Around the world, people are rejecting excessive materialism and voracious consumption in favor of a slower and smaller scale of life. In reconnecting to a harmonious planet, ecovillages are the latest experiment in the search for a utopian society.
In a world of overabundance, it can be difficult to live simply. From the copious amounts of food flooding the aisles at grocery stores to the limitless clothing options stocked at every store in shopping malls, the overproduction and subsequent overconsumption of manufactured goods may simply seem like a way of life. But a growing movement of sustainable, conscientious, community-centered villages and settlements from around the world tell a very different story.
From science fiction literature to attempts at alternative living communities, humankind has long been chasing the elusive concept of utopia. First written about by Sir Thomas More in 1516, utopias are appealing because they offer an alternative to the harshness of reality and modern societal problems. So much so that the combination of ancient Greek words chosen by More to create his titular work—“ou” (no) and “topos” (place)—literally imply that such an idealized world only exists in one’s imagination. More’s novel was a satirization of Elizabethan England at the dawn of colonialism, but the idea has permeated humanity for hundreds of years since. We’ve yet to create a society entirely free from the world’s wicked problems, it’s certainly not for lack of trying. From The Garden of Eden to The Hunger Games to Amish communities, experimental attempts at the utopian vision have been derived and discussed via all kinds of societal lenses—religious, secular, social co-operatives, and political motivations, to name a few—in order to address the problems of their respective time periods and conceive a sort of sanctuary for humanity. Or, in many cases, reveal the very issues that create a lack thereof.
These days, ecovillages are the latest trend in a long series of attempts at a perfect society. A response to worsening climate change and lessening the threat of humans’ heavy environmental footprint, the form of ecovillages can vary greatly but their function is relatively consistent worldwide. Socially, ethically, and environmentally—every ecovillage is designed to be a model of sustainable living.
To list the traits and qualities that comprise an ecovillage would be like describing the characteristics of the ocean. It would be easy to state the obvious—the ocean is a large mass of water home to ample marine flora and fauna. But to list the specifics—temperature, depth, salinity, habitat, species, et cetera—is a highly variable science. Just like the complexities and variances of ocean ecosystems, ecovillages are unique medleys of geographic location, culture, and community.
There may be no such thing as a traditional ecovillage, but settlements around the world share many of the same core values. Community is central to village life, as are shared resources, like food, energy, and living spaces. Many are built by groups of people rather than traditional developers or official government bodies.
Instead of resource depletion, ecovillages tout regeneration. They substitute scarcity with abundance and competition with cooperation. Designed as an alternative to our materialistic, insatiable society, ecovillages aren’t just minimally-consumptive, green-minded groups—they offer an entire change of lifestyle. While location, climate, culture, and size can vary dramatically, ecovillage residents are focused on living more simply—though advertising tells us otherwise, consuming less leads to greater happiness.
According to the Global Ecovillage Network, an international nonprofit organization designed to link and support existing ecovillages, educate the world about the ecovillage movement, and bring people together in the name of a more resilient and climate-friendly humanity, an ecovillage is defined as an “intentional, traditional, or urban community that is consciously designing its pathway through locally owned, participatory processes.” While this official definition is, by all accounts, intentionally somewhat broad and vague, GEN encourages creativity, innovation, and collaboration to guide policymakers, academics, entrepreneurs, and environmentalists into strengthening and enlarging sustainable community networks worldwide.
The Global Ecovillage Network notes that true ecovillages aim to address the Ecovillage Principles in the 4 Areas of Regeneration—social, culture, ecology, and economy—into a whole systems design. These four building blocks comprise GEN’s Ecovillage Map of Regeneration. Split into 32 Principles—six in each area of regeneration and eight for the central path of integral design—the map provides key focal points and areas of attention for existing ecovillages and future projects. While there are no strict requirements for what an ecovillage can or can’t be, these principles offer guidance toward achieving a relatively holistic status of sustainability.
This block prioritizes the sense of community that makes ecovillages so unique from today’s urban anonymity. GEN emphasizes social cohesion, community relationships, shared projects, and common goals while encouraging trust, collaboration, and personal empowerment. This can be achieved through encouraging diversity within the community, practicing conflict mediation and communication, developing fair and accountable institutions, encouraging collaborative leadership and participatory decision making, equal access to educational opportunities, and promoting lifelong health and wellbeing.
Ecovillages aim to grow and sustain diverse cultures that empower people to care for each other, their communities, and the Earth. Many ecovillage communities actively engage with means of creative expression in order to nurture these connections. GEN advocates for enriching life with forms of art, encouraging mindfulness and self-reflection, honoring indigenous wisdom and traditions, and reconnecting with nature through less ecologically-invasive
The primary purpose of ecovillages is to offer a lifestyle with a lower impact on the natural environment. By implementing small-scale regenerative agriculture projects, water, waste, and renewable energy collection, and green building technologies, ecovillages aim to integrate humans with nature in ways that allow them to collect the resources they need while respecting existing biodiversity and ecosystem functions. Building this direct interdependence on the natural environment will allow eco villagers to reduce unnecessary consumption habits and live a simpler and more sustainable life.
Ecovillages aim to build sustainable and mindful economic systems that foster collaboration, mutual support, and build a network between local people and their surrounding ecosystems. Ecovillages offer an alternative viewpoint of amassing wealth — instead, many ecovillages promote economic equity and encourage sharing access to land and resources, social entrepreneurship, a circular economy, trading and bartering, and strengthening the township through local currencies and banks.
The keystone to the building blocks of regeneration, integral design takes the four holistic ingredients and offers an intuitive recipe for a resilient and regenerative community. Through a basic integral design framework, the Global Ecovillage Network breaks down the innovative process of building your own ecovillage into bite-sized pieces. Amongst other tenets of adapting human-centered design for the environment, GEN encourages whole systems thinking, learning from nature and designing with specific needs and assets in mind, stakeholder engagement and participation, and listening to feedback.
In keeping with the theme of open-endedness and ingenuity, there’s no official certification to designate a community as an ecovillage—any group that chooses to identify as an ecovillage may do so. However, the Global Ecovillage Network is careful to disclose what an ecovillage is not:
The term “ecovillage” had been percolating in society for a while when Robert Gilman introduced it in an article, “The Eco-village Challenge,” in 1991. Along with his wife, Diane, the Gilmans were early ecovillages researchers and sustainability scholars. They defined an ecovillage as “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, and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.” This concept rewrote what society had previously accepted as true about human existence and sparked the creation of the Global Ecovillage Network, established in 1995.
While the ecovillage movement dates back to the 1990s, the roots of the movement extend much further. The 1960s and 70s saw a growing dissatisfaction with the materialistic ways of the world, and many chose to seek refuge in the countryside for a more holistic, rural lifestyle. This “back to the land” movement was the predecessor to today's ecovillage concept—and as with many utopian dreams, many attempts failed due to the lack of the establishment of a viable economic base.
Our evolutionary past does little to suggest that humankind would bode well in urban metropoles, far-reaching suburbias, and fringing exurbs. We’re experiencing unfulfillment and life dissatisfaction, social isolation (never more prevalent than during the pandemic), greater rates of depression and related health issues, and intense traffic when we sandwich in with our neighbors in search of a shorter commute and access to restaurants and activities.
Some argue that people have already lived in ecovillages for millennia — from the earliest Indigenous settlements to traditional agricultural villages, small-scale living is far from a novel idea. At the simplest level, the ecovillage movement does hope to regain harmony with nature by scaling down. From developing nations to rural hamlets, a significant portion of the world’s population still does live this way. However, they are typically not a good example of supportive healthy human development. The work is hard, life expectancy is short, and there are few opportunities for personal development and advancing past levels of basic education. Additionally, today we’re dealing with detrimental environmental practices, from industrial agriculture to extractive mining methodologies. While we can learn a lot from these ways of life, ecovillages are intended to build upon these lifestyles by creating a more holistic haven. Gilman notes that the key differences between the two are that ecovillages prioritize educational access and empowerment on a personal level for every resident. True ecovillages, he says, are post-industrial — they acknowledge their ecological constraints, employ greener techniques and technologies, and are in possession of a new global consciousness.
These days, both traditional Indigenous villages and intentional communities that focus on sustainable, shared lifestyles fall into the category of ecovillages. While ecovillages in developed nations versus the developing world may appear to be quite different, we’d do well to adopt living practices that we’d previously disregarded as primitive and shed in favor of a fast-paced, industrialized existence. Ecovillages are simply a new take on a way of life that’s always existed — incorporating greater equity, empowerment, and environmentalism into all the existing benefits of small-town life.
Seeing as ecovillages are essentially a matter of community interpretation, the design methodology behind them is highly individualistic. However, physical attributes of ecovillages tend to have much more in common. Gilman recognizes a few key design considerations that must be addressed in ecovillage construction, starting with the bio-system challenge. The village must be integrated into the existing natural environment, which means designing with things like natural habitat preservation in mind. The village should ideally have the capacity to process and neutralize wastes produced onsite, and have the ability to produce as many bio-resources onsite as possible—including food, fuel, and forms of renewable energy. Ecovillage architects must also try to avoid adverse environmental impacts from importing products from offsite, and vice versa.
Gilman also addresses the built-environment challenge, which calls into question the ways in which proposed ecovillage structures impact the native land and local ecology. It’s important to build with ecologically-friendly materials and rely on renewable energy sources as much as possible. All forms of waste produced in ecovillage buildings must be handled in an environmentally friendly manner, and ecovillages should be designed to be walkable or bikeable, with minimal need for motorized transport. Buildings must also be created with the neighborhood aspect in mind, balancing public and private spaces and encouraging community interaction.
Many ecovillages thrive in the countryside, where there’s more land and less preexisting build environment to navigate around. However, urban ecovillage projects do exist, primarily because they offer a grassroots style of living but are in close enough proximity to the urban community to have convenient access to existing public transport, shops, and facilities. Urban ecovillages are more likely to be developer-led than community-driven, and are often forced to make compromises due to a lack of space. BedZED, in South London, is the UK’s first large-scale, carbon-neutral housing development. It features individual units, co-housing, and low-income options, while incorporating energy-efficient building materials and designs. BedZED residents have access to communal facilities and washing machines, childcare, and food purchasing and production to subsidize living costs.
It can be devastatingly expensive to build an eco-community from scratch, so the UK has also pioneered the concept of transition towns, which were developed in response to threats from climate change and peak oil. Similarly to ecovillages, the central focus is all about community. But in these places, the town already exists and the community has come together to address global challenges through local action. This can be through reclaiming the town’s economy to boost local buying and selling, empowering small businesses and new entrepreneurs, and re-imagining energy infrastructure, jobs, and webs of connection, all the while moving towards greater self-sufficiency and taking on the climate crisis with a can-do attitude.
While ecovillages are often marketed as the utopian dream, an unproblematic alternative to the suburban sprawl coating much of modern society, they still have their limitations. Commonly described as “sustainable living models,” ecovillages are microcosms of what the world could be if we reimagined our relationship to capitalism, consumerism, and the overconsumption of manufactured goods and nonrenewable resources. Is it realistic to assume that the world will one day be a cohesive network of ecovillage communities? Chasing the utopian ideal may be like searching for the end of a rainbow, but it imbues us with a sense of possibility, a sense of optimism that the state of the world can always be improved for the better.
Our inner eco villagers may love to hate rampant capitalism, but we also can’t live without it—ecovillages will be exponentially more successful if communities can find better ways of integrating their internal economies into the outside world. Critics say that we should take the self-sufficiency aspect of these townships with a grain of salt—intentionally becoming an island is not only somewhat impractical, but it also brings no long-term benefits. Operating on a relatively small global scale, ecovillages are still dependent on the outside world from an economic and resource sense. They may be able to address a significant amount of their energy needs via solar power, but ecovillages are unlikely to contain the skilled labor or parts to repair photovoltaic cells, to name one example. Additionally, many ecovillage setups are so unique that they’re not immediately translatable in other parts of the world—what might work in an Indigenous village in Venezuela may not be directly applicable to an environmentally-conscious community in rural North Carolina.
Even for those who’ve already been convinced, starting an ecovillage from scratch isn’t easy—open land is a scarce resource, and potential ecovillage inhabitants are often faced with a steep price tag, which implicates how easily they are able to integrate into a greener and more environmentally conscious lifestyle. Cheap land is often far from jobs, resources, and public transportation, all of which are counterintuitive to the ecovillage method. Not to mention, once land is obtained, there’s a myriad of bureaucratic red tape and hoops to jump through to obtain planning permission. Despite all this, ecovillage concepts are more applicable rurally, and it would be beneficial to do more research and experimentation of how this concept can be successfully applied in denser urban areas, where much of the world’s population is concentrated.
Living like this is not for everyone—ecovillages are also relatively special-interest groups, making communities somewhat homogenous when it comes to values, traditions, or environmental conservation attitudes. Ecovillages are trapped between a rock and a hard place—because they rely on the community aspect to function, ecovillages can’t deviate too far from societal norms, because they’d risk not attracting new members to join their ranks. This makes it hard to implement some of the more drastic lifestyle changes to make it a more livable society.
Although the movement has its weak spots, It’s undeniable that ecovillages are helping to normalize and progress ideas of sustainability and community in our increasingly individualistic society. While ecovillages in their current form are probably not the saving grace for humanity, they’re indisputably playing a role in sustainability solutions to come. While strongly emphasizing cooperation and personal accountability, they’re inventing new methods of production, governance, and living and in ways that don’t just benefit humans, but the biotic and abiotic world around them.
Commonly described as models for sustainable living, they are doing exactly that — starting a conversation and sparking interest in a way of life that doesn’t revolve around highways, towering apartment complexes, and visits to the grocery store. Ecovillages are more than just an environmentally-friendly alternative to urban environments, they’re reshaping our approach toward work, life, personal well being, and community. Ecovillages reject the unchecked consumerism enveloping the world today, encouraging greater connection and responsibility to the natural world. From Ithaca, New York to Findhorn, Scotland to Mbame, Senegal, the ecovillage movement is the sum of its internationally diverse parts.
Perhaps we’ll never reach that fabled utopia, but why not aspire towards a greater quality of life, an experience of the world that is more fulfilling? Ecovillages offer the basis for a new chapter of humanity, sowing the seeds for a new existence that has the power to change the world for the better.
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