A Revolutionary Approach to
Thriving in the Modern World
By Tayler Jenkins
When is the last time you’ve had a meaningful conversation with a neighbor? What would your garden look like if you had an entire community around to help build and maintain it? Is your lifestyle low-impact and true to your deepest values?
In a time when nuclear or single family living situations dominate our culture, the concept of an ecovillage can seem like a radical niche filled by escapists and ‘weirdos’ that don’t quite fit into ‘normal’ society. It may conjure images of naïve young adults, drug enthusiasts, and older hippies that just can’t let go of their flower child days, all holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” under a thick haze of skunky-smelling smoke.
Are we hanging onto outdated, media-perpetuated stereotypes of what collective and eco-conscious living entails? Are we writing off a lifestyle that could be revolutionary?
As our social lives become increasingly digitized, I can’t help but wonder how the lack of face-to-face interaction affects our perceived quality of life. At the same time, we are facing multitudes of complex global problems that have largely unknown long-term consequences—climate change, peak oil, pollution, overpopulation, and alarming extinction rates to name few. Our current “solutions” allow us to continue business-as-usual and only delay the full magnitude of their environmental impacts. Without demanding real change, we are simply ensuring that the bulk of the burden will be dumped onto future generations.
Ecovillage design is one piece of the global puzzle that gives small groups of people the power to reclaim autonomy over their environmental impact and quality of life. Sustainability thinker Robert Gilman (1991) defines an ecovillage as a “human-scale, full-featured settlement 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.” The Global Ecovillage Network expands upon this, emphasizing that ecovillages are “intentional” communities that “integrate ecological, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of sustainability in order to regenerate social and natural environments.” Ultimately, an ecovillage community strives to accomplish a common goal, with its inhabitants committed to the ideals of community, sustainability, and/or regenerative living.
Unlike what the 60s hippie commune stereotypes suggest, modern ecovillages don’t require psychedelics, living in the middle of nowhere, or lack of personal space and privacy—and they aren’t even necessarily communal. What they DO entail is a group of ecologically-minded people, as part of a shared property or greater community, who have the intention of living more sustainably and self-sufficiently while cultivating a high quality, fulfilling life.
This model is not a step backward for society. We must be careful not to confuse ecovillages with traditional agricultural villages, the latter of which are largely patriarchal, constrained in opportunities for education and personal growth, and do not necessarily foster harmony between humans and the land (Gilman 1991). Even today’s cities, towns, and suburbs are arguably outdated, tending to be socially isolating, energy-intensive and unsustainable.
Ecovillages, on the other hand, can be a revolutionary alternative to the single family household because they utilize modern techniques to innovatively address the unique conditions faced by society today—particularly environmental degradation and social detachment.
From the environmental perspective, low impact or regenerative living is achieved via energy efficiency and ecological or permaculture design. For example, most ecovillages feature an organic garden where much of their food is grown. This invites biodiversity to the area and improves soil health, plus opts out of the pesticide-fueled monocultures of the industrial food system. Infrastructure is often made with locally-sourced, insulating materials (such as cob or recycled materials) or, for ecovillages with more financial capital, more advanced technology that promotes energy efficiency (such as solar panels). The holistic perspective of permaculture is integral here for reducing the need to consume externally and instead increasing their ability to source form within—for example, using kitchen scraps for their garden’s compost or even offering on-site employment to reduce the need for transportation (Dawson 2006).
Ecovillages aim to improve people’s quality of life by transcending the isolation of our highly digitized world. Community-based decision-making, some shared amenities, and group activities such as gardening and cooking are some ways ecovillages facilitate social bonding. Community dynamics are different in every ecovillage—New York’s Ecovillage Ithaca balances personal space and social interaction by offering residents private living spaces plus shared spaces for community dinners, yoga, etc. Other ecovillages embrace a completely communal lifestyle. In any ecovillage, fostering healthy group dynamics by addressing decision-making and conflict resolution early on is an important step in stimulating a socially meaningful experience.
To gain an inside perspective on one particular ecovillage experience, I spoke with Blair Borax, a current resident of Kailash Ecovillage in Portland, Oregon. In this ecovillage not far from downtown Portland, residents have the privacy and freedom of their own space, with the group aspect of an additional shared space and optional projects such as community gardening.
Kailash has few rules, and those that do exist were put in place by the owners/visionaries. Blair doesn’t mind these rules since the owners are open to input and she finds their governance to be more productive than the democratic kibbutz community she previously lived in. “Many people want a place where they can be healthy, grow their own food, be outside, tend the land, and have a community behind them who also want to live more sustainable lives,” she says, “And I think they did a good job of providing that while keeping almost everything by choice.”
As far as the social aspect goes, Blair noted that people in Kailash have less time to cultivate community than other ecovillages might since they are located near a city with most residents working 9-5 jobs. They do, however, have an email listserv so residents can reach out to each other for support—a battery jump, some spare flour, or even just somebody to watch a movie with. They also have “free” spaces designated for leaving excess produce, clothing, or furniture items for others to take.
Blair also shared that her environmental impact feels somewhat lower since she is recycling, living in a passive (super energy efficient) house, and composting everything (including using a composting toilet!). However, living in an ecovillage hasn’t made her immune to leaving an impact—she still drives to work every day and flies a few times a year.
The most important message Blair wanted to drive home was that all ecovillages are different, and none are perfect. Kailash has its way of doing things, but it doesn’t mean that their model would work for other ecovillages. This can seem confusing for blueprint-followers, but the reality is that nothing is truly black and white. What one person swears by, another person may swear against. Thus, the lack of any one-size-fits-all model leaves ample space for creativity and innovation to be tailored to the needs of individual communities.
From far out communal settlements to integrated urban communities and everything in between, the various ecovillage design techniques can empower us to realize that conscious living doesn’t have to be the radical, fringe concept it’s made out to be. Anyone that values low-impact living and meaningful social bonds might just want to give it a shot! Although there is no panacea for facilitating the perfect lifestyle, the social, spiritual, and practical benefits of ecovillages can be deeply fulfilling for many people. There is something inherently powerful in recognizing the values and ideals that give you purpose and living your life that way.
People living in ecovillages today are a far cry from what many of us still perceive them to be. Modern ecovillage residents are families, couples, children, young adults and elders. They are innovators, entrepreneurs, gardeners, writers, designers, thinkers, activists, visionaries, revolutionaries. Ecovillagers are those who have dared to critically question the coercions of society and commit to cultivating a life that is intensely fulfilling and true to their values.
What’s stopping you? Even if you’re not quite ready to commit to moving to an ecovillage, you can bring ecovillage-like vitality to your life today. Whether that’s by introducing yourself to a neighbor, sharing garden tools, joining a community garden, or hosting a neighborhood potluck, find out what creating a conscious community means to you and take action. As a conscious individual, you hold immense power to engender positive change for yourself and for the world around you. Now, imagine that power increased exponentially by incorporating the people around you in making your vision a reality. You might just find yourself in an ecovillage and—who knows—you might not even have to leave your neighborhood to get there.
Tayler is an Arizona native living in Portland, OR. A self-proclaimed “real foodie,” she has done extensive research on food systems and took a leading role in activism on her college campus to spread education and awareness about healthy, ethical food. In 2013, she spent a few months living on a permaculture farm in Nepal conducting research on conservation farming and local food system governance. Tayler received a BS in Sustainability from Arizona State University in 2015 and is the operations manager for Urban Farm U and editor of two newsletters: Urban Farm Lifestyle and The Permaculture Life. She intends to use these as a medium for sharing knowledge and generating interest in urban farming and sustainability. Tayler can be reached at Tayler@urbanfarm.org.