How an Ecovillage works, between utopia and reality
For centuries, people have lived within a community, village, or tribe that resembled extended families. When civilization progressed, this dimension got lost in many realities, until the First Industrial Revolution caused the nuclearization of family and the birth of modern cities.
During the twentieth century, however, some experiments attempted to recreate a more or less structured “return to origins”. Among them, the most successful is the experiment of ecovillages: the most concrete evolution of the modern communal movement from a sustainable point of view.
The term “ecovillage” was introduced for the first time in 1991 in the essay “Eco-villages and Sustainable Communities” written by Robert and Diane Gilman. Ecovillages are described as “human settlements that integrate various activities, do not damage the environment, are based on the holistic and spiritual development of man, and they can carry on indefinitely”.
These communities do not resemble the stereotype of hippie communes of the Sixties; rather, they remind one of modern and organised “social tribes” that try to protect the planet’s living systems, to promote one’s personal development, and to experiment lifestyles that facilitate harmony between human beings and nature.
In practice, an ecovillage originates from the spontaneous aggregation of people who share the principles of sustainability and who believe in their application at every level of daily life. From housing and dietary choices to the issue of energy, everything aims to promote a zero-impact lifestyle in ecovillages. For example, recycled materials that blend with the surrounding territory are used for buildings, plantations are biological and based on farming techniques that respect the earth’s natural cycles, and energetic resources are clean and renewable.
An ecovillage can appear under different forms: it can be an urban, suburban, or rural reality, it can be very small with few inhabitants or it can be bigger, up to a few hundred residents. In some ecovillages its members all live in a single house, in others they live in separate flats; several communities are secular, others are more spiritual. At their basis, however, there is the will to share one’s own routine and to change habits, embracing a sustainable style, according to new social and economic models that reduce environmental impact to the minimum.
There are thousands of ecological communities in the whole world, some internationally federated in the Global Ecovillage Network (Gen).
Europe counts more than a hundred: from Christiania, Copenhagen’s free city active since 1971, where about 800 people live, among them 150 children, to the Findhorn Foundation in Great Britain and the German Lebengarden with 109 permanent residents, to the Siberian ecovillage Tiberkul, which counts 5000 families distributed in 50 villages in the Taiga, each with its own home and kitchen garden.
The socioeconomic structure of this reality is characterised by the presence of a kitty to which everyone contributes, according to the different methods chosen autonomously by every village. The sharing of service spaces, or cohousing, allows to reduce costs significantly and it promotes sociability. Bioconstruction can be variously applied in this context, and food and furnishings are handcrafted, together with clothes and other products that can be resold or traded without affecting the fauna or the environment.
Barter is preferred to money since villages base their existence on the local production of what they need. On the one hand, this modus operandi allows to discard the mercenary aspects of today’s society; on the other hand, it allows to restore value to communication and interaction among people. People go back to work the land, surrounded by green spaces, while chatting with their neighbour, and, above all, helping each other. As it happened in villages of old, individuals’ independence results from the group’s collaboration.
At the same time, there is no closure towards the external world: ecovillages create spaces to exchange knowledge, products, and tools between its members and the realities surrounding them. As free citizens, they use institutions of the civil society such as schools and hospitals.
In recent years, the phenomenon of ecovillages has attracted a growing number of people, even if only for a short time or in theory.
Behind this new interest there are the increasingly low liveability of big cities, the economic crisis (it is cheaper to live together), a general crisis of values, and the rooting of the environmental thought, in search for a lifestyle that is compatible with the earth’s future.
Some ecovillages, founded at the inception of the movement, are still thriving. For example, The Farm was founded in 1971 with the communal purchase of 850 hectares of land in Tennessee by the university professor Stephen Gaskin and his students. It started off with 250 inhabitants, but during the Eighties The Farm hosted up to 1.500 people. The community developed its own decision-making process, it introduced new ventures, courses, and labs of various kinds, it actively helped populations hit by environmental disasters or humanitarian crises, and it still remains an international point of reference in the domain of ecovillages.
But not all of these experiments are equally thriving. Several fail after a few years for different reasons. The most common are the extremely free policy of admission, which does not always work, and the bad handling of money that jeopardizes the self-sustainment of the place. Eventual conflicts within the group can also be dangerous for the survival of an ecovillage; other times, these communities break apart after the death of the leader who had led them for years.
Regardless of their success, ecovillages (understood as little utopias) can still provide food for thought on how to integrate sustainability even with city lifestyles. They represent laboratories of human relationships, where it can be experimented how to bring the necessary changes to the economic, social, and ecological domain both locally and globally.
Indeed, to plan sustainability also means to re-plan our habits, lifestyles, and practices, in a continuous process of learning and adaptation. In this transition, ecovillages’ ideas and virtuous examples can be very helpful.