It Takes an Ecovillage

April 10, 2014   •   By Justin Scott


Karen T. Litfin

THE CLIMATE IS CHANGING, and we are not. Or, at least, we are not adapting at a rate commensurate with our ecological reality. It seems we all know this, either because our Facebook news feeds incessantly remind us, or because the evidence is all around us. Not in some faraway war-torn land (though there, too), but in our disappearing autumns, in our Sandy superstorms, in our SoCal droughts. How many lighthearted dinner parties darken, if ever so slightly, when someone suggests that this kind of mirth won’t be so easily enjoyed in 50 years? Smiles are reduced for a brief, awkward moment to blank stares, silence, fatalist oblivion, until someone asks who wants another glass of the Merlot, and, pouring it, changes the subject.

The subject typically gets changed because it seems there’s nothing to say. Because, beyond words, beyond talk, beyond what ifs and maybes, what is there to do? Throngs of activists congregate outside the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, a few hundred of them spend a night in jail, and the rest of us continue driving our cars to work, running our furnaces through the winter, throwing that plastic container into the trash rather than the recycling bin, because the recycling bin is already overflowing, and damn, it’s cold outside, and I don’t want to go out there again, no, not until tomorrow. If that isn’t happening in my house, it is next door. If not there, in Beijing or Jakarta, in Houston or some small town outside the Albertan tar sands. So … forget it.

What are we doing, continuing on like this, working endlessly, consuming gluttonously, expectantly counting down the days until the shit hits the fan? It is perhaps easy enough to point to the fanatical right, the deniers, with their shrouded links to big money and fossil fuel industries, and say: This is why we continue on like this! Because if they exist, nothing we do matters. And this is a convenient excuse for personal inaction, even if that personal inaction ends up a source of shame and self-flagellation (as it often is for me).

As Zadie Smith writes in an excellent essay in this month’s New York Review of Books, after “a century of relativism and deconstruction” in which we were “asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes,” our collective basis has been ripped out from under us. Everything in flux. World of seven billion, massive and spinning on its axis toward its inevitable fate. Nothing we can do but pour that Merlot and say cheers to the moment.

Nothing, that is, unless we decide to remove ourselves from the false security of our household comforts and daily routines; to radically rethink our relationships with life and living, with material things and — at the heart of it — with ourselves and one another. Such is the logic behind the intentional communities known as ecovillages, sites of big ideas and small carbon footprints scattered throughout the world, and the subject of Karen Litfin’s Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community.

Litfin, a professor of political science and global environmental politics at the University of Washington, is perhaps an unlikely tour guide. Leading readers through 14 of these experiments in sustainable community, she gleefully shies away from the “stilted academic language” of her day job. In her empathetic and fascinating portraits of ecovillage life, she comes across as something of a closeted anthropologist, honing in on the details and dynamics that make these communities work, without resorting to anything like the regression analyses or causal proofs that can make 21st century American political science a drab affair.

In setting out to study ecovillages, Litfin had many potential sites to sift through. The Global Ecovillage Network counts some 400 designed ecovillages across the globe; expand that count to include those poor villages in the global south that are ecovillages almost by default, and the number jumps to 15,000. The 14 she chose to profile — considering longevity, size, resource consumption, economic prosperity, and ripple effect — reveal a fascinating heterogeneity. Some of them, like Denmark’s Svanholm, are full of hi-tech gadgets and machinery. Others, like Germany’s Sieben Lieben and ZEGG, feel more like anarcho-syndicalist alt-realities. ZEGG offers a hefty dose of ‘60s free love and rampant sexuality; others are more family-friendly.

This diversity may strike some readers as surprising, and Litfin’s sense of wonder and surprise is indeed palpable as she travels from one ecovillage to another. One, Scotland’s Findhorn, was founded in 1962 when “three spiritual seekers with no previous gardening experience transformed a barren, windy bluff on the North Sea into a cornucopia,” attributing their success to “contact with nature spirits” (21). Another, Auroville in India, is the most obviously problematic of the bunch, involving “a bunch of highly educated white folks plunked down amid 40,000 Tamil villagers living at subsistence level” in a “dressed-up version of neo-colonialism”(19). Finally, there are examples of ecovillages that do not seem so radically removed from business-as-usual, including the Ecovillage at Ithaca in New York, and the Crystal Waters subdivision in Australia.

Litfin breaks her analysis down into four broad categories: ecology, economy, community, and consciousness, all of which she lumps together under the weirdly cumbersome term “E2C2.” While each ecovillage emphasizes a different element of E2C2, Litfin believes that “the house of sustainability always has four windows… each reflecting and refracting the light from the others” (31).  Neglect any of those windows, and your house risks falling into darkness. By my count, late capitalism has screwed up all four, giving us dirty, debt-saddled, often lonely existences, in which comfort and happiness are promised but seem perpetually just out of reach. But what about life in ecovillages? Litfin tries to avoid cheerleading; rather, she endeavors to identify what makes these experiments work (or not work). Though they are not perfect — in some, a two-tier system of owners and renters has cropped up, perpetuating inequity (79) — most of her examples are impressively realized sites of resistance against the default consumer capitalism launching us toward the brink of collapse.

With that in mind, it’s worth considering the ecovillages that didn’t make it into the book. Surely, many experiments in intentional community do not work. The popular understanding of the commune — whether of the Israeli, Soviet, Tanzanian, or hippie variety — is that it is a failure. If ecovillages are any kind of answer to our global crisis — or, as seems more likely, we are all forced to live according to their frugal and self-sufficient principles, as our climactic reality reveals itself in full — many will spring up. Many, too, will fail, because “a shared affinity for permaculture is not enough to hold a community together” (20). This is especially true when decision-making is as decentralized as it tends to be in ecovillages.

Earthaven, founded in 1994 in the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, NC, is a textbook example. In some ways, Earthaven is the model ecovillage, the closest of Litfin’s examples to what we might expect when we think “eco” and “village.” An off-grid community of around 50 members, it has achieved 100 percent energy and water self-sufficiency, and its residents have mastered a range of natural building styles while embracing a radical ecological approach in all affairs. But how radical that approach ought to be has caused immense friction within the community.

In 2006, the North Carolina State Health Department banned overnight guests from Earthaven, declaring its spring-fed water system unsafe for visitors, and mandating that a well be constructed on the premises. Until it was built, Earthaven would be unable to host guests and engage in educational outreach. So the community was faced with what might seem like a simple decision: build the well, resume community outreach, and carry on growing toward the stated goal of 300 inhabitants; or, don’t build the well, stagnate, and watch the community’s outreach mission die. The choice seems easy. Not so for Patricia Allison, then-owner of Earthaven’s primary guesthouse. In community discussions geared toward resolving the conflict, she grew hostile toward her fellow ecovillagers. “These people were not willing to just take what our Mother gave us from the sky,” she told Litfin later. “They wanted to dig into her tissues to get it. So I used the word ‘rape.’”

This is exactly the kind of person that would turn many otherwise interested folks off ecovillage life. In a world of tar sands pipelines, deep sea crude oil exploration, dirty mountaintop coal mining, and dangerously unproven fracking tactics, digging a single well for water can hardly be considered rapacious. Though there is some scientific dissent over the sustainability of wells, the entire Earthaven community aside from Allison and fellow dissenter Kimchi Ryder was prepared to look the other way. After all, like other ecovillages, Earthaven considers itself a “seed community” — its inhabitants believe that as “the precepts of the old paradigm are revealed to be increasingly inept,” their example “will gain credibility” and catch on with large numbers of people. The educational outreach program plays a large role in that effort.

In a dramatic gesture, angry with the community over their perceived willingness to rape the earth, Allison and Ryder composed what came to be known as the “Threats Document.” It listed their grievances and threatened to block all community decisions if these were not satisfied. The all-out civil war that followed spanned several years. In that time, Allison left the community and Ryder admitted her methods were a mistake, working with others to begin a practice group on Nonviolent Communication. Overall, Earthaven’s growth has stagnated, but the fact that it has been able to move forward at all is something of a coup. With decisions made by consensus, requiring total majority consent before the group takes any action, even the most ideologically committed communities can succumb to petty human squabbling.

We don’t get many such examples from Litfin — hers is, after all, a story of successful ecovillages — but we do get other examples of intentional communities finding novel ways to make their experiments work. Indeed, at the heart of Ecovillages, what we really see is the story of humanity in close quarters, learning to cooperate and trust one another in ways that reduce consumption while cultivating a local spirit and making life more pleasurable. Ultimately, what holds these social experiments together is “not ideology but trust.”

Trust means different things in different places. At Konohana in Japan, it means long, honest “group self-inquiry” each night, where residents have “no compunction about poking and prodding into one another’s psyches.” At Svanholm in Denmark, when new members join the community “their assets and earnings go into the common pool,” a remarkable rejection of the individual pursuit of wealth that relies fundamentally on trust in the collective. At EVI in Ithaca, where family life doesn’t seem all that different than my childhood upbringing in suburban Atlanta, trust might mean sharing toolsets, lawnmowers, and other consumer goods instead of each household having their own.

At Italy’s Damanhur, trust has taken the form of a complementary currency, the credito. Like the dollars in your wallet, creditos are essentially social fiction, and what makes them work is simple trust: everyone knows their creditos will be accepted in exchange for local goods and services. Creditos therefore achieve two goals: first, they bind residents together with a “clean” currency, with no ties to violence or greed. Second, they establish a closed loop, helping to develop the community’s professions and services. Take the following example: If you’ve “generated” a credito by promising your labor or starting a new community project, and you want to buy a coffee, you can’t go spend that credito on a coffee outside of the community. So, the logic goes, you get your coffee from the Damanhur shop, keeping creditos in circulation, supporting your fellow Damanhurians. Amazingly, with the help of the central treasury — which manages both Euros and creditos — Damanhurians can use creditos to pay their Italian taxes.

While the workings of complementary currencies are too complex to address here, the credito is surely a harbinger of things to come, or of things already here. With bitcoins, litecoins and dogecoins making headlines daily, interest in alternative currencies is booming. While in 1984 there were only two in circulation, today there are over 5,000 (99). The explosion of alt-currencies has captivated everyone from Von Mises libertarians to the anti-banking left, reflecting the same crisis in confidence that inspires folks to start ecovillages. Everyone can see the flimsiness of our global house of cards. Far from being kooky little outposts of weirdo hippie eco-denizens, then, ecovillages seem like inevitable models for the future. Once the permafrost melts, peak oil hits, and the tenuous trust holding together this globalized, tangled mess erodes, we might find ourselves relying on our neighbors more than we ever thought — perhaps, like Greeks after the Eurozone crisis, “reverting to barter,” or perhaps creating local currencies like Damanhurians.

For the moment, this sounds unlikely — I’ve never even spoken to the man across the way from my Los Angeles apartment, so how could I expect to participate in a gift or alt-currency economy with him? Still, hard as it may be to envision, a move away from currencies created via compound interest is inevitable, unless we start colonizing other planets. A banking system predicated on exponential growth isn’t an option, given our planetary constraints.

The hope is that somehow we can learn from ecovillages before the growth imperative destroys us. This is one of Litfin’s conclusions: she knows we can’t all move to intentional communities, but perhaps we can bring a bit of the ecovillage approach into our own lives. However, though she devotes a chapter to “scaling it up,” it’s not made quite clear how we can do this. Discussing the big picture, her background as a political scientist comes forward, as she pushes for policy changes like US campaign finance reform and the end of fossil fuel subsidies (197-198). Something about these suggestions seems out of step with the rest of the book — relying on the institutions of our day, they seem oddly conservative and top-down. Beyond these policy recommendations, Litfin identifies five principles based on what she encountered in the most successful ecovillages — including systemic thinking, design and development that follow the principles of permaculture, and curiously, the “power of yes.”

The power of yes, much to many workers’ dismay, is not enough to move from the factory floor into the management hierarchy. Structural violence and capital imbalances do not respond to the power of yes. Neither does the climate. So, though Litfin makes an admirable attempt to demonstrate otherwise, I find myself unconvinced by the transformative nonviolent power of ecovillages — at least in terms of widespread, global change, working with the time constraints of a rapidly changing climate. For one, they rely on a peculiar set of conditions. Most obviously, they are self-selecting. Nobody — aside from the small children born into it — enters ecovillage life against his or her will. If and when the sort of lifestyle ecovillagers espouse becomes the necessary norm, many people will kick and scream. One passage from the text is telling in this regard. “What concerns me,” Litfin writes, “is the knee-jerk preference for modern technologies I saw in Africa and Asia.”

Take cement buildings: they’re ugly and uncomfortable, and their embodied energy is very high. Worldwide, cement is the largest material source of greenhouse gas emissions, adding as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as aviation. Yet many rural villagers would happily trade their well-insulated mud-brick homes for a modern cement box that’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer.

Had Litfin dug deeper, she would have seen that this example reflects the sort of colonization of the mind Franz Fanon wrote about 50 years ago. In the post-colonial global south, mimesis is a powerful impulse. This is especially true with the advertising industry working overtime to sell billions of working people the benefits of Coca-Cola, flat screen monitors, mobile tech, toxic beauty products, and this season’s hottest shoes and accessories. Without a fundamental change in the makeup of the global economy, the likelihood of the ecovillage movement and the permaculture lifestyle approaching a fever pitch is nil. Whether that kind of change can work its way from the bottom up is debatable. I certainly have my doubts.

It seems likelier that we’ll only move to ecovillage-esque forms of social organization, cooperation, and reduced consumption once some calamity has made such a move unavoidable. Yes, it is a wonderful thing that people across the world have decided to organize in legitimately anarchistic ways, in small, local settings, articulating a different vision of what it means to live. They have tapped into our evolutionary need to “hang together” (148), and they are fostering “new modes of human beingness.” Surely, their lives are more fulfilling than many others — after conducting her research and noting the joys of ecovillage life, Litfin even started one of her own in Washington state.

Sadly, ecovillagers’ fulfilled existences won’t prevent the inevitable 2°C temperature rise in our future. They won’t prevent the acidification of the ocean and the mass extinctions of important life forms. What happens when the farm at Konohana fails because of unpredictable precipitation patterns? What happens when the poor residents of Colufifa are forced by drought to migrate elsewhere? If rain is as few and far between as it has been in Los Angeles this year, and if the southwest United States really is on its way toward becoming a “permanent dust bowl,” no amount of rainwater catchment is going to keep people hydrated, alive and well. And in that case, conflict seems likelier than the kumbaya spiritual handholding going on in many of these communities.

Litfin’s Ecovillages presents a compelling alternative to the perpetually angst-inducing way we live now, and in that respect it’s entirely convincing. After reading it, I’m considering joining an intentional community myself. Unless Litfin wrote a dishonest book — which seems as unlikely as a sudden global commitment to reversing climate change — many ecovillagers experience rapid personal growth, develop diverse skill sets, achieve a heightened spiritual conscience, and connect with their neighbors like never before. But I don’t have any illusions about what’s coming in the next century. When the time comes to make a better world — violently, perhaps — guns will surely overwhelm the power of yes. And when that time comes, these ecovillagers ought to be ready to fight.


Justin Scott is currently a PhD candidate in anthropology at UCLA. His research focuses on social networking and new notions of kinship in West Africa.