Gr0wing.com continues its organic development, as announced I will welcome more and more interventions from various people whose skills in Lifestyle Design are worth sharing on this blog.
Today I’m happy to interview Michael Seïte-Karner, a friend of mine who spent the last 6 years exploring environmentally sustainable lifestyles. He’s been around the world to study the fundamentals of permaculture, live in eco-villages and work in global organizations for the preservation of the environment (more about him in the footnotes).
I really wanted him to share tips on how to improve our life without being a sore for the planet and I’m thrilled to publish his insights on new ecological lifestyles.
First, thanks for sharing your knowledge and experiences with us, few people I know have gone as far as you in the area of sustainable living , now let me ask you a few questions that have been in my mind for a while:
Q: What makes you so motivated about ecology? You’re a smart and gifted guy, why didn’t you choose another career-path like the finance industry for instance, it pays better money…
A: Somehow, it all fell into place during after my studies, which I completed in pretty shiny places where people are very career-driven. I just felt that I was interested in something else. My “career path” just evolved into what it is right now naturally.
I quickly realized that in terms of concrete solutions for socio-environmental change and downright creativity, few movements or milieus went as far as what I will call “the global transition movement”, for lack of a better term. This movement is actually a polymorphic, polyphonic wave of empathic and concerned people working for a more conscious humanity on this planet. You can’t put a name on it, but it is there. You can find a great description of this movement in this video:
That is what I find so stimulating…and we all have the means, through internet, to at least access this information. If we then do something with this information is another story.
I feel stimulated by the ideas and people I encounter, in a way that did not work for me while staring into a computer all day long. I also enjoy my freedom, and the fact that it all depends on me and my own initiative to get out there and make things happen. And finally, I get to interact with very different people, from oil and gas specialists to off-the-grid pioneers. I enjoy bouncing back and forth between these worlds, trying to get a grasp of where the heck humanity is heading. Sure beats being yet another computer-worshipping cog in some massive company, in my view.
Q: So far I’ve been more of an urban minimalist with limited understanding of eco-friendly lifestyles, yet I’ve always known that at some stage I’d build an “organic” house and I’d start living more in tune with nature.
I decided that now is the time to start, what should I begin with?
A: A good place to start is to understand what your desire to live more “in tune” implies for your daily life, your needs, and the way you behave and interact with your human and natural environment. Gandhi once said “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” In essence, there isn’t really more to add.
Start with the most obvious things: what you use on a day-to-day basis, i.e. food, energy, and water. Where does it come from, how is it produced, who are you supporting by using it? And why throw away when you can give, why buy something new when you can fix or reuse the old one? Delving into these questions is highly interesting. And your wallet should feel like it’s putting on weight too, by the way.
In our market-oriented society, it is easy to “go green” in your consumption habits, by simply buying green-labeled commodities. That is fine, a far cry from feeding yourself in drive-thrus, but if you are really serious about getting “in tune”, is buying green-marketed stuff really as far as you want to go? Is that really the most powerful statement you can make, as a mere consumer? We can all go much further than that.
For me, it gets interesting at this stage, because it means you are setting out on a personal journey of sorts. Of course, if you read the news, your efforts to live “in tune” will seem hopelessly insignificant, and your life itself will seem full of contradictions. But not to worry! If you manage to find a lifestyle that makes you feel you are living “in tune”, that is already a lot. And by that small feat alone you will be illustrating this idea by the visionary engineer and thinker Buckminster Fuller:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
I think that this quote also applies to our inner worlds. Living “in tune” is living in tune with yourself, and most of us, I believe, have a yearning to get closer to ourselves, our surroundings, and nature.
In any case, wherever you are, there are ways of engaging with people you might learn something useful from. Ways of giving to the community, to the earth, ways of being generous and thereby having a transformative effect around you. The sky is the limit!
Q: Could you describe in a nutshell what is permaculture, both as a practice and a philosophy?
A: I am merely a student of permaculture, but I will give it a shot!
The term “permaculture” (i.e. “permanent culture”) was coined in the 1970s by two Australians, Bill Mollisson and David Holmgren. Holmgren defined permaculture like this: “Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patters and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs” (Holmgren, 2011: xix). Originally, permaculture focused on sustainable agriculture. Over the years, it has grown into a movement that seeks to develop models of sustainable culture.
Permaculture seeks to observe patterns in nature to develop human-nature interactions that are attuned to a given natural environment, and to the needs of the humans living in it. This means that ideally, humans fulfill their needs while acting as stewards of nature, who engage in healing the damage we have done to our earth, while using our intelligence to design systems that benefit us and the entire ecosystem that we are living in.
There are three basic ethical principles in permaculture worth mentioning: care of the earth, care of the people, and the sharing of surpluses amongst ourselves. At a practical level, permaculture is about designing human settlements at all levels (energy, water, soil and land use, food production, and so on…) that are truly “in tune” with their environments. Please read the article by David Holmgren mentioned in the last question for more information about permaculture.
I should add that in many cases, permaculture is just common sense. It is what our ancestors did on a day-to-day basis, when you couldn’t just buy war machines (tractors are descendants of tanks, some say…) and war chemicals (agent orange: originally a pesticide!) to grow your genetically modified crops. Indeed, our ancestors used what they had, and accumulated an incredible amount of lore, native seeds and wisdom that we have all but forgotten. Permaculture is one of many tendencies that seek to help humans to find their way back to this wisdom.
Q: I’m aware of architectural innovation in the field of energy efficient homes like Earthships, Straw bale houses and Super Adobe designs, would you say that these concepts are still highly experimental or feasible to those who’d like to take a step?
A: I think that these architectural designs are perfectly feasible! I have seen many examples of them myself. And in terms of being built from locally-sourced materials, energy efficiency, cost and plain esthetics, they are hard to beat! For example, the largest strawbale house in Europe is in Tamera ecovillage, in Portugal. It is a building used for large community gatherings, and can welcome several hundred people easily.
The difficulties involved with building these structures are legislative. You may have a hard time obtaining building permits, or insuring the building (this happened to my uncle in France, who wanted to build a strawbale hangar). Mainstream architects, planners and builders have little knowledge of these pioneering designs. And some don’t want to know more. If people realize that they can build incredible natural structures for 100,000 euros, where does that leave the building industry, and where does that leave our concrete and asphalt-addicted civilization?
Q: What do you think of eco-villages?
A: I see eco-villages as important experimentation and demonstration centers for alternative, sustainable lifestyles. They explore new solutions for human-human and human-nature interactions. The eco-village movement is extremely diverse, ranging from New Age spiritual communities to hands-on urban permaculture ecovillages. They all have something to offer!
I often hear people saying “Yeah, sure ecovillages…but if we all move back to the countryside, we will destroy what little nature we have left…”. This is missing the point! Ecovillages are experimenting with ideas that can be applied in any city…but for now, it is much tougher to implement these ideas in urban spaces, which tends to suffocate alternatives. Just like with renewable energy, we need a mix of solutions to make progress. Ecovillages are not THE solution, but they are definitely part of it, in my opinion.
Q: What places would you advise for those who’d like to discover what living in an eco-village is like?
A: I think that it really depends on what you are looking for, and where you live. A good place to find ecovillages near where you live is the ecovillage database of the Global Ecovillage Network: http://gen.ecovillage.org/.
I won’t drop any names in this interview, but please write to me if you would like more information (see contact at the bottom of the page). It is important to remember that people live in ecovillages, who can feel strained if people just barge in like eco-tourists every day. So it’s important to find the right contact with such a community, and not to see it as some weird collection of hippies or luminaries that you can visit for a while to have a wacky time before heading back to “reality”.
You might actually learn something! Personally, spending time in such places gave me a beautiful feeling of community, of shared learning with others, and of connectedness to the land. Some of the best times of my life, without a doubt.
Q: Do you consider eco-villages to be a passing trend or a deep shift in the way humans will live in the future?
A: I consider eco-villages to be at the forefront of a deep shift, a massive reappraisal of the way humans live on earth. As said, they are a tiny part of the global transition movement that is forming right now (see question 1). Eco-villages are perhaps some of the most holistic attempts at developing alternatives that I have seen on the ground.
Q: Can anyone live in an eco-friendly community or would you say that you’d better have a hippie profile to blend in?
A: You don’t need a profile at all. I don’t even know what a hippie profile is…
A good start is to be yourself. To allow yourself to speak your mind, to be generous and to share what you have inside, to be able to show your weaknesses, and to accept feedback from others. Respect and actually listening to someone instead of waiting for them to finish so you can talk are fundamental, just like in any community! Indeed, a community thrives when its members encourage each other to learn about themselves, to heal what they have to heal in order to truly unleash their humane and creative potential upon others.
I have met fascinating people from every walk of life in ecovillages, from shamans to physicists, from bankers to clowns! There is no reason why you wouldn’t fit in. And if you feel judged, well, talk about it in front of the community, and see what happens!
Q: Do you consider it possible to have a job in the city and an eco-friendly house, or is it necessary to quit your 9 to 5 and go off the grid? In short, can I have the cake and eat it?
A: You set your own limits. Your conditioning, attachments and experience all play a part in shaping your desire to live more “in tune” with things.
For me, the idea is not so much to leave everything, to refute technology and to return to the land. If everyone did this, the consequences would be catastrophic! The idea is to integrate new ideas, patterns of behavior into your life, to refresh your gaze on things, to realize that you are part of a whole (the global community of sentient beings, some would say…) and that you can therefore make a difference.
We are now an urban civilization and it won’t stop. So if you are an urbanite, how can you change things right now, where you live, in your workplace? There are so many ideas buzzing around…urban agriculture, rooftop aquaponic and hydroponic farms (for sustainably sourced local veggie, fruit and fish production), shared gardens, biking, community markets, urban beekeeping, freeganism, guerilla gardening, and the list goes on and on…you shape your own reality and there is a wealth of ideas to tap into.
An incredible movement of urban transition happening right now around the world is the Transition Towns network, have a look: http://www.transitionnetwork.org/.
Q: What websites and documentation do you recommend to get smarter at being a conscious earthling?
A: I definitely recommend the links I posted above. As said, there is so much information about these movements on the internet. The tricky part is to transform that wealth of information into action!
This is a great introductory text to permaculture (available in lots of languages) by David Holmgren: http://holmgren.com.au/downloads/Essence_of_Pc_EN.pdf
Here you will find a very inspiring and powerful video about organic agriculture and its socio-economic implications by the Mexican farmer Jaire Restrepo (in Spanish with English subtitles):
Please write to me if you want more information about a specific topic, or if you have extra information to give me. I am always happy to share and learn: firstname.lastname@example.org.