An ecovillage is nothing new. Throughout history communities of people have lived lightly on the same piece of land, sharing skills and resources, celebrating their culture and values. With the advent of agriculture, these villages have increasingly rooted to a single geographical area. The majority of people are settled, yet there has always been a distinct minority on the move. In various cultures these are the traders, sailors, gypsies, bards, messengers, explorers, philosophers, actors, pilgrims, tourists and doctors – the nomads.
The function of the nomad is to connect isolated groups through the sharing of goods, services, stories and, primarily, ideas. In the digital age, we still have our nomads, but their essential function has largely been replaced by the tiny gadget you are likely reading this article with. Technology has allowed us to achieve global connectivity at previously unimagined levels. I can guarantee that the wandering bard had no iPhone in his rucksack, or else he could have saved himself much time on foot.
I teach about, consult with, and represent sustainable community projects as my profession. I am deeply committed to the ecovillage movement. This is a ‘back-to-the-land’ movement, celebrating solutions that are ecologically and culturally appropriate for the locality of each community. The activist and author, Gary Synder championed a life rooted in one’s bioregion. In his writing, he encourages us to: “Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.”
The ecovillage movement is a place-based movement yet, in many ways, I am placeless.
In the past six years I haven’t lived in a single spot for longer than 12 months; and I use the term “lived” pretty loosely. Even while I have a home-base, I often make sporadic trips lasting a fews days to several weeks. You may begin to appreciate how tricky it is for me to answer the question: “Where are you from?”, in casual conversation.
I may not live in a land-based community, but the community I consider myself part of is every bit as real and as rich. My community doesn’t share daily meals or tend the same garden. Our “community glue” isn’t found in front porch gossip and potluck lunch, it comes in the form of a meaningful Skype chat, heart-felt email, or even the quick check-in via text. We are digital nomads. It’s a new breed of nomad and a new kind of community.
The wider community of digital nomads is growing, as more and more people shed their planned careers to adventure in meaningful directions, and awakening students find greater fulfillment in the school of life than the study hall. A new platform, called NuMundo, directly serves the traveller craving educational opportunities in regenerative land-based projects. Gaia Education offers the Design for Sustainability course now as a fully virtual experience. Hundreds of other academic institutions are allowing students the freedom to both roam and study. Databases of work-trade and short-term stays (such as WWOOF) are growing exponentially.
For some of us it is a phase of life, while for others full-time travel is a permanent lifestyle choice. A few friends I may only see once a year, but the trust in our bond and virtual communication is sufficient for each period of re-connection to be just as profound as the last.
There are two modern technological advancements that have made the community I am part of possible: 1) Far and free communication, 2) Far and relatively cheap transportation
Since I can only be in one place at a time, I stay connected to my web of relations through the grace of modern communication technologies, primarily Gmail, Facebook, Slack, Zoom, Skype, Whatsapp and iMessage. My daily virtual chats with co-workers, friends, mentors and mentees from around the world is my lifeline to community.
In case I’m in danger of falling into the stereotype that all privileged young people are born knowing how to adeptly use these virtual tools, let me make a correction. Just several years ago, I considered myself something of a Luddite (the English workers who destroyed those new-fangled cotton mills at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution). I lived in a woodland village of yurts, without cell reception or computer, and only a single solar panel for some lighting at night. Now, I’m on a tech device practically every day. My marketing, website, and graphic design work mandates that I put in long hours at the screen. The transition between these two realities was catalyzed by the recognition that technology is a tool, and just like any other tool, we can use it for noble or contrary endeavors.
More than 3 billion people worldwide are currently linked to the Internet. In North America over 88% of the population is online. This is a huge potential audience, a largely untapped capacity for mass dissemination of ideas and mass coordination. The Occupy Movement, Arab Spring, Icelandic Revolution and other sparks of social unrest at the end of the mid-2000s attribute their successes to the speed and ease of virtual communication, especially through social media. These are examples of the power of the Internet, when backed by real communities of people, ready to effect real change. This is the reason I am online.
Yes, I take a lot of flights to maintain my lifestyle and, yes, it is not the most ecologically conscious mode of living. I’m often asked how I justify the upwards of five flights I will take in this month alone, not to mention the car and bus rides.
From one perspective, there is no justification for the ecological destruction that results from my portion of CO2 emission. However, I’m convinced that the engine of modern consumerism will devour every bit of petroleum it can, for as long as it possibly can. I’d rather see the remains of this incredibly concentrated form of energy go into massive permaculture land re-formation projects to regenerate our ecosystems or into the purposeful education and networking opportunities that travel can facilitate. I don’t travel for vacation. I’m working just about every place I go – offering support, nurturing connections, and feeding my hunger for personal growth.
I have friends, old and young, who follow a similar lifestyle. We share the same community, a community of communities and those who travel between them. We are the pollinators, sampling the nectar of the world’s blossoming projects. From each encounter we are dusted with inspiration and insight. We travel with a head full of ideas and a meager wardrobe on our backs (trust me, ideas are easier to transport than the suitcase!)
With enough distance for wide-lens perspective, our unique advantage is in seeing the whole and the parts of the whole. Recognizing patterns and linkages is our forte. For some of us, these insights are the currency that enables us to travel even more. It may not be forever, but it is a way of life that is working well for us now.
Much like the nomads of old, we travel because virtual connections must be bolstered by live ones. A human heart will always find more depth in another beating heart than in the glow of a laptop screen. As good as the internet is, my community would dissolve without the relief of a genuine hug, not too long overdue, and the promise of another visit to see us through the months of pure digital existence.