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Home Page Editorial Winter 2004
Where Ecovillage Fits on the Sustainability Terrain Map

Looking around it is easy to see that we live in an unsettled time, and that this unsettledness is born of imminent change. There is a movie called Koyaanisqatsi, the word is Hopi Indian, and apparently means: 1. crazy life; 2. life in turmoil; 3. life out of balance; 4. life disintegrating; 5. a state of life that calls for another way of living. That sounds like a pretty fair way of describing the global instability of recent current events to me.

Simultaneously there are a great many positive things happening as we struggle to break through into an essentially saner paradigm. That paradigm is variously referred to as the Gaia, planetary, egalitarian, solar, or post-modern, but essentially survivable, paradigm. We usually use the term 'sustainability', and there is a vast volume of writing on this topic with for instance offering 3,555 books on the subject, and AltaVista indexing 96,006 web pages about sustainability. That was in 2001 when this material was drafted: these figures have increased to 8238, and 1,817,206 respectively.

My purpose here is not to dwell on the world's ills: it's too depressing. Mander & Goldsmith (1996) and Worldwatch Institute (2004) are a good place to start if you need evidence.

Still, doesn’t it strike you as peculiar that in an ecologically abundant world combined with five hundred years of incredibly sophisticated technological development, that our culture is again, or is still, absorbed with survival?

It’s quite easy to start pointing fingers when it comes to discussing who or what is responsible for this state of affairs. For me though the state of our world arises not so much from the vision and integrity, or lack thereof, of those in charge, but from the day to day decisions and actions of all of us. Some, like Bohm (1989), suggest that a fundamental part of the problem is our collective insensitivity to incoherence. Bohm believes that the culture we have is a result of our unscrutinising acceptance of it, and that we are taught to accept incoherence at an early age. That makes us the problem. It also makes us the solution.

Interestingly, concurrent with rapidly changing geopolitics it appears that our culture is undergoing radical change. Ray and Anderson (2000) describe after substantial social research that a dramatic 26% of the US population are turning away from the dominant modern values system of consumption, ‘success’ and exploitation. They name this new cultural grouping the ‘cultural creatives’ with its focus on ecology, community, consciousness, peace, justice and empowerment. Furthermore they give evidence that the previous ‘modern’ value system is now only supported by 48% of Americans, which, by any mathematical method, no longer constitutes a majority. Ray, a sociologist, says that the speed of this change in civilisational terms is extremely rapid.

However, culture lag means that the world around us remains controlled by modern leaning interests and power structures. Our dominant politics, economic focus, media, and urban design all still reflect the status quo industrial paradigm, and the new and upcoming ‘creative’ culture appears effectively invisible. Nonetheless those of us that consider ourselves ‘cultural creatives’ are, in Ray and Anderson’s view, are a very considerable force to shape future society when we recognise ourselves and become proportionately represented and organised.

People concerned with sustainable settlements yet functioning as individuals within typically low levels of community naturally attempt to do what they can with what they have. Admirable and much needed activities of all shapes ranging from recycling centres, teen mentoring, alternative health care, school environmental programs, organic home gardening, and car-pooling are all occurring. However at some point for many people the frustration and questions arise as to whether we are in fact gaining any ground.

To reduce one’s electricity consumption only to be penalised with high fixed line charges; to have an amazing home garden and yet expend huge transport energy getting children to a holistic but distant school; travelling similarly large distances to a whole foods store, only to find the produce is not fresh: you probably know scenarios like these.

Being faced with a society wide infrastructural framework that is so essentially unsustainable in terms of transport, sewage, energy, food, and water suggests a number of responses. Retreating ‘back to the land’ is one option, as we called it in the 60s. These days we call it rural residential or lifestyle block living. Another choice is to chip away at the institutions, and many talented and tireless people are doing this within politics, business, and the health and education sectors.

A good example is The Natural Step program, which is about getting Swedish businesses to adopt environment ethics, and is very inspiring indeed. However when dealing with institutions that are way over and beyond human scale, the pace of change can for the most part appear excruciatingly slow.

I suspect, as does Gilman (1991), that when it boils down to it, much of the challenge in achieving true sustainable development is how we learn to address the twin challenges of complexity and change.

Sustainability is by nature a complex thing entangled with a very many subtleties, chaos theory, and overlapping interactions and synergies. Its not enough to address one thing here, one thing there, we have to look at the cumulative effect. Gilman calls this the ‘whole system challenge’.

Gilman also identifies the ‘cost of change’ as a factor hindering timely and effective action. He explains that people only change when they calculate that the perceived benefit of the new way outweighs the benefit of the old way plus the cost of change. That’s kind of a brutal way of saying that none of us actually like change. But change we must, if we are to keep up with the historically rapid technological and economic change around us.

Many people when they get to this point ask: I want to use my energy to make a difference but where do I start? It’s a good question, and one having no one right answer.

This brings us to ecovillages. To my mind where the ecovillage concept fits into the sustainability terrain is that ecovillages are for people who see the value in exploring the overview and tackling a broad raft of sustainability components simultaneously.

Ecovillage is about solving problems at their root, and avoiding constant band-aid solutions. The ecovillage approach has the luxury of being able to throw everything out, and then put back in only the bits that you want. All the possible building blocks you could ever need are available. There are very few constraints and the limits are mainly your imagination and your skill-set.

Ecovillages are an incubator for the ‘cultural creatives’ to showcase a new society.

The caveat emptor to this is that because of the way our modern division of labour makes us each specialise so much, any re-encompassing of the diverse whole is something of a necessary stretch and growing point for those of us who would develop ecovillages.

Ecovillage is about not trying to change others but ourselves. It is an extension of the Permaculture imperative of "going home and gardening"; taking care of our own back yards first (Mollison 1988).

But, as challenged by Trainer (1995), in a global economy, going home and gardening is not enough. He reminds us that all the great gardens in the world wont help in the event of a major monetary meltdown, climatic disaster, or war born of resource shortages.

The concept of Permaculture, if we take the word in its broadest sense, is of course one the key legs to the ecovillage stool. However the time has come to flesh out more chapter 14 of the Permaculture Designers manual. Doing so will serve to reinvigorate what is I think is a loss of vision within the Permaculture movement (of which the cessation of the Permaculture International Journal is a symptom).

Ecovillage is lurking right there in that chapter: ethics, sound development, networking, appropriate economic and social structures. Indeed Mollison is variously quoted, as having said that what the world needs most is a million ecovillages. For a microbiologist that’s far sighted.

Ecovillage is collective Permaculture. With ecovillages Permaculture is practiced with mutual support and encouragement, cooperation, and recognition of our collective interdependence.

While ecovillage is by nature more of a grass roots approach, ecovillage in my view is not about escaping from society. We must work simultaneously within and without, because of the small matter that the global ecology does not respect ecovillage or any other boundaries.

Mayur (1995:56) articulates this when he suggests that ecovillages are an act of isolated self-indulgence. He questions what we gain by making a nice village for a few hundred people in the west when 1.3 billion people in the developing region do not even have homes.

Understanding this is about understanding the value of working models to the process of change. Gilman (1991) deals with this process, known as ‘diffusion of innovation’ although he obviously borrowed the material from Rogers (1982).

They explains the critical importance of the early adopters to the change process: "for those innovations that emerge from the experimentation stage as proven successes the next stage is adoption by forward thinking members of the mainstream of society. The process however is not automatic it usually requires the active promotion of the innovation…to enable the idea to reach the first 5% to 15% of the population… Once it reaches about 15% adoption it usually has enough momentum so that it spreads fairly rapidly up to about 75% of its eventual full adoption".

Not coincidentally one of the common characteristics of most ecovillage projects is their explicit mission is to serve as a model that will act as a concrete demonstration and catalyst to change.

As an example the first couple of cohousing projects were like climbing Mt Everest, yet the spread of cohousing in the US illustrates clearly the resulting ‘mushroom ring’ effect that happens. Established projects are so inspirational to visitors, thereby creating demand for more projects, and so new projects sprout up in a surrounding radius.

Early adopters are by definition a minority, and its unlikely that we can ever persuade government or commercially motivated parties to create ecovillages for us. Its up to us. These examples will be one of the biggest levers toward change.

What then follows from that is that ecovillages can not be isolated enclaves. Instead they must embrace public exposure, education and integration with the wider community. On this subject the term self-sufficient has now become deprecated and is seen as unhelpful.

The other thing about the ecovillage construct is that you can use it different ways, either symbolic or real. Take it as a compilation of sustainability ideas, pick bits and pieces out of it and use them in just about any situation you want to improve your community’s wellbeing. On the other hand if you take ecovillage to its logical conclusion then you get a future where cohousing neighbourhoods are clustered into ecovillages, and ‘citys’ are made up of clusters of ecovillages.

Neither is a strictly a rural phenonmona--afterall civillisation is built on society.

That brings us to where-to for the ecovillage movement. Clearly a key task in moving ecovillages forward is to assemble together and document the hundreds of strands that are successful sustainability innovations into one place.

In doing this we essentially define ecovillage, an absolutely essential task needed in order to anchor and give focus to future projects. A common understanding and basis for our actions is a critical foundation of cooperation. And cooperation is by definition a prerequisite for our work.

In conclusion ecovillages are a positive action that we can make anywhere, and a holistic solution that draws strength in cooperation. It's about moving beyond sustainability theory to "build a better society one neighbourhood at a time". It’s about change and change means creativity. Creativity takes courage.


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Aerial photo of Ecovillage at Ithaca, New York State, USA.
Idealised 4th generation clustered ecovillage.
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  • Gilman, R (1991), Eco-Villages and Sustainable Communities, Context Institute, Bainbridge Island
  • Mander, J and Goldsmith, E ed. (1996), The Case Against the Global Economy
  • Bohm, D (1989), Quantum Theory
  • Ray, P and Anderson, S (2000), Cultural Creatives,
  • Trainer, T (1995), Towards a sustainable economy
  • Mollison, B (1988), The Permaculture Designers Manual, Tagari NSW Australia
  • Conrad, J ed (1995), Eco-Villages and Sustainable Communities, Findhorn Press Scotland ( Rashmi Mayur p56)
  • Rogers, E (2003), Diffusion of innovations
  • The Natural Step: see
  • Koyaanisqatsi: see

© Peter Scott 2004


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