Is communal living the most sustainable? Are communes cults? Here’s everything you need to know.
While millions of Americans have been begrudgingly sheltering in their McMansions for what feels like an eternity, another trend is taking hold of the pandemic-addled planet. Intentional communities or communes (now sometimes modernized as “pods” or “bubbles”) are going mainstream.
The trend, which began before the pandemic, looks to linger long after life returns to normal, too. Last year, the New York Times reported on the rise of intentional communities and communes.
“Though many residents of intentional communities are undoubtedly frustrated by climate inaction and mounting economic inequality, others are joining primarily to form stronger social bonds,” The Times reports.
According to The New York Times, the number of intentional communities listed in the Fellowship of Intentional Communities (FIC) directory nearly doubled between 2010 and 2016 (the last year the directory was published). It now contains some 1,200 listings. The Times notes that estimating the total number of people living in these communities is difficult, but the FIC suggests it could be as high as 100,000 in the U.S.
“There’s an obvious growth trend that you can chart,” Sky Blue, the FIC’s executive director, told The Times. He says that millennials “get this intentional community thing more than people in the past.”
Business Insider reports that a mass migration is happening now, too. People are fleeing major metro areas like Manhattan, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and flocking to less-populate areas like Boise, Idaho; Billings, Montana; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
According to Business Insider, Idaho has seen a 194 percent increase in transplants since the pandemic lockdown began. But the migration was already underway: In 2019, Boise earned the title “best place to live for millennials.” Thousands of these new residents are from Los Angeles.
And now, as millions of Americans struggle to find work as a result of the pandemic, communal living offers shared resources and reduced expenses. It’s also a way to foster engagement at a time when socializing is increasingly more difficult and dangerous. Despite rising vaccine rates and reduced cases, some people are adopting a new normal: fewer and more meaningful interactions.
“Many people are looking for antidotes to ever-increasing consumption and feelings of social isolation,” the World Economic Forum (WEF) notes. “There is no single solution, and we will need to look at all aspects of our lives, from the way we consume to day-to-day practices. But for some, the solution is to be found in communal living and intentional communities.”
The WEF suggests these communities may be one of our best avenues for reducing our carbon footprints, too—by adopting practices that are less resource-intensive. “Today’s urban communities capitalise on urban cycle networks and public transport. They are also more likely to engage with green transport options such as electric car pooling and on-site work spaces to reduce travel entirely. And those within intentional communities “have been ahead of the curve on this for many years, with ideas such as vegetarianism and self-sufficiency often central to their way of life.”
Some of the ideas being tested in these communities “can create the blueprints for the towns and cities of tomorrow,” WEF notes.
Could communal living be the norm for the next generation?
Bloomberg reports that the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a “huge surge” in interest in communal living. “Many of these communities are self-contained and self-reliant,” Cynthia Tina, FIC’s communications director told Bloomberg. “They grow their own food, produce their own renewable energy,” and offer a collaborative approach to “emotional support and child care.”
The Commune-Cult Myth
Are communes cults?
The answer isn’t an easy one. Cults, like the Manson Family, Jonestown, The Rajneesh Movement, all encouraged communal living. That’s the nature of cults, after all — and maintaining control is much easier done when in close proximity to a cult leader.
But communal living doesn’t have to be a cult. Most often, they’re perfectly benign efforts where people come together for a common goal. Many communes or intentional communities are run by boards that distribute power and decision-making, unlike figurehead-led cults.
Still, today’s modern communes often shy away from language like “commune” for fear of hippie or cult connotations.
“Many of the more ambitious projects aren’t listed [in the FIC],” Bloomberg notes, because “they’d rather not define themselves as intentional communities because of fears it sounds hippie-ish.”
But even that aversion could soon change as younger generations embrace communal living for their personal health and finances, the planet, and their communities.