'Caring for the land as for people'

Diversely-abled people are pioneering a host of innovative environmental projects and successfully building communities where people and planet prosper.


Corporate and political opposition to meaningful environmental action is mounting, but so is public awareness. In the United States, where climate denialism has been especially rampant, 73 percent of Americans think global warming is happening, and 62 percent understand that it is caused mostly by human activities.

With this increasing awareness comes opportunity. Together, we can save the planet. Mobilisation at or beyond the community level remains challenging, but inspiration, hope and progress can be found in Camphill communities around the world.

There, diversely-abled people are pioneering a host of innovative environmental projects and successfully building communities where people and planet prosper. We have much to learn from their examples.

Creating community

I've visited dozens of communities that are part of the international Camphill movement. At each Camphill place, adults or children with intellectual and developmental disabilities create community with one another, with non-disabled coworkers, and with their neighbors in the larger society.

Rather than being treated as 'service recipients', people with differing needs are honoured as creators of beauty in art studios, weaveries, and other craft workshops, and recreators of biodiversity on Camphill's organic farms and gardens.

The Camphill movement began in Scotland eighty years ago. It has since spread to 22 countries and diverse ecologies from India and Botswana to Germany, Norway, and the United States.

Its founders were refugees from Nazi-occupied Austria, who were mindful of the enormous violence then being perpetrated against people with disabilities. They were also inspired by the spiritual teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher who also created Waldorf schools and the 'biodynamic' system of organic agriculture.

Therapeutic practice

From the beginning, Camphillers committed themselves to caring for the land as for people, and to using agricultural work as part of their therapeutic practice.

Whether these communities are located on beautiful agrarian estates or in busy urban neighborhoods, Camphills today continue to express their environmental commitments in ways small and large.

Almost every Camphill community has at least one innovative environmental project, many of them acting as vital links between community members and the surrounding neighborhood.

At Camphill Clanabogan, for instance, people of all abilities helped pioneer the use of biomass heating systems throughout Ireland.

Community members gather wood from pollarded willow trees, which are bred to regenerate rapidly after pruning. Each tree generates a steady supply of burnable wood to produce heat for the 50-person village, while also absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, providing habitats for pollinators, and functioning effectively as living fence posts for pastures.

Award winning 

In Pennsylvania, Camphill Village Kimberton Hills' skilled farmers with and without disabilities grow vegetables biodynamically for a CSA and produce raw milk for their community and the nearby Seven Stars yogurt business. They are one of just twelve dairies nationwide to earn the Cornucopia Institute's highest rating for the care of their milk cows.

Villagers also maintain a wetland for the treatment of wastewater, and partner with their local Trader Joe's store to compost food that would otherwise be wasted.

The results of their work are impressive. One study showed that Kimberton Hills had the highest share of crops pollinated by native pollinators of several organic farms; another found its section of French Creek had the best water quality of any part of the watershed.

The villagers at Camphill Tiphereth in Scotland collect yard waste in Edinburgh neighborhoods, turning it into high-quality compost. And they bring a unique community spirit to the other environmental initiatives where they volunteer.

When I accompanied them to the Hidden Garden of Pencuik, a nineteenth century walled garden that is being revived with permaculture techniques, they not only pulled weeds and hauled brush, but also cooked a celebratory lunch for the other volunteers, cultivating strong bonds with their environmental brethren.

Greater good

Though many Camphill communities have implemented practices that ecovillages only aspire to, environmentalism is just one dimension of Camphill life, albeit a vital one.

Community members benefit physically from the sustainable care of land, resources, and homes; the nurturing of biodiversity within farms and gardens; and the harvest of healthy foods.

Members grow socially, emotionally, and spiritually through environmental work, developing new skills and experiencing the pride and joy of contributing meaningfully to the places they call home.

Camphill communities are accomplishing what our larger society needs to accomplish in order to make the transition from awareness to action. They are looking after the environment in the right way, without focusing only on the environment. They have discovered a greater good, where people and planet prosper together.

Of course, Camphill¹s community-based practices are no substitute for technical innovation in the field of renewable energy, the protection of rainforests and other wilderness spaces, and political mobilization to hold both governments and corporations accountable.

But the contributions of these communities are important and meaningful, not only for their environmental impacts but also for their ability to inspire the rest of us to take more decisive action.

This Author

Dan McKanan serves as the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, where he has taught since 2008. He is the author of five books, most recently Eco-Alchemy: Anthroposophy and the History and Future of Environmentalism (University of California Press, 2017) and Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition (Beacon Press, 2011), which won the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award.