“It’s amazing how one person’s heaven can be another person’s hell.”
With this single sentence, my aunt summed up her opinion of my life in Thailand. Over the course of 2 weeks, I had not only grown accustomed to the lifestyle, I yearned for it. It brought me immense satisfaction to take cold showers out in the forest, harvest bamboo in the blistering sun and jump in the mud to make adobe bricks.
Although the lifestyle we led helped conserve a lot of energy and water, this should not be mistaken as being the only route towards leading a sustainable life. I understand that most people would not want to live this way. In fact, I, myself, would probably not want to poo in a bucket for the rest of my life (dry compost toilets), and the beauty is – we don’t have to. Sustainability is not about reverting to a primitive lifestyle and discarding modern day comforts. Instead, sustainability is about synthesizing both:
The ancient ways of living in harmony with people and nature
The modern benefits of technological advancement and knowledge sharing
Some critics may think that the above proposition is too idealistic to be feasible but I argue that, as creatures of habit, we are accustomed to our unsustainable ways. Breaking this ugly habit requires a lot of collaborative, innovative work and time – and it is these 2 components that will determine the transition to a sustainable world. Such profound change on a societal level does not happen overnight but there are many pioneers already leading the way. The Global Ecovillage Network and the Transition Town Movement are just 2 examples that come to mind (Please tell us about similar organizations/communities by leaving a comment below!).
After 15 days at the Gaia Ashram, I had spent time with some of these sustainability pioneers, all from different backgrounds and with different foci. As I helped a friend finish building a bamboo raft, I said my final farewells to the people and the land that had been my home.
I took an overnight bus to Chiang Mai, making my way from Northeast to Northwest Thailand. From Chiang Mai, I rode motorbike north into the mountains, winding through small roads and discovering remote villages and hamlets along the way.
My destination was the Panya Project, the veteran of natural building and permaculture design from which my mentors at Gaia Ashram had come from. It was a pleasant experience getting lost in the little villages en route to the secluded hamlet that was home to the Panya Project. The locals were very friendly and eager to help me find my way despite the massive language barrier between us.
I eventually turned down a discreet dirt road that winded along the base of a mountain, with an impressive view of the expansive valley below. This small trail led me to a group of shirt-less Westerners that were building with cob under the morning sun. As soon as I saw them, I was certain I had arrived at the Panya Project.
The people were very welcoming and within only 10 minutes, I was helping apply plaster to their outdoor toilet structure. I was happy to be building again and, coincidentally, I started exactly where I had left off at Gaia Ashram. I had already built an adobe wall and a wattle & cob wall and now I was applying plaster to the surface of a different structure.
I stayed at Panya for a few days, refining the walls and helping with aesthetic landscaping for an incoming Permaculture Design Course group. As my time in Thailand was nearing its end, I had time to reflect on my experiences over the past month.
More so than the hands-on experience I gained at Gaia Ashram and Panya Project, I learned a great deal from the people who live in these intentional communities. They are comprised of individuals who dedicate themselves to leading sustainable lives and empowering others to do the same. In the academic and professional world, it is easy to get bogged down by all the details and suffer from information overload. Sometimes, you have to just stop reading and get up and build something. Turn that theory into practice. Granted, a theoretical foundation is necessary for many tasks but when it is combined with practical application, the learner is not only more competent, but also much more inspired.
Practical knowledge, skills and application are desperately needed in our present-day formal education. The longer we postpone the inclusion of these things, the more obsolete the centralized education system becomes. People are not being adequately prepared for life after school, be it in the city or in rural communities. This is no time to squander our resources on unnecessary activities whilst a global economic, social and ecological collapse is constantly looming on the horizon.
Change is vital = it is the nature of life, and the present is always the time to transition society to a more sustainable lifestyle – one person at a time.
The sad truth is: there is no city on Earth that is actually sustainable. There is no city on Earth (as far as I’m aware of) that would be able to continue into the indefinite future, given their status quo. Regardless, this reality should not discourage you. Remember: this is a transition – a process that we are learning from and from which we are gradually becoming better humans. There is no need to fast-forward the process, but there is a dire need to pay attention to it.
Groups like Gaia Ashram and Panya Project embrace this process and are examples of the resurgence of ancient, sustainable lifestyles that are trying to be integrated into modern society amidst the pressures of globalization and unchecked urban sprawl.
After nearly 4 weeks in Thailand, I was content with the knowledge and skills gained and with the people I had met. I had connected to a community of people with similar goals, yet distinct ways of attaining them. I was introduced to a group of individuals that, although were convened for a short time, are joined together by a common vision.
This well-intentioned vision supersedes the tallest mountains, the vastest oceans and the densest jungles and connects each person no matter where in the world they may be. The common purpose is the well-being of life on this planet so, naturally, Earth is on our side – we just need to be patient and persistent.
Even if I never see these people face-to-face again – their existence, their intentions and their spirit of communal living and renewal of life is more than enough to keep me striving to achieve my vision. Together, we can put the human back into human settlements.