Published in the Fall 2012 issue of Communities
magazine - Issue #156
What is an ecovillage? Robert Gilman defined it as “a human-scale, full-featured settlement, with multiple centers of initiative, in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.”* That’s a mouthful, and for some people, “ecovillage” has come to mean simply an ecologically-oriented community, even an informally organized one.
In reality, few if any current ecovillage projects may entirely meet the more restrictive definition, requiring a “full-featured settlement, with multiple centers of initiative.” Most contemporary ecovillage dwellers still need to go to a larger village, town, or city, or into cyberspace, to meet some of their significant needs. Furthermore, we don’t know if any of our current ways of living, even in ecovillages, can be “successfully continued into the indefinite future.” (Not only are many eco-living techniques and technologies experimental, but the future itself is uncertain.) So by nature, all “ecovillages” in the modern world are aspiring ecovillages, hoping that both they and the rest of the world can grow into indefinitely-sustainable ways of being.
In this issue of Communities, we’ve allowed a broad definition, letting groups self-identify as ecovillages, recognizing that in every case this is more a statement of intention than of full reality. Like Permaculture, “Ecovillage” is a concept-art-craft-science that can develop only through experimentation, exploration, and beginning attempts. It will take many smaller-scale efforts to develop more mature and robust ecovillages. These pages contain first-hand stories of some of these efforts. If the human species is to have a future, it will need to be sustainable in all the ways ecovillages strive for, and we or our descendants will likely recognize some of these stories as having been the seeds of that future.
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As Laird points out in his Publisher’s Note, ecovillages aren’t only about the future. Many or most of our ancestors lived in settlements that would have met ecovillage criteria—otherwise our species would have fallen off an ecological and/or social cliff long before the modern age. And it’s also true that modern civilization has veered almost unimaginably far off the path of sustainability that allowed indigenous cultures to survive for thousands of years. At risk are not only healthy human development and community but the habitability of our planet.
I’m beginning to believe that ecovillages are necessary not just for a functional social order and a livable planet—but, on some deep level within each of us, for the fulfillment of our evolutionary natures, even the health of our own souls. Over the past year-plus, with an aspiring ecovillage as a home base, I’ve been exploring different settings, different ways of living, different forms of community. And what I recognize, again and again, is that I feel most alive when I am in consciously cultivated, directly experienced community with both people and the earth.
The separation from both of those that much of modern living imposes is devastating to who we are as people, and to each of us as individuals. “Business as usual” in the modern world—each individual or family in its own set of boxes, designed to separate them from the rest of the world—is neither usual nor natural. Living close to the earth in community with others is not a wild experiment or aberration, a flight of fancy or a pipe dream of the impractical. It is what sustained our species since the dawn of time. To return to that way of being, we need each other; going it alone will neither get us there nor leave us a viable planet or civilization in which to practice it.
For the Earth, for our communities, and for our souls, we need ecovillages—in all the diverse manifestations we can imagine for that term.
*Robert Gilman, “The Eco-village Challenge,” www.context.org/iclib/ic29/gilman1; and quoted by Diana Leafe Christian, “Robert Gilman on ‘Multiple Centers of Initiative,’” www.ecovillagenews.org/wiki/index.php/Robert_Gilman_on_“Multiple_Centers_of_Initiative”