“Moving to more local ways of approaching industry, commerce, agriculture, and government offers a future full of possibility—a bright future, one fully within our grasp (p. 260)….We need the End of Big to bring us back to our communities, to our neighbors—that’s how we’ll remake the world and build a better future” (Mele, 2013, p. 266).
photo by Anna Shvets
As a quiet response to the growing crisis, there is an uptick in the movement toward intentional communities. There’s a surge of interest in hobby farms. Put those interests together, with any amount of effort toward sustainability, and you have the makings for an ecovillage. Ecovillages are a type of community that has as a core purpose the promotion and practice of ecological sustainability and shared resources. Miki Kashtan’s (2018) quote exemplifies the ethos behind the movement:
The so-called tragedy of the commons is one of the most condensed embodiments of patriarchal thinking, and has been refuted by Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom. We are designed by evolution to engage collaboratively with each other and nature, to care for life. We have forgotten, and we can restore this capacity. Permaculture is just one of many untold developments that pave the way forward into a collaborative future that encompasses nonhuman life. (sec. 7)
Two millennial podcasters, a husband and wife team, report a madly enthusiastic response from their listeners about the couple’s plans—now with funders and a land purchase deal—to create an ecovillage.
It feels like this is going to be a new way that everyone is going to want to live in the future when they see these things work…there is already this movement bubbling up with people trying to build these things all over the world and we get contacted every day by people who are…trying to start something similar in other places around the world. And I think we’re just at the beginning of this, some people have called it a regenissance, like a renaissance of regenerative villages.…I don’t think it’s possible for just one of these villages to, you know, create the global change. It has to be this network. It has to be this, you know, people trying it in different permutations all over the world. (Future Thinkers, 2021, 35:48)
Resources: Nelson (2018) describes the development of four successful and longstanding ecovillages, in a chapter available online (see the references section). GreenUnfolding.com has good general information about existing ecovillages, as does the Global Ecovillage Network’s website.
Ecovillages as Secular Community-building
What ecovillages are doing is revolutionary from a social science perspective. As a subset of intentional communities, they are trying to isolate the benefits of small community interactions from the religiosity and top-down governance hierarchy that has traditionally accompanied intentional communities. This can allow for wider dissemination of useful principles and practices for group governance, especially to the growing number of nones, those who claim no religious affiliation (26% in the U.S.; Pew Research Center, 2019). Those who have no spiritual or religious affiliation, but do see the value of community life, can explore and practice how to get along, and how to use diversity as a strength rather than considering it a liability.
Regarding the previous section Beware of Cults, ecovillages have more components than simple co-housing that could lead to cultish characteristics. Altho they tend to be open to a variety of beliefs outside their core ecological focus, many ecovillages have a culture that embraces non-denominational spirituality. Many casually practice Native American traditions such as smudging, along with use of self-designed equinox or solstice celebrations with Pagan-related mother-goddess imagery. Ecovillages would do well to be up front about the extent to which members will be expected to participate in practices that involve ceremony, and the consequences of non-participation. Similarly, expectations about the sharing of personal information should be clear, so potential members can evaluate whether it is a good fit. Further, most are founded by a group that includes a charismatic leader who has a clear vision for a different sub-culture. Even tho many groups claim to have shared governance structure, this should be carefully assessed. Members without an ability to withdraw their contributed resources are likely to have only as much decision-making power as they are gifted. Further, the focus on group self-sufficiency could be used to encourage primarily interaction within the group.
Ecovillages as an Alternative to Concentrated Political Power
All intentional communities are counter-culture to some extent, especially in the United States where individualism where the prevailing norm culture is absence of community. Brown (2020) states that culturally and politically “our death certificate’s going to say ‘death by rugged individualism.’ It’s like there is like this mythology that we don’t need each other, when neurobiologically we’re hardwired to be together” (31:07). Free of obligations, we find ourselves also free of the relationships that make life meaningful. Communitarians see the limitations of the socially untethered life.
Ecovillages are a political solution that starts at a small scale but can happen anywhere and everywhere. As a peaceful revolution that minds its own business and operates within the law, it can accomplish a social and economic overhaul without a bloody revolution.
Organizations are more powerful than individuals. You leverage your power to withstand corporate and government control when you join with likeminded people to preserve personal freedoms. Since we aren’t advocating doing so by a standoff with the national guard, we aren’t a threat. We can quietly carry out our business of protecting the vulnerable and ourselves. Ecovillages are uniquely capable of managing without the outside provisions and thus without outside governance, if they master self-governance.
Allow me a moment of idealism: What if small independent communities became the prevailing governance model, with peace treaties between them? Small group governance can substantially reduce the worst of human tendencies, when they happen on a small scale, easily observable. We are more vulnerable to the effects of corruption and bribery when we know about them only after the officials have absconded to a foreign location, along with their offshore bank accounts. Transparency, whether it comes from online monitoring or from small scale direct observation and experience, is effective to hold institutions accountable. Transparency is a given in a community. Whether it comes out as gossip or thru intentional group work, there isn’t much we can keep hidden for long.
We covered the small farm efficient resource use and attention to the local. The principles of permaculture take these both to a new level. Not just the area’s climate is taken into account, but the individual plot of land is studied for a year before the farm structures are planned out. The principles of permaculture are now a solid curriculum. Leaders of the movement are working toward standardizing the curriculum and accrediting the locations that teach it. It is an antidote to globalization of the economy.
A few ecovillages do exist in city neighborhoods. Some describe themselves as an agrihood. Use of biochar to increase the fertility of small gardens, and rooftop water harvesting, has the promise to transform city container gardens and suburban lawns to at least supplement your food. Like solar-panels on individual rooftops, it could be the most efficient and fair solution to food production. This could be your city balcony space. If you multiply that growing space by adding to the number of people sharing the house, the average suburban lawn space is much more generous. Some are discovering how much they can grow in their yards, balconies, windows, and rooftops.
Altho grains were an important crop to grow civilizations, it isn’t necessary that they be the staple food products currently. Potatoes and other tubers, for example, are easy to grow in a container, given the right conditions. There’s a movement and many resources for window gardening. It may not be the most impactful use of your time tho.
If you love the inner city where you don’t have even a yard, there are ways to get closer to Ecovillage ethos. Be vegan; that’s a good start. Be minimalist. Collect kitchen sink water for balcony container gardens. Use plumbing fixtures that direct hand wash water into the toilet tank to recycle grey water. Be a consistent member of a community. Use rooftop water catchment for gardens. Grow rooftop and vertical gardens. Increase the soil fertility and water retention (see biocharnow.com). Change ordinances to allow backyard chickens. Got an ant or other bug problem? Stop poisoning insects, even inside. There are chicken diapers. Let the bug-eaters come inside to get a meal.
Deffeyes (2005) noted almost 2 decades ago that issues such as climate change, the peaking of global oil production, and the rapid growth in wealth disparities were being discussed as precursors to an apocalyptic end to cities. To adapt, he says we need a full range of policy approaches that take these issues seriously, but without sending out alarm signals that will turn people and politicians away. A positive sustainability agenda is needed to show how cities can be restructured and, at the same time, better opportunities created for people.
Resources: The film Brooklyn Farmer documents a successful garden/farm on rooftops, delivering to local restaurants. They have to make at least $3 per square foot per season to keep the business going. Shafie (2018) in Toronto, estimates $5 per square foot for installing open-air rooftop farms.
Living With Fewer Conveniences
We go on multiplying our conveniences only to multiply our cares. We increase our possessions only to the enlargement of our anxieties. —Anna Brackett
“True change comes about when our desire for freedom is bigger than our desire for convenience and comfort” (Geersten, as cited in Sounds True, 2021, 33:22). The voluntary simplicity or minimalist movement is an important one, helping us recognize that a new lamp or another pair of shoes isn’t going to change our life, or even make us feel better for more than 5 minutes. If you carry your poop in a bucket, yes, there will be people, even friends and family, who may look down on you for it. Take a note from Micheal Gervais that FOPO (fear of people’s opinions) is worth getting over. It feels important to be a jetsetter using the latest technology and mingling with high-net-worth crowds. In the end it’s not all that. The ancient wisdom still holds: “Better a handful with quietness than both hands full, together with toil and grasping for the wind” (New King James Version, n.d., Ecclesiastes 4:6). It’s not difficult to imagine the following two lifestyles, and sometimes it’s only those who obtain the latter who realize they unthinkingly gave up the former. While attending university, I sometimes lived with or near families or friend groups who spent frequent time together eating, conversing, and in one family of immigrants, dancing was a regular part of the weekend evenings. In contrast, I lived at one time with a sibling’s family in a historic mansion in which everyone preferred to be on their electronic devices in their own rooms, and when they were in the same room, often were arguing or were quietly aware of long-standing unresolved tension between others. Having attained an external standard of success—of having convenient packaged health-fad foods, paid housekeepers and gardeners, frequent vacations, and a constant influx of new possessions—is it that there was too little of a shared purpose or challenge to strengthen emotional connections?
Safety Without Paranoia
A note to idealists: keep a high fence. You may want to proceed from a motive of trust and inclusion. That is an important motive, but can only be supported long-term boundaries. Protect your people and resources. Hire a security guard if located in a dangerous area. The guard can double as a community liaison, talking to passers-by and caring for plants at the perimeter. Hang large signs describing your project and mission, or rumors may brand you falsely. Serve in the community to create alliances. Host an open house and tour quarterly. Advertise needed in-kind donations. Partner with an existing nonprofit to donate your surplus and use their tax benefits for both grants and donations.
Ecovillages Can Address Multiple Challenges Simultaneously
Altho fragmentation will create new [needs for methods to] assure quality and safety, consumers and society as a whole will benefit from the great dynamism and innovation of small, local enterprises. I would go further and argue that the End of Big in business represents one of the greatest hopes for saving our civilization from the environmental dangers that threaten to sink it. Our current, big economy is unsustainable—almost everyone in business realizes that today. A more fragmented economy comprising primarily small, dynamic firms has the potential to lead us to more sustainability while also fostering community and continued wealth generation. (Mele, 2013, p. 243)
Personal contentment and social ills can be addressed effectively within community settings, as noted in the section “Benefits of Living in Community”:
- Pandemic: You or some of your companions may be medically vulnerable or afraid of close proximity with others. Live with people who you can physically embrace without fear of contagion. The Heart Math Institute has researched the importance of this.
- Insurance: We pay to guard against financial ruin in case of death of a provider or in case we lose a home, physical functionality, a job, health, house, car, et cetera. In a community, we can pay for these insurances thru our own service to others, or share insurance policies as a household or business.
- Resource sharing: As long as there is accountability built into a borrowing system, one library, shared tools, shared appliances can give all added benefits and lower costs.
- Lifestyle: Each may have a different essential reason for preferring community life. For some it may be a sense of place such as Wendell Berry evokes. For others—perhaps like some I know who were vegan but whose allergies eventually made animal products the only protein they could tolerate—it may be to practice humane care of livestock.
- Human connection: For many, it’s the epidemic of loneliness, 61% of U.S. respondents reported loneliness, and in 2004 approximately one in four Americans reported having no close confidants (Beilock, 2020).
Economic challenges that could be addressed effectively within community settings attempting to increase self-sufficiency and decrease environmental degradation:
- Affordable housing: Slums & homelessness because a subsistence lifestyle allows one to work for one’s food and shelter.
- Affordable food: Food transportation and packaging costs can be lessened by eliminating food transport, as communities grow more on site.
- Work-related costs: Time and cost of commute can be reduced as communities work more on site, share internet and office supplies, and share child care.
- Some types of healthcare providers or maintenance workers can offer a lower cost by serving multiple members of a community within one day.
Ecological challenges could be addressed effectively within community settings:
- Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage boasts that thru greywater use, renewable energy, ride sharing, and car sharing it “has figured out how to reduce its consumption of water, electricity, natural gas, and total vehicle miles traveled by 90% of the U.S. average” (drecovillage, 2014, 23:06).
- When builders are prospective owners, they care more about the energy efficiency standards that will save them on utility costs long term. Ecovillages strive to meet LEED standards or a new certification called living building challenge from the U.S. green building council. They can also support the use of reclaimed materials.
- Trash and leachate: Too many single-use disposable plastic items and packaging are based on too little time for home cooking or fixing items; inclusion of members who have fewer high-income skills allows for work and appreciation of those whose home-based processing, cooking, and repairing allows for high quality food and lower carbon footprint.
- Air pollution and the externalized cost of groundwater contamination: Less travel and goods transport reduces greenhouse gasses and fossil fuel use. All casings from oil drilling eventually fail, and “produced water” from fracking has to go somewhere. Keeping production local minimizes commutes and transport of goods.
- Tragedy of the commons: Squandering of “public” resources—such as a ranch or preserve with a conservation easement—can be regulated with small-group ownership. Transparency and accountability can be maintained on this scale, to ensure joint resources can be shared without exploitation and not hoarded by a few.
- Funded by the non-profit Avaaz (2020), one Maasai community operates a wildlife habitat preserve. Those who used to be poachers are now protectors.
Surviving Economic Downturns
The right use of our privilege is to make life better for those less privileged. At the same time, we leave a harmful situation and create safety for ourselves. The majority may see that we have corrupt systems of business and government, with the systemic dysfunctions having seeped also into higher education and philanthropic institutions. Yet the majority of well-intentioned wealthy people don’t see any way to leave those systems without losing any wealth they have created. The majority of those who are making ends meet might risk becoming homeless if they both knew of and refused to participate in any form of exploitation. We must build up the courage to leave while we still have a small window of opportunity to create alternatives, bubbles of economic self-sufficiency built up while the scaffolding of the larger unsustainable system remains. We remain connected while we level up our skills in a different lifestyle and demonstrate to others what is possible. By keeping as much distance as we can from systems complicit in exploitations, we can live without blame.
As societal and business institutions devolve or dissolve, those who react and blame each other create a dangerous situation. Both right and left of the political spectrum fear the loss of what they value and believe they must defend liberty, as the other side would not. Both sides feel misunderstood. We can function as peacemakers by seeking to understand more than seeking to be understood, by listening more than defending a position. We must relinquish control over the outcome. We become comfortable with uncertainty while willing to live a simple life, like monks in our commitment to peaceful cooperation. The ethical stance of this lifestyle is that if all were to live it, none would be exploited and all would have basic physical needs met. Dispersion into these separate village units can reunite us into a shared respect for human solidarity, but it can also lead to disunion if we allow fear-based thinking to dominate in our group. Our stance is what will determine the outcome. We must maintain respect for other’s styles of leadership and possibly take in temporarily the refugees from failing villages. We can help other villages to revise what isn’t working then hopefully re-start and thrive within their prior location. This is what humans have always done. This is the work of culture building. Refugees from war-torn nations may not find total acceptance of their traditions, but they may land in a context where the women learn they have rights, where rule of law prevails, where an honest living can be made without exploiting others.
This is the plan, we need to get some self sufficiency infrastructure set up before supply chains break down and we face hunger, crime, and social disintegration of institutional authority. It’s not that I’m ideologically pro-institution, but institutions are currently the way we organize into peaceful societies. Those who dislike institutions should help the larger society to prepare, rather than only build personal bugout shelters, because unless they are operating a self-sufficient small farm, they will eventually run out of or be robbed of provisions, as Ferfal describes during the collapse of the Argentine economy. But most people don’t want to be convinced that global warming, peak oil, and increasing wealth disparity could cause national or global crisis. A better tactic is to discuss neighborhood disaster planning, and municipalities may even have grants for this. Church leaders and local group leaders of all types could be invited to join or at least to disseminate information. Discuss effective food storage and rotation. Create community and backyard gardens. Backyard chickens could be fed the food scraps from a group of houses. Get with your neighbors and learn how to make decisions thru consensus. We need to involve teens and make it fun (see fractioNation.US/termiNation).
See References page.