Humans exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth around 1970, but academia is still catching up to this fact. In this 10-part blog series, I unpack the “hidden curricula” embedded within much of higher education and consider ecovillages as alternative “curriculum” in which to train leaders for a more sustainable future. In my first post, I contrasted these two contexts as…

  1. Conventional vs. Experimental

Let’s move on to a second comparison of academia vs. ecovillages as…

2. Hierarchical vs. Heterarchical


The structure of most U.S. universities is extremely hierarchical. Often based more on control than competence, administrative authority trickles down from the President to the Provost, Deans, Chairs and Staff. Professors are ranked in order from Emeritus, Distinguished, Full, Associate, Assistant, Adjunct, then moves down to Lecturers, Instructors, Post-Docs, and Research/Teaching Assistants. And who are at the bottom rung of this ladder? Students of course.

While this system certainly has its efficiencies, it also communicates a powerful story of “power over” and submission to authority. For example, almost any grad student can share stories of professors claiming credit for research papers that they contributed little or nothing to. Exploitation is rampant within the academic world of “publish or perish.”

This hierarchical attitude also extends well beyond the ivory towers when scientists, engineers, and others are trained to dominate and subdue nature. As David Orr said, environmental destruction “is not the work of ignorant people. Rather it is largely the result of work by people with BAs, BScs, LLBs, MBAs and PhDs.” (David Orr, p. 7). It’s not that these people are bad; they just need a new story.


Ecovillages tend to be more heterarchical (yes, it is a word) and there is generally a wide diversity of relationships with members interacting on more or less an equal footing. Two people might cook a meal together one day, sit together in a budget meeting another day, and perhaps help harvest vegetables on yet another. These interdependent sets of relationships help members get to know each other on many levels and better understand the complexity of living systems.

In the late ’80s, I traveled with my then-partner-now-wife, Monique, to around 30 “communes” across North America collecting data for my doctoral thesis on “Children and Education within Contemporary Intentional Communities.” While governance was not my primary focus, I was surprised how rare the mainstream practice of majority voting was in these communities. Instead they tended to either invest authority in a single individual (e.g. among very religious communities) or, more commonly (and more interestingly IMHO), in the group as a whole (using consensus or at least a super-majority to make decisions).

What’s going on here? Why doesn’t majority voting generally work in these communities? Well, imagine you’re living in an ecovillage of 100 members and 51 decide the community should raise and slaughter their own pigs and cows, while 49 are adamantly against the idea. Even with a majority in favor, the idea will likely never be implemented as it would certainly cause a lot of friction among friends and neighbors. You live with these people!

Majority voting works in large nation-states like the U.S., because we have a judicial system, police force, and military to back up the winners. Ecovillages don’t have police forces and they don’t want police forces. What they do want is to be in right relationship with each other and the planet. And this requires an attitude of power-with rather than power-over. In Quaker lingo, this also means recognizing that everyone holds a piece of the truth and nobody holds the whole truth.


This isn’t easy, especially since most ecovillagers come from mainstream society and it takes time to unlearn our cultural stories of dominance and individualism. But isn’t this our species’ essential “curriculum” if we are to survive peak oil and climate change?

Ecovillages are not utopias. They are living laboratories, beta test centers, and ideal “campuses” for learning how to live in communities that honor and respect our fundamental interdependence with all life.

Next up: “Competition vs. Cooperation.” Please share your thoughts, questions, and counter-arguments in the comments. Thanks!


Orr, David. Earth In Mind. Washington, 1994. (This blog series is adapted from my forthcoming chapter in “Localizing Environmental Anthropology: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillage Design for a Sustainable Future”, edited by Joshua Lockyer and James Veteto and published by Berghahn Books)