Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Achieving One-Planet Living through Transitions in Social Practice: A Case Study of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Achieving One-Planet Living through Transitions in Social Practice: A Case Study of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

Article excerpt

Introduction

During the spring of 1992, a small group of environmentally conscious Stanford University undergraduates decided to form an "eco-town." After graduation, they pooled their resources, developed plans for a community that reflected their ideals, and began searching for land. By October of 1997 the six remaining founders had purchased a 280-acre former pig farm in rural Scotland County, Missouri. Eighteen years later, the population of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage (DR) has grown by nearly tenfold, including 46 adults and 9 children.[1] The experimental community, which now includes inhabitants of diverse ages and family composition, demonstrates the possibilities and challenges of a lifestyle that consumes less than 10% of the energy and material resources of the average American in several major consumption categories. This level of resource savings approximates "one-planet" consumption (BCSD, 1993; Moore & Rees, 2013; Rees & Wackernagel, 1996), and may therefore serve as an existing model of an ecologically sustainable community in a nation that represents less than 4.5% of global population, but 13.7% of humanity's ecological footprint (WWF, 2014).[2]

While DR has received abundant media attention for its inspirational environmental and energy accomplishments, this ethnographic study highlights how understanding and deconstructing social practices -- the day-to-day convergence of materials, meanings, and competencies -- at DR is critical to understanding how "Rabbits" (a local term) survive, and by several accounts thrive, at uncommonly low levels of energy and material throughput.[3] As isolated units of analysis, the physical technologies, skills, and ambitious environmental goals at DR are neither novel nor inherently sustainable. Yet, when the ecovillage is viewed as a site for the production and integration (or "bundling" in the terminology of Shove et al., 2012) of social practices like car sharing, human-excrement composting, renewable electricity production, and natural building, two things become clear. First, choice-based models of environmental change employed implicitly or explicitly by local governments miss opportunities for transitioning to more sustainable consumption. Second, social competencies of interpersonal communication and conflict resolution are critical to sustainable consumption.

The 18-year existence of DR coincides with the diffusion of local plans and regulations for sustainable development (Beatley, 1995; Saha & Paterson, 2008) and climate action (Lutsey & Sperling, 2008; Wheeler, 2008) at multiple scales in the United States. Thousands of local officials, representing hundreds of millions of residents across the country, have signaled their commitment to lowering greenhouse-gas emissions by signing the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement (MCPA, n.d.). Similarly, more than 1,000 municipalities in the country have signed on as members of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, committing their jurisdictions to conducting at least a baseline inventory for sustainable development and/or climate action. Despite these encouraging trends, progress on the most substantial environmental issues has at best inched forward incrementally (Betsill & Bulkeley, 2007; Culotta et al., 2015; Lane, 2015; Wheeler, 2008). Multiple studies indicate that the association between verbal commitment to climate action and actual investments that reduce carbon emissions in the United States is weak or undetectable (Krause, 2011; Sharp et al., 2011; Wang, 2013). In recent years, state and local governments have even begun to block or abandon plans for sustainability and climate action in the face of ideological opposition (Frick et al., 2015; Hurley & Walker, 2004) and/or perceived ineffectiveness (Krause et al., 2015).

Sociologist Elizabeth Shove (2010) describes how climate action policies in the United Kingdom and the United States have adhered to what she labels an Attitude-Behavior-Choice (ABC) approach that assumes improving environmental outcomes is a matter of modifying individual preferences, and consequently consumption choices. …

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