Criteria for a Livable Community

In earlier chapters we devised a logical structure for the quality of neighborhood life and subsequently raised a number of concerns about the livability of the town where I reside, Fairfield Iowa. I would like to present an action plan for addressing those concerns, but before I do, let me articulate the key point on which all subsequent undertakings will depend:

Do the people of Fairfield deserve this?

Do they deserve our devotion and commitment? Significant cooperation is required to make this plan a success. Will the residents respond favorably, or should we find a more supportive group? For readers who live elsewhere, now that you've been introduced to this prairie outpost, how does your living situation compare? Is your own community sufficiently deserving?

Many Fairfield residents have already made up their minds on this point. They made a commitment to the town and worked to create a livable environs, and the fruits are evident, particularly in the areas of entertainment and the arts. But I'm wondering how many have given thought to the governmental issues we've raised. Even the sustainability groups, as laudable as their activities are, are not addressing the shortcomings of punitive administration. Can we ever hope to dislodge the reactionaries in this district, or should we make our play elsewhere?

I'm not yet certain of the answer. There are many great things happening here, not the least of which are the continued success of Maharishi's alternative health care programs, as well as MUM's consciousness-centered curriculum. But there are perhaps just as many negative points, some of which are unique to Fairfield. The lingering antagonism of a certain subset of the town toward meditators is discouraging, as is the petty, controlling mind-set of the administrators. Witness the treatment my dahlia garden received at Logan Apartments. After three years of basically free public service, I was run off, without thanks, apology or explanation. The decision makers are focused on money, and other concerns are unworthy of their attention. The town is, in fact, run by a moneyed elite, and decisions about its future are made by those who possess or control wealth. Certainly we appreciate the amenities the wealthy provide, but when they use that wealth to order the evolution of society and fail to take an interest in the affairs of those who aren't so materially fortunate, someone should loudly object. Money does not equate with wisdom. Nor should skill in the accumulation of money determine a community's leadership. Needless to say, the current state of politics belies these truths. Where, for example, are the town hall meetings in this town? Where do you find any interaction between common folks and municipal officials; that is, other than cops and enforcers?

On the subject of control, the Global Country is by no means faultless. The vastu thing is a good example. The strict rules don't just apply to MSV construction. I was volunteering one time at a TM Center in the DC area where I tried to take out the trash through a south-facing door. An acquaintance happened to spot me and, frowning, declared I shouldn't even open that door. A friend here reported that when she lived in one of the old pods on campus, an MUM official proposed putting an alarm on the south door to discourage people from using it. When candidate Barack Obama visited Fairfield, someone convinced him to face east for his speech on the town square.

In constructing a low-cost home in Iowa's cold northern climate, intelligent design might call for any number of vastu violations: a southern orientation, recycled materials, inauspicious bodies of water, etc. The Global Country leadership is strict in adhering to the Vedic prescriptions and are hence unapproachable in matters of home building and city planning. It's not unlike the rigidity of big G's planners. They all have their construction bibles, and nothing can budge them from that scripture. It makes you wonder if there is even a remote possibility of building a cluster of modest homes for an intentional community. If everyone is to have a dwelling of his own, clearly we need some way to build on a smaller scale than the properties in Vedic City, North Campus, Abundance Ecovillage or even Devi Nagar. Again, one faces an obstacle course in pondering the fundamental human enterprise of carving out a place to live. It's always the code these people throw at you, and flexibility, workarounds and, God forbid, help or encouragement are never forthcoming.

Six Criteria for Livability

In considering where to implement our plan, I suggest a few basic criteria must be satisfied. The first, as we've seen, is that there is a chance of encountering enlightened individuals. At least, that is, folks on the spiritual path (see the definition of spiritual growth in section 4.5). We'll term this first criterion the "Spirituality Factor." My sense is that Fairfield does satisfy this requirement, although, exactly how far along the path people have progressed is not so easy to read.

The other side of the coin is that we would wish there to be less likelihood of encountering the cold rigidity of the punitive types—the Joe Arpaio/Rudy Giuliani/John Walsh, "America's Most Wanted" set. I think most would agree after reading this account that the behavior of law enforcement in southeast Iowa tends toward the reactive end of the scale. But realize it's not just rednecks who fall into this category. Surprisingly, there are long-time meditators and sidhas in town who exhibit the same simplistic view. Scanning the radio waves recently, I landed on our local low-power station, KRUU-FM, and thought I heard the announcer say the mayor had declared police appreciation week. I quickly turned the dial, not wanting to hear more, but sure enough, this sad proclamation appeared in the record of the city council proceedings. It's a blatant glorification of the police state—a society ruled by force, fear and ignorance. We've already discussed how an MSAE-schooled Army officer did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and subsequently came on the radio to brag about his work in protecting America.

What's troubling is these folks are ostensibly enlightened, or at least on that road. When you factor in the non-meditators in government, particularly those who support big-ag interests, the picture is rather bleak. We clearly have a long road to travel before any new paradigm gains traction in this neck of the woods. Still, I wonder if there's a city or town in the country that stands out in this regard. The hope is that our Iowa guys have some intelligence and potential. There is a possibility, at least, of them seeing the light regarding punitive administration. Alert and literate, they might respond to a voice that was strong enough and that reflected a genuine spiritual stance.

Spiritual development manifests not only in how reactive people are, but in subtler ways. Looking again at our quality of life table (see chapter 1), the factor immediately above safety is respect for the garden zone. Enlightened people have a greater appreciation for the earth; they are more likely to spend a free afternoon on a nature trail than at a shopping mall. Moreover, they value simple quietness; the murmur of a woodland stream would have greater appeal than the ringing of a slot machine. Fairfield does not have a stellar record in this regard. For example, the town recently approved a $9 million gym and outdoor swimming pool in a voter referendum, even though it will raise property taxes, and even though we already have an indoor pool and a public beach. As an environmentalist, when you think about the ways $9 million could be spent in a town this size, it's dispiriting to see it squandered on what is basically a playground. It was a great relief to have the railroad quiet zone finally established, but at the same time, the city refused to contribute one penny toward its construction; the entire cost was covered by private donations. Realize that the trains are sill not quiet by any means. Silencing the horns lowered the decibel level, but you're not going to hear any warblers near those tracks.

This brings up the second livability criterion. The community we select should be a fair distance removed from urban sprawl. It's not that the plan couldn't work in the city—as we've seen, small town enforcers aren't much different from their urban counterparts—but the quality of life is not going to be the same. Big cities have environmental issues you don't generally find in rural areas. In particular, access to undeveloped green space should be easier in the country, and the background noise—from honking horns, vehicle traffic, airplanes, sirens, etc.—will be less. Criterion two we'll term the "Urban Factor." Of course, the farther outside town you live, the quieter and greener it gets, but coal trains and salvage yards aside, I'd say greater Fairfield is generally qualified in this regard.

Criterion three is the "Crime Factor." We would prefer a relatively low crime rate in the place where we make our homes. In this economy and in these times there is going to be property crime wherever you go. The goal of our program is to reduce crime while at the same time eliminating the bureaucracy that profits from criminalizing people. Still, it's the quality of life we're concerned about here; that is, how does the crime level affect our comfort. It's hard to commit to a neighborhood that requires bars on the windows and guard dogs in the backyard, where your car may be stolen while you're in bed or your kid roughed up by schoolyard bullies. Fairfield, again, is more than tolerable in this regard.

The jumping off point for this paradigm-breaking enterprise would best not be located near a large industrial complex. We'll call this the "Industry Factor." I'm thinking of cities and towns close to, or with an economy largely dependent on factories, slaughterhouses, mining and drilling operations, refineries, large military bases and so forth. You wouldn't want to find yourself in the position of a Bhopal or a Chernobyl. I'm sure cities like Norfolk, Groton and Los Alamos have their charms, but do we really want to live in such military-dominated settings? The nation's capital, Washington DC, is itself infused with a potent concentration of military-industrial enterprise, though it does disguise it well. On the other hand, locating a community safely outside such a complex might afford an opportunity to enlighten the careerists, to entice them to abandon the big G monolith for something more hopeful. How far outside the city one must locate to be comfortable is another question. For example, the Air Force announced plans to begin low-altitude flight training over southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. They're simulating the conditions in Afghanistan, where villages are scattered over mountainous terrain. The plans include fly-overs as low as two hundred feet. The cruel part is the training area is vast—stretching from as far north as Aspen to as far south as Albuquerque.[1] How can you hide from such airborne intrusion, and who's going to tell the Air Force no? Consider as well an even grander project, where an oil pipeline will link tar sands in northern Alberta to refineries in Texas, crossing the width of the United States. Should the feds decide they need your remote farmstead, which happens to straddle the pipeline path, you'd be helpless against their eminent-domain land grab.

Iowa has its own problems with industry. Not quite so centrally concentrated, but a significant presence nevertheless, are the hog confinements. For city-bred folks it's a shock to experience the stench coming off those farms. CAFOs are not yet a big issue for the more populated regions of Jefferson County, thanks in large part to JFAN, but they are always a looming threat. The vast acreage dedicated to commodity corn and soy is itself a reminder of the grotesque nature of industrial agriculture. To exist in Iowa, you have to be content with living in small pockets of green surrounded by miles of brown, lifeless desert, alternating seasonally with miles of equally lifeless GMO crop fields. But surprisingly, life in a green oasis can be comfortable, so long as we can stick with development that maintains the natural greenery and discourages urban-style expansion.

Related to the industry factor is the "Environment Factor." Here we want to be cognizant of how the natural environment affects health and the quality of life. My non-scientific assessment is that southeast Iowa falls somewhere in the middle in terms of environmental quality and ecological pitfalls. The dominant factors by far are the small size and remoteness of the city on the positive side, and the vast monoculture farm operations on the negative. It's also wise to keep an eye on the predictions of climate science for this area, especially regarding trends in rainfall. Non-native invaders, both flora and fauna, are going to be a problem almost everywhere these days. Insect pests are certainly an issue here—the emerald ash borer has already moved into Iowa. As an urban transplant, I was surprised to discover Fairfield is infested with oriental cockroaches. No telling how they got way out here, but if you live in town, you'll likely have to deal with them. (Glue boards cut into strips are effective.) Another pest I've noticed in the house is a gnat-size insect that is either a type of fruit fly or perhaps a fungus gnat. I don't have potted plants where they could breed, so I'm wondering if they're coming in from outside. (A fly swatter works well with these.) On the other hand, we're not fighting a war with bed bugs, as they are in the big cities. We do have deer ticks and lyme disease, but we don't have dengue, chagas or valley fever. In terms of four-legged pests, Fairfield harbors the usual array: mice, raccoon, deer, woodchuck. Our municipal water quality is good because the city pumps it from an underground aquifer—although, you wonder if anyone thinks about how long that aquifer will last. Iowa's waterways, on the other hand, are faring badly. The Environmental Working Group ( published a report in 2013 that showed 60% of Iowa's 98 streams rated either poor or very poor, with none that were excellent and only one that was good.

Regarding air quality, if you suffer from allergies, you should know the period from summer to fall is particularly challenging. One concern we do not have, however, is ozone; there's no vehicle traffic to speak of, nor any oil wells or petrochemical operations near us.[2] The American Lung Association gives this region good grades for air pollution,[3] but their instruments don't measure hog stench. Regarding climate, we have hot, humid summers and frigid winters. On the other hand, spring and fall are typically long and mild. It's windy here, which is both a blessing and a curse. A curse when the wind carries noxious CAFO vapors to your house, but a blessing in terms of wind power.

Perhaps the most positive aspect of Fairfield's environment is the land itself. This brings up the last criterion, which we'll term the "Resource Factor." At some point we would like to position the community to require less outside support, including dependence on fossil fuel, long-distance transport, imported products and so on. To make any headway in this regard, a community must have access to some basic resources. Iowa's obvious natural resources include good soil, okay rainfall, decent sun, good wind and a climate that is challenging but not impossible. Reliable access to water is important, and a wet climate offers obvious advantages (precipitation here averages 36.5 inches annually). Fairfield's creative and intellectual resources are excellent for such a small town. Its monetary resources are extraordinary considering the remoteness of the city. The people controlling the wealth appear liberal. On the other hand, a clear prosperity gap exists between the top and bottom strata. There is a clique of the moneyed elite that is generous to pet causes, but may or may not support any radical alterations to our economic system. As it stands, if you're not wealthy, don't own property and have limited income, Fairfield is rather ordinary in terms of sticking power. Working folks looking to survive will head for a bigger city in a more moderate climate.

To summarize, Fairfield is good for the crime factor, passable but tentative (because of CAFOs) for the industry factor, good for the urban factor and quite good for the resource factor. The spirituality factor is mixed—generally good for meditators and MUM folks and not so great, but perhaps improving for the local government and native population. The environment factor is complex and requires more thorough research, especially with regard to agriculture.

There are certainly other factors to consider before committing to a locality—job prospects, amenities, schools—all of which will produce different readings on a person's comfort scale, but we need a set of criteria to get us oriented, and these six factors provide a baseline. One obvious element we haven't called out is the cost of living—taxes in particular, and most especially for our purposes, property tax. I see taxes as a secondary rather than primary consideration. If the spirituality factor is strong, there won't be wasteful people running government; rather, big G will conduct its business with maximum efficiency, requiring the least contribution from taxpayers, who, trusting the money is managed wisely, will pay whatever is needed to fund big G's operations. Moreover, if the resource factor is strong, there will be less need for monetary input, either to run government or to keep our communities afloat because the land under us will provide what we need, with family, friends and neighbors filling the gaps. Still, it behooves us to be alert for construction projects and infrastructure improvements that could hike the cost of living to a prohibitive level.

Another point to consider from a legal angle is whether the community is in a so-called "Home Rule" state. According to Wikipedia and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, there are something like forty of such, including Iowa. Home Rule allows citizens to construct their own charter, overriding ordinances passed by elected officials. It severs the subordinate relation between state and local administration, giving communities greater latitude for self-governance. Note that home rule is not uniformly implemented in every state where it exists, and another constraint called "Dillon's Rule," which also subjugates municipal authority, might be in play. Realize also that no matter where you live, the structure of law is based on top-down administration and centralized control, favoring corporate rights over those of individuals and communities. This is the paradigm we're trying to change.

One alternative worth considering is Maharishi Vedic City. The administration there will be generally more enlightened and the environment significantly better—quieter, greener. In addition, you're only five miles from Fairfield, so you can still enjoy its amenities.

Regarding the quality-of-life hierarchy we outlined in chapter 1—safety, respect for the garden zone, courtesy and awareness—it's evident from our analysis that the top priority, awareness, is well covered in that the curriculum of a university operating right here in town centers on the development of consciousness.

[1]. Allison Sherry, "Air Force plans for low-altitude flight training run into civilian turbulence," The Denver Post, November 23, 2010

[2]. In a presentation to the Obama White House, the American Petroleum Institute showed maps indicating which areas of the country would be adversely affected—that is, from the industry's standpoint—by stricter EPA standards on ozone. Iowa was completely clear. Unlike other regions, we do not have factories that release significant volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere.

John M. Broder, "Re-election Strategy is Tied to Shift on Smog," The New York Times, November 16, 2011

[3]. Van Buren County, the closest location with monitoring devices, got an 'A' for ozone, and a 'B' for particulates (24-hr PM 2.5). Compare this to 'F' and 'C' for Prince George's County Maryland. 2013 data from the American Lung Association website,

Editor's Note: A large grain elevator and train loading terminal has been built just east of town. The county supervisors approved a bond for road improvements, and the operator began construction in the spring of 2014. The facility will generate grain dust (all GMO), and heavy truck traffic will create dust and noise on the approaching roads. The elevator impacts Fairfield's livability in terms of both industry and environment.

© 2015 Alexander Gabis