Why do I expedition along ecovillages?

Do I think that the whole world should look like an ecovillage? Which ecovillage is the perfect example? Aren’t ecovillages small, isolated communities with no real impact on the outside world? As I get asked these questions so often, I have set out why I value the ecovillage movement and chose to travel along them in this blog. I hope to give you a glimpse of the many ways in which ecovillage projects inspire me and how I think they can play a role in the global transition towards sustainability. Despite, like everything in life, not being perfect.

My interest in ecovillages started from an interest in the self-sufficient building techniques. Often inhabitants of ecovillages choose natural and local building materials, combined with experimental, off-grid designs. Discovering more about ecovillages, I became fascinated by the holistic approach to sustainability applied. Ecovillages are places where people don’t just build ecological houses, they also attempt to provide their own food in ecological ways, produce their own heat and electricity, treat their waste water on site, restore their local ecosystems and in some cases also try to gain independence from the economic system. And then my interest was really sparked by the social aspects to ecovillage life. Here people are experimenting with ways of decision-making, collaborating and organising which are inclusive, transparent and stimulating a sense of ownership and personal responsibility. Beyond this, some ecovillages practice techniques to enable feelings connection between people and belonging, profound personal growth and collective empowerment. Now, I have come to realize that to me this is where the real gold lies of the ecovillage movement.

“The most visible and tangible projects within ecovillages tend to be those related to technology… Less immediately obvious, but arguably even more significant however is the contribution of ecovillages to a radical transformation of values and consciousness.” Jonathan Dawson

So, which ecovillage is the perfect example?
To me, there is not one ecovillage which is the perfect example of how sustainable life in harmony with nature and each other looks like. And this is not what we should look for either. The value of the ecovillage movement lies rather in the multitude and diversity of all different ecovillage projects. I cannot say that one ecovillage is the exemplary one, because each ecovillage offers good examples and lessons learned in different aspects of a holistically sustainable life. Some ecovillages focus more on ecological building techniques for their homes, others focus more on permaculture gardening for self-sufficiency in organic food. Yet other ecovillages are trying to create the social settings for deep connection, personal growth and social support first. The immense value of all these experiments, lessons learned and knowledge gained in each of these aspects can be harvested from the diversity of ecovillages. So that with each day we collectively grow in wisdom about sustainable life and the movement evolves, building on lessons learned from each other.

The German ecovillage Sieben Linden also states that it is not the individual ecovillages that should be replicated , but rather that the values underlying these experiments can be spread:
Sieben Linden is not a model to be replicated. Instead, this community is constantly changing itself, adapting and rewriting … However, the pattern language that we follow in our evolutionary process can be deeply inspiring. Springing from love for life and a conscious choice to be transparent in our communication and to build trust with all beings.

Aren’t ecovillages small, isolated communities?
I often hear from individuals unfamiliar with ecovillages the image that people in ecovillage projects have totally stepped out of normal society and retreated to some far away mountaintop to live their sustainable lives without bothering with the mainstream world anymore. These individuals therefor often deem ecovillage experiments too local, too small-scale and too isolated to be able to have any impact on the global transition towards a sustainable future. There are several reasons why for me this is far from the truth.

Ecovillages might often be located in a it isolated locations, they are intimately connected to each other through national, regional, continental and global networks (see for example the global ecovillage network (GEN); GEN Europe; the Baltic ecovillage network and national ecovillage networks in each country). Through these networks knowledge, inspiration and experiences are constantly exchanged between ecovillages. But more importantly for the global transition to sustainability, these networks play a role in spreading the wisdom from ecovillage experiments to the ‘outside world’. Educational programs, conferences, webinars and lobby activities all the way to UN level are continuously organized.

Next to this, the volunteer projects offered in many ecovillages provide meaningful periods of personal growth and skill development for individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Enabling many more hearts to be profoundly touched and inspired than just those of permanent ecovillage inhabitants. These volunteers go out into the world spreading the values of the ecovillage movement. Several ecovillages also participate in European funded scientific research projects on various topics, from energy technologies, building practices, ecosystem restoration, social practices and permaculture gardening methods. Ecovillages also often interact with their surrounding region, as economic boost and inspiration to locals for more sustainable life choices. In many cases a so-called spin-off effect can be noticed in the surrounding area of an ecovillage, where more sustainability projects are starting and people make different life choices.

From the outside it seems that ecovillages are reclusive projects of individuals denouncing the mainstream lifestyle. Yet through their global connectedness, outreach, education and research they actually do play an active role in the global transition towards sustainability.

Positive activism
On a daily basis however, ecovillage life does feel like an island away from society. Overlooking the quiet permaculture gardens of an ecovillage in the remote countryside of Estonia right now, I cannot deny this. And this is part of the unique value of the ecovillage movement. Ecovillage inhabitants are practicing on a daily basis a form of activism what I call ‘positive activism’.

Rather than going out onto the streets and the internet shouting what they are against and how other people, companies and institutions have corrupted our world, the individuals I meet in ecovillages have consciously decided to settle on pieces of wasteland in declining regions deemed of little value by the capitalistic world to build a life they actually want to live. Rather than focussing their energy on what they are against in mainstream society and trying to make it stop, they just start building a life according to their values and ideals of a harmonious life on earth. Through this, they are still demonstrating that they do not agree with how mainstream society is functioning, but the emphasis is laid on the alternative, the vision: the positive. Ecovillages are demonstrating that alternative ways of living together, of creating healthy homes, of growing ecological food and of collaborating as a group, are possible. Amidst the chaos of continuous climate, economic and social crises, these individuals just start living a life based on values they would like everyone to live by. This to me is perhaps the most admirable form of activism, one which requires real determination, motivation and vision.

We have known for decades that our lifestyles and systems are severely challenging the possibility for us to continue to live on this planet, yet little has profoundly changed. Environmentalist Rachel Carson asked a challenging question about this situation already in 1962 in her book Silent Spring, writing: “Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or vision to demand that which is good?”.
I don’t think it is a mesmerized state at all anymore, we know damn well that things need to change. But as Carson already discovered in the 60s, we seem to have lost the energy to dare to dream of, let alone, create an alternative. Looking at the ecovillage movement, one can find this energy for constructive change.

Yet it is a hard life, lets not deny that. On a daily basis all ecovillages across the globe face numerous challenges which would knock down most initiatives. For example, almost always working with very little budget and leaning heavily on voluntary effort. Often facing serious barriers in laws and institutions which are no longer designed for people simply wanting to provide for themselves. Needing to rediscover ways and practices of providing a life in harmony with natural ecosystems. Dealing on a daily basis with the challenges and conflicts naturally arising from running projects with a group of individuals, each having their own personality and specific vision for the project. And on top of that, dealing with critiques and prejudices from mainstream society about how they never do every single thing completely sustainable. Or simply being seen as weird outsiders and therefor excluded from public debate.

When trying to build a life according to fundamentally different norms and values from the mainstream one is inevitably confronted with many barriers and challenges. With no way around the fact that they are still participating in a society far from their ideal, ecovillages always have to make some compromises and conform to some extend to be able to legally or practically manage their projects. My deep respect goes out to all individuals who despite this struggle keep their believe and vision of alternative lifestyles and find motivation everyday to keep trying. This is where the strength of this type of activism lies to me: not waiting for conditions to be perfect to start living a sustainable, harmonious life, but creating these conditions themselves.

Empowerment in ecovillages
Despite needing to face the immense challenges of trying to build small utopias in the midst of what some might call a global dystopia, the ecovillage movement flourishes with more and more projects popping up all over the world every day. This fact to me shows that on a deeper, personal as well as collective, level, the ecovillage movement must have managed to create settings for unwavering hope and determination to create change. Perhaps stemming from profound individual and collective empowerment and with that intrinsic motivation. That is where this movement gets really interesting for broader society. The creation of setting for empowerment is incredibly valuable in these times that demand radical changes.

The creation of settings that stimulate empowerment can be led back to many aspects of ecovillage life. Not the least of which the practical empowerment coming from re-learning how to provide for yourself and be less dependent on complex supply systems for simple things as shelter, food, heat, water and electricity. However, I think the real conditions for empowerment are created by the social setting of ecovillages.

Ecovillages are projects in which people consciously decide to live together and collaborate along certain values (like inclusion and transparency). The unique thing about ecovillages is that they work with tools to facilitate living together and collaborating harmoniously. The practices employed centre around the simple acts of listening, sharing feelings, nourishing touch, celebration and reflection. Asking of their members the willingness for personal growth, and with that showing vulnerability, honesty and openness. These practices can result in the creation of a sense of connection and belonging between the inhabitants. What some might call creating community. (One day I will write a separate blog all about this concept of community). A sense of connection and belonging are critical for personal growth and resilient collaboration in a group.

Psychotherapist and neuroscience expert Linda Graham writes in her book Bouncing Back how bonding and belonging nourish personal resilience. She writes: “The process of being seen, understood, and accepted by an attuned, empathic other engenders a sense of genuine self-acceptance, a feeling that we are profoundly okay. We feel safe enough, strong enough, sure enough to venture courageously into the world and develop the competencies we need to deal with life’s challenges.”
Francis Weller adds to this in his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow: “A sense of belonging offers us much-needed medicine in these times, which are marked by feelings of anonymity and isolation. In fact, belonging protects the heart from much of life’s unavoidable challenges.

With the word empowerment I try to describe the phenomenon that individuals start realizing again that they, personally can make a difference and are fully capable to do so. Giving them (intrinsic) motivation to constructively work towards a vision of life along their values for a sustainable, happy life. It is also asetting in which individuals feel personal responsibility again for all that is happening around them, rather than feeling disconnected, indifferent or powerless. And it is a setting in which individuals experience resilience and empowerment also on a collective levels. Believing that together they can overcome any barriers and have all the competences and capacity needed to realize their collective goal. If we manage to create these similar settings in ‘mainstream’ society, we are creating the conditions needed for empowerment and resilience which are qualities which I think we need to truly break away from the current systems and lifestyles.

Avelino et al. (2019) conceptualize the psychological aspect to empowerment as consisting of six dimension. These dimensions can be felt on individual level, as well as on the level of a group resulting in collective empowerment. This image gives examples of collective empowerment, just replace we with I for the ingredients of individual empowerment. The potential I see in the ecovillage movement for empowering individuals stems from playing into all six of these dimensions at the same time because it has such a holistic approach to experimenting for a sustainable future.
Three of the dimensions are seen as basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy in terms of being able to determine what you do, in line with your values and identity. Competence as perceiving that you are good at what you do or want to do. Relatedness is about feeling part of a group, but perhaps more importantly, being recognized, supported and appreciated by others. On top of these basic needs, the belief of being able to achieve goals along your values requires the experience of achieving some degree of both impact and meaning. And lastly, there needs to be some trust in having the capacity to learn, adapt and recover from set-backs, in other words trust in being resilient. (based on: Avelino, F., Dumitru, A., Cipolla, C., Kunze, I. & Wittmayer, J. (2019). Translocal empowerment in transformative social innovation networks. In European Planning Studies.)

Do I then think the whole world should look like an ecovillage?
No, I don’t think that the whole world should look like an ecovillage project. Frankly, I don’t think we have the time for that nor is it realistic with all the infrastructures we already have in place. I do believe there lies a big potential to take elements from ecovillages and integrate them in ‘mainstream’ society. As I have tried to describe, I believe that this potential goes beyond taking best practices from for example their self-sufficient technologies, ecological building techniques, local economic models, horizontal and cooperative organizational structures and ecological food production for regenerating and restoring ecosystems. These wisdoms gained in the ecovillage movement are already invaluable, however, the true gold lies on a deeper level in the creation of settings for empowerment.

So why do I travel along ecovillages?
I think that using experience from ecovillage projects, we can start creating the social settings that foster personal growth and empowerment everywhere in society. So that we can regain the trust that we as individuals can make a difference, and most importantly, that we can already start living along values that we wish were embedded in the whole of society. Nothing is ever perfect so don’t wait for perfect conditions, real courage is shown by starting in the midst of imperfection with living out your vision. It can start as simple as practicing your own values in your direct community, take the time to really listen to each other for example and try to recognize yourself in others. We as humans have this immense capacity for community: for collaboration rather than competition, as well as for trust and empathy.

I have personally witnessed and experienced in ecovillages throughout Europe how incredibly empowering being part of an ecovillage community can be. I wish to keep travelling to explore further this potential of settings creating personal empowerment, which in my opinion are crucial for fundamental change. I want to understand better how these settings for belonging, personal growth and empowerment are created and how we can also transfer them to broader society to create sense of belonging, relatedness and with that resilience and empowerment. This, next to the selfish reasons of gaining tons of practical experience with ecological living and the fact that ecovillages are some of the very few places where I can feel true acceptance, belonging, connection, nourishment and inspiration.

In short, one could say that I get hope from visiting ecovillages. Even though most of them are also far from perfect, and that is exactly the beauty of it.

We are healing the world one heart at a time
Popular saying in the ecovillage movement

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