The economics of intentional communities

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.


But even with the best organisational acumen, intentional communities are often heavily criticised for the backward progress they tend to symbolise. Bronson Alcott (the father of Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women) was characterised by the essayist Thomas Carlyle as a ‘man bent on saving the world by a return to acorns’. In 1843, Alcott founded Fruitlands, an experimental community in Harvard, Massachusetts. An agrarian commune influenced by transcendentalist thought, and built on renouncing the ‘civilised’ world, Fruitlands abolished private property and cherished, yet struggled, with self-sufficiency, refusing to hire external labour or depend on external trade. Attracting a little over a dozen people, Fruitlands failed after seven months. Acorns, it seems, couldn’t cut it.

The ‘acorn problem’ persists today. Jimmy Stice, a young entrepreneur from Atlanta, is working to build a sustainable town from scratch in a river valley in Panama. When he showed his father, a traditional real-estate investor, a mock-up of the town’s infrastructure, his father remarked: ‘Congratulations on going back in time.’ Stice had managed to re-create civilisation as it was more than 500 years ago.

Nara Pais, a Brazilian IT consultant turned eco-villager, lived for a time at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland, one of the more successful intentional communities, which has been running since 1972 and is now a model of ecological building, with solar and wind energy. Pais explained that it took Findhorn more than two decades to overcome basic infrastructural challenges. In recent years, its income totalled £2,393,542 (though expenditure was £2,350,411) with more than 60 per cent of the revenue coming from workshops and conferences. That said, many people in Findhorn’s ecovillage still rely on the government for their living, and margins are tight: everyone has food and housing, but, says Pais: ‘There is no money for extras.’

The bottom line is that many intentional communities exist because of wealthy patrons and benefactors, and courting philanthropy and start-up capital is part of the job of charismatic founders. Nazaré Uniluz, an intentional community in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, initially survived on external funding. It had a charismatic founder who attracted donations from wealthy Brazilian elites sold on his vision of deep self-reflection, incorporating elements of monastic living. But when the community started to evolve beyond the control and vision of its founder, he left. Today, Uniluz survives by inviting people in and charging them for weekend workshops or week-long immersions. The permanent residents often find it hard to go deeper into communal living and introspection amid this constant flux of people coming in for short-term healing or to try their hand at hippie life, even while acknowledging that spiritual tourism is a significant revenue for communities such as Uniluz.

Freetown Christiania in Denmark was created in the 1970s as people took over abandoned military barracks in Copenhagen as a birthplace for a ‘new society’. It’s become a thriving site for an underground economy – including a profitable trade in cannabis. The community also created its own currency which doubles as a kitsch souvenir sold to tourists for money. Christiania is the fourth largest tourist attraction in Denmark’s capital city, and receives more than half a million visitors a year.

Piracanga, another spiritual community in Brazil, has also stayed financially healthy by catering to a market for spiritual voyeurs and wealthy elites who flock there to learn aura readings, breathing and meditation, conscious eating, dream interpretation, yoga, even clowning.

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