Once upon a time I had the bright idea to do a book club. Unfortunately, time evaporated after the first book. Well, I still don’t have any time, but I did managed to read the second book on the list, Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, while on vacation. Over the next week or so, I’ll put down my observations/thoughts inspired by the book.
In the 1970’s, a group of scientists (engineers, biologists, botanists, agriculturists, sociologists, doctors), teachers and artists founded a community in the llanos region of Columbia. Before they came, many would have called those miles and miles savannah north of the Amazon rain forest, a wasteland. However, the founders saw a dream. They wanted to show the world a different way of living: sustainable, self-sufficient, and environmentally viable. Not a utopia, per se. They didn’t believe those were possible anyway, but they did believe that they could create a decent approximation. Given the state of the world at the time, they also figured that people would need to learn how to make such uninhabitable places habitable. With the relentless urban expansion, the depletion of non-renewable resources, and continued poverty, people would be pushing into these areas sooner or later anyhow. The Gaviotans wanted to lead the way.
Somehow, Gaviotas became an oasis of calm in the midst of maddening turbulence. In her heyday, Colombia was a pearl, but drug trafficking, guerrilla warfare, paramilitary action, and kidnappings had tarnished her tremendously [Read the 5/17/07 BBC story of hostage escaping the FARC]. Somehow, Gaviotas was relatively immune to the violence that surrounded it. I say relatively because there were instances where people were taken away by guerrillas never to be seen again.
Overall, the community sounds like a paradise for thinkers and inventors, where your garage workshop grew to encompass an entire village. Together, they made marvelous things: a solar kitchen, biogas systems, solar panels, windpumps, water purifiers, etc. etc. By the end of the book, they also started to beat back the savannah, turning it back into forest.
My gut reaction:
It was my third time trying to read the book. Though the writing itself is good (Weisman knows how to turn a phrase), the execution is somewhat tedious. So many people were involved in making Gaviotas a reality; Weisman was bent on recognizing them all. While this is quite fair, it makes a good chunk of the storytelling a litany of names and comings and goings. Yawn. You get to know Gaviotas the place, but you don’t get more than a passing sense of any of the remarkable people who live(d) there. Okay okay, since it is a story of a semi-socialist shangri-la, it makes sense that no single individual stands out as the hero of the piece. Still.
Otherwise, it’s a good read.