get a deeper understanding of the community (the real reason they’re there), and the residents are fired up for the next three months to come.

By using their understanding of the HOW instead of the WHAT, Emerald Earth balance an equation no economist could calculate.

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