Environment and Social Consciousness Come Together in Ecovillages

By Daniel Greenberg Gazette Contributing Writer

Humanity is at an unparalleled moment, not just in our own history, but in planetary history. From the war on terrorism to the war on rainforests, from global markets to global warming, the challenges are overwhelming. It’s clear we must learn to live in ways that honor all life.

But how? Is it possible to maintain high-quality lifestyles while staying within planetary limits? This is the core question being asked in a growing global network of sustainable communities called ecovillages. These communities are laboratories for learning how we might live well and lightly together.

The Global Ecovillage Network, which has been documenting and supporting these communities since 1995, lists over 500 self-identified ecovillages around the world. It’s likely there are many more, however, especially if you include the 1,800 member villages of a network in Sri Lanka known as Sarvodaya.

There is no “typical” ecovillage; in fact, their diversity is astounding. Some have fewer than 30 members; others have hundreds or thousands of members. Some share a common “purse” while others have individual income and expenses. Some are part of national networks, others are more independent. Most are rural, but some are urban. Some are secular, others are religious; most are spiritual in some form.

While models vary widely, ecovillages all share an intention to develop and integrate new and more sustainable forms of economic, environmental, social and even spiritual development. They are all conscious and participatory experiments in designing a more connected and livable future. In most ecovillages you’re likely to find some version of these elements:

Ecovillages are not utopias, however. Real people—like you and me—are developing these unique communities, often under very difficult conditions. Common challenges include inadequate financial and human resources, restrictive zoning, local fears and misconceptions, and even language barriers within the more international communities. Ecovillages encounter the same hurdles any new business faces while at the same time building residences, decision-making structures and interpersonal relationships. This is hard work!

The technologies and methods used in ecovillages aren’t unique, either. One can easily find more successful or cutting-edge renewable energy facilities, green buildings, organic farms and creative decision-making processes outside of ecovillages. What makes ecovillages special and relevant are not these individual components, but that they are putting the pieces together into human-scale communities, into wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. Ecovillages are, in effect, creating new cultures—new stories about what it means to live interdependently with each other and our planet.

As such, ecovillages make ideal campuses for sustainability education. Simply by being active participants in one of these communities, students get to try on and embody more local and human-scale lifestyles, which will likely become increasingly necessary as we move into a post-oil world. Even more significantly, ecovillages often serve as catalysts for personal transformation with students re-awakening to a deep sense of belonging and interconnectedness with all life.

This is why I founded Living Routes, which partners with the University of Massachusetts Amherst to run ecovillage-based programs in India, Scotland, Costa Rica, Israel, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Australia and the United States. We offer coursework on ecological design, green building, group dynamics, social justice and more, but at the core of all our programs is an integrated experience in sustainable community living.

One of our ecovillage partners is the Sirius Community in Shutesbury. Founded in 1978, Sirius was inspired by Findhorn, an international community and education center in northern Scotland dedicated to creating positive visions for humanity and the planet. Today, Sirius consists of about 15 core members, 25 residents and 150 or so supportive neighbors that make up the wider community known as Hearthstone Village.

Sirius has organic gardens, chickens, green buildings, a vegetable-oil collective for vehicle fuel, photovoltaics and a windmill along with meditation spaces, a sacred stone circle, and a vibrant community center and culture.

In addition to running summer courses at Sirius, we’re developing a semester program based there that will also connect with other sustainability-focused organizations and communities in the Pioneer Valley. Our goal is to help students extend what they learn at Sirius into broader communities and their own lives. One student at a time, one community at a time, one semester at a time, we can change the world.

Daniel Greenberg is executive director emeritus of Living Routes, based in Amherst. For information about Sirius Community, visit www.siriuscommunity.org or call 259-1251. Learn more about ecovillages worldwide at The Global Ecovillage Network website, www.gen.ecovillage.org.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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