Letters About an Ecological Research Center

George Elmendorf proposed an idea for a MOTHER EARTH NEWS ecological research center in late 1974. The following letters show how positively, or negatively, readers responded to the idea of living in an eco-community.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
January/February 1975
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An eco-community would have props and cons but, ultimately, would allow homesteading skills to thrive.
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To date (early December 1974), we've received over 200 pieces of mail — pro and con — about George Elmendorf's idea for financing the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Ecological Research Center/Community. Of the first 180 letters, 170 were FOR the proposal and only 10 were AGAINST. And, of those FOR, 45 respondees said that they were ready to vote with $10,000 right now!

This is genuinely amazing, since George's proposal, and the note MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors added to it, were rather general and (as some of the return mail pointed out) didn't "add up". They weren't meant to add up ... but to start others thinking about what it would be like to put together and live in such a community. Since it is now quite evident that a number of people are enthused with the idea, we're preparing a special color report on the Research Center planning already done by Georgia Tech students. Look for that feature in MOTHER EARTH NEWS. In the meantime, here's some quick reactions and answers to some of the questions raised in the following sampling of letters we've received as a result of George's article.

[1] The idea, of course, is not to construct a one-of-a-kind utopian village ... but to found an ecologically sound, less-energy-intensive community which works well enough to act as a model for hundreds of other such communities.

[2] Building the prototype village won't be overly difficult. (Of course well use modern equipment ... with some discretion! Do we publish MOTHER EARTH NEWS with quill pens?) Setting up the government of that community will be the hard part. What about population control, for instance? The eco-village won't stay self-sufficient very long if the numbers of its inhabitants are not limited. How will we do that?

[3] There's no way this community will work with houses scattered across 40-acre tracts. That's what the American suburbs are all about and that's why we have an automobile-dominated society and that's what we're fighting against. 

[4] As unfortunate as it may seem, and no matter how the ownership of the first eco-village is eventually divided up, it's going to cost money to build it. There ain't no free lunch. Those who expect to be a part of this undertaking must also expect to pay for the privilege with both money and skills. If you have neither, this is a good time to begin earning/learning.

[5] No matter what some readers of this magazine may believe, other MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers do have $10,000 which they are ready to invest in an eco-village.

[6] Despite [5], there is still no guarantee that the MOTHER EARTH NEWS eco-community will be built. And, if built, that it will be open as a permanent residence to anyone ... including the people who publish this magazine. This is a large project and much careful groundwork remains to be done before any final plans are agreed upon.

This, then, is only the beginning. Your further comments, ideas and questions are welcome and should be directed to Wayne Martin, MOTHER EARTH NEWS Eco-Village Planning Coordinator, P.O. Box 552, Flat Rock, North Carolina 28731.


I agree vigorously with George Elmendorf's letter in MOTHER EARTH NEWS. When the really bad times come, a survival-skilled community is much more likely to make it than a single-family homestead. Not only does cooperation enhance the chances of staying alive, but in an age of famine and violence such as we can expect, defense is of essential importance.

Therefore, I want to express my deepest interest in the community you suggest. I do not, however, have anything close to $10,000 ... nor does it appear that I ever shall. I'm 19 and married, with a little boy, and I can offer only hard work and dedication to any such project. Your consideration will be much appreciated.

K.H.
Texas


The concept of self-sufficiency, simple living, hard work and companionship of like-minded people is most encouraging, and the high cost of joining the MOTHER EARTH NEWS project would definitely separate the serious from the non-serious.

J. & P.
California


How about $1,000 plus cost of house? If we had $10,000 we'd have a farm already. Please keep the Research Center/mountain community possible for us little people, too. The project is an answer to our prayers.

R.P.
California


MOTHER  EARTH NEWS people generally agree an a basic philosophy of living. Now lets pool green energy ($), intelligence and physical strength.

I've been thinking about some first steps, Could MOTHER EARTH NEWS possibly publish a list of the people who responded from California, so that a local chapter could be formed, basic questions answered and representatives elected to participate in the first conference?

Could MOTHER EARTH NEWS open a charge account so that interested persons could meet the administrative expenses of coordinating the project?

Could each of us be in a position shortly to put a $3,000 commitment in escrow?

My mind is with the community already, and although it's going to be hard to come up with $10,000, the incentive will see me through my irrelevant nine-to five drudgery and I'll be there!

R.L.
California


If the Big Plan becomes really big, we would most certainly like to be part of it and would do anything and everything to come up with the $10,000-plus.

S. & D.
Delaware


George Elmendorf's idea sounds like just what we've been looking for. Please put us on the list. As soon as you need the $10,000 we'll send it in.

T. & A.
New York


To ask $10,000 for two to five acres is outrageous. Even here in the Corn Belt — where there's some of the best soil in the country — land doesn't cost that much. If you really wanted to start an alternative community, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, you would sell (not lease) the acreage for its true value.

Another point: How much land will you need to feed 1,000 families? You must have wheat for your bread, and other grain crops such as corn or oats to nourish your egg and milk producers. And what about the people who want to heat with wood? Where will that come from? The fact is that five acres is not enough for self-sufficiency ... and besides, your Center sounds as crowded as any suburb. You should sell the land in 20, 30 or 40-acre parcels so families could really be self-sustaining.

J. & J.
Minnesota


We are very much interested in George Elmendorf's idea for the Research Center and are willing to devote our money and ourselves to the project.

It seems that a lot of discussion and planning needs to be done. We have a number of questions and ideas, but they can wait until later. Let's got this thing going before it's too late.

B. & C.
Florida


Yes! Yes! Yes! My wife, our three daughters and I are ready and willing, but lack $10,000 at present. Still, where there's a will there's a way.

I believe in the principle and would very much like to be in on the formation of such a venture. Please put me on your list of interested, dedicated people and keep me informed of the proposal's progress and directions. Needless to say, if I can be of any assistance, don't hesitate to get in touch with me.

R.K. & Family
California


I like Mr. Elmendorf's idea very much, and wish I could be a part of it if you do decide to establish such a community.

One thing that bothers me, though, is the fact that many MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers, including myself, don't have the $10,000 to invest in such a project. Perhaps an alternate method of payment could be worked out: Folks might come up with the money over a period of time, or work on research to help pay for the acreage.

W.C.
Maryland


Before my family and I would be willing to make a complete commitment to the Research Center idea, we'd need the answers to several questions:

[1] We need to know a great deal more about how the MOTHER EARTH NEWS organization is run and how the participants in this project might relate to it. Would MOTHER EARTH NEWS, for instance, consider some form of shareholder relationship, with members having the right to propose and vote on policies concerning the community and Research Center?

[2] Would an individual have the right to sell his interest in the project, and would such a transaction be subject to approval?

[3] Would the community have a separate charter to protect it should the MOTHER EARTH NEWS organization fold for some reason?

[4] I would be interested in seeing the community project arranged so as to include the Research Center. If participants are involved in financing the center, they should have proportional control. MOTHER EARTH NEWS should manage the establishment only to the extent of her financial involvement.

W.K.
Michigan


A note to start building bridges: We just read George F. Elmendorf's challenge and want to let you know that we're for it and will be able to put together the bucks for the kitty within the next 24 to 30 months. We can offer some skills, a commitment to self-sufficiency and a desire for neighbors who are responsible in the same way.

We'd been thinking along the lines of eight to ten acres of meadow and wood backed up to the national forest, but wondered a little about culture shock. A utopian trip with similarly minded folks seems a natural to us now. We intend to sit down and think through some ideas to add to what we're sure will become a rich pool of writing/rapping/ feeling/talking as this thing picks up momentum. We've a long way to go, but such a pleasant journey!

L. & J.
Maryland


Even with the "rights" MOTHER EARTH NEWS mentioned, $10,000 is a helluva lot of money for two to five acres ... especially two. Especially since the original purchase price for a thousand-acre tract in a rural area should be far less than $1,000 per acre. And that 99-year-lease bit smells too much like the condominium rip-off in Florida. I could never agree to such a clause. When I buy land I want to know it is mine, my children's and my grandchildren's. Please, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, offer membership in your community only on terms you yourself would accept: sound, honest, realistic and intelligent.

B.N.
Vermont


Having tried unsuccessfully for more than a year to gather together enough friends and resources to begin a self-sufficient community, we were overwhelmed by the sheer brilliance of George Elmendorf's idea. We have substantial savings which we're prepared to make immediately available if the proper opportunity arises. Our sincere hope is that the Center will flourish and grow into a permanent example of good living in harmony with the earth and the universe.

G. & M.
Pennsylvania


About the MOTHER EARTH NEWS proposal for a community: May I say that most of us lonely homesteaders have been dreaming about this idea for years. We all know from hard experience, as well as our daydreams, that a true community of like-minded individuals is the only way to progress from pioneer toil to a better way of living with one's fellow man. Most of us have established communications with others of our persuasion by mail. We carry on trade with one another, often without currency but by barter, over long distances. We exchange ideas at meetings of the local goat society or a similar organization. This, of course, is not good enough. Our progress is slow when we plod along in this fashion, each to his own land and each to learn only from his own mistakes. So you see, if we are going to save this planet — and I presume that's what we're about — we'll just have to get together in some kind of close proximity to one another. That's the next step.

The idea for a community is a fine one, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, but your plan and terms seem incongruous with what you seem to want to achieve. I begin to wonder if you really know who your readers are. Look at your own magazine and the people who send you articles. Look at your Positions and Situations column and tell me how many people have $10,000 to plunk down on land they can only lease ... especially when they're restricted from the start as to what they can build, etc. You're talking like a developer and if you want to turn off a bunch of homesteaders, that's the way to do it.

Homesteaders are pioneers, right? And all pioneers are individuals. I think I can make that statement without any opposition from my kind, even though they like to argue about just about everything else. We want to be free and that is why we do what we do. We also want to see other people being free. We would never take to handing over money to others and letting them plan a community for us. Forget that!

Another thing about your readers, MOTHER EARTH NEWS: Most of us have been living rather inflation-free for the last few years, while everyone else has been struggling along. That's because we've been converting the muscles in our arms and in our heads directly into goods without going through the intermediary of money. Most of us don't have much faith in the dollar, nor do we feel that capitalism is a very good solution to the world's problems. Therefore, we are, for the most part, penniless. We are, however, abundantly wealthy in goods, tools, comfort, guts, skills, and — most precious — all of the knowledge we have gained about how to survive and live well on a piece of land with almost no money and to make that land better than when we found it. You can read all the books you want, but you'll never get what you need to know except from experience . . . and that's what we've got.

On the other hand, the people with the money don't have the experience. If you carry out your proposal in its present form, what you'll end up with is a bunch of folks who invest their cash and set to work with no skills and — most important of all — no idea how much labor and discomfort homesteading takes. You'll lose money in the long run because of failures and dropouts and too much administration.

Finally, it's absolutely disastrous to imagine that a community of 5,000 could be psychologically sound. Five hundred would be the outside limit. You've got to be able to deal face to face with every person you do business with in order to have the kind of emotional security and concern for your fellow man that a group provides at best. You'd do better, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, to establish a network of small communities throughout America and elsewhere. Allow each to run itself completely independently and to pursue its own specialties, and set up a communications system among them. As travel becomes less feasible, it'll be a lot easier to spread the gospel, so to speak, if more people over a wider area have access to these new lifestyles.

In conclusion: If someone could offer us land in, say, five- or ten-acre plots where we knew there would be other homesteaders, I think a lot of us would go for it. We'd turn the place into a good, sound community. If you're thinking about a big expensive co-op, then throw this letter in the wastebasket.

J.G.
Minnesota


Would we be interested in "rural, decentralized, ecological, organic living", in association with the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Research Center? Our answer is a loud YES! Keep us up to the moment on developments. We don't want to appear overanxious, but we'd like to see this thing get started forthwith. The sooner the better! Yesterday, if possible.

R. & S.
California


The Research Center community idea is excellent, but I think the figure of $10,000 is unrealistic ... and anyhow, 1,000 people times $10,000 equals $10 million! A more down-to-earth scale would be 1,000 acres with 250 families on four-acre plots, all paying about $1,000 plus the cost of land and house. Then folks would have to lay down perhaps $2,500 — a much more reasonable figure than $10,000 — and MOTHER EARTH NEWS would still have a quarter of a million dollars to set up communal facilities and carry on research.

G. H.
Texas


Although the idea for the Research Center community is, in my opinion, basically great, I must disagree with a major part of it ... especially with the MOTHER EARTH NEWS proposal of "very strict standards, no automobiles, only alternative sources of energy, no chemicals, etc.".

The trouble with that plan is that it's too utopian, too dropout-oriented to have much chance of success. It requires fanaticism of the participants as a substitute for the tried and proven techniques that would serve well to accomplish the desired objectives. It doesn't make sense to expect folks to build a house without mechanical equipment. It can be done, of course, but why not take advantage of current technology as long as it's available? Don't ask me to got rid of my pickup truck! It's too valuable a vehicle, even if gas does cost 50¢ a gallon. Rather, let's agree to utilize its good qualities (reliable hauling at low cost) while working to replace it with a machine that's free from its deficiencies (inefficient and polluting use of an exhaustible resource).

What I'm suggesting is a more moderate approach, with the goals MOTHER EARTH NEWS proposed seen as just that: ideals we hope to reach in the foreseeable future, but don't insist on initially. Meanwhile, there is — ­if not much — still something that is good about this society, and I don't think we should ignore it. U.S. Steel makes very fine steel and does so much more cheaply than a community of even 1,000 families can hope to.

D.S.
Illinois


I find a few things about the Research Center proposal rather hard to understand ... the most alarming of them being the initial investment of $10,000. Does MOTHER EARTH NEWS really believe her readers have that kind of money? I understand the need for large amounts of capital to finance such an establishment, but is the price right for the leasing of two to five acres of land?

If I had $10,000 I could, with a little investigation, find a nice plot in a remote area and possibly have enough left over to build temporary living quarters. (Remember that the cost of a homestead is not the cost of the land alone. Even the most humble of homes, barns, power generation systems, etc., would at least double the original investment figure.) Granted, I wouldn't have the advantages described in the proposal-access to greenhouses, companions with the same interests, etc. — but I would have my own place at a more reasonable price.

I have an alternative suggestion that could help people like myself and my wife who are just eking out an existence in this inflation-ridden world of ours. First of all, I'd make the lease a 99-year, non-refundable agreement In other words, for a minimum of $1,500 and a maximum of $2,500, a person could lease two to five acres ... knowing that no money will be returned if he and his family decide to leave the community. The lessee would of course be reimbursed for improvements on the property, but this would be the responsibility of the future residents ... who would also again pay the community the initial stipend of $1,500 to $2,500. Such payments would end up in a community chest, along with a minimum rental fee of perhaps $10.00 to $20.00 per month which could be used toward taxes and the collective welfare. In this way more people could live in such a community without tying up all their savings in the land itself.

C. K.
Pennsylvania


The idea expressed by Mr. Elmendorf and expanded on by MOTHER EARTH NEWS is very intriguing to me and my family, but we have some reservations.

[1] Why a 99-year lease on the homestead property? My interest is not only in my immediate family, but in my descendants as well. In 99 years the community will be well developed and hitting its peak . . . and will MOTHER EARTH NEWS then ask my heirs to leave their home?

[2] Would the $10,000 buy me an interest in the common properties and a vote in their management, or would my participation be limited to the acreage I was allotted?

[3] What type of philosophy would govern the community? Would there be common storehouses for the lean years? How would exploiters and tyrants be prevented from running and ruining the project? Who would decide what commercial enterprises and modern conveniences would be allowed?

[4] What intra-community arrangements would be made so that we could help one another learn to build alternative sources of power, farm without chemicals, raise and breed livestock, etc.?

I know such questions can't be answered at this stage. I'm just trying to point out that I'm not interested in buying into what would become a socialistic commune, nor do I want simply to lease a piece of mountain land that happens to be near a research center. I would, however, be very much interested in getting into a self-sufficient lifestyle with the support of know-how from the community as a whole.

H.W.H.
Florida


We've been talking here about the need for a viable alternative community using an already established group (such as MOTHER EARTH NEWS) as the catalyst and bass of operation. There's also a possibility of similar projects developing in other parts of the country. I.L.S. Labs here in New Mexico is apparently going to establish a total community of 300 or so people sometime in the future. The Whole Earth Catalog gang in California has the potential of doing the same, although I don't know whether they have any plans for such a move or not.

Please pursue this concept further! I really think it could work out. . . and yes, I would be willing to invest my $10,000 in it. I'm sure you'll get arguments that this figure is too high, but it guarantees applicants' commitment to the project, and that, I think, is a good stabilizing factor.

Another important aspect of such a community is a number of restrictions, clearly spelled out: no cars in certain areas, no pesticides, etc. Some people get really uptight at the thought of any rules, but you have to have them!

J. & S.
New Mexico


The idea proposed by George Elmendorf and MOTHER EARTH NEWS is as close to what we would like to get into as we could imagine at this time. We've discussed a number of aspects — together and with friends — and some of the ideas we've come up with seem important enough to pass on.

[1] We feel that a center of this kind should never try to be a utopia. This is important because dissatisfaction with one's life is not a matter of external surroundings (however bad they are) but rather a matter of ones distance from his/her true self within.

We should go into this endeavor without ego involvement ... because the concept may not work after all (that's what research is all about). Given that frame of mind, we can all work hard and with full commitment to create a viable low-energy lifestyle in this high-energy technological society.

[2] The degree to which this center relates to the "real" world — i.e., American society as it is presently structured — is important to spell out in advance. We feel — and we hope others would agree — that dropping out completely would be a foolish way to go. This is true for a number of reasons.

First, since the site will be somewhere in the U.S., it will also be in some state and some county and completely subject to the laws and regulations of that area. Although we might hope to bypass absurd local building codes and similar rules that would be counterproductive to research, everyone will still be governed by the normal laws.

A second objection to total separation from society is that we would want to make other people constantly aware of our problems and successes. Thus, communication lines should be open (via MOTHER EARTH NEWS and other publications).

There are many more factors to discuss: other sources of income, proximity to a city, taxes, mail, telephone, etc. These will have to be dealt with either in advance or as the problem arises.

Please keep in touch. We want to carry as much of the load of organizing as we can. Please count on us for ideas and help.

D. & L.
Wisconsin


Would it be sensible for established carpenters and other craftsmen to trade labor and knowledge for partial payment?

J., L. & J.
Ohio


Interested? You'd better believe I am.

R.D.
Indiana


The whole Research Center community idea sounds great, fantastic. My wife and I and our two teenage sons are all for it and wish we could be a part of it. The cost of $10,000 (plus the expense of the house) is, however, far beyond our financial possibilities. After surviving the most primitive existence as leaders of a commune in the jungles of Central America in 1971, we lost not only our 40 acres of river land but the shirts off our backs as well ... and have never recovered from the $10,000 setback. With inflation as it is, we're barely making it on $400 a month.

The only hope for us would be a time payment (mortgage) of some sort. We could possibly scrape up — say — $50.00 a month plus another bit toward the house and equipment needed to homestead. And if you demanded a down payment exceeding a couple of hundred dollars we couldn't even take advantage of that.

Incidentally, we agree on a parcel size of two to five acres per investment ... but how would you determine the amount of land to be allotted? By family composition, we hope, and not by capital investment.

We can't help feeling that no matter how noble this project appears, it's not a financial reality for the average family ... and most of our kind of people have below-average incomes.

We believe that by 1980 we will have to depend entirely on self-sufficiency, since society as we know it today will no longer exist. Surely there are hard times ahead, and your enterprise is a good solution ... but how can we qualify to be part of it? In other words, MOTHER EARTH NEWS: Can poor people afford a place in this dream?

W.S.
California


You bet I'm interested in investing $10,000 in a Research Center/ mountain community. Plug me in when you have more info.

R.
California


Excellent ideal We are interested! What's the next step? Our family of four has a variety of skills, high motivation and energy galore. We can send resumes and are prepared to make the journey to North Carolina for an exploratory meeting or whatever. We look forward to hearing more.

R., F., Y. & E.
Florida


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