Utopia (part iii)

Filmmaker and artist Ruth Dusseault loves utopian fiction. So when she got a teaching job at Stanford in the Bay Area, near many of the communes of the 60’s and 70’s, she decided to scope out the scene to see what still exists.

She was surprised to find, not a group of aging hippies, but young people! Millennials who were learning how to get back to the land and live on their own thanks to YouTube… and who were finding each other thanks to the internet.

The battery that powers their wi-fi router.

She decided to start a project that she’s been working on for years now, looking at how the internet has changed the communities movement.


One thing that keeps on popping up in Ruth’s work are Earthships, a house that is designed to be fully self sustaining — it’s got solar panels, internal planters, and it heats itself!

Michael Reynolds is the guy who dreamed these things up and made them a reality. In the 70’s, he was deeply concerned about the destruction of the environment, so he wanted to build a dwelling that didn’t use trees and could be made out of everyday waste, like beer cans and old car tires.

He was also helped out by a group space wizards while he slept in a pyramid.

you just gotta listen to the episode for the space wizards story, tbh.

His goal was to make Earthships as affordable as traditional housing, and he succeeded… but then the financial crisis of 2008 woke him up to the reality that most people can’t afford traditional housing. So he turned to an educational business model, where people come learn how to build their own Earthships with his community.

Ruth saw how the internet enables Earthships to become a worldwide phenomenon. They’re in every US state and over 40 countries now — and because of the internet community, if you start building an Earthship, it’s easy to find help.

A group of people from the internet descend onto an earthship project to help out and learn.

Internet Models

Ruth discovered that the average income of a commune member is around $10,000 per year. At the Dancing Rabbit community in Missouri where a lot of people are working jobs remotely through the internet, some have a lot extra time to invest into their community. For others, this means eating roadkill and not making enough to pay the co-op dues. Co-op dues have been going up as more people join, resulting in a kind of utopian gentrification.

Ruth filmed her Ecoptopia project just as the majority of Americans were buying their first smart phone — the same exact moment Facebook succeeded in getting grandparents to join their children and grandchildren on its platform. But it is also the exact moment when the world was digging itself out from the financial collapse of 2008. Most of the young people we meet in Ecotopia were especially affected.

Fred Turner wrote the book on how the communes of the 60’s led to the birth of the internet. He shows up a lot in Ruth’s work. The techno-utopians, Fred Turner believes, are doomed to make the same mistakes the utopians of the 60s and 70s made.

Democratic Socialists of America

After talking with Ruth Dusseault, I’m even more convinced that technology is not the key to making the world look like a utopian novel

I mean just look at the internet itself — 20 years of techno-utopian design has created a dystopia beyond our wildest dreams! Ablack hole from which none of us will probably escape.

When ToE’s Andrew Callaway heard me talking like this, he hijacked the rest of the episode to talk about an organization he’s a part of that he believes is making some positive real world changes thanks to the internet: the Democratic Socialists of America.

They’re not just protesting, though.

Larry Website AKA Christian Bowe is one of the people responsible for funneling various kinds of twitter leftists into the DSA after the 2016 election. He explains that he learned about distributed digital organizing from the Bernie Sanders campaign. They couldn’t afford staff in most states, so they relied on a network of volunteers to step up into leadership roles and gave them freedom and independence to work largely as they please. This is the model Larry Website used to build DSA from a 6,000 member organization with chapters in less than half the states into a 32,000 member organization with chapters in 48 states.

For me though, the DSA seems impenetrable. Andrew took me to a DSA party on New Year’s Eve and at midnight, they all sang “Solidarity Forever.” There are just so many memes and inside jokes that I don’t understand. Like Andrew has this ridiculous dolphin button.

Andrew explained that the dolphins are a joke based off a socialist named J Posadas who believed that something crazy would have to happen in order for us to move past capitalism, like a nuclear war or a benevolent alien invasion or humans learning how to communicate with dolphins. A group of DSA members formed a fake Posadist Caucus and they created a bunch of memes and facebook groups and threw alien/dolphin themed parties. A big part of it was making fun of the factionalism that was rearing its head leading up the elections for national leadership. The DSA is a “big tent” organization, meaning it has members that are anarchists, communists, libertarians and even liberals… so there is a lot of conflict.

In keeping with their satire of factionalism, DSA Posadists have two competing twitter accounts.

But Andrew argued that the Posadist inside joke was actually really effective at bringing all these different people together and Ravi Ahmad, an elected member of DSA’s National Political Committee agreed, telling him that “the organizing power of an inside joke is to include more and more people on the inside.”

When I told Andrew that based on looking at Twitter the DSA just looks like a bunch of dudes yelling at each other online, and he explained that while that may be exhausting, Ravi told him that it’s ultimately a sign that DSA is doing organizing better. The left has often overemphasized unity and as a result hasn’t dealt with some pretty serious issues, such as race, gender inequalities. The DSA may have a lot of drama but that’s because it’s taking the conflicts betweens members very seriously and it’s dealing with and facing up to its flaws and mistakes.

Andrew actually wrote this whole part pretending to be Benjamen so now I’m gonna break character to tell you that — the DSA is growing quick — 700 new members every month! We’re building power. So if you liked Bernie Sanders or think Medicare For All sounds like a good idea, you should definitely come to a meeting. Hit me up if you’re in NYC and I’ll go with you.