Friday, May 27, 2011

Struggle and Evolution make an Ecovillage

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably well aware of the growing popularity of “green” housing developments and “eco-friendly” consumer products pervading real estate listings, health food stores, and Wal-Mart. I have written and pontificated extensively on the risks of misusing the “sustainable” label as well as the many shades of green that governments across the world have adopted to achieve energy independence or environmental conservation. Surely there is no shortage of impressive advances in urban development that adopt the green label. Suburban projects like Prairie Crossing, a low-impact development in Grayslake, Illinois, or urban projects BedZed (Bedding Zero Energy Development) in South London are important demonstrations of ways that we can live comfortably at relatively lower costs to ecological systems. When I mention to friends or family that I study “ecovillages,” the phrase most often evokes images of “hippie communes” or these contemporary developer-led communities that seem to be gaining a presence in the housing market.

While I can emphatically state that ecovillages are neither “hippie communes” nor developer-led “green” communities, I have struggled to securely distinguish ecovillages from other types of intentional communities. Where, for example, shall we draw the line between ecovillages and co-housing communities? Despite its name, many acquaintances of mine argue that EcoVillage at Ithaca is, in fact, not an ecovillage at all, but a co-housing community because its members work with designers and professional developers to build a neighborhood. Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage and Earthaven Ecovillage, on the other hand, are composed primarily of dwellings designed and built by individual inhabitants themselves.

A recent conversation with an Earthaven inhabitant (and fellow urban planning student) clarified for me the importance of this distinction. In an interview, he explained that many of the ecological innovations that Earthaven demonstrates (e.g. micro-power, local food production, rainwater harvesting, etc) are readily available at developer-led green communities. The difference, he emphasized, was the ability to watch your community evolve and participate actively in its evolution. While it’s true that developer-led green communities offer important innovations, an inhabitant of such a community may or may not be aware of how these innovative systems work, and has most likely not taken part in the production and assembly of such systems. A resident of developer-led green community or co-housing community could most likely proceed with their lives happy to know that their energy is being generated on-site or that their food is locally harvested, but an ecovillage resident has little choice but to be part of these systems and struggle from day to day to adapt these systems to the means of production and metabolism of the community.

For my friend, it boils down to the economics of necessity. It is becoming cheaper and less surprising for people in the mainstream to install solar panels on their roofs or to purchase organically grown food at the supermarket, but it remains abundantly easy to take “conventional” power from the grid on a cloudy day, or pass up the organic aisle in favor of industrially produced food when you find a cheaper or more convenient alternative. In other words, “green” alternatives are a thing of convenience and hobby outside of ecovillages. Inside ecovillages (for the most part), micro-energy, local food, local water, and manure composting are the daily reality for which there is no easy alternative. On cloudy days, you remain acutely aware of your energy consumption and often have no choice but to reduce consumption. When on-site building materials run out or recycled materials are sparse, you cannot purchase lumber grown in Brazil; you build a smaller structure. Turning off the water while you brush your teeth or soap-up in the shower are not just kind or conscientious actions, they’re imperative.

I should mention that even in this ecovillage, residents are still very dependent upon fossil fuels. Earthaven is, according to one inhabitant, “far from food self-sufficient” and currently struggling to determine whether it should strive to produce all its own food or specialize in a few products while continuing to purchase food from outside the community. But it is this type of struggle and evolution that is producing very conscientious citizens and simulating the very uncomfortable decisions that everyone in the mainstream will have to confront in due course.

Living and struggling in a reality with little to no fossil fuels (and substantial pressure to avoid using them) is what distinguishes ecovillages from other types of “green” communities. This reality forces someone like myself, who has lived for decades in a world fueled by petroleum and coal, to undergo a sort of personal evolution; a struggle that forces me to ask, “How badly do I need to shower?” or “Do I really need to chec my e-mail right now?” or confront the fact that despite the fowl smell of my clothing, I cannot use the laundry machine because it’s raining, and there’s neither the solar power to run the laundry machine nor the sun to dry my clothes once they’re wet… (really, I should have planned better).

As I have argued before, the United States and the rest of the developed world will not overcome fossil-fuel addition by simply installing solar panels or driving hybrid vehicles. No known technology can effectively displace the fossil energy at the rate that westerners consume. Increases in energy efficiency are always cancelled by increases in total energy consumed or vehicle miles traveled. We need to figure out how to meet our needs by consuming less, and I commend ecovillages for confronting this harsh reality and acting sincerely to solve it.

Thanks for reading! (Pictures will be coming soon. I promise. For real. Just waiting for a friend to e-mail them to me. Yes, I forgot my camera in Champaign. Yes, my cell phone has a camera but the pictures suck. Sorry to keep you waiting, but it’s worth the wait.)


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  2. Thanks Robby. I appreciate that you mention ecovillages are rarely self-sufficient and in process. It is easy for folks to imagine them as mini-utopias that have it all worked out. You might be interested in a recent blog post I wrote called "What is an Ecovillage?" You can view it here: I look forward to reading more posts.

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