An ecovillage is a microcosm of creation; for those who live in it and share in its way of life, it becomes a world unto itself, in which the whole order of existence is related from part to whole. By definition, an ecovillage is a group of people committed to living together as a community, relating sustainably with their natural environment. It is by no means a radical proposition, for the concept simply refers to people creating their culture through place — which has been practiced in varied and innumerable forms for as long as our species has been designated as such.
I have been living in ecovillages, in Australia and Vanuatu, for almost eight years. The life story I have been sharing over the last month is, in one sense, a testimony to the process of adaptation that takes place when one can no longer live functionally as a part of ordinary society and starts actively seeking a sustainable alternative. The story is about other important things too — adventure and awakening, the will to authenticity — but for today I will explore the concept of ecovillage as a place to live purposefully and sustainably, and what that means for the planet.
The corollary relevance of this, I should say, comes from the fact that I’ve recently overhauled the website of our ecovillage in Vanuatu, which includes an invitation for people to visit once the borders are open in 2022. And also that a delegation from the Global Ecovillage Network recently attended COP26 to advocate the ecovillage model of regenerative development as a strategy for climate change adaptation and resilience.
Yet for people to exist in such a way that does not harm the earth requires significant transformations to take place, both within the individual and in the structure and scope of human communities. Having lived this out, to some extent, I wanted to share something about what these transformations looks like. My friend Pi had this to say1:
There is this process that happens when people shift over from city to ecovillage and a lot of people don’t really make it, if we’re honest about things. This is what we’ve observed over the years. There’s a reason why we’re not really backed in with crowds.
The process of [adaptation] that does take place can be described through energy management principles. It is both something that can be willed or something that happens outside of our control. The greatest shift would be [away from] energy consumption, or energy competition — which is the norm in the cities — and moving into energy conservation in an ecovillage setting.
As one brought up in a (so-called) developed country and reared on the spoils of a globalized economy, when I started living close to nature it felt like returning to sanity following a protracted hallucination. The dream cities of this world are so captivating to the senses that one almost considers them real, but sooner or later the truth settles in that there is no possible way for life to continue on this planet by adhering to the model of civilization as it currently stands.
When a grown-up individual has been wired for on-demand, immediate satisfaction of his or her needs or desires — be they food, sex, or recognition/prestige — that person will not find their place in a community of people seeking a regenerative way of life. In the dream city, you are doing that world a service each time you honour an impulse to gratify yourself at the expense of the planet. You are keeping the economy going. You are keeping people gainfully employed in the work of exploiting you.
This is not so in the world of ecovillage and ecovillage projects, for the regenerative way of life is not an economically-driven model. It is a culture of giving and receiving according to one’s unique attributes. One’s role in an ecovillage is determined by what one offers to it; accordingly, in order to live as part of an ecovillage, an individual recalibrates their needs and values to align with the vision, context and culture of the place they have chosen.
The sense of self, in an ecovillage setting, expands to include the whole community and the myriad requirements to keep it operational. One must do as the microbes do: perform different and essential functions for the ongoing maintenance of life, and contribute — through succession — to a balanced ecosystem that supports the future generation.
Succession, in communities, is a fact of life. In the evolution of being, ideas and aspirations that work replace those which have become unwieldy through over-expression. On a community scale, that which is regenerative and sustainable inevitably eclipses that which damages and corrupts; adaptations take place, over time, to preserve the culture of place. This is part of the individual’s process as well. As Pi has said:
I don’t feel it stops with energy conservation. I feel it brings about a kind of healing when we no longer need to utilise so much of our psychic energies, our mental faculties, our physical wellbeing to survival issues.
When we start to conserve, a conversion happens. We start to simplify, then our body starts to find access to what heals — enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters that used to be in stress mode [become available] to undergo some healing process.
From a social dynamic, when the mind is freed up, people can go into actual energy conversations, conversations not just with other human beings, but conversations with nature, spirit, history.
Biodiversity drives the human ecology towards regenerative practices, just as it drives natural ecosystems towards higher forms of life. Regenerative practices — individual and collective — require the ability to do different things: in ecovillage, when a thing breaks you either learn how to repair it or utilize its components to improve something else. When you run out of something, you go without. If you fancy a food that is not here, you improvise with what’s available and come up with something new.
The invitation is always to be more creative and more skillful with how we make use of the time, energy and resources of the ecovillage, in order to keep the place thriving and productive. This requires, of the individual, an adaptation to be happy with what is here, rather than desirous of what is not; to adapt, in fact, one’s set of personal needs to the limitations of what is here right now.
The extent that one can survive without the conveniences of the dream city is equivocal, therefore, to one’s level of adaptiveness to a set of resources limited by locality. This does not mean, necessarily, that we have to do everything ourselves in an ecovillage or that we can only eat from the land, but it does mean that we have to learn how to make optimal use of our unique attributes and whatever else we find at hand to serve the community that, in turn, serves us.
In ecovillage we do as the microbes do: find our niche ability and adapt it towards sustaining the ecology of place, the culture we are co-creating. This level of adaptiveness to do different things in service of our immediate environment cultivates the way of life. Here adaptation is a constant and continuous process, for the power and proximity of nature disrupts whatever mechanical or fixed patterns we seek to impose through our structures of thought and habit. More from Pi:
Those conversations [with nature] bring about a sense of awakeness that’s not just from the physical point of view. There has to be some sort of ego death that happens when people are asked to listen to other human beings from a really humble level.
It is humbling to listen to the needs of other human beings before the fulfillment of our own desires. In ecovillage we have the kind of uncomfortable conversations with each other that most people live out their lives trying to avoid. And yet the ‘awakeness’ to other people and aliveness to our own subtle sensations that emerge in the fulfillment of this process marks a qualitative shift in one’s experience of the world.
It is the art of authentic communion, so richly human in its scope and expression, that the dream city and its conveniences have been stifling. An ecovillage is a microcosm of creation, and the human place within it is as creator: of new forms of ingenuity, of greater ferment in ideas, of sheer beauty in the harmony of our relationship with the planet.
Living in ecovillage renews our connection to place, and to our place in the cosmos — creating a culture of place and symbiotically nourishing the earth of that place. The shared efforts of a community are regenerative. If we are seeking an evolutionary pathway to revive this planet, despoiled by dream cities and way of life they offer, then surely ecovillage models a map of the required terrain.
*This article was originally published on Surrender Now, shared here with permission from the author.*