Upon first hearing the term “ecovillage”, many assume they are eccentric experiments well outside the mainstream. Let’s remember, however, that for 99.9 percent of our 250,000-year evolutionary history, humans lived in small-scale, low-impact communities. Only since the Industrial Revolution have changes in human activity and urbanization led to dramatic growth in population density and ecological impacts. Today, over half of us live in cities and global crises such as climate change, resource depletion, and rampant social inequity are threatening life as we know it. In our increasingly individualistic, mobile, and consumer-oriented societies we have forgotten what it means to be in community.
Although not utopias, ecovillages represent perhaps the most integrated, grassroots community responses to these global crises. They are catalyzing an awakening from our collective amnesia and refashioning ancient stories of how we can live in harmony with each other and all life.
History and Definitions
The term “ecovillage” was first popularized in 1991 when Robert and Diane Gilman, commissioned by the Danish charity Gaia Trust, published a report titled Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities. Defining the word is challenging because, like “sustainability“, it is used in many contexts with different meanings. In Robert Gilman’s enduring formulation,
“an ecovillage is 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 development, with multiple centers of initiative, and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.”
This is clearly a tall order. In fact, using a strict interpretation, one could argue that that there are no ecovillages on the planet today. Ecovillages are therefore better thought of as communities striving towards these ideals rather than actualized utopias.
The Gilmans’ 1991 report led to the development of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN), which launched in 1995 during the first international ecovillage conference at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. GEN began by offering networking and financial support to ecovillages within three transnational regions: GEN Oceania and Asia (GENOA), the Ecovillage Network of the Americas (ENA), and GEN-Europe/Africa/Middle East. Two additional networks emerged in 2012: GEN-Africa and CASA (El Consejo de Asentamientos Sustentables de las Américas) in Latin America, which then led to ENA reforming as GEN-North America (GENNA)
In 2001, GEN was granted consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and in 2005 two partner organizations, NextGEN and Gaia Education, were launched at the GEN+10 conference at Findhorn. NextGEN is a network of youth involved in the global ecovillage movement; Gaia Education has developed curriculum on sustainable community design and offered intensive courses in over thirty countries as official contributions to the UN’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development.
GEN defines an ecovillage as…
“an intentional, traditional; rural or urban community that is consciously designed through locally owned, participatory processes in all four dimensions of sustainability: social, culture, ecology and economy to regenerate their social and natural environments.”
Regardless of which definition one uses, it is clear that ecovillages are living laboratories – “beta test centers” – for a more equitable, just and regenerative future. They are creating lifestyles that are both high quality with equitable access to resources and power and low impact with minimal ecological footprints.
I therefore define an ecovillage simply as “a community striving to live well and lightly together.”
Environmental and Social Responsibility
Unpacking this last definition, one can see there are actually two directions towards the ecovillage model, which are illustrated in the diagram below. Ecovillages within “developed”, resource-rich countries are typically intentionally created with members striving to bring their ecological impacts below local and global carrying capacities while maintaining high quality lifestyles. These ecovillages also try to understand the economic and political systems that put them on “top” and often engage in social equity and justice work in their neighboring communities, their nations, and the world.
Ecovillages within resource-poor, “two-thirds world” countries are generally indigenous, traditional communities working to elevate themselves above an “Equity Baseline” while maintaining small footprints. They desire greater access to wealth and resources and broader ability to affect political and social change. These communities also tend to have strong social bonds and strive to honor, preserve and share their local cultures and stories, which often hold deep wisdom for how we can thrive in a post-carrying capacity world.
Both intentional and traditional directions are valid and necessary in our quest to create viable models of sustainable, human-scale communities. In this way, ecovillages are helping demarcate the “livable zone” — above an equity baseline and below carrying capacity — in which all humans must enter if we are to survive as a species. Being optimistic then, perhaps we could say all human settlements are nascent or developing ecovillages.
Diversity of Ecovillage Models
The Global Ecovillage Network and the Fellowship for Intentional Community both list ~500 self-identified ecovillages around the world, but it’s likely there are over 1,000 and perhaps many more, especially if you include the ~3,000 “independent village societies” of the Sarvodaya network in Sri Lanka. There are also 300+ Transition Towns and a growing number of green-focused cohousing communities, but few self-identify as ecovillages.
The diversity of ecovillages is astounding.
- Some have fewer than 30 members and might be best thought of as micro-research, training or demonstration centers; others have very full-featured economic and social systems with hundreds or even thousands of members.
- Some have a common “purse”; others disconnect individual vs. communal income & expenses.
- Some are part of national networks; others are more independent.
- Some are urban, but most are rural.
- Some are secular; some religious; most are “spiritual”, with residents following their own paths.
- Few strive for self-sufficiency and most are well-connected within their bioregions.
- Some even reject the label of “ecovillage” saying it falsely implies they’ve fully manifested their vision.
While models vary widely, ecovillages all share an intention to develop and integrate new and more sustainable forms of economic, environmental, social, and cultural development. They are all conscious and participatory experiments in designing a more connected and livable future. Features common to most ecovillages include…
- Appropriate technologies and renewable energy systems
- Organic agriculture and community-based food systems
- Habitat restoration and stewardship activities
- Group facilitation, consensus decision-making, and community organizing
- Shared work and celebrations
- Communication skills, conflict resolution and mediation
- Mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga
- Ecological design, green building, and community development
- Social-responsibility, environmental education and activism
- Cross-cultural and diversity awareness
- Social justice and equitable access to wealth and power
- Holistic health, nutrition, and alternative medicine
Ecovillages are not utopias
Sadly, humans are in kindergarten when it comes to developing sustainable relationships with each other and the planet. While ecovillages range perhaps from elementary to middle school, most are still at least partially embedded within wider resource and energy intensive infrastructures (e.g. transport, production, processing) and inequitable economic and social systems. As a result, few, if any, are simultaneously above an Equity Baseline and below local and global Carrying Capacity (i.e. within the “livable zone” described above).
For example, a study by the Stockholm Environment Institute cited the Findhorn Foundation (one of the oldest and best known ecovillages) as having the smallest ecological footprint of any community in the developed world – half the UK average. While laudable, if everyone on Earth lived this way, we’d still need several planets to support our lifestyles. Ecovillages are progressing in their learning and preparing for some major real-life “exams” humanity is facing, but they are still far from receiving their “Masters of Sustainability” degrees.
In reality, “graduating” is a misleading metaphor as ecovillages are very much in process rather than finished products. Real people – like you and me – are developing these unique communities, often under very difficult conditions, Common challenges include inadequate financial or human resources, restrictive zoning, local fears and misconceptions, and even language barriers within these often very international communities. Ecovillages encounter the same hurdles any new business faces while at the same time building residences, decision-making structures and interpersonal relationships. This is hard work!
In addition, there is little being attempted in ecovillages that isn’t – on its own – being done better elsewhere. Outside of ecovillages one can easily find more successful or cutting edge renewable energy facilities, green buildings, organic farms, and even decision-making processes. Ecovillages are unique and relevant not because of these individual components, but because they are trying to put the pieces together into human-scale communities, into wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. Ecovillages are, in effect creating new cultures and new ”stories” about what it means to live in ways that honor our fundamental interdependence with each other and all life.
Custom Academic Programs in Ecovillages
Recognizing this vital work, CAPE is proud to collaborate with a select number of exemplary ecovillages as “campuses” where students can learn about sustainability while actually living it. In addition to offering models of economic, environmental, social, and cultural development, CAPE’s partner communities…
- are well developed and able to offer a rich academic and community immersion experiences.
- have good accommodations, classrooms, and internet access.
- have highly trained and educated professionals engaged in real-world sustainable development.
- are located in stimulating environments with minimal health and safety concerns.
The world of ecovillages is ever evolving, so please add your comments, thoughts, and questions so we can further our understanding together. Thanks!