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In defence of ecovillages: the communities that can teach the world to live sustainably

The Calafou community lives in a repurposed factory complex near Barcelona. Dvdgmz/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

In defence of ecovillages: the communities that can teach the world to live sustainably

The Calafou community lives in a repurposed factory complex near Barcelona. Dvdgmz/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

What types of communities do the best job of living with a minimal impact on the planet? I asked myself this question when I read a recent article on The Conversation, which argued that even if everyone on Earth lived in an ecovillage we would still be using too many resources.

I am more optimistic — some ecovillages provide a much better blueprint than others.

As a 2013 study of 14 ecovillages by US political scientist Karen Litfin shows, ecovillages can be regarded as “pioneer species”. They show people how to improve their sustainability: the ecovillages Liftin studied used 10–50% fewer resources than their home-country averages and, being whole communities, were more influential than a single sustainable household.

Litfin’s assessment took in a wide range of factors – ecological, economic, even psychological – but one example of how ecovillages show the way forward is in power consumption.

Mainstream households tend to rely on national or regional supplies of gas or electricity, with no (or little) control over their sources. In places like Victoria, which has a very emissions-intensive power sector, this can make it difficult to make sustainable choices. However, ecovillage neighbours who have banded together to access renewable energy, say solar or wind power, can make off-grid environmental savings.

While there are financial (and other) barriers to setting up environmentally sound residential neighbourhoods, there are useful rules of thumb. In general, small is beautiful and sharing is efficient. One simply cannot fit as much “stuff” into a smaller house, and sharing accommodation often economises on consumption of goods and services.

Some ecovillages shame others in reducing their environmental footprint. Where ecovillages re-inhabit and renovate old buildings, they save on resources. A good example is the postcapitalist eco-industrial Calafou colony, northwest of Barcelona, which houses some 30 people in an old textile factory complex.

Members of another community that I have stayed at, Ganas in New York City, live in renovated residential buildings and operate several second-hand businesses at which residents work. Residents at Twin Oaks in Virginia, where I worked for three weeks, have a surprising level of collective sufficiency, with residents working on farming and making hammocks and tofu to sell, the proceeds of which are shared between the group.

Such experiments can be scaled up, settling residents in ex-commercial and ex-industrial premises — effectively shrinking cities by encouraging higher-density, more sustainable collective communities.

Crops and solar panels at Twin Oaks in Virginia. Author provided

The global village

This feeds into the idea of “planned economic contraction” or “degrowth”, which as Samuel Alexander argued on The Conversation is necessary in order to live sustainably. But I don’t share his pessimism about the ability of ecovillages to show us a way towards this sustainable life.

An analysis of Findhorn ecovillage in Scotland showed that an average resident travels by air twice as much as an average Scot, yet their total travel and overall ecological footprint was half the Scottish and UK averages.

Residents of Findhorn and of another UK ecovillage, Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED), make significant savings in terms of car travel. It follows that just by avoiding air travel, these residents would have even more environmentally sound practices.

Managing without money?

Members of ecovillages such as Twin Oaks not only share “one purse”, but also complement their efforts at collective sufficiency with minimal use of money. (Avoiding money is part of the culture of squatters generally.) Members of Calafou put in money to the community on the basis of their individual capacity but share governance and benefits equally. Here social and environmental values dominate.

In contrast, money is the principle on which capitalism revolves. If we reduce consumption — and we will need to, to become sustainable — then production has to be reduced. But capitalist producers have no successful operating systems for shrinking. Most often, when consumption decreases it results in unemployment and austerity, rather than orderly degrowth.

Money pressures us to opt for more rather than less, or else risk poverty and powerlessness. Thus it applies a systemic pressure to expand. Growth is not simply a result of people’s greed – even not-for-profit cooperatives aim to create a monetary surplus. How would you run a business or your household using money income in a shrinking market? What would happen to prices and savings?

Many suggest a guaranteed minimum income, but the value of the currency will prove unstable in such conditions and, anyway, what really matters to us is what we can purchase with that income (meaning that prices matter).

Such questions lead us to the conclusion that strategies for degrowth must leap not only beyond capitalism but also beyond money. This is the strength of Litfin’s focus on ecology, community and consciousness, incorporating skills which we need to replace production for trade on the principle of money.

In the future, collectively sufficient ecovillages could operate environmentally efficiently on the basis of direct democracy and arrange production and exchange within the commons they lived off without the use of money. Instead, ecovillagers would make non-monetary exchanges, where necessary, on the basis of social and environmental values.

Thus we could reduce our footprint and stay within Earth’s capacity.

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