Ecovillages: New frontiers of sustainability by Jonathan Dawson

storypic212.jpgJonathan Dawson is a resident member of the Findhorn Foundation Community, general secretariat for GEN-Europe (Global Ecovillage Network) and a regular columnist for the Treading Lightly section of our online magazine. He now has the distinction of having been selected to write a Schumacher Briefing. The Schumacher Briefings are carefully researched, clearly written booklets on key aspects of sustainable development, published approximately twice a year by The Schumacher Society. Here is an except from the forthcoming briefing. To order the briefing in its entirety, visit:

Several years ago while addressing a public meeting, I was asked: “Which was the first ecovillage?” My initial impulse was to name Sólheimar, the celebrated Icelandic community created in 1931. However, I allowed my mind to soften, to release the specificity of the modern connotations associated with the word ecovillage and to look for something older. “On the shoulders of which wise ancestors are we standing?” I was asking myself. “To what lineages do we belong?”

Eventually, after reflecting on various communitarian initiatives at different moments in history, I plumped for the Celtic Christian monasteries of the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries off the wild Irish and Scottish west coasts: 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. (I have since learned from reading the intentional communities scholar, Bill Metcalf, that the lineage goes back much further, until at least the fifth century BC.)

My own answer surprised me and, frankly, came as something of a relief. For I had been labouring under the illusion that the future of the entire communities movement was resting on my shoulders, dependent on my ability to wrest a further annual grant for GEN-Europe (the Global Ecovillage Network) out of the European Commission. My epiphany was the acknowledgement that the impulse to live in community — and, on occasion, to live in community defined not by kinship but by shared values and mission — goes back into the mists of pre-history. I began to walk a little more carefree on the Earth.

Diverse threads are woven into the fabric of the modern-day intentional communities movement. One important lineage, apparently as old as the movement itself, is the ideal of self-reliance and spiritual enquiry kindled in the world’s religious communities. This thread is most evident today in communities like the Catholic l’Arche in France and quasi-monastic communities like Plum Village, created in France by the exiled Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. However, the spiritual impulse is also deeply embedded in many non-monastic initiatives including the Auroville community in India and among groups that form part of the New Age movement in the North. Among all of these, Gandhian principles of self-reliance, decentralisation and spiritual enquiry remain of paramount importance.

Other contemporary threads woven into the ecovillage tapestry include the Back to the Land and hippie movements of the 1960s and 70s, cohousing, eco-feminism and the intermediate technology and alternative education movements. The new element that has been the primary driver of the current upsurge in interest in intentional communities, however, has been growing awareness of the seriousness of the ecological problems faced by humanity. The failure of governments to address this crisis in any systematic manner has led people in unprecedented numbers to conclude that the core direction of mainstream society is so fundamentally flawed that it cannot be reformed from within but must, rather, be transcended from without.

Many of those communities that include the need for ecological sustainability at the forefront of their raison d’&ecirctre, along with social justice, peace and the creation of a human-scale society, are now calling themselves ecovillages. This is such a strong trend that, in the words of Bill Metcalf: “Ecovillages are becoming so popular throughout much of the world that many people imagine them to be the only type of intentional community.”

What is highly distinctive in the ecovillage movement is the weaving together of the intentional communities movement in the industrialised North with community-based, grassroots organisations in the South. These share two broad characteristics. First, both are seeking consciously to regain greater democratic, popular control over community resources that are coming under ever greater attack from corporate capitalism. Second, both recognise that at root, the problem to be addressed is at least as much cultural as economic in nature. Marian Zeitlin, one of the pioneers of the ecovillage movement in Senegal, put it thus: “In Senegal, becoming an ecovillage is no less than the act of reclaiming spiritual and cultural integrity, pride in tradition, heritage of mutual aid, community solidarity, self-reliance and self-respect that first were lost through colonial conquest.”

There follow two chapters describing best practice within the ecovillage family, especially in the fields of design of low-impact human settlements, promoting sustainable local economies, organic locally-based food production and processing, Earth restoration, revival of participatory, community-scale governance, social inclusion, peace activism, international solidarity and holistic education.

The first impression to leap from the page is the sheer energy and creativity at play here. Ecovillages are pioneering new models on multiple fronts. One is struck by how often they are in the vanguard in introducing new technologies or models — organic agriculture, CSAs, building techniques, integration of special needs and non-special needs people, community currencies, solar technologies, biological waste-water treatment plants and so on — that subsequently become more widely adopted in society at large.

It is clear that there are ecovillage attributes that enable them to move more quickly and boldly in the introduction of innovations than other change agents. Their small scale and shared values clearly serve them well. Of equal importance, however, is the community dimension. There are so many challenges that face us today on the path to sustainability that cannot be addressed at the level of the individual or even the small group, and for which community-level action is required.

So, where does the ecovillage movement go from here? We are on the threshold of a new era in human civilisation. The coming energy famine means that we are necessarily transitioning into a society characterised by smaller-scale and more locally-based economies — the cheap energy on which the current long global supply lines depend is already running down.

The good news is that the types of applied research, demonstration and training ecovillages are engaged in are precisely those that will be needed to navigate the rough waters ahead. Seen in this context, the initiatives that have been described on these pages — in reforestation, seed saving, place-specific technologies for energy efficient housing, food growing, energy generation, the development of inclusive decision making structures, voluntary simplicity and so on — appear not so much idiosyncratic tinkering as the very stuff of which the building of future societies will be made.

However, it is not enough, as some ecovillagers appear to believe, simply to sit and wait for the new, decentralised, ecovillage-friendly world to appear. There are many dangers and pitfalls on the post-Peak Oil path that lies before us and if ecovillages are to play an important role in facilitating the transition, both governments and ecovillages will need to work intelligently and cooperatively together.

Ecovillages face several core challenges — and opportunities — as they seek to respond to the opportunities presented by the coming energy famine. The most important of these is that of enmeshing themselves more deeply within the fabric of their own bioregions. The problem here is that ecovillages often find themselves caught between the present requirement to cater to the needs of their consumer base or ideological allies (those, often living far away, paying for their educational courses and consultancy services) and those of their immediate neighbours. A key task facing ecovillages today is that of gearing the research, demonstration and training activities towards helping communities in their own bioregions to make a transition into the age of expensive energy.

There are many areas — especially in the implementation of Agenda 21 programmes — where ecovillages and local authorities are natural partners. Given their long experience in developing models for sustainability with a minimum of external funding, ecovillages have become masters in both community mobilisation and getting value for money. Central and local government are coming under greater pressure to achieve environmental targets: for recycling, renewable energy generation, reduced emissions and so on. These are all areas in which ecovillages have location-specific expertise. There is an obvious rationale behind pulling them in as fully paid-up partners in the design and implementation of sustainable community development strategies.

Within its historical context, the choice made by ecovillages to follow a highly alternative path to that of mainstream society is understandable. Within the mainstream, it would have been all but impossible to create microcosmic societies of the type that the ecovillagers dreamed of. Moreover, the very act of stepping out of the predominant paradigm to participate in creating a new one had the magic of boldness about it. Ecovillages have gained greatly in confidence by demonstrating their ability to take power into their own hands.

However, the world is now changing. While in some respects, ecovillages remain highly distinctive, in others they find themselves much closer to the ‘mainstream’ than before. Long-term communards who remember not so long ago being derided by their more conventional neighbours as hippies and freaks now receive official delegations come to inspect their ecological technologies.

This is a moment of opportunity for ecovillages. That opportunity is to dare to leave the safe niche of ‘being alternative’, and to embrace enthusiastically the challenge of helping mainstream society over the next several decades. For this to happen, ecovillages and local government alike need to offer the welcoming hand of friendship, the one to the other.

Jonathan Dawson

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