Humanity’s ecological footprint has exceeded global biocapacity since ~1970.  This is an astounding, game-changing fact. One species overshooting the Earth’s carrying capacity has never before happened in our planet’s 4.5 Billion year history. And yet, we are still educating our future leaders as if nothing has changed. Resiliency, sustainability, interdependence — these are topics that need to be core to curricula from kinder-garten through graduate school, but our educational systems seem stuck in molasses. How can we make this shift, and quickly?

I believe at least part of the answer is to leave the ivory tower and immerse students in experiments in living high quality, low impact lifestyles. In my last post, I explained “What is an ecovillage?” and why CAPE believes they make ideal “campuses” to train leaders in sustainable community development.  This is the first of a ten part blog series in which I will contrast the educational contexts of academia and ecovillages and share why the former needs the latter. At the end, I will also explain the reverse, why ecovillages also need academia.

To start this journey, we need to unpack the “hidden curricula” embedded within higher education, ecovillages, and other learning communities. Anyone who has been in school understands that we learn, not only through our school’s formal curricula, but also implicitly and informally through our day-to-day participation in that institution. For example, regardless of the topic being taught, students at most schools are expected to listen attentively to their instructors, be organized, and follow instructions. “Sit up straight!” “Eyes on your own work!” “Raise your hand!” “Pencils down!” These powerful expectations and trainings are often referred to as an organization’s “hidden curriculum.”

While higher education is changing (learn more at AASHE), its tacit structures, metanarratives, and “stories” still seem more focused on producing industrial-age specialists trained to succeed in a 20th century marketplace.  While useful, we now also need to train neo-renaissance generalists and practitioners who can see the big picture and put planet before profit in order to slow down and reverse this juggernaut of destruction we have become. As David Orr eloquently put it,

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world more habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture defined it.” (Orr 1994:12)

How can we educate such world-workers? And where? Here is the first of ten examples of how academia and ecovillages offer contrasting hidden curricula that either hinder or support the development of this new type of leader that Orr describes. While these examples are a bit provocative, and notable exceptions exist within each, I hope the gestalt will ring true.

1) Conventional vs. Experimental

Universities tend to be burdened by cumbersome bureaucracies that resist change. In fact, the basic structure of universities has not evolved significantly since the Middle Ages. This structure was effective during an industrial economy when a college degree conveyed a scarce premium and when a bureaucratic “command and control” mindset was a market advantage. But we now live in networked and service-oriented societies that need real-world leaders and problem solvers who are not wedded to convention. When even the simple task of creating departmental letterhead can take months of meetings, review sessions and calls for bids, one begins to understand why a deep structural reorientation towards sustainability is often a painfully slow process in many colleges and universities.

Ecovillages, by comparison, are physical and social “laboratories,” experimenting with new technologies, social structures, and worldviews. They tend to have a trial and error mentality and are quick to adjust to changing conditions, challenges, and opportunities.

sirius-greenhouseOne small example…. At Sirius Community, the small ecovillage where I lived in western Massachusetts, a 1,000 ft2 greenhouse was built onto the Community Center using timberframe construction. This may seem odd as the thick timbers block some sunlight, but these were the resources and skills available at that time, and after a few experiments and calculations, it was discovered they could build an effective (and beautiful!) greenhouse using this method. In addition, they used, literally, tons of stones held together by chicken wire as thermal mass and a low-watt fan that continually circulates air through the stones, thus heating them in the day and drawing heat out at night. This greenhouse provides about 1/3 of the heating needs for the Community Center. The best part is that, above the stones, is a dining space, which is particularly appreciated in the colder months of New England. CAPE students benefit from these experiments by learning how to design and construct a greenhouse using timberframe, cob and strawbale. The future is not fixed, and nimble minds will be required to effectively respond to coming challenges and opportunities.

Next up: “Hierarchy vs. Heterarchy.” Please add your thoughts and questions in the comments below and I hope you will follow along with this blog series. Thanks! 


Orr, David. Earth In Mind. Washington, 1994.

(This blog series is expanded from a chapter in in J. Lockyer and J. R. Veteto, (Eds.) Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages. New York: Berghahn Books, 2013.)