What is a Contemporary Ecovillage?

Learn about the history of this type of American intentional community, which focuses on sustainability and meshing people on a small scale.

| May 2019

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What is a contemporary ecovillage? Several features may be regarded as typical for the genre. First, it emerges in response to a perceived social environmental crisis and is optimistic in that it sees a possible way to a positive future. A key theme in ecovillage life is preparation for a future time without the cheap oil and gas that so fundamentally drive contemporary society. Ecovillagers observe that fossil fuels are finite by their nature and that human beings are going to have to make radical lifestyle shifts if they are to survive the coming post-petroleum age. One such shift is a transition to other sources of energy than oil and to dramatically more efficient ways to use the oil that remains.

Second, it is an experiment, or set of experiments. Ecovillagers have reacted to the unsustainable ways of modern urban culture, but they do not have any single model of a perfect ecological future. The villages are all works in progress, improving steadily and following many twists and turns and dead ends to locate the sustainable culture that is the final goal. The spirit of experimentation covers social relations as well as the more physical side of things — construction, agriculture, alternative technology. But experimentation does not mean that the ecovillage is a transient phenomenon; on the contrary, creating a long-lasting community is part of the vision.

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Third, ecovillages are by nature fairly small. One might try to imagine an ecocity with thousands of people living in harmony with nature and each other (and indeed such cities have been envisioned), but cities by their nature are hardly sustainable. “Village” is an important part of the concept; ecovillages aim to be human-scale endeavors, small enough that members are acquainted with one another and that each member can influence the course of the whole project. Most of them have under one hundred members, and it would be hard to identify one with more than a few hundred. If the ecovillage concept grows in popularity, an eco-answer to rising demand would be to found new ecovillages, not expand existing ones indefinitely. A good model here is that of the Hutterites, who have grown a hundredfold since arriving in the United States in 1874 with fewer than 450 members in three original colonies. Hutterites have historically had high birth rates; that, together with retention of a strong majority of their young people, has meant rapid growth. Once a colony reaches around 150 members, it “branches out,” as Hutterites like to say, and a new colony is founded. Once it is built the members of the existing colony decide, by lot, who will stay and who will go to the new colony. Thus is human scale maintained.

Fourth, an ecovillage strives to meet the basic necessities of life. It is not a summer camp, or a weekend retreat; it is a place where people live and work and play. Some ecovillagers may need to work outside the community in order to earn the money that is inescapably necessary for modern life, but the goal is to develop on-site ways to meet as many needs as possible. Ideally, ecovillagers grow their own food, build their own buildings, have their own industries (to help generate the money they need), and support their own distribution systems (stores and the like). They often school their own children, although some use the local public school system. A perfect ecovillage would include a clinic with a resident medical doctor.






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