UW News

July 15, 2014

Sustainable, sharing communities explored in Karen Litfin’s book ‘Ecovillages’

UW News


The forest provides firewood for the 40,000 Tamil villagers who live around Auroville, founded in 1968 in South India. Auroville is now home to Auroville is home to 2,000 people from 43 different countries and is one of the few places on Earth where biodiversity is actually increasing.

The forest provides firewood for the 40,000 Tamil villagers who live around Auroville, founded in 1968 in South India. Auroville is now home to 2,000 people from 43 different countries and is one of the few places on Earth where biodiversity is actually increasing.

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.

"Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community" was published in December 2013 by Polity.

“Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community” was published by Polity.

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.

One year, 14 ecovillages:
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 DesignGermany

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.