Walking the Contradiction:
An Exploration of Ecovillage Living
Considering the threat of peak oil and global warming, some communities are pioneering alternative lifestyles in order to minimize their impact. Ecovillages provide a solution for environmental, social, and economic instability by implementing sustainable structures and practices. Ecovillages face successes and failures, and discrepancies between theory and practice in sustainable living. This article focuses on intentional communities dedicated to sustainability and utilizes experiences from five diverse ecovillages, Berea College Ecovillage, Dancing Rabbit, Earthaven Ecovillage, The Farm, and Los Angeles Ecovillage.
What is an Ecovillage?
While researching intentional communities, we discovered that the definition of an ecovillage is not simple. While all of the communities involved share a commitment to sustainable living and often use similar methods to achieve eco-friendliness, they are at varying stages in their progress. A lot of this has to do with the fact that most ecovillages are actually retrofitting, rather than creating communities from the ground up. According to Patricia Allison, Earthaven Ecovillage, Dancing Rabbit, and Ecovillage Ithaca, are the only fully formed ecovillages in the United States that were begun with that intention.
The LA ecovillage was also created with the intention of being an ecovillage, but was formed in already standing structures which had to be retrofitted. The Farm formed about 35 years ago, but has only been an ecovillage for ten years. These are important models because retrofitting is a viable solution for the future. It is not possible at this point, for every sustainable community to begin from the ground up, and eventually everyone will have to live sustainably. This can only be made possible by altering already existing structures and processes to become eco-friendly.
Towards a Culture of Conservation
All ecovillages share a common goal of sustainability. For Albert Bates from The Farm this means “assuring the evolution of human life on Earth, while in the process prejudicing the options of our descendants as little as possible,” as well as ensuring this generation is able to live out their natural life span, and the same for generations to come. These goals are all achieved by working to bridge the gap between theory and practice. For example, Lois Arkin from LA Ecovillage identified continuing to work on manifesting values in daily living patterns as a major goal. In the case of Berea College, the practice seems to be better implemented than the theory. They are challenged with trying to create more unity in consciousness, and intention among those living in the ecovillage. Many individuals live in the ecovillage because it is their assigned housing rather than because they are entering with a commitment to sustainable living. Berea hopes to create a culture of conservation so that the adults, and especially the children who live in the ecovillage will carry on what they learn at the ecovillage later in life.
As well as working towards creating a sustainable ecovillage, all of these communities have the intention of serving as educational models for other individuals, and the world. Earthaven hopes to be a replicable model of sustainable human culture and Dancing Rabbit hopes for their sustainable society to be an influence on the global community by example and education. Albert Bates from The Farm identified among their projects “Changing the pedagogy of higher education to orient it towards redressing the dimming prospects of human survival on Earth in the next century,” and to “shift the food and water acquisition, trade and habitat construction paradigms to alter the ecological footprint of homo sapiens in a very significant way.” The ecovillages hope not only to create sustainability within their own communities, but to be educators, and influence the greater system.
Minimizing Environmental Impact
Ecovillages are creating low impact, environmentally harmonious living situations as well as businesses and education centers. Depending on the surrounding environment, such as rural landscape or urban center, ecovillages are pioneering alternative agriculture. In the more rural areas, both mountains and plains, most ecovillages are making use of permaculture, medicinal herb gardens and full fledged farms with minimal fossil fuel dependency. Urban communities such as the LA Ecovillage are incorporating communal gardens that help support the food co-op in the surrounding neighborhood.
Sustainability is often measured by household and community consumption of energy. To minimize this impact, ecovillages are using alternative building techniques including straw bale, cob, rammed earth, adobe, and timber framing. Much of the material for these projects is either reclaimed or from the land itself, such as straw, lumber, and clay. In addition to environmentally conscious architecture and construction, many buildings are fitted with solar and wind power, and are thus operating “off the grid”. Many communities compost their waste and use a “green machine” or aquaculture to treat their grey water. Composting, energy monitoring, reuse, and recycling are vitally important.
Many ecovillages are exploring alternative economic structures including internal trade systems and externally oriented businesses. Some of these include publishing companies, magazines, food production, law firms, education centers for ecovillage life, permaculture, natural building, and midwifery. Some villages also have businesses that simply support the life of the village itself, and are supported by other members. The internal community structure makes these exchanges possible by providing agreements, and community meetings for discussion and decision making.
Challenges in Ecovillage Life
While all these innovations, projects, businesses, and other initiatives are positive and provide for the growth and expansion of the ecovillage community, there are many setbacks and challenges for such alternative lifestyles. The ecovillagers that we interviewed pointed to large problem areas, such as not having enough funding to start large projects. Another challenge is working within the legal system of the United States. There are regulations that inhibit alternative energy conservation such as composting human waste and grey water rejuvenation, as well as limiting building codes and property
Ecovillagers also pointed to the community structure itself and the challenge of communicating with so many people in a cooperative setting. Decisions are hard to make when there are opposing points of view and interest. For instance, one discrepancy for ecovillages stems from participants who claim to walk the talk. Lois Arkin from the LA Ecovillage discussed conflicts arising from participants who stated an intention to live more ecologically and cooperatively but failed to demonstrate commitment. For Irene DeLuna at Berea Ecovillage, annual changing of residents is contradictory to sustainability. This constant changing has prohibited long term goals from being actualized and causes each school year to be like starting over.
Ecovillages not only need money, land and cooperation, but people and man power to support their growth. Without a growing population all other aspects of ecovillage life are compromised. With limited membership all ecovillagers have to be committed to basic survival needs. More members are necessary to support a thriving community structure and culture. Lastly, time can be the ultimate obstacle. To quote Patricia at Earthaven Ecovillage “The main problem is that we are attempting to create a village infrastructure that should take generations to create; to do it in one generation is absolutely unsustainable”.
What are the rewards?
Despite these significant obstacles, ecovillages are successful in many of their endeavors, environmentally, socially, spiritually and personally. In creating a sustainable community, ecovillages educate not only their current members. Their permanent structure is available for new generations to shape and develop more fully with the guidance of the elders. Every year they achieve a lifestyle of lower impact on the surrounding environment. This physical growth supports the community solidarity and strength so that ecovillagers are empowered by their communities to act as individuals. Although this may not always be an initial goal, ecovillages create a counter culture within the United States, one that helps people understand the pollution of materialism and the poisonous nature of our society and economy. In this way they are breaking out of the very paradigm that we live in, and that is a tremendous success.
Contradictions in Theory and Practice
The underlying contradiction that causes most discrepancies in theory and practice is trying to create a way of living outside of the system, while still depending on the system in place. At Earthaven Ecovillage, most members earn money outside of the village in order to have money and acquire the materials to build the ecovillage. For Thomas Kortkamp from Dancing Rabbit, “The biggest disparity is one of culture and consciousness. We cannot create the sustainable world we wish to live in using the inappropriate bunk tools of consumer/industrial civilization.” Ecovillages simultaneously benefit and suffer from the technologies and structures of the mainstream society. Ecovillages are given little from the mainstream world on which to base their own infrastructures and contradict mainstream society. However, there are many ways in which the two worlds are still intertwined. At this point in time, it is impossible to live completely sustainably. “There is nothing we do, or have, or eat, that does not rob something from the future. Consider the lead in your pencil, the plastic in your student ID card, or the cadmium in this computer, for instance. And yet, if you foreswear all of that, you give up your status as a battleship in the war of ideas and relegate yourself to one more bailer in the sinking lifeboat.”
“Walking the Contradiction” is the culmination of an independent class project. It was done by Carmen Lescher and Molly Thornton, first year students at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. We paired up with Community Solutions, a non-profit based in Yellow Springs concerned with community sustainability and the event of Peak Oil. We were encouraged to do an independent project on an issue related to the concerns of Community Solutions, which resulted in this article on the trials and tribulations of ecovillage living. Our research consisted of basic information gathering from websites as well as a combination of written and phone interviews with members from the ecovillages.
Patricia Allison, written survey and telephone interview by author, 30 March 2007.
Lois Arkin, written survey by author, 9 April 2007.
Albert Bates, written survey by author, 19 March 2007.
Irene DeLuna, telephone interview by author , 21 March 2007.
Thomas Kortkamp, written survey by author, 24 March 2007.