After 20 years of teaching global environmental politics at a major research university, watching the state of the world go from bad to worse, I became increasingly curious: ‘Who is devising ways of living that could work for the long haul?’ My research led me to ecovillages: communities the world over that are seeding micro-societies within the husk of the old. I traveled to five continents, living in 14 ecovillages and doing in-depth interviews with their members over the course of a year, and publishing the results in Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community. My sampling reflects their diversity: rural and urban; rich, poor and middle class; secular and spiritual. I was also curious to know what, if anything, unifies the astonishingly diverse Global Ecovillage Network.
I learned that ‘sustainability’ varies with context. Ecovillagers in the Global North focus on reducing social alienation, consumption and waste, whereas those in the Global South focus on village-based employment, gender equality and food sovereignty. Los Angeles Ecovillage, for instance, is an island of frugality in the heart of Southern California’s consumer culture, whereas Colufifa, a Senegal-based village network, is primarily concerned with hunger prevention. Yet both are drawn to bicycles and permaculture, suggesting that ‘sustainability’ has some common ground in east Hollywood and west Africa.
Most important, I found evidence of an emerging common worldview in the global ecovillage movement, including these basic tenets:
- The web of life is sacred, and humanity is an integral part of that web.
- Global trends are approaching a crisis point.
- Positive change will come primarily from the bottom up.
- Community is an adventure in relational living—ecologically, socially, and psychologically.
As a consequence of these beliefs, ecovillagers are unusually sensitive to the consequences of their actions, both near and far, and unusually open to sharing. If I had to choose one word to express the essence of ecovillage culture, it would be sharing. Because ecovillages in the Global North share material resources, both their consumption and incomes are quite low compared to their home country averages. At Earthaven in North Carolina and Sieben Linden in Germany, for instance, members had annual incomes of less than $12,000. Despite being far below the poverty line, they described their lives as ‘rich’ and ‘abundant.’
Material factors like self-built homes and home-grown food tell only part of the story. A more encompassing explanation is the prevalence of sharing—not only of property and vehicles, but of the intangibles that define community: ideas, skills, dreams, stories, and deep introspection. Ecovillagers consistently reported that human relationships are both the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of ecovillage life. ‘Being here is like being in a fire,’ said one. ‘Your lack of trust, your anger, your family neuroses—everything that separates you from the world comes out here!’ Ecovillages are, as much as anything, laboratories for personal and interpersonal transformation.
In many ways, my global journey was a paradoxical one. As an international relations scholar acutely aware of the global nature of our problems, why was I touring micro-communities in search of a viable future? Even including the 15,000 Sri Lankan member villages in Sarvodaya—by far the largest member of the Global Ecovillage Network—less than 0.05% of the world’s population lives in an ecovillage. Time is far too short to construct ecovillages for 7 billion people but not—as the book’s final chapter, ‘Scaling It Up,’ suggests—too short to apply their lessons in our neighborhoods, cities and towns, countries, and even at the level of international policy. Given that some of Earth’s life-support systems may have passed the tipping point, success is far from guaranteed. What is guaranteed, however, is a sense of shared adventure and worthy purpose—qualities I found in abundance in ecovillages.
Karen Litfin is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington.
You can read the first chapter of her book Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community here.