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.

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by AdobeStock/Imran's Photography

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.

Farmer with work clothes drawing water from old well to water th

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.

Two boys are hugging in the woods. In sweaters with a Fox and an

Fifth, ecovillages seek to mesh human beings and their constructed environment with the natural world. After they have provided space for housing, food production, and other basics, they usually leave large tracts as nature preserves. They typically forbid hunting, although they often allow, even encourage, the gathering of edible plants. Finally, ecovillages frequently embrace sustainable practices that have come to be known, collectively, as permaculture, a term coined by David Holmgren and his professor Bill Mollison. Describing the long-term destructiveness of much modern agriculture, they sought to develop a permanent (that is, sustainable) agriculture, a term they abbreviated as permaculture. Permaculture maintains that sustainability needs to come through a set of integrated agricultural, architectural, and cultural systems. Each element of a local environment must be considered in relation to other elements; the idea is to get a functioning whole life system, not just one or two pieces of it. Ultimately, permaculture is pro-people — not because it enables people to exert mastery over nature, but because they function as part of it. Jan Martin Bang has described permaculture thus:

“Permaculture is about designing sustainable human settlements. It is a philosophical and practical approach to land-use integrating microclimate, functional plants, animals, soils, water management and human needs into intricately connected, highly productive systems. It presents an approach to designing environments that have diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It seeks to regenerate damaged land and preserves environments which are still intact.”

But, as I noted above, ecovillages are not really new at all. The dream of going back to the land, of living in harmony with nature, must be as old as urban, industrial civilization itself. Jonathan Dawson, a sustainability educator and ecovillage activist, first traced the genre to Sólheimar, an Icelandic community founded in 1931; then, expanding his frontiers, he decided that the early Celtic monasteries of nearly 1500 years ago were first; and, finally, he credited the communal historian Bill Metcalf with pushing the timeline another millennium farther back. Metcalf, a tireless collector of information on all things communal, identifies the vegetarian community of Pythagoras at Crotona, in the sixth century BCE, as “the first intentional community which we would recognize today, and about which we have much information.”

Communes in America: 1975-2000 is the final volume in Timothy Miller’s trilogy on the history of American intentional communities. Providing a comprehensive survey of communities during the last quarter of the twentieth century, Miller offers a detailed study of their character, scope, and evolution. Between 1975 and 2000, the American communal experience evolved dramatically in response to social and environmental challenges that confronted American society as a whole. Long-accepted social norms and institutions — family, religion, medicine, and politics — were questioned as the divorce rate increased, interest in spiritual teachings from Asia grew, and alternative medicine gained ground. Cohousing flourished as a response to an increasing sense of alienation and a need to balance community and private lives. At the same time, Americans became increasingly concerned with environmental protection and preservation of our limited resources. In the face of these social changes, communal living flourished as people sought out communities of like-minded individuals to pursue a higher purpose. Based on exhaustive research, Miller’s final volume provides an indispensable survey and guide to understanding utopianism’s enduring presence in American culture. Miller is professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas. He is the author of numerous books, including The Quest for Utopia in Twentieth-Century America: 1900-1960 and The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond.

Reprinted with permission from Communes in America, 1975-2000 by Timothy Miller and published by Syracuse University Press, 2019.