The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by James Ehrlich. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is James Erlich. He’s the Entrepreneur in Residence at Stanford University School of Medicine on their Stanford Flourishing Project. He’s the Founder and CEO of ReGen Villages. Welcome, James.
James: Thanks. Great to be here. Thanks for having me, Jim.
Jim: Yeah, it’s really good to have you here. We’re going to be talking about mostly his ReGen Village stuff. We’ve been talking to a number of people recently about permaculture, regenerative ecology, intentional communities on the show, people like Morag Gamble, Daniel Christian Wahl, Joe Brewer, some others. So, this fits into this theme we’ve been talking about, about, “How do we live on the land in a way that we can actually support something like eight people within what Mother Nature can really reasonably allocate to the human race?” So, in very short, very short, a couple sentences, what is a ReGen Village?
James: Yeah, very short, ReGen Villages is a technology-enabled, bio-regenerative, resilient neighborhood infrastructure design that enables people to live in a beautiful, energy positive dwelling with critical life support systems of clean food, clean water, clean energy, and waste to resource management at the neighborhood scale.
Jim: When you say neighborhood, about what size?
James: Well, really, its relationship and a ratio between one third to two thirds. So, one third of built space to two thirds of open space. So, through that context, if you wanted to have a neighborhood of 300, 400 homes, then you’d have, something like, let’s say, 60, 80 acres or something like that. Accordingly, 20 of those acres would be devoted to village housing density. The other 40 plus acres would be devoted to organic food production, permaculture, clean water, cisterning, energy production, waste digestion, et cetera.
Jim: Got you. As a farmer, myself, I’m a little skeptical that you could support that level of population on that small amount of land, but we’ll get into that later. This fits in the category similar to ecovillages. I want to put you in that space of ecovillage, and then the other dimension is intentional community. How much communal living do you expect in a ReGen Villages, or is it going to be more like an ecologically aware subdivision?
James: Well, I spent about 15 plus years doing case study research of organic and biodynamic family farms, intentional communities, ecovillages, cohousing collaboratives, but I’m always, of course, inspired by these kinds of neighborhoods, how healthy and how happy people are. People are aging in place. You have young babies. You’ve got young couples and individuals, et cetera. But the difficulty that I found was how long it takes for these communities to form and get constructed and come to life of somewhere between 8 to 30 years.
James: So, I wanted to, coming through Stanford Research on this topic, take a more, let’s say, industrialized approach, if you will, with the best light of that term to see how we could globally replicate and scale these kinds of communities around the world through the lens, yes, of real estate development, but also to address these 17 Sustainable Development Goals. So, the answer to your question is that ReGen Villages takes a more agnostic approach, if you will, to neighborhood development. We’re not trying to social engineer or create these “utopias” of intentional communities and folks. People will vote with their ability or interest to live in these kinds of neighborhoods and will benefit from living in these communities. The rest we envision will happen organically.
James: That’s our concept. That people will come together through DIY movement, maker movement, curriculum, community events, cooking, shared kinds of creative things that they can do. Otherwise, if they want to just live in the neighborhood traditionally, the way other people would live in a neighborhood, that’s fine too. So, there’s no obligations in other words on people. That’s also how we set things up economically.
Jim: Okay, that makes sense. Could your operating system be repurposed for people who didn’t want to have a more tightly linked intentional community? One of the areas I’ve done research on because it provides some interesting spectrum of how people live together is the Israeli Kibbutz movement. In the early days, it was radical socialism. Everybody made exactly the same income. Everybody lived in exactly the same-sized house. Everybody ate their meals together in common. They even had a common laundry. Even clothes were shared, very radical egalitarian.
Jim: Over time, they found that it didn’t exactly work and they evolved variations. Now, across is really Kibbutz, you have everything from still about 20% hold to the hardcore, original radical social egalitarianism. Other ones could be Ayn Rand and Galt’s Gulch and a whole bunch in between. Can you say anything about your operating system that is incompatible, that’s exploring those kinds of relationships?
James: No, not at all. I mean, look at our village operating system software is intended to do a few key things. The first is we need to change the bloody rules when it comes to residential development. That means zoning on open space, agricultural land, in balance with nature. We can prove actually that we can produce more clean organic food, clean water, clean energy, waste to resource management on open space than if you just left that to monoculture organic production or other kinds of food production. So, it’s about changing the rules to allow this fast track development of these neighborhoods to happen.
James: The other part of the software is to manage these lush, regenerative, flourishing neighborhoods as an infrastructure, a sentient infrastructure play really, because I came into the ReGen Villages Research through my engagement at Stanford on what was called the Solar Decathlon Competition. This competition was really focusing on this idea of a smart house. About five minutes into my research, I went to the professor’s and I said, “It occurs to me that a smart house inside of a dumb neighborhood doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
James: Fortunately, it was the right professor at the right time at Stanford, who looked at me and said, “This is a really interesting design challenge. Why don’t you pursue this?” So, through that context, ReGen Villages is really focusing on the nuts and bolts of making it easy for developers and landowners and government and communities to dial their interest and stakeholder interest rapidly and get these communities built as quickly as we possibly can around the world. And then we can add the flavors to them, culturally and geopolitically, et cetera. So, that’s our thought process.
Jim: You imagine the templates being essentially open source, so people can play with them as they please.
James: A certain amount of our API’s will be open. That’s for sure, because we’re dealing with diverse technology platforms, clean water platforms, clean energy, microgrid platforms, food production, passive house technology and typology platforms. All of that requires the ability to code into our village OS through an open API.
James: We will intentionally be looking at open sourcing especially a new rulebook for governments and communities, for lay people for the first time ever to be able to look at a piece of land or an area and create this virtual overlay, if you will, a SimCity on that piece of land, video game style, where they can toggle their interests, number of homes, housing units, the kinds of homes and housing units, the amount of open space required to support the safety and resiliency of those people living in that community.
James: And then that accelerates the whole process to a point where they don’t need to bring in architects, engineers, and urban planners, and all of that very expensive ecosystem at least in the early or middle stages of preliminary planning conditions. And then that just makes everything move forward faster. That’s really our goal. We want to use machine learning to create beautiful places for people around the world to live in. That’s really what our goal is.
Jim: Now, why do we need machine learning to do that for? To build a community of 300 people, I mean, do I really need machine learning to do that? I mean, we’ve lived in villages of that size for at least 10,000 years. I think we know how to do that. I’m being a little bit obnoxious here on purpose, but yeah.
James: No, no, no, I don’t think so. I think you’re sparring in the right way. The truth is that we’re not talking about 300 people. We’re talking about 300 families in minimum size ReGen Village community, number one. Number two, the moment you try to build anything anywhere around the world, pretty much you’re going to be dealing with local, regional, and national government rules, regulations and codes. Those are not easy to navigate and deal with. Even as you deal with those with very expensive ecosystem of designers and architects, engineers, et cetera, then you also have the daunting task of what’s called community assessment or otherwise known as NIMBYs, Not In My Backyard.
James: What we’re trying to do is get to the YIMBY stage quickly, which is Yes In My Backyard, right? So, to do that, we think machine learning will absolutely love this complexity of all those different rule books unified under one umbrella that can be looked at, crawled, and otherwise, reimagined through this perspective of the best possible neighborhood scenarios. So, then machine learning can do is it can create 10,000, 20,000, whatever it is, potential design schemes in a matter of minutes on that piece of land and then whittle it down with the stakeholder engagement through those SimCity video game toggles up to a place where we’ve got three or four logical submissions.
James: And then the software can then take it to the next level and start to make more of maybe even a 3D immersive virtual simulation of that master plan. And then you get this feeling of actually being there in a lot of ways. That’s where generative software design really can play a role. The next part, as I mentioned earlier, is that once that blueprint, that digital blueprint has been approved, the software becomes the farmhouse server.
James: It can then be the tool and the platform to look at historical data, real time sensor data, of course, and predictive modeling using machine learning to mitigate against risks, and of course, improve on and for flourishing. So, we think machine learning is an amazing opportunity for the neighborhoods of the future to design and operate for the benefit of its residents and the external communities in the surrounding areas.
Jim: It might have some use. I tend to use the word ‘machine learning’ a little more narrowly in terms of the way they might use it in Silicon Valley. You’re using it more broadly to talk about automation technologies in general. So, that’s good. That clarifies that distinction. Well, actual machine learning itself may have a part for instance in dynamic system control of a closed loop aquaculture, hydroculture system, for instance. Things like automating the design can be automated but doesn’t necessarily have to use machine learning to do so.
Jim: A nerdy distinction, but that’s what I dug into a little bit. Now, something you’ve mentioned that is huge and I deal with a fair number of people who are thinking about launching ecovillages or what we call [inaudible 00:13:47] or other forms of on the ground new ways of living.
Jim: The biggest goddamn barrier is land use regulation, building codes, and health departments. Unfortunately, they are all over the place. I mean, we have some jurisdictions here in Virginia, where tiny houses are forbidden, for instance. All houses must be at least X. I think it’s like 900 square feet. We have other ones that do not allow the development of open space into villages. Rather you’re forced by the land use regulation to scatter your housing across 10 acre lots. I can think of one county where that’s the requirement.
Jim: We have places where there’s closely over that engineered health department requirements with respect to septic systems. They ban community sewage plants that are going to use the sewage and turn it back into fertilizer, for instance. So, it’s a complete clusterfuck trying to navigate land use, building codes, and health department regulations, at least that’s the experience of people I know.
James: Exactly. Really, what it comes down to from our perspective is that when you look at e-governance, for instance in Estonia. I love Estonia, because it’s such a great example of a group of forward thinking folks who came together. Piece by piece, they started to create this e-governance system that allows lay people, citizens to gain access to very important information in a very easy way and control the data in a way that they need to for themselves, whether it’s dealing with driver’s license or parking tickets or planning conditions or things like this. Really, what it comes down to is to be perfectly honest, the data that we’re talking about of rules and regulations and codes is not blackbox. It’s not hidden away from the public. It’s scattered to the wind, for sure. It’s in lots of different locations.
James: But a way to unify that data and those rules and make it accessible through a natural language search engine, for instance, that would be something open source that we really love to see part of our village OS deliver on. But then of course, being able to, like I said before, use machine learning to crawl through all of those rules and start to suggest, “Well, if you did this and you did this, then you could get this green checkbox. You could actually build a ReGen Village community or regenerative, resilient community on this open space.”
James: By doing this primarily, what we’re trying to do is to show those governments especially that a lot of finance and funding is ready to come in and get these communities built rapidly with very big stakeholders, people doing prefab, modular, earthen building material, construction, top players in all those different platforms. That we can really prove that not only will these communities get built rapidly and that they will sell out and tax base and everything will be lucrative and increased for those communities, but that we will be able to prove long-term positive externalities.
James: In other words, that living in these kinds of communities and building these communities will result in benefits, reduced burdens to government, local, regional, national. It will lower burdens on healthcare systems, because people are living healthier, happier lives. They’ll broker peaceful, happier places, so less burdens on criminal justice and police. So, there’s a benefit in other words for those rules to be changed. I think that’s an exciting place for us and a hopeful place for us to all join together to imagine.
Jim: Yeah, I agree with you. But I see it likely unfortunately, because you are right, we have to scale this rapidly to a global scale. But unfortunately, the wheels of local land use regulation grind very slowly. I see it as an iterative back and forth fashion. You find some territory, some jurisdiction that’s really relatively open minded. You build one or two or three of these things. So, that they work and then you gather the data.
Jim: Then you use that to lobby other jurisdictions to perhaps adopt a uniform code. That might be a very useful thing associated with these projects. There’s a uniform code for land use regulation, building codes, and health department regulations that are compatible with ReGen Villages. Unfortunately, it takes time to get more and more local jurisdictions to adopt this uniform code, so that they can then compete for these definitely economic and socially positive projects.
James: Exactly. The truth is to be perfectly honest, a lot of these rules and regulations, I like to say, were put on the books 100, 150 years ago by old White guys with long white beards and top hats, because they controlled district scale power, district scale water, sewage, roads, lighting, electrical, all those different things. At the same time, there’s this very fat ecosystem of providers, let’s say, who are the ones that you must go to in order to do a masterplan booklet. It’s a very thankful, expensive process for those folks, because once they do a booklet, then of course, it has to be iterated on and that cost more money. And then iterated on again and that costs more money. It’s really a sport of kings.
James: So, it’s been all of the rules on the books are intended to keep control. We can go further on that control, if you like, to say that it’s been a thought process for many, many decades to lure people from the peri-urban in the rural areas to the cities and then control for their diets, control for their healthcare, control for all of those different things like aphids. Basically, they’re under the control of those ants, tickling them for the sugar.
James: So, there’s always been this concern, I think, about people living independently or off-grid or resilient in a regenerative way. Then there’s market forces that have been against it. So, what we’re trying to do from a Bucky Fuller perspective, Buckminster Fuller perspective is to create a new model that makes the old model obsolete, which is a Bucky Fuller quote. That’s really our goal, is to use industry to wake up, that there’s a wonderful way to make money in this new era post-COVID from building these communities at scale around the world.
Jim: Right, that’s a good transition to my next line of questions, which basically jumps up a level. Why is this timely? Why is this important with respect to the trajectory of the world over the next 100 years or thereabout?
James: Well, I mean, I’ve always felt that it was important, even 30 some odd years ago. You’re really beginning to learn about Rudolf Steiner’s work in celestial farming practices for biodynamics and the work of Bill Mollison coming out of Australia in the 1970s on permaculture and these farm-to-table communities that are so vibrant and so beautiful. And then really, what happened was I thought we had this under control somehow. I mean, I was really naive, because I just felt like that we were going progressively in the right direction, with this thinking, but there were a number of things that happened starting in 2010, 2011. There was the Hurricane Sandy in New York. I’m originally from New York, by the way.
James: So, seeing this climate change anomaly hit an urban area like this and paralyze it for weeks is quite a frightening thing. And then there was the BP oil disaster, of course, in the Gulf of Mexico. That was an entire food bearing ecosystem from our perspective that was decimated and still is suffering there. And then there was Fukushima, which is another also food bearing ecosystem catastrophe, which is lingering, of course. So, instead of burying our heads in the sand, we thought, “This is the right timing to look at building these kinds of communities and to imagine this.”
James: So, starting six years ago really at Stanford, maybe more like seven years ago now, on this concept of ReGen Villages research, I mean, I was laughed. I was laughed at, not necessarily at Stanford but in a lot of different circles. People just thought, “This guy has no idea about the trends to the cities. He doesn’t get it that by 2050, that 75% of 10 billion people will be living in cities.” But rather, I have been getting it, which is that cities, mega cities especially are brittle. They will break. When they break, you’re going to have this exodus.
James: So, I kept talking about this and talking about it. Here we are now, of course, 9, 10 months into COVID. What are we seeing around the world except an urban exodus. People who can leave the urban areas for the countryside are doing so. Even those people who can’t afford to do it are finding ways to go out of the cities, because the cities even pre-COVID weren’t fully delivering on their promises. They were expensive. They weren’t so clean. They had a lot of crime, all different kinds of issues.
James: Now, with COVID, of course, they don’t present any kind of sense of safety that people feel comfortable with. So, this is the time in human history, where all of a sudden, ReGen Villages, everybody seems to be waking up to and wanting to be learning about and getting involved with. I mean, COVID is terrible, But from ReGen Villages perspective, it’s the silver lining, because we actually have the optimistic framework for a post-COVID world that works.
Jim: Yup, indeed. I do think it’s a bit of a wakeup call. We’ll see how long it lasts, however. listening to some of your talks, I thought you made a very interesting and salient point. you made half of it here in this last section, where you said by 2050, 75% of people will be living in big urban areas. But the other half of your line is that 1950, 75% of the people on Earth were living in self-sufficient communities. That’s a scary change in 100 years.
James: Well, it’s exactly what I was saying before that if you look at what happened, this is really absolute truth is it was the birth of television, right? So, television started to be put into people’s homes and not even individual homes, but community centers and churches and whatever in these rural areas. Slowly but surely, they started to broadcast these messages out to these communities that if you live away from a city, that you’re stupid. That if you don’t come to the city and get a job and get an apartment and get a better education, that you will end up living this life of toil somehow. Again, it was this promise and threat directed at the same time through the medium of television.
James: Over the period of those decades from 1950 until pre-COVID let’s say, this exodus, happened. This messaging really worked. People felt like they wanted to… Especially youth were desperate to get out of their small community and go to these urban areas and live this “wealthy lifestyle.” But what they gave up by doing that, what we gave up as a species by doing that was the skills, the requisite skills for day-to-day survival and understanding how the relationship to the natural world that we’re part of as humans. So, that’s really what happened in many ways.
James: I think another broader example is what happened really in China. In China, you had a similar situation. You had an agrarian nation. You had subsistence farming. It may not have been a perfect existence, but people lived simple lives. They weren’t based on consumption, extraction and consumption. And then there was this almost overnight shift, when television was shipped out to all these rural areas in China. They were being broadcast to that they need to move, people need to move to the cities and take these manufacturing jobs and build this new bold economy. That’s really an unfortunate shift in many ways.
Jim: That’s really understandable. My mother, for instance, grew up on a beat-ass tenant farm in Northern Minnesota, sufficiently beat-ass. When her family eventually vacated it, it was abandoned. They didn’t have running water in the house. They didn’t have electricity. They didn’t have a telephone. They didn’t have central heat. This was in Northern Minnesota, where you get 50 below zero. So, she was damn glad to get the hell out of dodge in 1946, when she graduated from high school and moved to Washington, D.C. Life really was a shitload better than living on a beat-ass tenant farm and barely able to survive.
Jim: So, I think, one of the things that’s very different about ReGen Villages or ecovillages is that we’re not talking about a lifestyle of deprivation like on a subsistence farm in the swamps of Northern Minnesota or a family tried to make it on one acre in rural China. We’re talking about a high quality of life. I think that’s really important. People aren’t going to want to move back to the way things were. They need to move forward onto something new and better.
James: That’s exactly right. Again, my research in ecovillages and intentional communities, the grass roots and organic ground-up kind of developments. The issue with that is people are coming from urban backgrounds and suburban backgrounds. They don’t have those skills. In this moment, they don’t want to have those skills. What they want to do is they want a turnkey solution. They want to be able to buy in or rent in or find a social affordable access to living in a community that has been designed and is managed in a way that nurtures them. That’s where we’re seeing so much demand around the world for ReGen Villages.
Jim: Fortunately, other thing that goes in concert with this and I think helps to catalyze it is there’s a growing number of millennials in particular who are becoming practitioners of local agriculture, permaculture, et cetera. I know a number of these folks. My wife and I have been mentoring them, investing in them, et cetera. They work their asses off and maybe they make $11 an hour. If a better thought out system could allow them to make middle class earnings, I think there’s a significant number. It may only be 3 or 4 or 5%, but that’s a lot of millennials who would love to be permaculturalists or community agriculturalists in agrihood. So, I think that’s a timely trend that could easily help staff the agricultural sides of these enterprises.
James: Well, I mean, this brings up a great conversation, isn’t it, about economics, right? Why do people go to a job, mostly soul crushing work? Okay, pushing a piece of paper from one end of the office to the other only to get that same piece of paper back next day that they have to push again. The reason why they do it is to get other pieces of paper that helps to pay for the vacant apartment or house that they’ve had to leave eight hours a day to pay for or that car that they’re leasing or renting or whatever it may be or mortgages that they’re having to pay off. In other words, the capital that you are generating is going for the most part, to rent, to food, to utilities. That’s essentially most of where people’s capital goes to from their jobs.
James: Now, if you can live in a regenerative resilient neighborhood that answers for some strong percentage of those needs, then the potentially universal basic income, the delta that you would actually need for discretionary cash for some things the community doesn’t provide for you becomes much smaller. Really, the reason why I even talk about universal basic income and new economies and et cetera is because right now, because of COVID, the entire planet has woken up to the emperor literally running butt naked down the boulevard in terms of the fact that extraction, consumption jobs don’t exist anymore. They may never come back at all in the same way.
Jim: We have this thing before COVID. This just accelerated the trend, but it makes it more vivid, which is important. I mean, the trend has been going on since 1975 basically. COVID is a great opening of the ears. I say, the people who have ears to hear have increased quite a bit. I think the other thing, which makes a lot of sense for these ReGen Villages is psychological health. I go to the big cities from time to time though I live in the most rural place in the eastern half of the United States, the lowest population density east of the Mississippi River. I personally have never found big cities to be particularly attractive. Though I know a lot of people do.
Jim: Particularly one image always comes up to me when I’m in New York, I ride the subway like a good New Yorker. That is the weirdest fucking experience. These people are looking down at their feet, consciously not trying to make eye contact with each other, having no normal human interaction. People who live like that don’t realize how fucking insane that is, but it can’t be good for their mental health as a normal human being. Everything about living in a big city is just mind numbing in comparison to being someone who’s living on the land at reasonable density with real relationships with real people and real skills.
Jim: So, I think that’s maybe one of the biggest wins that’s out there. We see from the data an epidemic of mental health problems. 40% of young women are taking psychotherapeutic drugs of one sort or another. What the fuck is that all about, right? I guarantee the numbers are a hell of a lot less in rural America than it is in New York City. So, I think that’s a really important part of the reason why ReGen Villages are the smart alternative to the mega cities.
James: Yeah, it’s so interesting, because I grew up in New York and I spent most of my childhood and the better part of my college years, my undergrad at NYU, living in Manhattan. It was amazing, because just like you said, people on the subway, you can’t make eye contact, because if you do, you’re going to get that classic De Niro line like, “What are you looking that?”, that kind of thing. Are you looking at me? So, you don’t want that kind of thing to happen. And then also, riding the elevator in your apartment building and people that have been in those same building for 20 years, they don’t even know who their neighbors are.
Jim: They don’t care. That’s the fucked up thing.
James: You’re right. They don’t care, because it’s the logical, you would think people moved to the city to be around other people. The truth is people are afraid of other people. That’s where I think there’s this misnomer about density in urban areas.
Jim: Yup, indeed. It’s borne out by the statistics. If you look at the scaling laws, some good things scale super linearly with size like number of patents per capita, the arts, et cetera, but also crime, illness, mental illness, et cetera. So, it’s probably a fool’s bargain for the human race, the one that’s still moving rapidly ahead, because maybe in the United States, we have seen the white button places like Africa in particular, urbanization is still going full speed ahead. The other issue, which you have not mentioned, I’m curious why, is climate change and more generally limits to growth.
Jim: There’s plenty of analysis that shows we’re already exceeding the carrying capacity of the Earth. That in particular, a Western person, an American, an Australian, a Canadian, to a slightly lesser degree, a European are consuming something on the order of four or five times what would be sustainable if everybody on Earth consumed it. So, it seemed to me the other hugely important, in fact, probably the most important perspective from an ethical perspective is we have to find a way to live about 80% less intensely on our demands on Mother Nature.
James: I did touch on earlier about Hurricane Sandy and climate change anomalies, especially affecting urban areas. But the truth is you’re right, we have to find urgently, we have to come to the solutions about how to address critical housing shortages around the world, because right now, I think there’s about a 1 billion or 1.1 billion shortage of houses and homes for people to live in. That has to be fixed and sorted. At the same time, connecting people directly with their natural resource flows. So, they can live in these places and have their needs met, basic human needs met, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs met. By doing so, then what happens is we can create these places that are blossoming and fruiting over the decades to come.
James: So, yeah, we get this pushback a lot of course, because number one, ReGen Villages is talking about new build more than retrofit, number one. That also means having to use and bring in resources, whether it’s mass timber or hemp and hempcrete and other kinds of earthen building materials. You still need to create and carve out these communities and these neighborhoods, but our goal really is to say, again, that 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, 100 years, whatever it is later, that this is the right investment at the right time, because these communities have what they need and are actually over producing clean water, clean food, clean energy, and waste to resource management.
James: Also, most importantly, especially through the lens of pandemics, that by spreading out a bit and having less density from these mega cities in these open up areas that we create a better environment for health and mitigating those risks. The bottom line is if you have a better diet and you’re living with less stress, your immune system is stronger. That’s just proven science.
Jim: On your version of a ReGen Village operating system, have you guys done calculations on the greenhouse gas budget? Because clearly, it does cost something to do new construction, put a new infrastructure, et cetera. But as you point out, if it’s done smartly and on a reasonable scale, i.e., we’re no longer building 2,500 square foot houses. Instead, we’re building 600 square foot houses just as an example. The area under the curve over a period of years starts to look very different. Have you guys done that work, estimate what the greenhouse gas load of ReGen Village might look like over a period of 50 years or 100 years?
James: We started doing some of the preliminary research on it, but the truth is we won’t be able to get there in any deeper granularity until we fully engage and build the first pilot communities. Once we do that, we’ll be able to really understand from our providers especially, the construction firms, the platform companies running the infrastructure with their services and systems and appliances and all those different aspects. We’ll be able to get a better snapshot of the built environment portion of the carbon footprint.
James: And then going forward from there, we’ll start to be able to provide data into those specific cells on reduced mobility to cities and increased carbon sequestration, because of crop cover and plantings and things that we plan to do in terms of permaculture and food forest and et cetera. So, it’s definitely on our roadmap to be able to provide these metrics as part of long term positive externalities. So, it’s a spreadsheet we’ve just started working on, to be honest, in collaboration with Duke University. So, between Stanford Flourishing, ReGen Villages, and Duke University, on this new kind of spreadsheet that can show what it will look like decades from now living in these kinds of communities.
Jim: Okay, that’s a good start. I’m just thinking out loud here. We talked earlier about intentional communities, some of the ones some people I know are thinking about working on. Part of the rationale there is that if one builds a social operating system that is based on real cohesion with other people and living together, eating together, taking care of each other’s children in a deep way, like the older communities we used to have, as opposed to a residential real estate subdivision model, the need for status through possessions or stuff goes down.
Jim: So, maybe you don’t need a 2,400 square foot house psychologically for getting your fulfillment through conviviality and community. Maybe it does take something like an intentional community operating system to get the greenhouse gas levels down from these kinds of communities, rather than just trying to replicate a standard in a residential subdivision with some upticks and tweaks. What do you think about that?
James: Of course, climate change is first and foremost in our minds and also this idea of consumption and extraction. That both of those feed into each other, isn’t it? And then we have to address both of them. For the Global South especially, that we have to create a new, exciting aspirational goal for living in these kinds of communities. Because especially if we can show, this is how the new middle class, the aspiring class want to live in developed economies, then it becomes sexy and interesting and appealing for the rest of the world. That’s really our goal. That’s really what I meant to say.
Jim: I like that, that I like, right? But we have to frame, I think, to get that signal out the moral wrapper around these communities. It’s a moral imperative people for you to give up a high consumption way of life, the golf course and Lexus and the Rolexes and all that happy horseshit and realize we don’t need that to be happy. Happiness is about other things entirely. Step off the status through possessions and through positional goods game and find a new game to play.
James: It’s interesting you saying that, because I recall some of my early lectures in 2014 to the Prime Minister in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, about this topic of ReGen Villages and what they call the kampungs in Malaysia. This idea that there’s a new wealth, a new wealth, that it’s a moniker that if you have a place, a house, an apartment in a regenerative, resilient community, it’s a wealthy statement. That you have this place that’s safe and resilient. That becomes something appealing for a mate, because then they say, “Oh, you have a place among those kampungs that’s smart and regenerative. Well, then, that’s a good place to nest, isn’t it?” So, we can’t forget human instincts at the end of the day, what drives a lot of motivations, especially with young people.
Jim: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. Building security into a community is important. Again, that’s why I like some of the aspects of intentional communities. Once you’ve been accepted into an Israeli Kibbutz, if you fell ill or disabled, went insane even, they had a lifelong commitment to take care of you. No member of a Kibbutz ever became homeless. I think that kind of security is really an important part of the package to let people trade off a lower “material standard” of living for a much richer way to actually live. I would like to see you guys push more of that in how you market this thing, rather than, “Oh, yeah, it’s a little bit sexier, a little bit better residential subdivision kind of thing.”
James: I don’t disagree with that. I think really what it comes down to is we have to live in the current economic milia or let’s say the pre-COVID economic milia of real estate development and iterated rate of return, IRR and ROI, return on investment. Once we do that dance and we do it right and we create these places that make investors happy… We’re talking about impact investors, let me qualify that, impact investors. So, they’re getting a return that they can then reinvest in other kinds of impact investments. That’s the best platform for us to then launch from into these other kinds of areas of new economic models, okay?
James: Because when you start to talk about Kibbutzians, for instance, the conservative folks listening potentially might think, “God, that sounds like socialism or communism.” I’m neither of those things really. I’m a compassionist. I believe that there’s a rich economy on this idea of competing of who can be the most compassionate. How can you create a neighborhood that delivers more thriving flourishing and more of these amenities? That’s something that I think is a market driver. It’s something that people can sink their teeth into. It’s a transition point to what is already being invested in probably by the trillions of euros and dollars in what’s called green transition funding. So, it’s really where we want to align ourselves.
Jim: That’s an interesting dance, because on one side, you’re right. There’s a vast amount, trillions of dollars of money that needs to go somewhere. I mean, we can just see the signal from McCourt. Both the low bond interest rates and the ridiculously high equity prices, those are signals that there’s an excess of global savings. You’ve talked about before, I know the fact that many responsible investors are deinvesting in things like oil companies, coal companies, airlines, et cetera, clearly bad citizens with respect to climate. That money is going to need a place to go to.
Jim: So, I think that’s one of the most interesting things here is that if you can do this packaging that you’re proposing and particularly find ways to navigate around the deadly three, land use regulation, building codes and health department rules, and be able to prove that it’s reproducible and economically sound, the investment money is there in spades, but the hard part is navigating that dance while remaining ethical and committed to ameliorating the meta crises that we’re bringing ourselves into. Not limited to climate, but that being the one that if we don’t solve it, the others won’t matter. So, it’s an interesting dance to figure out, “How do we build something that is compatible enough to tap into these trillion-dollar investment pools and yet is really doing good with respect to saving the Earth?”
James: Exactly. From the very beginning, ReGen Villages has been and continues to be focused on sovereign wealth, pension fund, and green transition funds, funds that have been divesting from fossil fuels. There’s something like 22, 23 trillion US dollars that’s parked offshore right now. That’s money that would love to come and invest in the right things, but the moment it leaves offshore, it’s going to get taxed to oblivion. So, finding solutions to welcome those kinds of parked offshore money back into the currency, if you will, and the flow of getting these places built rapidly. But moreover, that there’s an entire giant industry that’s growing on prefab construction.
James: This industry, by its very nature, requires a pipeline of project locations to be able to continually run these earthen building material construction facilities, these controlled environment, robotic assisted kind of construction places that are putting out wall units and modules for new kinds of homes, energy positive passive house especially. So, again, if we can align the right places with those right industrial demand capacity flow and then as the triad bring in these giant institutional investors to underwrite the full developments from the very beginning, whether it’s $100 million, $150 million, whatever it is dollar zero to build a 400- or 500-home community and create in the best kind of frame.
James: Again, a copy paste solution to this building these neighborhoods as quickly as we possibly can, because again, once we build them, they will yield over time benefit to the people who live there and to the surrounding communities and again, to those governments and to those other areas. So, we know that there’s so much money floating around. We want to be the right place at the right time. That’s where ReGen Villages framework has really been focusing on.
Jim: Cool, I like that. That’s a good part. [inaudible 00:55:32] get the other part wrong. I think that part is hugely important and really, really smart to be focusing on. That’s a good time to make a little transition down into some of the details. You mentioned prefab construction. That’s an area that people I know have looked into a fair amount. It’s funny. They keep coming back to say, “Unfortunately, a lot of these fancy hempcrete or whatever end up being more expensive and not as good as just plain old frame construction.” You can get high value frame construction for $75 a square foot in this part of the country. To what degree have you guys researched whether these alternative building techniques actually do pay off?
James: Well, I mean, look, really, what it comes down to, it’s like everything else. When you implement it at an industrialized scale, the costs come down, right? So, when you bring in hemp and hempcrete into a 3D extruder, 3D printer, and you’re printing out these social affordable homes by one example or you’re creating these prefab components in a warehouse environment, controlled environment, that by doing enough of it and selling enough of it, it brings the cost down. It’s like any other industry, right?
James: So, we know that right now, it’s still nascent and that there’s pushback. It’s push backed, because the construction industry, which represents one of the biggest carbon footprints, by the way, in the world is resistant. Because they have a rinse and repeat attitude and mindset of pouring concrete and laying steel and doing what they think is easy for them. They don’t have to invest anything in some new way of constructing.
James: In the same way of stick-built construction, that there’s a lot of folks who believe that that’s still the right way forward, but it’s such a waste of time and energy now. So, we believe wholeheartedly, that it’s really a matter of just time, where the economics will be proven out on these earthen building materials inoculated into these prefab processes that we’ll be able to see these come down in cost dramatically.
Jim: Yup, I’ll be following it. But I will say when I keep looking at it, it comes back to me, not stick-built, that’s clearly wrong. But basic frame construction prefab from a prefab factory, which is, of course, a very scalable industry, there’s zillions of prefab builders all over the country. You can get some pretty decent housing for remarkably little price with that very well-known construction technology.
Jim: So, I think you always have to compare these aspirational technologies with the actual competitors on the ground when one’s making an actual decision about an actual community, because otherwise, it won’t be competitive in the marketplace. As you say, if we’re going to tap into that trillion dollar investment pool, the result in the community, it’s got to be cost effective.
James: Yeah, but if you look at companies like ICON, for instance and Bjarke Ingels Group, BIG, they have this partnership. They’ve already been doing prototyping, building these 3D printed homes that are selling for less than $5,000 fully finished. That’s a really exciting move towards social affordable access to house and living in a house. Now, all we’re saying is that instead of extruding traditional concrete through those systems to extrude hempcrete or bamboo crete, that there’s ways of then putting a planet-friendly earthen building material into those places. So, we know that it will happen. It’s just a matter of being a little bit of a futurist that in the next 5 to 10 years that we’ll see more and more of it and then the prices will come down. That’s our goal also is to support that.
Jim: That sounds good. Let’s go on to the next piece of infrastructure you talked about, which is farming foods. As a farmer, I know a little bit about. I got to say, I was a little skeptical when I dug into your materials and you said that, you could support 200 people from an acre or two. I go, “What?” Not an open air land based agricultural, at least not that I’m aware of. In fact, I did a back of the envelope calculation.
Jim: I discovered that if you want to produce 60 pounds of grass-fed beef per year for a person, which is less than the average US beef consumption, I believe, that alone requires one acre per person. So, if you had 1,200 people living in your ecovillage, you’d need 1,200 acres of land just to produce that amount of beef. So, I suspect your land to food ratio is may be off there, at least by my rough calculations.
James: Well, let’s talk about it, because I think that’s really important. What we’ve done is we’ve looked at through effective research with Wageningen University in the Netherlands… Wageningen is essentially hailed as the number one agricultural university in the world, maybe second to UC Davis out here by us, but there’s a food basket that you can create in the context of permaculture and biodiversity, where we ran the calculations. We came to this to this number that we could derive probably 55 to 60% of the daily nutritional needs of a community of 200 homes.
James: So, roughly, from Dutch perspective about 600 people and continuously between the soil-based farming and also the vertical farming, the controlled greenhouse farming on that land, that roughly the 65 acres or so could feed the 20 acres of density quite effectively with that 55 to 60% of cultivars, right? We’re not talking about beef. We’re not talking about pork. We’re not talking about big slaughter of any kind. We’re talking about high protein cultivation of plants, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, aquaponic, fish, shrimp, crawfish, chicken, egg, light dairy.
James: And then all of this can be modular in a very small footprint. That intensive biodiverse farming actually creates an overabundance of those 55 or 60%, daily nutritional needs. So, you’re absolutely right. It’s not from a developed economic context or a non-vegetarian context able to feed people everything they need. So, our goal really is to have baked into ReGen Villages organic supermarket chain at the village square level, like a pop up supermarket.
James: It would be either in Europe, like a Co-op or Lidl, something like that. They would provide the ingredients that we don’t provide, the beef and the pork and lamb and other kinds of things to those families, other bulk ingredients that we’re also not going to be growing like large wheat crop or rice or things like this, but that they could absorb our artisanal ingredients, our surplus of those. And then we have this lovely ecosystem and balance in terms of diet.
James: So, I’m not disputing your math when it comes to grass-fed beef or the typical consumption of Western appetite for big slaughter and beef especially, but we also understand the thing clearly how inefficient beef is in terms of protein and nutrition, of how much land it requires of cultivation land for that creature and water, by the way, and methane, by the way that the significant kind of beef farms, cattle farms are producing.
James: We’re not against cows, by the way. I love cows. They’re wonderful creatures. We just like to keep them alive from an Indian perspective perhaps. That they roam around the community and that their aeration and that their waste is a benefit to the cultivation, also from a biodynamic perspective that the practices of using their essence, essentially, in the irrigation of the crop seasons. So, that’s our perspective on a diverse food basket that is abundant in protein, bioavailable nutrition that’s also biodiverse in a small footprint.
Jim: That’s interesting. I’ll have my producer reach out to you for the link. So, we can make sure we put it on the episode page. So, people can learn about what the Dutch have come up with. It’s interesting. Yeah, our numbers are more like 150 people, 300 acres, but again, in the United States, at least that works. We got plenty of land in the United States. We can easily afford two acres per person. In fact, the current industrial agricultural model requires a vastly larger amount than that, because you’re certainly right. Big slaughter and feedlots and grain-fed beef and all that stuff is an atrocity, but there’s been a lot of innovation.
Jim: One of our neighbors, Joel Salatin, probably the world’s most famous farmer, has developed this amazing method where he co-raises grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chicken, where he moves the beef every two days. So, it’s a much more natural raising. He then brings the egg mobile in with the chickens that break up the manure and eat the bugs that are growing in the manure. So, the manure doesn’t smell. It refertilizes the soil. Appropriately, he doesn’t burn it, et cetera. He has found a natural system of chicken, eggs, and beef that is great for the land and actually build soil and is sustainable over an infinite period of time, but it does require more land. It requires a higher ratio of land per person to support that kind of agriculture as part of the food shed for the community.
Jim: So, there’s a lot of ways to think about this. I’d encourage people who are thinking about designing a community to educate themselves on various aspects of how the food system can be made clean, local, regenerative, and sustainable over the long haul and carbon neutral or better still, carbon positive. One amazing things about the Salatin method is it is clearly locking carbon in the soil. We’re not quite sure how much yet, but it alone may be an important way of turning that dial on climate change.
James: Yeah, I just wanted to say that the University of Catalonia in Barcelona had come up with a wonderful study a few years back on, “What would it take to make a city block of about 20,000 people food secure?” That research was wonderful, because it looked at almost every square meter of possible open space, rooftop, atriums, balconies, tree-lined streets and boulevards. Wherever you possibly could grow something, you would grow it. The research basically showed that they could feed, they could make that neighborhood of 20,000 people a city block food secure if everybody agreed to a vegetarian and vegan diet.
James: So, I guess again, it goes back to my point that where every possible area that you could make a neighborhood of 60 or 100 acres robust in its food production and whatever those things could be, that you will get these wonderful overproducing kinds of areas. So, we do feel like that is again germane to this idea of feeding ReGen Villages communities in a resilient way at their doorstep.
Jim: Yeah, that’s a great idea. It’s just a matter of what kind of diet you want, how much land it takes to do it, and what percentage of your total diet you want to produce yourself versus buying from the chain. So, that’s an engineering problem essentially, both cultural and agricultural engineering problem and has lots of different solutions with lots of different set points. I think you guys have an interesting perspective on this.
Jim: Well, unfortunately, we’re coming up to the end of our time here. We had to reschedule this. We have about a half an hour less than we usually do. I still got two or three pages worth of questions. So, maybe we’ll get James back on later to go more deeply into this, but anyway, I’d like to thank you, James for an extraordinarily interesting conversation about your project. As always, we’ll have all the links and information and organizations that we discussed, including his ReGen Village Company, on the episode page. So, go to jimrutshow.com. So, thanks, James.
James: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it, Jim.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting, Music by Tom Muller at modernspacemusic.com.