By Andrew McLean
A few months into the establishment of our little intentional community in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland, ducks started appearing in cracks and crevices of our buildings. Not real ones. Little yellow plastic ducks, about 12mm high. They just magically appear. Glued in obscure little holes in posts and ledges around the ecovillage. A few get added every few months.
We have no idea who our mystery avant-garde artist is. Every now and again, bemused community members wonder who it might be. It could be a resident, but it could also be one of our wonderful repeat visitors. Only yesterday, I found two more in the workshop while encouraging some visiting preschoolers to find the ducks using the well-worn, “hot and cold” method.
But these small morsels of surprise and mild amusement represent more than just a silly little mystery on a small community in Australia. These ducks have started to represent so much more for me. They represent the leap of faith that is required to start a community and relinquishing of the most precious of our western world’s dogmas: control. We control our micro-climate in our homes and cars. We control our diet, holidays, experiences, and hobbies in a way that would make our pre-war ancestors’ heads spin. The internet has created little online newspapers that reflect our society’s only one true obsession: Me. Through simpler technologies such as 10-foot high fences, and electric roller doors, people control their social interactions. We have even started to believe fantasies that we can control the uncontrollable; other people, our biology, and nature.
I cofounded Eco Villages Australia, where our model is centred around what I would see as First Nations principles of land ownership—that is, there is no way that humans can actually own land. If anything, it’s the land that owns us; we are but a pimple on the timeline of history. But we live in western society, and so something or someone has to own land We created a nonprofit so that all residents and friends of the village are custodians and stewards of the land.
It’s interesting to see people's responses when we describe our model:
"So how can someone buy in?" No one can buy-in, but you can loan.
"I have $200,000. When I can move in?" Oh, we don't want your money; this project is about relationships, not transaction. Come and get to know us first.
"So what about equity? What about making money from the property?" If you want to make money, there are literally millions of ways. This is not one of them.
"So, can I build my own house on the land?" No, the land and all the buildings are owned by the collective.
Our model requires a large leap of faith. It requires residents to recognise that social capital is just as much, if not more, important to humans than financial or material capital. Our model requires the founders to let go of many of society’s misplaced bastions of security—land ownership, a bloated bank balance and inheritance—which fuel unsustainable growth and inequality. The model seeks to overturn the tightly-held belief that land is a commodity that can and should be speculated on rather than a basic human right. In order to truly create community, the founders felt we had to place ourselves in a place of vulnerability and so the model rejects individual ownership in favour of collective stewardship. Community requires us to share power in a way that means you can’t control everything yourself. It requires us to place our faith in the wisdom of the collective rather than the individual.
I know that many people just aren’t ready to give up control. They need to believe that land "ownership" is the key to security. I have three independent adult children. In these strange times of COVID, climate change, and corporate control of government, I sometimes struggle to know how to guide them. I was a successful business owner. I know how to make money, buy a house, and capitalise. But the knowledge that I gained from my own father seems discordant in the new world. I need to prepare my children for a different reality. Learning to work together, learning to create circular economies, learning to localise will be our next challenge as a species. If we don’t learn this, we are unlikely to survive the next 100 years. After all, independence is perhaps the mother of all deceptions in our modern world.
But a wonderful thing happens when one releases control. There is a freedom, a lightness, a joy that comes from investing in others. I suddenly don’t have to be an expert on finances, conflict resolution, cooking, growing food, plumbing, electrical and mechanical repairs, or artistic pursuits. We can help each other to achieve more than any one person could achieve alone.
I’m not saying it’s easy. Don’t join a community if you don’t want to grow, have your faults pointed out, or don’t like listening. But I see a future world where our society may not have a choice but to rely on others. Those of us who are already living in community will have an advantage. We are already learning to work with an expanded network of people. We are already learning how to love ourselves in community. Those of us living gently and graciously on the land—we will lead the way in a world where the zeros and ones that make up our bank balances may have disappeared. It’s easy to imagine a world where future generations try hard to contain the rage directed fairly and squarely at their parents and grandparents for leaving a world in a much, much worse state than when they found it.
And now back to the ducks. We have obviously created a culture here where people feel comfortable to add their own flourishes, their own artistic and quirky touches without the normal "permission". That would have never happened in my old life in suburbia.
And as for the identity of the incognito artist. In truth, I actually prefer not to know who you are. The mystery is better than knowledge. But if you are reading this, I have a little message for you. Our outdoor composting toilet was the lucky recipient of one of the first ducks. That duck has gone missing. Perhaps it was an unknown inquisitive child who couldn’t possibly have understood how I drew a strange kind of comfort and familiarity every time I, as we Aussies say, "sit on the throne". Without controlling the situation too much, I’d really love it if you could please put another duck there.
But, if I need to learn another lesson in relinquishing control, letting the community go where the community wants, guiding energy rather than controlling it—well, I’m ok with that as well.
This article was first published in "Communities" magazine in March 2021.