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Day 7 In Auroville [Jan. 27th, 2008|09:40 am]
[mood |creative]

I have ensconed myself in CSR, the "Center For Scientific Research." The name strikes me as -- well, I was relieved to hear at least one old-time Aurovillian call it pretentious. What they actually do at CSR is some amount of environmental technology research, including waste management and renewable energy. Basically they just adapt existing techniques to small scale for use within Auroville. They have a real shop and a pretty good bookshelf. It was frankly a relief to see titles like "Principles of Solar Thermal Systems" when most of the rest of Auroville seems full of books like "Principles of Integral Yoga."

I have been taken under the wing of an Indian man named Min, originally an IT guy, now an administrator for a great many CSR projects. I met him when he sat down next to me at a performance of Hamlet last weekend at the "Town Hall." (Never in my life have I heard so many different accents in one play, or in such strange combinations. English with a French-Indian accent, anyone?) He invited me to the office the next day and I simply told him that I wanted to study biofuels, specifically "2nd generation" biomass-to-liquid processes such as thermal depolymerization or gasification followed by Fischer-Tropsch processing. I've always liked big words. Plus, these technologies are much more efficient that standard biofuels (biodiesel, ethanol) because they use the whole plant, not just the oil or sugar, and they can also process just about any organic material including plastic. Yet they are currently poorly developed and very underused, so I want to promote them, and anyway they might be a way for Auroville to be self-sufficient in energy.

But I was getting a little lonely sitting reading papers all alone, and Min found out that I can write, and there is this 40th anniversary exhibition coming up, so... well, now I'm writing a series of panels for environmental education. This involves explaining the problems of energy, land use, food production, erosion, waste management, etc. in English that a non-native schoolchild can understand. "This might be these people's only exposure to environmental ideas," Min told me, "so let's make it good." Some of you will recall my fascination with the Simple English version of Wikipedia. This project requires the same style of writing, so I feel prepared for it. It's a wonderful writing challenge, and is really forcing me to think about and clarify the fundametnal global environmental issues currently facing us all. Someone once said (was it Feynman?) that if you can't explain it in simple words you don't understand it, and I believe that to be true.

What else can I say about this strange little psuedo-cult? Well, it's a huge (20 square km) area of mostly trees. It used to be a barren red plain, so the reforestation is the first major accomplishment of the people here. There are very few structures, as the population is currently only 2000 or so, but there a few big public buildings such as the "Town Hall" (administration and public space) and the "Solar Kitchen" (cooking heat provided by solar-heated steam from a 15m reflector). Residences are in clusters of buildings referred to as settlements, with hippie names in English and French such as "New Creation" and "Certainty" and "Reve" (dream). The architecture is somewhere between gorgeous and ridiculous, very much 60s french organic sci-fi Logan's Run. Very innovative construction techniques too, and architecture students come from all over to see it. The rest of the area is planted forest criscrossed by dirt roads, and mostly-middle aged white folks riding around on scooters. Pretty normal in day-to-day life, no group mantras or white robes or anything.

Of course, it was founded by "The Mother", and at the center is the sci-fi Matrimandir, a truly enormous faceted golden sphere with a huge crystal ball inside. There are pictures of The Mother and Sri Aurovindo somewhere on most interior walls, and the water provided at public buildings is "dynamised" by playing the Mother's mantras to it. Uh huh. It's not an ashram -- there is *also* the Sri Aurovindo ashram in nearby Pondicherry -- and Mother was specific on that, but let's say that this place definitely appeals to a certain type of person, and I'm not that.

The focus here is on inner change. All solutions are seen as coming from the inside. The external is meant to be a manifestation of the internal. Auroville is meant to be a place where human relations are no longer ruled by money, and all decisions are made by consensus.

And I'm like, yeah, but you're still going to have to decide on a system of government. And you can't get away from economics. Resources are real, and they are finite, and money is just a system of measuring them.

If I was emotionally invested in this place I'd be going nuts. There is this dream of self-sufficiency, but no one can tell me what that means. Everyone seems to understand that AV is not going to be manufacturing laptops and motorcycles, but what then? Food self sufficiency is a commonly stated ideal, and of course there are the inevitable organic farms. But not nearly enough food is produced, and even the town itself is no way solvent, relying as it does on massive external donations and grants. In economic terms, it's a sink.

Has anyone, ever, done the calculation to work out if the planned population of 50,000, or even the existing population of 2,000, could actually produce all their own food with the available land? *And* have enough surplus labor left over to manufacture something that the outside world wants to trade for, so as to obtain those laptops? Something that isn't incense and cotton garments?

I want a society designed by geeks, damnit.

In short, I am having a great time here, doing interesting work and even more interesting real-world investigations into the politics, economics, and ideology of this toy society. And the food's better than the rest of South India. And I'm writing, because I am catching up on work delayed while Ian and Slim were here, because I feel stimulated, and because there isn't a whole hell of a lot to do in the evenings. Another thing this town needs is a bar.

[User Picture]From: skiptomylou
2008-02-01 10:20 pm (UTC)
First of all, this place sounds fascinating, and is the first thing in your adventures that I'm truly jealous about.

Second, an intentional community designed by geeks? Just read about this place: Arcosanti, Arizona. Check it out and give me feedback.
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-02-02 09:11 am (UTC)
So, riding a train through the Sahara, hanging out with Ethiopian villagers, Robodock, swimming into underwater caves in Oman, and running away with the circus in India didn't interest you -- but a down full of vaugely crazy new aged hippies does?

Good thing you live in San Francisco.
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[User Picture]From: bigsockgrrl
2008-02-06 10:34 am (UTC)
You might like the eco art class I'm taking. It sounds like you are doing art projects right now that would fit in with the class quite well. If you ever come back to the beast, you should take it. Admittedly, I'm super excited about it at the moment, so I think everyone should take it, but that doesn't mean it isn't good. :)
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