Salt Spring Island, BC is Our Backyard: The Interview with's EcoVillage Leader Jan Steinman
Salt Spring Island, BC is Our Backyard: The Interview with's EcoVillage Leader Jan Steinman

"Are you hippie proof?" Get Down at the Laytonville, CA EcoVillage!

Interview with the Community Builder: Diana Leafe

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How did you design the Governance process?

We tried to strike a balance between respect for equity and sharing, and between participation and efficiency. This effort was largely unsuccessful, and we're pulled back into a more conventional governance system.

It takes a special sort of person to be in a completely egalitarian community, and we didn't think we had time to find such people. Egalitarian communities often become victims of Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons," as Western civilization has few good models for responsibility without ownership. A commonly-held resource is, more often than not, a commonly-degraded resource, as no one has authority to take responsibility for maintaining the resource.

We set out to separate authority from ownership, so that one might have authority for managing a resource without having ownership of that resource, and so have "Stewards," who are responsible for speaking for resources that cannot speak for themselves.

We also wanted a flat structure, which again, the modern world has little experience with. We were inspired by Sociocracy, or Dynamic Governance, in that Stewards are expected to identify intersections of interest and be pro-active in resolving conflicts, rather than taking direction from some "boss" in a hierarchical structure. But Sociocracy is largely targeted toward a corporate environment, and we had to take it as a conceptual model, rather than simply implementing it in our organization.

That said, we found that the initial mix of people, while agreeing to it on paper, were in reality non-supportive of the Stewardship model. We had endless meetings about specifics of different stewardships, quickly losing sight of the fact that Stewards were selected for their expertise -- that didn't stop anyone who thought they had a better idea from arguing strongly with the acknowledged expert in a resource.

Thinly veiled self-interest continually raised its ugly head. When, for a variety of reasons, it was decided by the Finance Steward to not issue an annual dividend, one person in essence conducted a filibuster, claiming procedural problems and generally being a nuisance, which held up the decision for several months. Another person objected to our labour policy that all residents provide 30 hours of community labour each month; this person became the facilitator for a quarter, and essentially halted other business as we endlessly discussed the labour policy that had been working fine for three years.

Part of this was lack of training; part of it was a desire for inclusiveness. But it generally hasn't worked well, because people don't know how to behave under consensus. All their lives, they've had parents, teachers, bosses, bureaucrats, and politicians telling them what to do, and when they find themselves in what is supposed to be a functional anarchy (freedom from rulers), they cannot resist grabbing the wheel and attempting to drive. Successful consensus requires a great deal of personal restraint!

Such events caused us to institute a Board of Directors who are in charge of day-to-day business decisions. Things are proceeding much more smoothly now, but it is unclear to what degree this is due to structural changes in governance, or due to the troublesome members leaving the organization.

We have so many problems associated with families these days, how do you both heal and build communities with total strangers?

I wish I knew! We're learning so much as we go along. We've attended conferences, read books, and consulted with experts, but nothing seems to replace the actual experience of working from within a communal group.

Diana Leafe Christian (Creating A Life Together, Finding Community) stresses that, at least in the beginning, you need a healthy group of functional people. Among us, we had people diagnosed with depression, adult attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, and three alcoholics -- and that's leaving out those with obvious issues that were not formally diagnosed! People tended to gang up on the person with depression, and try to make her the reason for any and all problems we were having. Not fun for any of us!

Two things above all probably makes for success: compassion and empathy. When one figures out that we are all mirrors, it is so much simpler to look at what you're judging about another person and ask if that's coming from within. And yet, we quite often had people who would accuse others of the very behavior they exhibited.

Enforcement of agreements has been a continuing issue. If a group can build an ethic of self-enforcement, life gets much simpler. On Diana Leafe Christian's advice, we instituted an "escalating sequence of consequences" for dealing with broken agreements, but some people tended to hold their self-interest above the group interest. In one case, we had three months of meetings on labour policy, twice declaring an amnesty for those not fulfilling their labour agreement. When it came up a third time for one individual, that person was billed in a public email for the labour shortage -- she then left the co-op, citing that event as one of the reasons.

We worked toward an escalating sequence of involvement, as well, where a problem with agreement non-compliance would be brought up one-on-one, then with a small group, then with the entire group. This often worked -- in particular, calling a problem to the entire group without first going through an escalation certainly didn't work at all -- but there were still individuals who were resistant to fulfilling their agreements.

So much of this seems to depend on deepening trust. It's vital that when faced with a choice, people choose trust first. It's difficult to do when you're feeling defensive, and seemingly impossible when *you* think the *other person* is the defensive one! But one must start somewhere, no?

Do you know what is meant by a "communitarian path?"

I've not heard this term before, and all I know about it is what Google supplies. It does sound like something we strive for, but are still learning about -- balancing individual dignity with group needs, recognizing and addressing social needs as a priority over individual needs. But it is hard work to bring this to a group of people who, despite their lofty platitudes, come from a long tradition of western civilization's strong emphasis on individualism.

Of course, much of today's emphasis on individualism is driven by cheap and abundant energy.

First, there was the tribe, or the clan, or the village. It consisted of individuals who were largely (although necessarily not completely) genetically linked. These people worked together for the common good of their group out of necessity: all they had was 40 watts of exosomatic energy with which to supply any needs they could not supply with their own muscle power. When it came to cooking, winter heating, or tending crops, the physical energy an individual could wield was not enough to provide a positive yield without the contribution of others.

Civilizations came and went, burning through vast forests and laying agricultural land to waste in their attempts to gain greater access to energy, but ultimately, the sunlight falling on the ground, averaged over one year, was all they could use.

Then coal began to make inroads. The tribe or clan or village devolved to the family. Fathers went off to factories to earn the energy needed to support families in tenement slums. The only way out was to take your family elsewhere. New continents were opened for exploitation, which eased the energy-collection pressure somewhat, as families took "40 acres and a mule" as their temporary way out of the energy dilemma.

Then petroleum came into widespread use. The primary social unit devolved to the individual. We have multiple social circles, serial careers, blended families -- all due to the primacy of the individual, driven by cheap and abundant energy. Today, the average citizen of a G-8 country consumes nearly 250 times the energy that the pre-fossil-energy human enjoyed.

This trend is about to reverse! The primary social unit will necessarily return to the tribe, clan, and village, as petroleum, then coal, goes into decline. We will have to re-learn to live within our solar energy budget, and that will necessarily mean banding together to make more efficient use of the precious energy we can gather.

To me, the "communitarian path" is a necessary side-effect of a return to a low-energy life-style. The people holed up in compounds with guns and cans of beans are not going to make it; those who put their efforts into together growing beans may.

What are some the local symbols, stories and pre-myths there?

I think if we had paid more attention to such things, we would have had an easier time of things! I'm drawing a blank on this question.

On and offline participatory decision-making has been around a long time. How is this different in your practice?

On a practical basis, our use of MediaWiki -- the same software that runs Wikipedia -- has been very useful.

Wikipedia is perhaps the largest, most successful instance of functional anarchy humanity has created. We have carried that into smaller practice with some success, and many challenges. One person new to our group said she was "terrified" of it; others who were proficient in it tended to have greater influence within the organization. This sometimes led to schisms between people living on-site, who had access to informal communication, and those participating remotely, who only had access to electronic communication. Many efficient decisions happen informally, on the way between the garden and greenhouse, for example, and remote participants would sometimes choose to feel left out, rather than feeling relieved that so much could be figured out without bothering them.

Is one example, a local decision to breed privately-owned goats was cited by one remote member who left. She said that "the addition of any living being to the site required discussion and consent of all members." I don't think she really wanted to be consulted whenever an earthworm mated or a starling built a nest, and there were probably other things festering behind that statement, but it did point out a failure in our communications models, and was one of the events that led to our establishing a formal Board of Directors who were clearly in charge of operational aspects of the co-op.

Who are your heroes?

Personally, one of my biggest heroes is Michael Schmidt, who has been fighting Big Agribusiness and state regulators to supply clean, wholesome raw dairy products to cow-sharing participants. He recently won a court case in Ontario.

Industrial milk is a menace, both to its consumers, and to the resources used to produce it. There will come a day when raw dairy products, produced small-scale and locally, consumed by those who produce it, will be the norm, rather than the exception. Until that day, we need Michael Schmidt fighting for us!

I'm also a big fan of Joel Salatin, who raises "beyond organic" beef at Polyface Farm, in Virginia. He is the author of "Everything I Do Is Illegal," a lament of the increasing regulation that is seemingly designed to put small farmers out of business.

Finally, I have to credit author Michael Pollan (Botany of Desire, The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food) for his work in bringing us all closer to our source of nourishment. Thousand-mile food will be going away in the next ten years, with hundred-mile food going away in the following decade. Michael shows us that we need to start working on "zero-mile" and "ten mile" food now, and not wait until the supply chains start breaking down!

I have many more heroes, both personal and widely known. I hope that, in some small way, I can be someone's hero, as well.

Describe the relationship between your mission/purpose and community decision-making method(s) ?

This is probably one of our biggest challenges, as our mission/purpose inadequately covers governance issues.

Our Mission does cite "written process," "personal responsibility and accountability," "consensus," and a "common set of values in priority order." But self-interest has proved a strong adversary to these principles.

We would like to review our mission/purpose on a regular basis, perhaps reading them at the start of meetings.

Generating income? Sources?

In today's uncertain employment environment, a single job or career is nothing but "fiscal monoculture." It is hoped that people will bring multiple revenue streams with them, so that the failure of any one won't bring them down. In our own house-hold, we have bookkeeping, jewelery making, computer and Internet services, Permaculture education, dairy, eggs, and market garden -- all bringing in small revenue streams.

Yet we must prepare for a reduction in tourism in the future, as travel becomes more expensive. This island may only be able to support 1/10th its current population in the long haul, but those people will still need to eat and use energy. We will be secure to the extent that we can sustainable use our land-base to generate our food, energy, and incidental income. When food and energy are supplied, income needs go way down!

Insurance? Is this an issue?

We are covered by a comprehensive farm insurance policy that includes many ancillary agriculture-related activities, such as agri-education and agri-tourism. If an activity is related to agriculture, it is basically covered.

People who wish to conduct business or activities that are clearly non-agriculture related are required to have their own insurance, naming EcoReality Co-op as an additional insured party. We currently have yoga and Qi Gong classes and activities on site that are insured in such a manner.

How does your permaculture relate to the work at

We have not been involved with to date. But it appears that our basic values are in alignment, and I'm now listening to the RSS feed for inspiration!

Is the land male or female?

There are masculine and feminine aspects of the land.

Directly to the south, the gently-rising breast-shaped Bruce Peak evokes soft, maternal feelings, protects us from storms, and nurses us with plentiful clean water. The two streams murmur a mother's calming whisper as they bring nourishment from her flanks. Bountiful fields with some of the best farm land on the island give us Mother Earth's blessing.

To the west, stark, phallic Mount Maxwell thrusts upward to Father Sun, reminding us of life's duality. An occasional rocky outcrop reminds us that we sit on a giant crystal, the masculine batholith thrust up through Mother Earth's crust to bring minerals and male energy from below. Large, cleared fields allow more of Father Sun's influence than typical on this island of typically small fields ringed by trees.

Between the two mountains, fierce seasonal winds carry the yin-yang dance through our valley, which we hope to harvest with wind turbines. Male or female? Both!

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Mr. Steinman's Bio

Hi! I'm Jan Steinman . I grew up on a southeast Michigan subsistence farm with my parents, two brothers, and two sisters. We pretty much fed ourselves on five acres, while my parents worked full-time jobs -- Shirley, an elementary school teacher, George, a painter and remodeler. They still live on the farm today, while mumbling about moving into something smaller as the area they are able to garden gets smaller every year. I learned how to run a budget and make a profit at 12 or 13 -- my dad would buy seed corn, fuel, and fertilizer, we kids would plow, disk, plant, weed, pick, and sell the sweet corn ("always give 'em a baker's dozen"), pay him back for his expenses, and pocket the rest! I sure felt rich at the end of the season to have a couple hundred 1960's dollars to split three ways!

My agricultural roots have simmered on the back burner since then, but it's all coming back now. It's amazing how much you learn at that age without really thinking of it as a skill! Sometimes, my dad would match whatever we put in the bank for savings. The sweet corn and money I earned as a groom (sounds better than "stall mucker") at a nearby American Standardbred farm enabled me to start a stereo service business right out of high school at the age of 17.

Although I've been employed quite a bit since then, I've always kept a business of some kind on the side, and left traditional employment completely in 1990, and have been self-supporting since then. Jan's vision of the ecovillage in five years is fun and upbeat. Jan's vision, 50 years later is dark and foreboding.
These essays won first place in Beyond Peak's Scenario Contest!

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Connections -
Jan Steinman
Jan at bytesmiths dot com