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Ecovillages: The answer to sustainable living?

Ecovillages were a popular hippy ideal back in the 1980s – but how do they translate to the digital age? (Photo: Alex Proimos (CC BY 2.0))
Ecovillages were a popular hippy ideal back in the 1980s – but how do they translate to the digital age? (Photo: Alex Proimos (CC BY 2.0))

The world of sustainability is constantly developing, with new eco-friendly trends springing up all the time. For the environmentally conscious, living green is top priority. In this week's guest blog, Isabelle looks at the old idea of the ecovillage and how it measures up today.

One movement, which began in the 1980s, is particularly gaining popularity: the concept of ecovillages. But what exactly is an “ecovillage”?

From concept to community

Robert Gilman, a pioneer in the field of sustainability and who helped shaped the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN), defined an ecovillage as: a human-scale, full-featured settlement in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human developments, and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future. The fundamental purpose of joining an ecovillage is to minimise one’s ecological footprint by living in a sustainable habitat.

GEN itself defines an ecovillage as “an intentional or traditional community using local participatory processes to holistically integrate ecological, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of sustainability in order to regenerate social and natural environments”. According to GEN, in 1998, ecovillages were among the UN’s top 100 list of Best Practices, as excellent models of sustainable living.

So how do ecovillages measure up today?

Effective eco-spaces

One of the key features of ecovillages is that they are helping to pave the way for social transformation. Not only are they environmentally sustainable, but they provide important social functions such as solidarity, mutual aid, and harmonious coexistence.

The world’s ecovillages are mostly concentrated in Europe and North America; however, they are not exclusive to developed nations. According to The Guardian, communities in Senegal, Colombia, Jamaica, Palestine, and Egypt are also experimenting with more sustainable ways of living. Some of the effective strategies that these communities have implemented include:

  • Establishing a centre of genetic resources to provide seeds for local species, which are distributed for free to farmers
  • Village “eco-guardians” organising regular public clean-ups, and educating people about the dangers of litter and chemical inputs in the field
  • Villages moving to renewable energy such as biogas
  • Installing compost toilets and solar panels
  • Using biodynamic agriculture techniques (a method of organic farming).

Changes and challenges

Despite the progress and innovation, Gilman highlights the many challenges that these communities face in terms of research and design, creation and implementation, and maintenance of the ecovillage. For example: finding the land, paying for it, and overcoming any legal barriers; practices such as recycling all the solid waste from the village or having a minimal need for motorised transport; and the question of governance, including leaders and the decision-making process—all of these pose problems.

A barrel house from Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland
Even the population of one of the world's most famous ecovillages – Findhorn in Scotland – produces far too much excess

There are also several preconceived social notions that make the idea of ecovillages seem less than appealing. There’s the thought that these communities embody a “hippy” lifestyle that can’t coincide with the Digital Age; they stifle entrepreneurship and individual creativity; and they’re only suited to people who want or who are accustomed to a “slower” pace of life. Furthermore, we can’t forget that the practice of inhabiting ecovillages is mostly—for now—adopted by richer individuals from developed countries.

Many developing countries already have rural, land-based communities whose livelihoods are threatened by social, environmental and economic burdens imposed on them. In the process of implementing an ecovillage way of life, these poorer communities should not be overlooked nor compromised. Given these challenges then, it is no surprise that Gilman says: “As far as we have been able to discover, there are as yet no communities that fully express the eco-village ideal.”

Just an ideal

Samuel Alexander—a research fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute—says in an article that even if everyone lived in an ecovillage, the Earth would still be in trouble.

He uses one of the most successful and famous ecovillages in the world as an example. The Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland has adopted an almost exclusively vegetarian diet, produces renewable energy, and creates many of their houses out of mud or reclaimed materials. However, despite these committed and commendable efforts, an ecological footprint analysis of the community found that the village was still consuming resources and emitting waste in far too much excess.

Part of the problem with the Scottish ecovillage, Alexander notes, is that the community’s air travel habits are the same as that of an ordinary Westerner, which increases their otherwise small footprint. He goes on to say that a “fair share” ecological footprint would mean that we would all have to reduce our impacts to a small fraction of what they are today—a change that is “incompatible with a growth-oriented civilization”.

So what is the sustainable solution?

Whether living in an ecovillage or not, there are many answers to this question—some of which Alexander admits will be unpopular:

  • We should ride bicycles more and fly less
  • Food should be grown organically and locally, and we need to eat much less or no meat
  • Systems of renewable energy must be quickly implemented, along with less consumption of energy
  • People need to have fewer children because the species is growing beyond control. Governments should offer incentives for smaller families (as opposed to penalties for large families, which leads to other problems such as infanticide)
  • We have to forgo this consumer culture that we find ourselves in and instead adopt a “dematerialisation” one; live frugally and in moderation.

Finally, it is important to remember that essentially, the successful establishment of ecovillages relies heavily on people’s mindset about our environment. In Gilman’s words: “Sustainability is not just a characteristic of the ‘completed’ community; it needs to be part of the thinking and the habits of the group from the very beginning.”

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