... to IN CONTEXT, humane sustainable culture, and the issue's theme

One of the articles in Being A Planetary Villager (IC#1)
Originally published in Winter 1983 on page 2
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

WHEREIN you can make a first acquaintance with this project, with the idea of a humane sustainable culture, and with this issue’s theme of being a planetary villager.

The IN CONTEXT Project

WELCOME to the first issue of IN CONTEXT. What you hold in your hands is like a new born colt – up, on its feet and full of frisk, yet still a little awkward in places. We hope you will enjoy it, and we hope you will join us in helping it grow into the graceful and effective workhorse it is intended to be. But more on that later. Now we need to get on to some explanations.

What is this all about? The overall goal of this project is to explore and clarify just what is involved in a humane sustainable culture – and how we might get there. What is meant by a "humane sustainable culture"? Later in this introduction I’ll describe this in a bit more detail, but the general idea is a culture (or society) that is meaningful and satisfying to those who are part of it and that does not need to destroy or deplete its environment in order to survive. It is a way of life that could potentially be lived, with satisfaction, by generation after generation. As an idea and a vision, its roots are very old, but it has become more needed and more possible through such things as the world- wide increase in population, the development of electronic communications and information systems, the end of cheap fossil fuels, the world-wide deterioration of forests, soils, air, water, etc., growing levels of literacy, changing life spans, and the existence of nuclear weapons. Less obviously, but no less importantly, it has also become more possible through the quiet, small scale efforts of people around the globe, who, especially during the last decade, have been exploring such things as appropriate technology, cooperative community living, new forms of organization and decision making, and ecologically sound agriculture. What we want to do now is to go beyond a general hopeful vision and a few promising small scale experiments to a deeper, clearer, and more specific understanding of how such a "good life that could be passed on to your great grandchildren" could actually be developed.

The primary tools of the project are two publications – this quarterly journal and a catalog/directory (available in mid- 1983). Each issue of the journal will deal with a major theme. We invite contributions of essays, poems, carefully researched reports, graphics, interviews, fiction, and more to convey the concepts, the practical/technical aspects and the experiential side of that theme. We want the journal to actually be the kind of cultural wholeness that it is discussing and reflecting. The catalog/directory adds to this by providing advertising space and listings for businesses, individuals and groups who are working towards the goal of a humane, sustainable culture – a vehicle through which people can get in touch with each other in immediate, practical ways.

We call it a project, rather than just a pair of publications, because we want to emphasize the process as well as the output. That process is a broad scale cooperative effort, with lots of reader involvement, directed towards shaping a workable common vision of a humane sustainable culture. The themes for upcoming issues, together with specific topics and questions, will be announced 6 months before publication (see Previews & Prattle) and the readership as well as the project advisors will be asked to consider these questions and contribute material. Those of us who are initiating this project are a diverse, geographically scattered collection of people who share the belief that one of the major challenges our society (indeed our planet) faces is how to work together, build a basic common vision, and at the same time honor our differences and our individuality. This project is for us an experiment, a laboratory for learning better how to live that balance beyond our local communities. We represent many different styles and approaches, and we want to become better able, with respect and humor, to use this diversity as an asset. We hope you will join us in this search.

The project is called IN CONTEXT to refer to what we see as perhaps the central characteristic of a workable sustainable culture – namely, that its people will act with an awareness of and concern for the larger natural and human world around them. They will live in the context of the trees and the soil, of their neighbors and of people across the world. Of course, all of us live in these contexts anyway. The difference is in choosing to do so consciously, and with as much harmony as possible. In this regard, you might enjoy knowing that the word "context" comes from the Latin for "to weave together".

It might also be helpful, in introducing this project, to describe a bit about who "we" (the people initiating this project) are. The list at the end of this page gives you specific names, but you may not recognize any, and it is rather unlikely that you would know them all. We are a diverse group, some more widely known than others, but none exactly a household word. We include small business people, parents, corporate executives, authors, politicians, secretaries, manual laborers, and craftspeople. Some have Ph.D’s and some got their education outside of schools. Some of us live in cities, some in rural areas, and some (like a growing number of retirees) keep moving around. That is all pretty conventional. A bit more unusual is that a number of us live in intentional communities, although most of us don’t, and intentional community is not the thread that holds this list together.

The major things that we have in common are three. 1) We share a sense that our society (indeed the whole planet) is going through a time of major cultural change. This, too, is hardly an unusual perception. From historians like Arnold Toynbee, to more recent studies like the U.S. Government’s Global 2000 Report, Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave, and John Naisbett’s Megatrends, essentially everyone who has seriously studied our present historical situation agrees that this is a time of profound change.

2) We also feel that both individuals and society can deal with these changes in ways that are positive – that move us towards a more satisfying and workable way of life. Not that there aren’t difficulties and baffling paradoxical quagmires, but in spite of all this, there are successes as well, and on the whole it is worth trying. For many of us this feeling grows out of personal experience, out of living in small, cooperative communities out of learning to be in some ways more self-sufficient yet at the same time more interconnected, out of learning to be more at home with ourselves so that we can change ourselves as well as the world around us. Not that we have it all figured out, but our (mostly independent) experience so far is encouraging. In this also, we are fortunately not at all unique. There are many, many people who share this sense of encouragement about the world’s potential future.

3) The third thread that holds us together is simply that we know each other. (Not each to every other one, but enough to form a sense of connection.) That’s a characteristic that’s very handy for starting projects, but we are acutely aware that there are many other people (perhaps including you) who are at least as qualified to speak to the issues this project will raise. We just happen to be the ones who are getting this project rolling, and we hope many more people will take part in it as it develops.

Hopefully this gives you a first answer to "What is this all about?" You can get a second answer straight from what you hold in your hands, since it is a sample of the kind of journal we intend to produce (although with some unavoidable first issue limitations, like a lack of Letters To The Editor). Finally, in the last section (Previews & Prattle) you will find more detailed information on how the project works, what’s coming in future issues, and how you can participate.

The Issue Of Sustainability

It is time now to go a little more deeply into what is meant by a "humane sustainable culture". At this stage of its development, it is not a precise concept, and I don’t think anyone knows, in detail, just what might be involved in developing such a culture in our present historical situation. There are a lot of ideas (backed up by a growing amount of experience and analysis), and it is a question being actively explored by many groups and individuals around the world, but it is still more of a beckoning direction, a light in the distance, than a known totality for which unified blueprints exist. Nevertheless, there are some general characteristics that can be discerned, and I would like to summarize them here.

First, we are including the humane part in this basic phrase to make centrally clear our commitment to respecting the human importance of each individual within the society. I could now go on and attempt to define more precisely what a humane culture is, but I won’t. Philosophers have been struggling with definitions of the "just society" for thousands of years, with the main result that the crux of the matter is more in the performance than in the words. Not that concepts and structures aren’t important for humaneness – they are – but these can be better dealt with at a less general level, as they will be in the articles in this and succeeding issues of IN CONTEXT.

Sustainability, on the other hand, is both less familiar as an issue and more amenable to useful discussion. Not that it too isn’t a very old issue. Farmers have been concerned about it for thousands of years, but we are less in touch with that tradition and the range of issues involved in sustainability has changed dramatically in just the past few decades. To appreciate that range, perhaps we should quickly review some of the indications that our present industrial society is not sustainable. Obviously, any society that depends on an exponential growth in the quantity of things it produces and is powered by non- renewable fossil fuels can’t keep going on and on. In recent years, the classic study of this problem is described in Limits to Growth, by Donella Meadows et al., in which they found, using computer modeling of the global situation, that the world would experience a catastrophic decline in industrial output, food production, and population sometime during the next century if we tried to keep going the way we have up until 1970. This conclusion was based not just on running out of oil. They were able to use their computer model to test questions such as "Suppose the world miraculously had an inexhaustibly supply of oil?" What they found was that if a lack of oil wasn’t the problem, then a lack of other scarce minerals would be, and if not these, then a lack of farmable land, or a lack of fresh water, or an increase in pollution. Population growth made all these problems worse, but even stabilizing population didn’t solve the problem; it only postponed it a few years. Only by stabilizing both population and resource consuming economic activity, and by reducing the system’s dependence on non-renewable resources, were they able to find a model that did not go through a catastrophic collapse. Since then other, more detailed studies have come to essentially the same conclusions.

More recently, the situation has been summarized by Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute in his book Building a Sustainable Society. Among other things, he points out that the world per capita production of wood, fish, beef, grain, and oil have all peaked and are now declining. In other words, the problems foreseen in Limits To Growth may already be upon us. As steps toward a sustainable culture he emphasizes the need for stabilizing world population, protecting cropland, reforestation, recycling, conserving all forms of energy, and developing renewable energy. He also points out that there are hopeful signs of motion in these directions already, and that in general the barriers to doing all these things are not primarily technical, but are a matter of values and focused political will.

Another helpful perspective on sustainability comes from ecology. The kinds of plant and animal communities that move into a newly cleared piece of ground (pioneer or immature ecosystems) are characteristically different from the plant and animal communities that will eventually develop there (climax or mature ecosystems). The pioneer species put their emphasis on rapid growth and in the process are wasteful of energy and resources. The level of species diversity is low as is the amount of nutrient recycling. Climax ecosystems, on the other hand, put their emphasis on sustaining the existing system, with high efficiency, high diversity and only slow growth.

From these and similar studies, the following general pattern emerges. The basic, almost defining, characteristics of a sustainable culture are that its primary energy source be sunshine (directly or in the forms of wind, hydropower, and vegetation); that its material resources be used frugally and recycled; that its population be stable; that the part of its economic activity that is resource consuming and/or polluting be stabilized at as low a level as possible; and that it does not deteriorate the natural environment (soils, forests, wildlife, water, air, etc.). Not quite so obvious, but often thought to go with these are a decentralization of populations out of urban areas and a greater equity of wealth among nations.

These technical and statistical characteristics give a fascinating glimpse, but they are only part of the picture. Equally important is the social/psychological side of sustainability. Such things as stable populations and environmental protection are expressions of definite value choices. How does a society, and even more so a planet, come to make these choices? How does it implement them? How does it effectively pass these values on from one generation to the next for many, many generations? What forms of education, of work patterns, of housing, of inheritance, of government, of play, etc. contribute to this human side of a sustainable culture? What changes might there be in laws related to land ownership, corporations, licensed professions? Beyond this, how might the balance shift between the force of law and the weight of public opinion as means for maintaining social order? How would such a society protect itself from bullying and coercion: by individual, by organizations, by governments both internally and internationally?

About these questions less is known, nor are they the kind of thing that can be answered by analytic computer studies. Indeed, cultures are sufficiently complex systems that we will probably never have detailed answers until we actually go ahead and do it as a whole society, and even then we’ll do a lot of muddling and groping. Yet there are places we can look for help. There is material from history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and related disciplines that is useful. In addition, there are many people, often in small groups but individuals as well, who are trying to work out these issues in specific practical ways in their own lives. Their lives are a kind of cultural laboratory – never quite the same as the full scale society yet rich with suggestive experience that applies directly to our present historical situation and its challenges.

Many of us who are initiating this IN CONTEXT project fit that description as cultural experimenters, and it is because of this experience that we are motivated to get this project moving. We are doing this, not with the sense that we have the answers to these questions about how a sustainable society would actually work, but because these are immediate practical issues for us and we want to work together and with many others on developing at least "approaches worth trying" if not answers. We are not starting from zero. There is much that we have learned and want to make available to others, but the more we learn, the more we see we have yet to learn, the more we see the value of learning from others, and the more our eyes are opened to wisdom from people we had not previously understood.

Being A Planetary Villager

Our theme for this first issue is about living both in community and in the larger world; about what it means to have a well developed, rooted connection with a specific place and people, and yet at the same time have many connections and feel comfortably at home in the larger world – and how this fits into and contributes to a humane sustainable culture. We are describing this kind of local/global existence as "being a planetary villager". If you are unfamiliar with that term, don’t worry. We have, in a sense, just coined it, although it is obviously related to the almost as recently coined term of "planetary village". I don’t want to repeat here the discussions of these terms that comes later in this issue but there may be some initial clarification that would be helpful.

First, the term planetary village is very different from the more familiar term, "global village". The idea of the global village is that because of jet travel and electronic communications, the whole globe becomes as interconnected as villages are. It uses the word, village, as a metaphor. It says that the globe is like a village, but not that it actually is a village. It is always used in the singular, and is in fact a description of the state of the world rather than a name for some thing. Planetary villages, on the other hand, are real villages. What makes them different from Indian villages or Nigerian villages is that they exist in the context of the whole planet. I don’t want to make too sharp a distinction here. There is no contradiction in the idea of a Nigerian planetary village. Planetary villages are expected to be richly diverse, yet different from traditional villages in their sense of living in a larger context.

A second point of confusion is that the "villages" in planetary villages is intended to refer to small towns and neighborhoods in cities as well as rural villages. Our language unfortunately doesn’t have any term that clearly refers to "self-acknowledged human settlements of a few hundred people in both urban and rural settings", so we will just have to make do with villages until someone coins a better term.

Third, focusing on the villager, as we are doing in this issue, rather than the village brings in a different perspective. Discussions of the village tend, naturally, to emphasize the place – its architecture, economics, internal community structure and lifestyle. Focusing on the people gets us to consider both life within the community and the connections beyond the community – both the planetary and the villager sides of the image. This issue is devoted to the challenge of this balance, and how it might function in and serve a sustainable culture.

Finally, it should be noted that the term planetary villages is sometimes used to refer specifically to a few intentional communities, such as Findhorn in Scotland and Auroville in India, that are consciously trying to develop this way of life. The danger here is in narrowing the concept by referring to this small group as the planetary villages. I would prefer to think of these as "pioneering planetary villages", and keep the basic term broad enough to embrace the whole world.


Laurel Black: artist
Peter Caddy:
Findhorn, Centre at Mt Shasta
Susan Campbell:
author of The Couples Journey
Tim Clark:
Chinook Learning Community
Roger and Katherine Collis:
Lorian Association
Fred Cook:
filmmaker, bioregional networker
Nancy Cosper:
Rain Community Resource Center
Judith Dean:
Cascade Living Lightly Assn
Betty Didcoct:
Linnaea Farm, Turtle Island Land Stewardship Society
Joe Dominguez:
U. V. Family
Duane Elgin:
author of Voluntary Simplicity
Caroline Estes:
Alpha Farm
lanto Evans:
Aprovecho Institute
Lila Forest:
Holy Earth Foundation, journal editor
Adele Getty:
Medicine Ways
Ellen Ghilarducci:
Tacoma Area Living Lightly Assn
Robert Gilman: IN CONTEXT project coordinator
Diane Gilman:
Donovan Gray:
Oregon Arts Commission
Louise Grout:
Skysong Retreat Center
Liana Herbertson:
Fritz and Viviene Hull:
Chinook Learning Community
Serious Israel: Love Israel Family
Ron Jorgensen:
teacher and writer
Larry Katzman:
Potlatch Business Network, lawyer
Charles Lonsdale:
Transpersonal therapist
Dorothy Maclean:
Lorian Association, Findhorn
Milenko and Kathy Matanovic:
Lorian Association, New Troubadours
David McNamara:
OneEarth editor
Barry McWaters:
author of Conscious Evolution
Elaine and David Myers:
potter, PUD commissioner
Bear Tribe Medicine Society
Gary Novak
: peace activist
Danaan Parry
: Holy Earth Foundation
Belden and Lisa Paulson:
U of Wis, High Wind Asstn
Latif Precious:
Quadra Island Community
Finger Prince:
Chris and Wayne Roberts:
Sunbow Community
Mary Lou Sanelli
: poet
Mark Satin
: author of New Age Politics
Lawrence and Silvia Schechter
: Alcyone Community
Forest Shomer
: Abundant Life Seed Foundation
Barbara Snyder
: Tilth editor
Michael Soule
: Children of Green Earth
David and Julie Spangler
: Lorian Association
Bob Steelquist: naturalist
, NOLLA journal editor
Peter Sugarman:
Chinook Learning Community
David Thatcher
: 100 Mile House Community
Sally Walton and David Wickenden: