Ecovillages: New Frontiers for Sustainability

Next Wednesday, January 10th at 7:30pm we are hosting a virtual get-to-know-you meeting to ramp up to our book club.

Have you read a good article in Communities Magazine lately? Or watched a great documentary? Join us and share what you’ve been reading and learning about ecovillages and community living.

Our member Will Powers will share his reflections on a recent read from our EVNJ Lending Library: Jonathan Dawson’s 2006 Ecovillages: New Frontiers for Sustainability from the Schumacher Briefings series. This publication explores the concept of the ecovillage and reviews 5 international case studies.

You can view a copy of this book digitally for 1 hour at a time by logging in to the Internet Archive for free:

Copied below is a summary with excerpts prepared by Will:
New Frontiers for Sustainability

We look forward to a lively discussion!

Meanwhile, get ready – our next book will be
Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities by Diana Leafe Christian

Book Club Info Meeting & Knowledge Share

The following is an attempt by EVNJ member Will Powers to highlight and share the key points from a recent read of the book: Ecovillages: New Frontiers for Sustainability, by Jonathan Dawson.

The book was provided by EVNJ’s lending library, thanks to member Steve Welzer. The author Jonathan Dawson is President of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) and lives at the Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland. The points that follow are either direct quotes or a paraphrasing of his ideas.

* “The Ecovillage movement was born when the ancient idea of intentional communal living met the burgeoning international green movement of the 1960s and 1970s”. Ecovillages are the newest and most potent kind of intentional community, and their popularity has led many people to imagine them to be the only type of intentional community. Yet, the term ‘Ecovillage’ had not been coined until about 40 years ago. “Today, it proliferates under a dizzying array of guises”. A web search on the word ‘Ecovillage’ takes the browser on a journey through the world of intentional communities in the industrialized North, community development projects in the countries of the Global South, luxury tourist destinations worldwide, large-scale developer-led housing projects, and education centers. “It truly is a term that has entered the zeitgeist, even if, in the process, it has made sacrifices in terms of clarity of definition”.

> The rise of the term ‘Ecovillage’ dates back to the 1980s, a time when community integrity was being steamrolled by economic policies favoring mass production and distribution, and the free flow of capital across the globe, which corresponded with increases in the rates of crime, depression, drug abuse and suicide—sure indicators of the growing alienation experienced by many. “By the late 1980s, the fall in quality of life was tangible”. Prior to, “The Back to the Land and hippie movements of the 1960s and 1970s represented a rejection by youth of mainstream, materialist values, a yearning for reconnection and the launch of myriad experiments in the re-creation of community in the West. The cohousing movement, launched in Denmark and spreading rapidly internationally, represented a less radical but no less important attempt to create human-scale settlements that tread more lightly on the Earth while offering to their residents a real sense of community”.

We live in a time of severe breakdown of the community fabric within countries of the global North, and of unprecedented threats to ecosystems globally. Globalization carries in its wake a range of costs that are unsustainable, and at the root of numerous ecological crises. “Climate change, the most serious of these, is directly linked to the large-scale, centralized industrial processes favored by economic globalization and to the emergence of settlement patterns and social structures that facilitate, even require, high levels of mobility”. The movement to create ecovillages is perhaps the most comprehensive antidote to dependence on the global economy. Around the world, people are building communities that attempt to get away from the waste, pollution, competition and violence of contemporary life. The primary gift of ecovillages to the wider sustainability family has been the impulse to move beyond protest and to create models of more sane, just, and sustainable ways of living.

* “Ecovillages are heterogeneous to the extent that no one model covering all cases can be described”. Given the great heterogeneity on display, it is legitimate to question whether the very concept of ecovillages retains any true coherence, when the term is used to describe such a variety of circumstance, vision, and strategy. There is so much diversity within and among ecovillages that generalizations are often difficult to make. However, broad patterns are identifiable. There are several fundamental attributes that, to greater or lesser extent, most ecovillages can be seen to share…

> “The first is the primacy of community. The ecovillage is, perhaps above all else, a response to the alienation and solitude of the modern condition”. It responds to a hunger in people for a reconnection with others in meaningful community, and the sharing of resources and facilities that it allows for substantial decreases in resource/energy use. Communities that eat together and share cars, garden tools, etc. tread more lightly on the Earth. Ecovillages unite two profound truths: that human life is at its best in small, supportive, healthy communities, and that the only sustainable path for humanity requires the recovery and refinement of community life. There are so many challenges that face us today on the path to sustainability that cannot be addressed at the level of the individual, and for which community-level action is required.

> “Second, ecovillages are citizen’s initiatives, more or less entirely reliant, at least initially, on the resources, imagination and vision of community members themselves. In the main, this results from a widespread dissatisfaction with, “the co-opting of states, North and South, by corporate interests, and their unwillingness or inability to engage seriously with growing problems of ecological dislocation and poverty has encouraged many citizens to find ways of working outside the system. This tends to give ecovillages a highly libertarian (perhaps, ‘liberated’ is the better word) flavor, consequent on their having consciously stepped out of the dominant social arrangements in order to create ways of working together that better meet their own needs”. 

> “A third defining characteristic of all ecovillages is that they are in the business of wresting back control over their own resources and, ultimately, their own destinies. In the countries of the South, the battle-lines for control over resources between communities and corporations are very evident”. The same drama also plays out, though less obviously to many, in the countries of the North. Local communities are flattened by out-of-town supermarkets, leaving consumers with little choice but to buy products that degrade ecosystems around the world. Communities become dependent on large and distant corporations and their global supply chains. “Culture becomes commodified, standardized and dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. Opposition to economic globalization, then, provides a rallying point for ecovillagers around the world, an attempt to win back some measure of community control over the various dimensions of human life: how we grow our food, build our houses, generate our energy, create our livelihoods, entertain ourselves and each other”. 

> “The fourth characteristic common to all ecovillages is that at their heart lies a strong body of shared values”. The nature of the common values differs widely, but most draw their inspiration—in different measure according to the focus of each specific ecovillage—from ecological, social, economic, and spiritual concerns. The choice to live in an eco-village is often based on the desire to align oneself with specific shared values.

* “Corporate subsidies and unfair trade arrangements have created a global economy in which huge volumes of produce are shipped hither and thither across the world. This delivers profits to the corporations that control production and distribution, while undermining communities, local economies and ecosystems alike. So all-pervasive is this global system that people feel increasingly powerless to oppose it”. The ecovillage response to this thorny problem takes many forms. 

> First, there’s a strong impulse towards voluntary simplicity, the conscious decision to live more simply and locally. Communities that are committed to modeling low-impact lifestyles pervade the ecovillage movement. Thus, ecovillages tend to be places where there is a significant sharing and recycling of clothes, toys, and equipment of all kinds. This decision to downsize and simplify leaves more time to spend in community with others. The successful micro-societies living in low-carbon, post-consumerist environments, reap the benefits of stronger communities and healthier lifestyles.

> “Second, there is within ecovillages a strong, though admittedly weakening, tradition of economic solidarity”. That is, a broad sharing of resources, with income going into a common pot, and the collective taking some measure of responsibility for meeting members’ needs. “This permits the community to provide a wide range of shared services, to facilitate a redistribution of wealth within the ecovillage and to help reduce dependency on the global economy”. The degree to which this occurs among intentional communities varies. In the ecovillages that are more strongly communitarian in nature, there is very little private property, and all profits go into a common purse. For example, the Twin Oaks community in Virginia provides a living for all members, including health insurance, from the profits it makes from its community-owned hammock, furniture, and tofu making businesses. 

* The emergence of ‘cohousing’ played a catalytic role in the emergence of the modern ecovillage movement. Cohousing is a model for human settlements in which a number of (private) households cluster together around a shared space, which typically features a ‘Common House’ where members eat communally and share resources, tools, etc. This model enjoys success in both helping to rebuild a sense of community and in reducing overall levels of consumption as a consequence of sharing resources. However, many ecovillagers feel that a deeper and more far ranging transformation is needed in how humans live on the Earth than the conventional/mainstream cohousing model, which often permits its members to continue to live fairly conventional lifestyles.

> The developer-led eco-community is a more or less typical housing development, but intentionally designed to be as ecologically benign as possible. “The cohousing model also sees the central developer as having a core role to play: the settlement is generally planned and built as a whole. However, those who will be residents have an important say in determining the design, which tends to have a stronger emphasis on social and community dimensions than with developer-led eco-settlements”. Nevertheless, “in many—perhaps most—cohousing settlements, only a portion of the residents (those who have been involved in the early stages of the project) tend to be involved in the design phase. Often, most long-term residents are not identified until after the settlement has been designed and/or built”. 

> Ecovillages take the social dimension further, and are more radical in their approach. “Ecovillagers not only design their settlements, but often also build them”. There is a strong, self-build tradition, using locally available and also sometimes recycled materials. “Some ecovillages design and construct or retrofit according to a central plan, but just as often, buildings get built or renovated over time, as money becomes available, and there’s often great diversity in building styles”. However, while there is, “within many ecovillages a strong anarchistic flavor, reflected among other ways in the desire for individuals to be involved in designing and building their own homes”, it is important to question whether this luxury remains appropriate or affordable. There are many (eco) design features that work at the level of the settlement but not at the level of the individual house, and “technologies that are viable only above a certain scale are much more likely to be built into the design of whole settlements—or clusters—than into that of individual houses. 

> Collectively planned building often permits more compact settlements with a lower footprint. Meanwhile, “it is true that building collectively requires a level of organization—in terms of both raising capital and creating a central design—not required for individual house-building”. Ecovillagers have to decide to what degree they want to shed their individualistic preferences and tendencies in order to create more communal models, which can be cheaper, more socially inclusive, and lighter in terms of impact. 

> In conventional cohousing settlements, residents have regular jobs, pay (individual) mortgages, and there is no pooling of incomes. The community dimension of life in ecovillages is stronger than typical cohousing projects: residents have less private space, many more members work within the community (which results in lower carbon footprints due to less transportation needs) and a good number have some element of income sharing.

> However, Dawson points out that these distinctions are “somewhat confused” by the fact that there has been much “blurring of the lines between ecovillages and cohousing projects”. After all, a number of established ecovillages have drawn on the cohousing model, and many, such as Ecovillage at Ithaca, formally describe themselves as cohousing ecovillages. 

> The range in the type, size and nature of ecovillage initiatives “could hardly be greater”. This is not necessarily a problem in itself, until one considers the challenge of replication: those asking innocently, “How does one create an Ecovillage?”, rarely find a simple and useful answer, due to the great diversity in the forms that ecovillages take. One of the major reasons ecovillages have not proliferated to the degree hoped for and anticipated is the lack of clear templates for would be ecovillagers to follow. “The lack of commonly recognized templates or models too often means that each new group of would-be ecovillages are left to reinvent the wheel”. The cohousing movement has much to offer in this respect. “One important reason for its relatively rapid spread is that core models have been developed and this makes dialogue with planners much easier”. When you find a convenient and already existing legal structure—thus saving the time and resources required to invent a new one—you’re then free to choose to be as radical as you wish in other areas. “The task for ecovillages is to analyze their requirements and to use existing legislation as far as possible”, thus making life easier when dealing with local officials.

* “At the very heart of the rationale for creating ecovillages is the desire to construct human settlements that tread less heavily on the Earth and in which people are more healthily and sustainably integrated into the non-human world. Two broad, though complementary—and, to some degree, overlapping—approaches can be discerned in the ways that various ecovillages have sought to create low-impact settlements. The first can be described as the ‘low-tech’ approach, as exemplified by Sieben Linden, where a conscious attempt is made to reduce the use of fossil fuels, to simplify design and reduce needs and costs, and to make as much use as possible of locally available and recycled materials. The second can be described as high-tech and involves the use of state-of-the-art ecological technologies, even though these are often more expensive in investment costs than conventional alternatives”. This second strategy for reducing ecological footprints is based on the adoption of highly energy-efficient technologies. Here, ecovillages often play the role of innovators. 

> “A striking feature of most ecovillages—low and high-tech alike—that enables them to significantly reduce their ecological footprints is their more or less holistic and integrated character, enabling them to increase internal resource flows, and reduce the need for external inputs”. The benefits of ecovillages are partly a function of intentional design, partly a function of scale: it is simply easier for resource flows to be integrated and waste reduced in communities at the ecovillage scale. Their small scale and shared values clearly serve them well. 

> Still, there are sharp differences in scale within the ecovillage movement. In fact, most “ecovillages” aren’t large enough to qualify as actual villages. Dawson notes that a significant insight that emerges from the book concerns the nature of ecovillages themselves: what is interesting is that with few exceptions—Auroville, Damanhur, Findhorn, Ithaca and perhaps a few others—most intentional communities aren’t, “anywhere near large enough to truly be described as a ‘village’. There is a reasonable number of what might be called ‘eco-hamlets’ of around 100 or so people, but very few true villages”.

* The ecovillage family faces many challenges, external and internal. In the “economically rich countries of the North”, the job of creating and maintaining an eco-village has become substantially more difficult over recent decades. Rising land prices and the tightening of regulatory frameworks make it difficult for ecovillages to form and prosper. The process of winning approval for the building of new settlements, especially where innovative, non-traditional settlements are planned, has become increasingly fraught. The steps involved in creating an ecovillage—identifying and building a core group, finding the land, working with planning authorities, raising capital, setting up a suitable legal structure, putting up buildings, agreeing on decision-making structures, working with conflict and so on—are no small tasks.

> As planning regulations have tightened, it has become more difficult for groups to create substantial new settlements without professional assistance. One way around this is to pool risk capital from within the group to engage professionals to provide legal advice and to help dialogue with the authorities. “Having succeeded in getting permission in this way, nascent communities can then revert to more conventional ecovillage ways of building and managing the settlement”. The Village in Ireland provides an interesting example; they had great difficulty in finding land with the requisite planning permission attached. “Recognizing that they would require the services of professionals to help them overcome this problem, they raised capital from within the group to employ a part-time worker to coordinate activities and an architect to help them work on a design”. The creation of the plan, together with the lobbying activities of their part-time employee, helped the group be taken more seriously and contributed to the eventual decision by their local County Council to rezone a piece of land, making it available for ecovillage development. “As ecovillages have richly demonstrated, much can be achieved with a minimum of official assistance”.

> Several factors have inhibited the establishment of new ecovillages and restricted the development of those already on the ground. A solid majority of ecovillages remain small, with a clear majority having fewer than 50 members. In many cases, they stay small because this is their members’ choice, but quite frequently, regulatory frameworks impose a glass ceiling that only the most clever, determined, and lucky are able to break through.

> Another significant challenge is the drift towards greater individualism in society at large, “that is in turn mirrored within ecovillages”. This trend toward greater individualism (and the weakening of the communal impulse) often finds expression within ecovillages, which results in increased demands for more private space, and a higher turnover of members. “Despite these trends, most ecovillages continue to have core groups of highly committed, long-term members, and exude a strong sense of purpose and shared values”. Still, the progressive weakening of the communitarian impulse must be considered as one of the principle reasons explaining the relative sparsity of newly created large and successful ecovillages.

> Much attention tends to be placed on the technological features of ecovillages, but ecovillagers themselves lay at least as much emphasis on the social dimension, “the challenge of finding satisfactory and inclusive forms of community governance and wellbeing. This is among the most challenging tasks faced by ecovillages and lies at the root of the collapse of not a few of them”. Given the progressive breakdown of community structures, especially in the countries of the global North, this appears to be a vital area of research. “There are three principal dimensions to ecovillage efforts in this field: promoting a culture of trust and compassion, creating effective decision-making procedures, and working with conflict. Most ecovillages seek to establish a culture of trust among the members through honest and transparent communication”. 

> Ecovillages typically have little access to official sources of funding and tend to be largely dependent on private resources. “Substantial amounts of money have been raised from within ecovillages and from networks of friends and supporters of their values and projects. This is in large part to the creative acumen that ecovillagers bring to the art of fundraising. However, this drains time and resources that could be spent more creatively. It also imposes a limit on what can be achieved: many great ideas for projects never see the light of day, or fail to achieve their full potential, due to lack of finance”. 

> “To date, ecovillages have been swimming resolutely against the dominant socio-economic paradigm of our age—globalization. Where globalization is predicated on the notion that we can grow our way out of our social and ecological problems through ever greater specialization, accumulation and trade, ecovillages are the living manifestation of a philosophy of voluntary simplicity, and greater self-reliance. Given that the dominant economic signals and regulatory framework so strongly favor mass production and distribution, and that ecovillages have benefited from so little official support, it is astonishing that they’ve been able to achieve as much as they have done”. 

* Our addiction to oil must be broken and the kind of monopolistic economy we have today, with its devastating social, ecological consequences, must be left behind. “There is much uncertainty about how the transition ahead will unfold and over how long a period. It may be the result of a consciously chosen path of ‘powering down’, or, as looks progressively more likely, imposed upon us by a rupture that dislocates the entire system. Since we have never been here before, it is impossible to offer more than an educated guess on unlikely scenarios. What does, however, appear inevitable is that human societies of the not too distant future will be more locally based and decentralized than those we know today. Society will have no choice but to take its foot off the accelerator pedal. The huge surpluses on which today’s great concentrations of power and wealth are dependent will no longer be possible. Life must necessarily become simpler and more decentralized, and people will need to become more knowledgeable about their own bioregions. However, and this is the great challenge that faces our civilization, the last-half century or so has seen the dismantling of the very structures and knowledge base that people will need to survive and thrive through the transition”. 

> Today’s society is so little able to provide for any of its core needs—food, clothing, building, furniture, and so on using locally available skills, resources, and materials—that it finds itself much more vulnerable to external shock. “The good news is that the types of applied research, demonstration and training that ecovillages are engaged in are precisely those that will be needed to navigate the rough waters ahead”. 

> “Whether one is persuaded of the eminence of cataclysmic global collapse, or simply planning for making the transition to a world where we will need to provide for more of our own needs, it makes sense to ensure that as far as possible, the wisdom, the models and the technologies developed within ecovillages are mobilize for the wider public good”.

Some questions related to the text for us to consider:

1. When we use the term ‘ecovillage’, do we actually aspire to create something resembling a village, or something smaller scale? What scale/size of a community do we prefer or think is ideal?

2. Do we want to pursue community business ventures and sources of income, and if so, to what degree do we want to pursue income-sharing models?

3. Do we want to create something like a cohousing ecovillage, featuring private households clustered together around a shared space (similar to the Ithaca or Whitehawk Ecovillages), or something more radical, sharing oriented, and communal, with less private space and private ownership?

4. To what degree do we want to attempt to provide for our community’s core needs, in terms of food, clothing, building, furniture, and so on, using locally available skills, resources, and materials?

5. Beyond the draw towards the social and community dimensions of what intentional communities and ecovillages provide, how driven are we to create a community that is as eco-friendly and low-impact as possible?

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