Moving Outside the Bubble: The Ecovillage Contribution to the Sustainability Movement
Jonathan Dawson is the President of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN). He is a resident of the Findhorn Ecovillage, where he teaches sustainability studies up to undergraduate level. He is co-author of a curriculum on sustainable community development that has been endorsed by UNESCO as part of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainability. Jonathan has spent 20 years as a consultant, author, educator and project manager in the field of community economic development in Africa and South Asia. He is the author of three books on various aspects of development and sustainability and is a prolific writer of articles for academic journals and the popular media.
Ecovillages have been highly successful as seedbeds of innovation and dynamism. Many technologies now in widespread use, geothermal heating systems, organic CSA box schemes, biological waste treatment systems, nonviolent communication and other mediation techniques and so on, were first introduced in many countries through ecovillages. Yet, today, rising land prices and tighter planning regulations make ecovillages very difficult to replicate. In this context, what is the distinctive contribution that ecovillages have to make to the wider sustainability movement and how can they most effectively offer it? Jonathan’s presentation explored many of the key strategic choices facing the ecovillage movement today.
Jonathan sees the ecovillage ethic as citizens coming together, moving beyond protest to model a positive vision of the ideal society. He cited several examples of successful ecovillages some of which were transformed from harrowing backgrounds, among them Lebensgarten in Germany which was a former munitions factory, ZEGG in Germany which was a former training ground of Nazis and is now a highly successful social experiment, and LA Ecovillage in the United States which is a group of activists who are currently transforming an urban, multi-ethnic neighbourhood by literally reclaiming the streets and directly addressing the issues of poverty and drugs.
To Jonathan, the cuddly word ecovillage doesn’t capture the power of the movement. It’s a puny term for these fantastic stories. Those who created ecovillages tend to be outrageously unreasonable people, Jonathan contends. He sees this when he scans how communities came into existence, particularly in the case of the Russian radio journalist, Dimitri Morozov, who founded Kitezh. He saw an orphanage and brutality, and gave up his job to start a community to foster these children. To him, the legislation was irrelevant — he firmly held the belief that the children have to be saved. The creators of ecovillages are profoundly visionary and are in service to something bigger than themselves.
However, nobody seemed to be paying attention. For instance, last year the Findhorn Foundation community announced that its ecological footprint is the lowest ever recorded for any community in the industrialised world. Jonathan joked that our low footprint can be attributed to our low purchasing power as Foundation staff receive very low wages. Why, he continued, for the newsperson, is this not news? Then the penny dropped as he saw the system behind the form and began to research the first ecovillages. Had they had the word ecovillage, the first communities would have used it.
His initial impulse was to name Sólheimar, the celebrated Icelandic community created in 1931, as the first ecovillage. However, when he allowed his mind to soften, to release the specificity of the modern connotations associated with the word ecovillage and to look for something older, he began to reflect on various communitarian initiatives at different moments in history, and discovered that the great monasteries of the sixth and seventh centuries off the west coast of Ireland and Scotland were the first — Iona, Skellig Michael and the like. Intentional communities scholar, Bill Metcalf, thought that the lineage went back much further, until at least Pythagoras’s community in Crotone in the fifth century BC.
Jonathan believes the most powerful thread woven into the ecovillage is the monestary. Celtic monasteries were small, decentralised, generally mixed-gender, only occasionally celibate and dedicated to loving the land, celebrating the sacred, and keeping alive the candle of learning in a time of profound darkness across Europe.
Well established members of the ecovillage family were created in the 1970’s; some in the 1980’s and the winds of historic change swept us into the ecovillage movement. As Jonathan sees it, the tide has already turned. Land prices were lower then so its harder now for new ecovillages trying to acquire land and build. People are still driven by unstoppable vision, but its not as easy. The soil is much less fertile than it has been. On the one hand, it’s never been more difficult, but paradoxically, ecovillages have never been so powerful and influential. Ten years ago we were off the map, if not off the wall. Now, we’re working closely with mainstream organisations.
On the one hand, society is deeply recognising that it’s the shape of the future and asking, ‘how can we take what you’re doing and scale it up?’ A question Jonathan’s been working on for the last couple of years is what are ecovillages for and how can they best be of service at this pivotal moment in our collective history?
As with monasteries ecovillages are places of refuge — and, Jonathan admits, he has a judgement about that — while also recognising the importance of the feeling behind the attitude, ‘Hey, stop the world, I want to get off!’ Now he see’s the value of having a place that is safe and holding and if that’s the only contribution then great! When Jonathan came to Findhorn, his motivation was, ‘Remove from my shoulders the heavy burden of responsibility. Let me engage in a frenzy of wanton playfulness.’
When he considers what community life is for he sees it as a space of holding and of reimagining — choosing to be of the forest not the city. Places people come for deep feeding. Places that are modelling a completely different way of being. It’s not just about windparks and bio sewage treatment plants; it’s not just about the hardware. Now it’s about immersion in how the whole can look.
A further contribution is experimentation. This is a whole element that will need to be there when the existing forms and structures crumble. Findhorn was one of the first to experiment. For example, it created Britain’s first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture Scheme) and first Living Machine, both of which are in widespread use now.
Ecovillages can be profoundly influential and although they have become tightly identified with communities, most of them do not actually operate that way. The Findhorn Foundation and community, Auroville, and Damanhur are true community examples, but most ecovillages are research, training and demonstration centres. Jonathan sees the possibility of them moving to be juicy, daring, playful monasteries.
Jonathan sees true ecovillages as part of a longer term strategy, including relocalisation and transition towns. He stresses the importance of them staying alive and building conscious partnerships. Education is a way for us to deeply serve that is also deeply transformative because it respects the whole person. We can come in as educators, bringing joy and diversity into community.
“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work; but, rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”.
To illustrate the point even further, Jonathan compared the Findhorn community and the developer-led eco-neighbourhood of BedZed in England, viewing BedZed as a boat yard, and Findhorn as a dream factory.
Another image he likes to use is that of the ecovillage as a yogurt culture — it infects its surroundings with the seed of sustainability.
After an insightful and light-hearted presentation, Jonathan left us with this Celtic blessing:
May the light of your soul guide you.
May the light of your soul bless the work you do,
with the secret love and warmth of your heart.
May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul.
May the sacredness of your work bring healing,
light and renewal to those who work with you
And to those who see and receive your work.
May your work never weary you.
May it release within you wellsprings of refreshment,
inspiration and excitement.
May you be present in what you do.
May you never become lost in the bland absences.
May the day never burden.
May dawn find you awake and alert,
Approaching your new day with dreams,
possibilities and promises.
May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.
May you go into the night blessed, sheltered and protected.
May your soul calm, console and renew you.
by John O’Donohue
– Mattie Porte –
Photographer: Sverre Koxvold
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