We are currently living in a way that is indisputably unsustainable. The ecological resources on which modern housing depend are becoming increasingly scarce, and the excessive carbon footprint left behind by "McMansions" and sprawling suburban developments are leading more and more people to seek radically greener housing alternatives.
This is the third of a five-part series called "Off the Grid," in which we explore environmentally-sustainable, self-sufficient communities across the globe. We'll attempt to answer the question: Is green, off-grid living our future? This week, we take a look at an "ecovillage" in the hills of Missouri in the United States.
The verdant, rolling hills of Northeast Missouri look as if they were lifted straight from a George Inness painting. A blend of scattered, open-grown trees and lush prairie grassland -- an idyllic savanna ecosystem -- peppered prettily with ponds, small creeks and wildlife. Country life at its finest.
But instead of finding quaint Grant Wood farmhouses and charming country cottages nestled into the picturesque landscape, you'll find a small village made up of unusual-looking earthen structures. No-frills homes constructed entirely from recycled materials, reclaimed lumber, straw and cob; homes outfitted with solar panels or small wind turbines. Though they don't appear as otherworldly as the Earthships of Taos, N.M., or as jaw-dropping as the treehouses of Southern Costa Rica, these homes are radically green: similarly untethered from mass public utilities and reliant on renewable energy sources, with built-in catchment systems and food grown on-site.
Welcome to the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, a community that has taken the principle of ecological sustainability to the next level. Like the treehouses of Finca Bellavista and the Greater World Earthship subdivision, green principles were used in the construction of each home and later, the wider functioning of the entire community. But, in their quest to be "stewards" of the land and not merely occupants, the residents of Dancing Rabbit also aimed to restore the land to its pre-colonial ecology. Since the Ecovillage's establishment, its residents have planted over 10,000 trees onsite, ensuring a sustainable source of wood for future generations of the community. ("What's the use of a fine house," Thoreau once mused, "if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?") Story continues after the gallery below.
Tony Sirna, one of the ecovillage's founders, sees Dancing Rabbit as far more than just a village -- but as a model for social change and an inspiration for humans to live more harmoniously alongside nature.
"We wanted to demonstrate a positive alternative to our modern American culture's relationship to the environment," Sirna told AOL Real Estate. "We wanted to do more than take small steps towards reducing our impact. We wanted to develop a full-fledged human society with sustainability as its core value."
A 'Values-Driven' Lifestyle
The idea for Dancing Rabbit began in 1993 with a group of ecological activists from Stanford University in California. Fueled by the desire to stop ecological destruction and finding wiser alternatives for modern living (the group was inspired by the self-sufficiency found in "earthships"), they came up with the idea of an "eco-town" of 1,000 people. After further research, discussion and careful planning, they refined the idea to an intentional "ecovillage," comprised of both individuals and small sub-communities. (An intentional community is a planned residential community designed to have a high degree of teamwork and a shared value system).
Crunch time came in 1996, when the six founders moved to Missouri due to its affordable land and a lack of restrictive zoning and building codes. The ambitious group purchased 280 acres of land and began building the ecovillage in 1997. Though there were numerous challenges throughout the journey, 15 years later the population of six grew to 75 people, and the village currently houses over 25 sustainable structures.
"We built all of our houses ourselves by hand, with help from people in the community, using natural and recycled materials," says 13-year resident Kurt Kessner, who lives at Dancing Rabbit with his wife, Alline Anderson. (Both are pictured at left).
Kessner and Anderson, like other Dancing Rabbit residents, live in a home that generates its own energy via solar panels and wind turbines, and boasts its own renewable water supply -- thanks to built-in rainwater catchment cisterns. Wastewater is filtered and re-used throughout the home via graywater systems, and all human waste is recycled through composting. Kessner and Anderson enjoy food grown and harvested from small organic gardens and fruit trees that are integrated throughout the ecovillage. (Most recently, Dancing Rabbit has introduced "food forests" -- gardens which grow layers of plants, trees, herbs and vegetables through a system that resembles the growing patterns and plant species of wild woodland habitats.) Additionally, Kessner and Anderson do not own a motor vehicle, and walk to work -- a strawbale bed-and-breakfast that they built themselves -- each day.
According to Kessner, this kind of radically sustainable living has carved a path for a simpler and more meaningful modern lifestyle not driven by hollow materialism, but instead by values and community.
"How many hours of your life does it cost you to drive that car, to have that formal dining room, to own that boat? If you traded that for time -- time with family and friends -- how much more valuable is that?" said Kessner. "It's a simpler, more fulfilling way to live."
Sirna also argues that, contrary to popular belief, simple does not mean "simplistic" or primitive. In fact, Sirna says that the residents of Dancing Rabbit live just as comfortably as "traditional" home-dwellers, only without excess.
"Living in an ecovillage has meant a drastic reduction in my level of consumption without any degradation in my standard of living or happiness," said Sirna. "I've found that I can easily get my needs met with far less money and less impact." Sirna also explained that, while the average home at Dancing Rabbit was far smaller than the average American "brick-and-mortar" home, any additional space would be largely unnecessary.
Kessner's wife echoed Sirna's sentiments and further added that the environmentally responsible way of life practiced at Dancing Rabbit was not just tolerable but very "rich." The home which Alline Anderson shares with Kessner is completely paid for, all utilities included -- "we use rainwater for bathing, cleaning and cooking, and solar and wind for electricity," she explains -- and she is able to spend less time working and more time with family.
"One of our great joys is demonstrating that sustainability does not have to be about deprivation. Living lightly on the earth can be really satisfying!" Anderson told AOL Real Estate.
'It's Not That Difficult'
If you ask Kessner, Anderson and Sirna (or the Hogans of Finca Bellavista, or earthship creator Michael Reynolds), living in a radically sustainable fashion is a no-brainer. The resources on which modern housing and suburban developments depend are fast depleting, and more and more individuals from all walks of life are becoming aware of this reality. (According to Sirna, the educational and class backgrounds, and chosen occupations, of current Dancing Rabbit residents are incredibly diverse). Off-grid communities like this ecovillage offer individuals an opportunity to take responsibility for lessening their own carbon footprint, without sacrificing their quality of life.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think this was a better way of living. I feel very fulfilled in my day-to-day life. My impact on the planet is greatly reduced, and I have wonderful [personal] connections," Sirna told AOL Real Estate.
Even green experts agree that ecovillages such as Dancing Rabbit are viable options for the future of modern housing and development. According to Sheri Koones, author of "Prefabulous + Sustainable: Building and Customizing an Affordable, Energy-Efficient Home," approximately 40 percent of the energy used in the United States is due to heating and cooling homes and buildings. A rise in eco-villages would help curb this.
"I think an eco-village is an excellent idea," said Koones. She suggests, however, that the "optimal situation" would be for ecovillages to still be attached to the grid so that residents are able to send it excess energy produced by their homes. (Just last year, the residents of the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage were offered such an option. Though the majority of residents still remain off-grid and generate their own power, the residents that have opted to connect to the wider electrical grid currently send back three times the electricity consumed.)
Though the benefits of living in a largely off-grid Ecovillage are plentiful for both the environment and the individual, even the residents of Dancing Rabbit admit that it's not necessarily the path for everyone. ("We don't expect everyone to move to the middle of nowhere and build a strawbale house," said Anderson.) However, there are lessons that city and suburb-dwellers can learn from the radically sustainable, community-oriented lifestyle at Dancing Rabbit. Its sharing of resources and resource awareness, its recycling and water conservation, and its move away from materialism can be achieved without moving to the rolling hills of Northeast Missouri.
It doesn't stop Kessner from hoping, though.
"I'm a strange combination of pessimism and optimism -- I don't have much hope for humans, but at the same time, I'm here trying to demonstrate that there are better ways of living," Kessner told AOL Real Estate. "But I'd love if this was the future of Western civilization -- sustainable living. It's not that difficult."