(Actually) Living Walden Two

A utopia is, by definition, nowhere. But that has not stopped people from trying to make it somewhere.

Most attempts throughout history to create such communities separately from society were done so for religious or political reasons. More recently, such communities were created as scientific utopias. Many of them were inspired by a single book called Walden Two, by B.F. Skinner.

Skinner was one of the most prominent behavioral psychologists of the 20th century. Turns out he originally wanted to be a novelist, but went into behavioral psych instead.

Its thrust is that human society is grossly inefficient, and that all of us working against each other makes a society where nobody is happy. By living communally and using behavioral psychology to shape human expectation and behavior, a planned society can make life better for everyone. It presents a completely different way of living than we experience now.

Instead of money, people in Skinner’s paradise work for work-credits, and only work a few hours a week. People eat together, drink together, raise children communally, entertain themselves. Democracy is discarded; scientists run society. Above all, Skinner believed that the science of Behaviorism would so effectively govern human behavior that wickedness would die off.

Now, it’s clear that Walden Two was written by a behavioral scientist. It’s not exactly Shakespeare in terms of drama; it consists mostly of a community leader, Frazier, leading around a couple of university professors and explaining how great everything is. If this book were written by a social worker, I’m absolutely sure that we’d have a different book, and possibly a more accurate one. Still, Skinner makes a compelling argument; it really does sound like a great set of ideas for running a society. And people agreed. Lots of them. In fact, the book inspired a whole movement. 36 communities around the country took their inspiration directly from it.

There still is one going right down the road from us in Kalamazoo. The commune is called the Lake Village Homestead, a 300 acre farm and nature preserve. It’s been around since 1971, and it’s still going, kept up by the hard work in the fields. It was a burr on my mind. I thought that a lot of people would benefit from that kind of simple life, including me.

So the other day I e-mailed them. I wrote that I didn’t even know where to begin, but that I was curious about the homestead, and communal living in general. Why don’t more people try and do this? How many people live at the homestead? What’s it like? Basic things like that.

When they called me back, it was surreal.

Turns out over 450 people have lived in the homestead since it was founded. The guy I spoke to, he’d been living there for 16 years. The Western Michigan professor that founded it, Dr. Rodger Ulrich, has been living there since the beginning. The way the professor sees it, the homestead is an ongoing experiment in the way people can live in harmony with the earth. These people looked at the world and chose to live this way. They were free, in a real sense, to choose such a path, and they did so with courage.

They would be very willing to give me a tour, at $50.00 a person. Now that sounds like a lot, but you could use the $50.00 towards a membership in the community, which allows you access to the land, and the trails and lakefront of the property. Memberships at Lake Village, of course, at $200 a year. Ok, that was a lot. But it was a small price to pay for a taste new life in a new community.

Money made things a bit more serious. Like a good researcher, I looked deeper.I found another book that chronicled the communities that tried to live Skinner’s ideas: Living Walden Two: B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorist Utopia and Experimental Communities by Hilke Kuhlmann. The picture it paints of these communities can be summed up nicely in its first sentence:

Researching communal experiments is a lot like poking around in other people’s broken dreams.

Some failed because of economic concerns, some because of lack of enthusiasm. Others limp along on the backs of enthusiastic young members supporting the jaded exhaustion of old veterans. Out of all of them, only Los Horcones in Mexico seems like a pleasant and sustainable way to live. And they didn’t like to talk about it.

There is a lengthy section on Lake Village. Kuhlmann devotes a lot of space to it.

While it threw off the Walden Two mantle soon after its creation, Dr. Ulrich did became the planner that Skinner envisioned: sure, bold, and decidedly undemocratic. The people that clashed with him soon left, and the ones that were left were docile enough for Ulrich to control. A steady influx of Western kids and starry eyed newcomers did work on the property for college credit, which for which Western took him to task. He did experimental psych with the drugs of the day that were fashionable, which Western also didn’t like.

Today, there is still a Lake Village community, one of the few still around, Walden Two or not. But if you don’t get along with Roger, chances are you’re not going to like it much there. And it was never the self-sustaining paradise. If it wasn’t for students and the starry-eyed, the property likely would not be around any longer. Many of its denizens work off the farm at regular jobs, rather than working off the land. Lake Village is still communal, and maybe that’s enough. But it was never as revolutionary in reality as Walden Two was on paper.

One of the things the author makes clear is that Skinner wasn’t involved in these experiments in living. It’s funny, because Skinner wanted his paradise to be based on science, but never committed himself to experimentation in this way.

But then, Walden Two was always doomed. It was doomed not because it did not contain great ideas, or that people are inherently greedy misers. Walden Two was destined to fail because it was one book. A single book, by a single person. A complete reworking of society would require much more thinking, much more experimentation, and most importantly, small improvements over time. It’s easy to fall into the trap that everybody has been doing the wrong thing, and if only we listened to this person, or followed this idea, everything would be great.

The society in which we now live is the product of generations of people asking how they should live. These people weren’t idiots; the idea that one person could upend all their decisions about living is absurd, when you think about it, because that’s not how the world works. It works by making something a little bit better if not for ourselves, than for the next generation. It works by inches.

That’s not beautiful. It’s not sexy. It’s work.

A clean slate, though, only sounds beautiful because nobody ever has worked with one. It’s never been tried, because it can’t be tried.

A clean slate sounds so beautiful because it is a utopia.

Literally, it is no-where.

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