Karen Litfin is a University of Washington associate professor of political science and author of the book “Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community.” She answered a few questions about the book, and her work, for UW Today.
Q: What is the main message of “Ecovillages”?
A: After teaching global environmental politics for two decades and watching planetary conditions deteriorate, I grew disenchanted with top-down solutions. I also grew tired of making my students anxious, depressed and guilt-ridden. If our ways of living are unraveling planetary life-support systems, then we must answer the question: How, then, shall we live?
My search for models led me on a one-year journey around the world to ecovillages, intentional communities aspiring to live sustainably. Living in 14 ecovillages on five continents taught me that not only is another world possible, it is already being born in small pockets the world over.
The point, however, is not that we all should live in ecovillages; rather, we need to learn from them and scale up their lessons to existing social structures, from the household to our neighborhoods to our cities, nations and even to the level of global governance.
Q: How did you choose which ecovillages to visit?
A: I took a year to map my journey and arrange the logistics. I selected for “success,” which I conceived as an amalgam of factors including longevity, size and reputation. Most communities I visited, for instance, had a 10-year history with at least 100 members.
Because I wanted to understand the movement’s global character, I also selected for diversity: rural, urban and suburban; global north/global south; rich, poor, and middle class; secular, religious and spiritual: high-tech and low-tech. Across this enormous diversity, I then looked for the common strands.
Q: You write amusingly that the term “ecovillage” may conjure images of “shabby rural outposts populated by long-haired iconoclasts,” but that you found them less easy to pigeonhole. How instead would you describe them, and what do they have in common?
A: I saw a few scruffy shacks but for the most part, I found tidy, smallish homes that reflected a kind of organic beauty. I also found unusually capable and articulate people committed to integrating the four dimensions of sustainability: ecology, economics, community and consciousness.
I learned that “sustainability” varies with context. Ecovillagers in the global north focus on reducing social alienation, consumption and waste, whereas the global south focuses on “sustainabilizing” traditional rural villages. Los Angeles Ecovillage, for instance, is an island of frugality in the heart of consumer culture, whereas Colufifa, a Senegal-based village network, works to prevent hunger.
Yet both are drawn to bicycles and permaculture, suggesting common ground between east Hollywood to west Africa.
Most important, I found ecovillages embrace these basic tenets:
- The web of life is sacred and humanity is an integral part of that web.
- Global trends are approaching a crisis point.
- Positive change will come primarily from the bottom up.
If I had to encapsulate ecovillage culture in one word, it would be sharing. Because ecovillages share material resources, both their consumption and incomes can be far below their home country averages.
Material factors like self-built homes and home-grown food tell only part of the story. More important is the prevalence of sharing — not only of property and vehicles, but of the intangibles that define community: ideas, skills, challenges, and celebrations.
Auroville – India
Colufifa – Senegal, the Gambia
Crystal Waters — Australia
Damanhur – Italy
Earthhaven – North Carolina, USA
EcoVillage at Ithaca — upstate New York
Findhorn – United Kingdom
Komohana – Japan
Los Angeles Ecovillage
Sarvodaya – Sri Lanka
Sieben Linden — Germany
Svanholm – Denmark
UfaFabrik – Germany
ZEGG, Center for Experimental Cultural Design – Germany
Q: How does the ecovillage movement, if we can call it that, differ from “back to nature” trends of previous decades?
A: Ecovillages are far more integrated into society and many of them are in cities. Rather than separating themselves, ecovillages tend to be educational centers; their members tend to be socially and politically engaged. The Global Ecovillage Network, for instance, works with the United Nations and the European Union.
Q: You note people saying, “That’s all fine for those lucky ecovillagers, but what about the rest of us?” How do you reply?
A: We should understand that being an ecovillager is more a consequence of inspiration and hard work than luck. And, because sustainability is the nonnegotiable precondition for inhabiting Earth over the long haul, “the rest of us” would be wise to learn from ecovillages.
Q: This has been a very personal journey for you. How has this work changed you?
A: First, the journey gave me a strong sense of grounded hope: I have seen and touched some seedlings for a viable future. Second, while ecovillages are not for everyone, some people yearn for the intimacy, focus and integrated solutions of ecovillage life. I learned that I am such a person.
Third, I wanted to write a book that would be both emotionally and intellectually engaging, which required learning a whole new way of writing — and therefore thinking.
Q: Based on what you’ve learned, what suggestions would you offer to people looking for sustainability in everyday life?
A: Beyond the green practices that most of us are familiar with —conservation, recycling, minimizing fossil fuel consumption, etc.— I would emphasize the social dimension of sustainability.
The stronger the sense of community, the more we are willing to share. Beyond our households and neighborhoods, we need to scale up the lessons to every level of governance.
Photos by Karen Litfin.
Earthhaven Council Hall
Karen Litfin was "thoroughly impressed" by her first stop, Earthhaven, a 320-acre off-the-grid community in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. In its 15 years, she said, the community has created "a rapidly evolving expertise in forestry, a range of natural building styles, 100 percent energy and water self-sufficiency and several thriving farms — all in what was once raw forest." This the Council Hall, a 13-side structure built by the community.
Firewood for many in Auroville
The forest provides firewood for the 40,000 Tamil villagers who live around Auroville. "Founded in 1968 upon a severely eroded plateau in south India, the first order of business for the pioneers was to revitalize the land. Three million trees later, Auroville is home to over 2,000 people from 43 different countries and is one of the few places on Earth where biodiversity is actually increasing," Litfin writes.
An Auroville home
Larger homes are built with compressed earth bricks, made from a simple machine pioneered by Auroville's Earth Institute, and run on solar electricity.
Meeting in Colufifa
Litfin attends a meeting of village leaders in Colufifa, in Senegal and the Gambia. Colufifa is not an ecovillage exactly, Litfin notes — more a Senegal-based network of 350 West African villages seeing to become self-sufficient. Meeting topics ranged from plastic bags clogging local waterways to poultry vaccination programs.
Los Angeles permaculture garden
Litfin writes that she at first glance, the village's two renovated tenement buildings were unremarkable. But around back, she found the village's "lush permaculture garden is alive with free-range chickens, a compost pile, and dozens of varieties of fruit trees and vegetables."
Teacher plants trees at night
Sekou Bodian teaches high school biology in Colufifa by day and, with the help of a light bulb and a small generator, plants trees at night. By his estimate, he has planted 300,000 trees in his lifetime.
A garden in Findhorn
Findhorn, in Moray, on the northeast coast of Scotland, was formed in 1962, Litfin writes, "when three spiritual seekers with no previous gardening experience transformed a barren, windy bluff on the North Seat into a cornucopia." Litfin herself spent some time working in the garden.
Making meals in Konohana
Konohana Family, Litfin writes, is an ecovillage "that sits under the towering presence of Japan's Mt. Fuji (and) takes its name from the goddess once thought to inhabit this venerable mountain." The village is almost completely food self-sufficient, and here residents prepare organic vegetarian meals for hundreds of people in the region. As of 2012, the village comprised about 58 adults and 25 children.
An ecovillage in Los Angeles
L.A. Eco-village was founded in 1992 in a multiethnic neighborhood in East Hollywood. "As a consequence," Litfin writes, the village "is the most ethnically diverse community I visited."
Organic farming in Sarvodaya
"In a country where agrochemicals are used intensively, Sarvodaya trains farmers to cultivate rice (shown here) and other crops organically," writes Litfin. "When people ask how many ecovillages there are in the world, I tell them it depends upon whether you count the 15,000 Sri Lankan villages working with Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest nongovernmental organization."
Rural living in Sieben Linden
Litfin writes of this off-the-grid German ecovillage, "Its commitment to one-planet living and a spacious rural environment make Sieben Linden an ideal hands-on learning community for classes and workshops. Founded in 1997 and named for Linden trees on the land, the village is one of several that Litfin says "sprouted in the fertile soil of the East after German reunification.
Svanholm, a rural Danish community, is "a prosperous and highly functional commune," Litfin writes, with most of its 85 adults and 56 children "living in small 'home groups' in this enormous 1749 manor house." She adds that the commune's 988 acres devoted to organic farming "dwarf those of most ecovillages and its farmers have played a pivotal role in setting Danish — and therefore European Union — organic standards."
Film studio turned ecovillage
UfaFabrik, in the heart of West Berlin, was founded in 1979 when about 100 peace activists took over an abandoned Universal Film Studio site, Litfin writes. "Eventually, they gained title to the land and transformed the old film studio into a 160,000-square-foot state-of-the-art ecological demonstration site" visited by up to 200,000 people a year.
Free spirits in Germany
All members participate in communal work in this community west of Berlin founded in 1991 called ZEGG, or the Center for Experimental Cultural Design (or Zentrum für esperimentelle Gesellschaftsgestaltung). Here, members raise a big tent for the community's annual summer camp. Litfin writes that for 15 years, the community has offered courses on a group process to explore feelings developed there called The Forum, "as a tool for fostering greater self-awareness and social bonding."
Litfin writes, "Not only is another world possible, it is already being born in small pockets the world over."