How My Internship Brings Together Design and Climate Change

When you hear “design,” what images come to mind? Do you think of someone sketching products, drawing illustrations? A beautiful object? In the contemporary era, design means so much more than that.

I was introduced to the term “sustainability” in regards to the environment after working on United Nations Development Programme projects in Turkmenistan, my home country. This inspired me to further my studies in not just design, but in design for sustainability. Since receiving a Fulbright Graduate Scholarship to Savannah College of Art and Design and starting my master’s program in Design for Sustainability, my perception of design has completely changed.

The Center for Sustainable and Cooperative Culture (CSCC) Muskie Internship Program
Natalya (left) and the crew at the Center for Sustainable and Cooperative Culture (CSCC), one of the nonprofits where she is spending her summer as a Muskie intern.

I learned that the core of sustainability is about developing and focusing on solutions that address not only the planet’s wellbeing but also social and economic issues – a holistic approach. Therefore, as designers we are responsible for what we create. In this sense, design can be a very powerful tool in changing people’s mindsets.

This summer, I am continuing to explore complex systems, and sustainability by living at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage through my Muskie Program internship with Global Ecovillage Network of North America (GENNA) Alliance and The Center for Sustainable and Cooperative Culture. Global Ecovillage Network North America is a network of intentional communities, ecovillages, and initiatives that connect individuals and groups from different cultures who share a common vision of people living in co-creative harmony with Earth’s biosphere and each other.

As there are ecovillages around the world, Natalya chats virtually with other members of GENNA Alliance

Life in an ecovillage

So what am I up to this summer? Let’s start with the term “ecovillage,” which is an intentionally designed community that looks for sustainable alternatives to ecologically destructive systems. These include electrical, water, transportation, and waste-treatment systems, as well as the larger social structures that support them all. Thousands of ecovillages around the world are taking action and creating solutions to address climate change. This includes figuring out ways to reduce our carbon imprint as well as measures to become more resilient to the challenges of climate change.

In order to cut their carbon footprint, Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage agrees to a set of rules.

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage (DR) is one of over 1500 ecovillages worldwide which function as living experiments for figuring out how to live more sustainably. People at DR agree to adhere to ecological covenants, follow sustainability guidelines, and apply environmental thinking to all decisions they make. Covenants and guidelines range from responsible resource usage and preservation of ecosystems to mindful reproduction and fair treatment of people and cultures.

What makes all this work? It’s the secret ingredient of cooperation and sharing. For example, Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage created their own microgrid power system and networks of gardens. They have people who grow food and people who construct buildings in a more sustainable way. They even have a car co-op. For Dancing Rabbit’s 50 residents, they have four shared vehicles.

Dancing Rabbit Village uses solar energy to power their homes

I live in a house in DR with a shared kitchen. We take turns to cook dinner four times a week for about 7 to 12 people. The first few times I was nervous to cook for so many people, but it went great. Sharing a kitchen is about developing deeper and closer relationships with people who have different life experiences. As an added bonus, I get to improve as a cook and try new dishes.

There are many other components to Dancing Rabbit’s consciously designed ecovillage. For example, they have their own Salvation Army, called “Sally Army,” where they exchange and donate their clothing instead of throwing it away. One of the residents has a sewing machine and creates new clothing out of old ones and leftovers of different fabrics. She’s even made a bright summer looking skirt for me. One of the more radical things that they do here is they have a human manure system. Instead of flushing their waste with a scarce resource like water, they compost it.

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage designs and builds their homes themselves, including this house made out of an old bus.

Sustainability isn’t all about the external environment. There’s also inner sustainability, or self-care. How do you replenish yourself daily to feel balanced and happy? There are many ways: yoga, meditation, music, pottery, sports, heart space, you name it. Most important to the ecovillage lifestyle is non-violent (compassionate) communications (NVC). It’s what ensures we can communicate and work through problems as a group. I am in the beginning of the journey and looking forward to learning and practicing the tools. So many conflicts and problems can be resolved using NVC.

Through her internship at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, Natalya has learned how to use non-violent communication as a tool to keep communities healthy.

Even though Dancing Rabbit is seemingly isolated in Northeast Missouri in the middle of the country, it is still connected to other communities in many ways. There are two other local communities — Sandhill Farm and Red Earth Farms –with whom DR shares meals weekly. They have events together as well. We play ultimate frisbee together every week and will be going to a tournament at the end of this month.

Making a Change

By designing a sustainable community, Dancing Rabbit is making a difference. They did an audit of their impact on the planet and found that they consume about a tenth of the resources of the average American. They’ve reduced the use of fossil fuel, water, transportation, and solid waste and they also produce less trash. Moreover, Dancing Rabbit shares their experiences on sustainable living hoping to influence and make a difference in people’s lives.

Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage shares weekly potlucks with other ecovillages in the Missouri area.

Ecovillages and intentional communities are part of a larger movement worldwide to promote cooperation and sustainable living in different ways all over the planet. Here, you can find many of the best examples of what is being done around the world in ecovillages and other communities to do their part in solving the climate crisis.

One thing Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage has done to decrease their environmental footprint is growing their own food

Because of climate change, we’re seeing global problems including drought, flooding, crop destruction, dangerously high temperatures, larger and more powerful storms, refugees, regional conflicts, more vectors of disease, economic turmoil, etc. Given the huge problems that we face, we need to come together so that our solutions address the holistic picture of sustainability and design.

Everything is related to sustainability. As designers and inventors especially, we have a special responsibility to demonstrate good sustainable lifestyle habits, empower others to protect the environment and, of course—benefit the economy. By doing this, we will raise interest in our cause and attract other conscientious people to our side.