Monday, November 29, 2010

Finding Sustainability in Ecovillages: An Untapped Socio-Technical Niche

“The prevailing assumption is that we can adopt better technologies like hybrid cars, solar collectors, and compact fluorescent lights and change little else. We will need all the technological ingenuity that we can muster, but the science indicates a much more precarious situation and the need for deeper changes that will require substantial alterations in our manner of living.” –David W. Orr. Down to the Wire (2009).

Last week, while making my obligatory Thanksgiving-break visit to the dentist’s office, I was encouraged to see a full-page magazine advertisement that emphasized, in bold green type face: “The solution is negawatts, not megawatts.” This, of course, is an allusion to whole-system energy efficiency as a means to solving our energy crisis rather than choosing between one lethal energy source over another. Negawatts aren’t a terribly new concept (Amory Lovins has been preaching about them for decades), but amidst the flurry of green capitalism that seems to pervade every type of consumer product, it’s refreshing to see that someone out there is trying to accomplish more by actually doing less. The concept is simple: if we used energy ten times more efficiently, we’d need to burn ten times less coal, and engage in ten times less mining to access the coal. Astonishingly, ninety percent (yes, that’s 90) energy produced in big power plants is lost through inefficiency between the energy source and an average American home. Nearly eighty (80) percent is lost at the plant itself and the power-lines between the plant and your home. We could eliminate these “leaks” in the system by localizing energy supplies, say, on residential rooftops or neighborhood wind turbines, and make up for the lower energy yield by consuming energy more efficiently on the demand-side. The same “conserve-and-load” mentality can be extended to other resources like water, food, and lumber. If we find ways to waste as little as possible on the demand side, we don’t have to worry about costly and polluting infrastructure to deliver, process, and recycle it.

Much of this resource efficiency can be achieved through simple changes in routine: turning off and unplugging appliances when they’re not in use, walking/cycling to destinations when possible, taking shorter showers, buying food in bulk, turning off lights when daylight will do. When combined with efficient technologies, these behavioral changes make a big difference. But we’ll need to make yet bigger changes if we are to neutralize our carbon footprint and ultimately reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases.

Transitioning to a carbon-neutral economy will require a process of socio-technical innovation: changes in both technological artifacts and the social discourse that surrounds them. These changes are mutually-dependent—one will not occur without the other. Although we tend to think of technology in terms of physical artifacts that spontaneously emerge, new artifacts are highly dependent on complementary technologies that support new artifacts as well as our willingness change our behavior and sometimes laws to support these new technologies. Technology is also highly symbolic: think about the socio-political impact of the 1957 launch of Sputnik, a basketball-sized Soviet satellite that resulted in a decades-long “space race” in a addition to advances to atmospheric science.

Researchers in western Europe, specifically in the UK and the Netherlands, have begun to apply a new model of “socio-technical innovation” to policy-making and planning that considers how novel technologies emerge and infiltrate rigid “socio-technical regimes”— stable economic rules and networks. Whereas traditional, neo-classical economic models see innovation as exogenous to the economy (as originating outside the system), socio-technical systems see innovation as originating within society, in protected spaces called “socio-technical niches.” Niches protect novel, unprofitable ideas from market competition, allowing them to thrive in a sheltered space with different “rules of the game”. Governments create niches all the time: The US government creates a very special and lucrative niche for novel military technology, medical technology, and communication technology, mostly through direct funding or tax incentives. Niche ideas infiltrate and ultimately change regimes when combined with pressure from the “socio-technical landscape” or signals from society at-large. The whole process is similar to biological evolution—when pressure and diversity combine, new configurations emerge!

Radical new socio-technical configurations are desperately needed to improve resource efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. Climate change has been forecast by some as the most threatening national security emergency of the twenty-first century. I believe it may be, and so do the many national, regional, and local governments now considering climate change policies in their published plans. It’s time that urban planner begin thinking about creating niches for energy and resource efficiency. Fortunately, one such niche exists.

Ecovillages: An untapped socio-technical niche

Ecovillages are intentional communities that achieve remarkable ecological efficiency by applying radical new “rules of the game” to community life. While no two ecovillages are the same, many ecovillages are able to dramatically reduce overall resource consumption (relative to “mainstream” American communities) by combining both new and very old technologies with changes in norms and behavior.

My experience living in Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage exposed me to several of these practices (you can read about this experience in detail in past blog posts). The human “waste” system at Dancing Rabbit, for example, closes the loop that modern toilet systems leave open by composting human excrement and re-integrating as fertile soil it into local gardens. You may cringe, but managed correctly, this system is completely sanitary, water- and chemical-free, and provides rich, organic fertilizer for the soil. The urine and feces that most Americans consider “waste” becomes a very valuable agricultural input.

Of course, implementing a system like this outside an ecovillage faces enormous legal, normative, cognitive, and technological barriers. Even if human waste recycling could turn a theoretical profit (which I imagine it could), we have been trained from an early age that our bodily waste must be flushed “away” as quickly as possible. The infrastructure doesn’t exist to recycle waste on a large scale, and most municipalities would probably frown upon the composting of human waste in our backyards.

In short, there are normative, cognitive, technological, and regulatory barriers to this safe, clean, and potentially profitable practice. We can extend this same logic to other energy-conserving practices like cooperative kitchen facilities, natural building techniques.

Another normative barrier I have encountered in the discourse of ecovillage life is a cultural stigma associated with “hippie communes” of the 1960s and 70s. I am not an expert on the hippie movement nor on the socialist utopian communities of the middle twentieth century, but in my recent perusal of newspaper articles and other mainstream media surrounding ecovillage life, I find that contemporary ecovillages are fighting an image of disengagement and laziness that seems to follow hippies around (Patton Oswalt, my favorite comedian, hasn't helped). Popular discourse views ecologically-oriented intentional community with the counter-cultural movements that encouraged young people to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” detaching themselves completely from societal conventions.

My experience living in and researching ecovillages contradicts this association completely. In fact, many contemporary ecovillages are aggressively engaging mainstream society through websites, educational seminars, and opportunities to visit and experience ecologically-oriented practices. I believe the contemporary ecovillage movement has a lot to offer cities, regions, and nations that are trying to develop more sound environmental practices. While neither I nor the ecovillage inhabitants I’ve met have any intention to transplant ecovillage practices exactly onto mainstream society, I think that exposure to these practices and experience engaging in them will allow for mainstream integration of radical resource efficiencies into daily metropolitan life. I have tried over and over again to explain to friends and colleagues the merits of the humanure systems or the benefits of shared facilities. But until they experience these alternatives themselves, I’m confident they’ll be relegated to the realm of foreign or extreme.

This returns us to the theory of socio-technical transitions. If city and regional planners want to create more “sustainable” places, they have an opportunity to take advantage of localized, existing ecological practices. “Sustainability” will not succeed if we apply a single prescription to every community of the world: every community exists in a distinct bio-region that will require different sets of human behavior if finite ecosystems are to be sustained. Instead of planning rationally, synoptically, and comprehensively (as most cities and regions continue to do) we can experiment with sustainability locally—in ecovillages. This approach to engaging the future is admittedly humble and incremental: it acknowledges that we cannot know the future before we try it out.

Urban and regional planners can begin this process by visiting existing ecovillages, which are often marginalized by strict metropolitan land-use regulations, high land prices, and a stigmatized reputation. We can proceed by removing some of these barriers and encouraging ecological practices that the general public can see, touch, taste, and experience first-hand. Increasing energy and resource efficiency will require radical shifts in technology and behavior. If the majority of people haven’t experienced radical shifts, even briefly, they will continue to feel uncomfortable about them, or even reject them as alien.


  1. Robby--I spent several months at Dancing Rabbit in the Winter of 07-08 and I completely agree with you. I'd like to figure out a way to live in an "eco-village" within a small city--like Eau Claire, WI, the one I now live in.

  2. Thanks, Zinnia. Out of curiosity, how did you discover my blog? Cheers!-Robby