Ross and Hildur Jackson from Denmark were the driving forces in creating the GEN network twenty years ago. For the first time they share the full story from their perspective. All there experience and information is a great gift especially to the young people who now take over the responsibility for the network.
The Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) has now existed for 20 years and Gaia Education, which began as a GEN project, is celebrating its 10th year in teaching the principles of living sustainably. Ecovillages provide models for a lifestyle that reduces our ecological footprint while delivering a better quality of life—one, which is possible in all countries of the world, and can lead to global justice, solidarity and cooperation. We are learning how to solve conflicts, how to develop a global consciousness, how to create places where children can grow up naturally, how to use renewable integrated energy systems, 100 % organic food productions and how to live lives full of love and compassion.
The ecovillage movement can be seen as a deliberate strategic response to the destructive consequences of a dominant worldview that is simply not working for the vast majority of people or Gaia. The “market society” can never lead to anything but a degraded environment and a disastrous growing gap between the rich and the poor. The ecovillage movement is part of a much larger movement of civil society initiatives responding to these issues. When Ken Wilber recommends “integral practice”, he is describing ecovillage living. The “voluntary simplicity” that Duane Elgin calls for, and the “sustainable abundance” that Bernard Lietaer describes, can be found in the lifestyles of ecovillagers. When Paul Ray and Ruth Sherry Anderson define the rise of the “Cultural Creatives”, they are describing the values already adopted and implemented by ecovillagers. When Thomas Berry calls for a “new story of the universe”, ecovillagers are already practicing this story on the ground. While many other parts of the greater movement focus on important single issues like climate agreements, renewable energy, economic reforms, etc., ecovillagers play the role of living holistic solutions and “walking their talk”.
The ecovillage movement represents an idea whose time may finally have come. They have laid a firm foundation that is ripe for broader recognition as people are realizing that we must move forward now to a sustainable and just global society based, not on the needs of multinational corporations, but on the needs of ordinary people everywhere. We can change society from the bottom up and we are doing it. However, we cannot do it alone. We also need radically revised global trade agreements, a real climate agreement that actually works, and real empowerment in the poorest countries. This can only be done with allies from the political world, who agree with our analysis. This was the subject of Ross’ latest book, Occupy World Street.
The impulse for the Global Ecovillage Network evolved from an initiative taken by Gaia Trust in 1990. This article is a personal account of some of the major milestones along the way as seen from our particular vantage point. We have broken it into two parts—1991-2003 and 2003-2015.
When Hildur gained her degree as a lawyer in January of 1967, she went to a kibbutz in Israel to explore whether humans were basically egoistic or not. This was a recurring discussion with her partner, Ross Jackson. She gained a deep conviction that human nature can change and that we can build a better society. She married Ross and had her first baby in February 1968 (the same week that Auroville was founded and student rebellions swept Europe). She started studying cultural sociology in Denmark to acquire knowledge for bringing about change. For the next 10 years she questioned traditional science, joined and created social movements and co-founded one of the first Danish co-housing projects. Everything seemed possible. The need for a new scientific paradigm was obvious. We needed a new respectful language, science and spirituality/religion to meet again and more than anything, science should serve people in helping them take action.
She then heard about a Norwegian Project: The Nordic Alternative Future Project initiated by Norwegian Erik Dammann (founder of The Future in our Hands). The project linked 100 Nordic grassroots movements with the best of the scientific community in order to create a vision of how to solve global, social and environmental problems. Research councils were created in the different Nordic countries – Hildur worked in the Danish group for ten years as a coordinator and later brought a report to the women’s UN meeting in Nairobi: “Future Letters from the North”. Here she made friends with Wangari Maathai.
What became clear to Hildur was that we have all the knowledge and tools we need to change the world. But we in the North have to put our own house in order, build sustainable communities, and give up exploiting the rest of the world. This was her background for co-founding Gaia Trust—a Danish charitable association—in 1987 and for formulating the Gaia Trust “yin/ yang” strategy: For many centuries, technology and economics (yang) have determined how society was organized. Now, it was time for people to decide how they want to live together—men and women in harmony with nature in a sustainable and spiritually-satisfying way that is also globally just. This was the yin part of the strategy. The yang part was to develop technologies that were supportive of this vision.
Ross’ background was quite different, being a management consultant in the private sector specializing in Operations Research, with broad experience in many industries. He had for some years been concerned with the neglect of the environment and global trends that tended to increase the gap between rich and poor. He agreed with the conclusions of the Limits to Growth model that civilization would be facing very formidable problems in the foreseeable future. He was also in agreement with Hildur that action was most unlikely to come from politicians, who were actually part of the problem. He had done extensive research in the foreign exchange market, and tested his theories successfully in the marketplace by trading his own money in 1984-1986. He decided to donate his currency trading system exclusively to Gaia Trust in 1987, in order to provide it with the possibility of generating its own funds to support an activist program to support their joint vision.
Ross was attracted to the idea of supporting a network of ecovillages because he saw its strategic potential as a countervailing power to the coming global economic crisis as we reach the limits to growth. Whether the global economy collapses or we are able to make a planned transition to a sustainable future, it will be necessary in either case to build a new culture. At the foundation of this culture must necessarily be sustainable human settlements, and for this we need good models. Thus a network of ecovillages that provided such models would be an extremely valuable base on which to build. After a very successful start of his money earning activities, significant money soon rolled in to Gaia Trust and we began asking ourselves how we could best use our newfound resources.
The Early Years: 1991-2004
In 1990, Hildur and Ross bought Fjordvang, the former “World University”, a farm in Western Denmark, which had been an international learning center for 25 years under the leadership of Aage Rosendal Nielsen. In 1991, Robert and Diane Gilman, editors of In Context magazine, moved there with us to build an ecovillage and work on our common cause. As a first step, Gaia Trust commissioned Robert and Diane to survey the field and identify the best examples of ecovillages around the world. The Gilmans’ report to Gaia Trust showed that, although many exciting and vastly different communities existed, a full-scale, ideal ecovillage did not yet exist. But, together, the existing projects made up a vision of a different culture and lifestyle that had great potential.
Based on the Gilman’s report, twenty people from some of the best communities and a few broad thinkers were invited in September 1991 to discuss how Gaia Trust could best use its funds. The participants included a number of people who would later be key leaders of GEN — Max Lindegger, Declan Kennedy, and Albert Bates—as well as intellectuals outside of the ecovillage sphere, such as Karl-Henrik Robert, founder of The Natural Step, David Korten (who later wrote When Corporations Rule the World) and Marilyn Mehlmann of The Global Action Plan. The consensus that the group reached was that Gaia Trust should support the people who were actually living the new paradigm— ecovillagers, because they were essential for the transition, but were receiving no support from elsewhere. It became clear to all that the world needed good examples of what it means to live in harmony with nature in a sustainable and spiritually-satisfying way in a technologically advanced society.
Who were the first “ecovillages”? It is a difficult question because many of the members of GEN were founded before this word existed. In the 1960s several spiritually based projects were initiated in different parts of the globe: Findhorn in Scotland, The Farm in Tennessee, USA, Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka, and the NAAM movement in Burkino Faso. Solheimer in Iceland has roots going all the way back to 1930. A major impulse came from the Indian philosopher and sage Sri Aurobindo and his French counterpart The Mother, who put forth the vision of Auroville in India in 1968. So there is no easy answer. The idea of “community” goes back much further as described by Geoph Kozeny in his video: Visions of Utopia from 2003. Community has always been the essence of human culture from time immemorial. But by adopting a new name, the basic concept was infused with new energy.
In 1993, Gaia Trust brought together a number of established and embryonic Danish ecovillages as the Danish Ecovillage Network — the first national network. A second global strategy meeting was called at Fjordvang with a smaller, strictly ecovillage group and a loose network was informally initiated with a secretariat in Denmark funded by Gaia Trust under the daily leadership of Hamish Stewart.
The movement took a major step in 1995. A conference at Findhorn: “Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities for the 21 Century” was organized by the Findhorn community (led by John Talbot and Diane Gilman) and the evolving informal ecovillage network. It was a great success. The proceedings were published in 1996 by Findhorn Press — Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities; Models for 21st Century Living. The conference was attended by over 400 people from forty countries, while another 300 who wished to be there had to be turned away. It was clear that the ecovillage concept had hit a sensitive nerve with a lot of people.
Immediately following this meeting, 20 people from different ecovillages met for five days and the Global Ecovillage Network was formally established, consisting of three regional networks to cover the globe geographically, with centers at ecovillages The Farm (USA), Lebensgarten (Germany) and Crystal Waters (Australia), with an international coordinating office at Gaia Trust, Denmark. Gaia Trust committed to covering the expenses of the network for 3-5 years. The plan was to focus initially on forming regional networks that would link existing projects. At the same time a second longer-term goal was set to create global services, like an education network, that would cut across regions, as soon as budgets and manpower permitted.
UN Habitat II: Istanbul
At the Findhorn meeting it was decided — inspired by Rashmi Mayur’s passionate presence — to join the United Nations Habitat II conference in Istanbul the following summer. A major exhibition at the NGO forum was built: a long straw bale wall, plastered with clay, so that it became an ideal place for posters with photos from ecovillages around the world. A model windmill, solar cells and running water contributed to a pleasant atmosphere. Hildur had prepared a booklet in 5000 copies called The Earth is Our Habitat. More than 40 workshops covering all issues of ecovillages and global politics were held. Outside, GEN was in charge of building an old Harran stone house with master builders from the region.
Indian architect Suhasini from Auroville built an attractive and earthquake-resistant house in just five days from mud bricks produced on site with a manual earth-pressing machine.
Hanne Strong instigated our first contact with Ari Ariyaratne from Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka. She had invited 40 spiritual leaders, who in their concluding statement praised ecovillages as an important new concept. Many guests from the official conference visited and praised the GEN exhibition and GEN was invited to address the official UN delegates, with Ross writing and Helena Norberg-Hodge delivering a well-received talk. Istanbul put GEN firmly on the global map.
The next three years were a period of building networks under the leadership of the three regional secretaries, namely Declan Kennedy, Albert Bates, and Max Lindegger, who constituted the initial GEN board, with coordination by Hamish Stewart, the International Secretary, based at Fjordvang.
This period resulted in the establishment and growth of three autonomous networks covering the globe: The Ecovillage Network of the Americas (ENA), GEN-Europe, which also covered Africa for the time being, and GEN Asia/Oceania (GENOA). The GEN board met in many parts of the world during this time.
Gaia Trust Gears Down
In June 2001, Gaia Trust warned that its financial support to GEN would be gradually decreased over the next two years. GEN would have to find new sources of funding. This was because it was always Gaia Trust’s policy to use its capital over a relatively short period while its founders were still active, and also to ensure that GEN does not become dependent.
The GEN Ambassador — Rashmi Mayur
No history of GEN would be complete without mentioning the special role played by the late Dr. Rashmi Mayur, leader of the International Institute for Sustainable Future in Mumbai, India.
Rashmi was unofficially GEN’s “ambassador to the UN”. He participated in all the big conferences as well as many planning meetings, as he was adviser to the UN and several Southern governments.
At the Johannesburg UN Earth Summit of August 2002, Rashmi was appointed official spokesman for the South, and had planned 28 major speeches and workshops. But he tragically suffered a debilitating stroke during his first speech, was unconscious for four months, slowly recovered all faculties but passed away in early 2004. He is greatly missed by all his colleagues who carry on his vision to create a more sustainable, more just world.
Rashmi was also a highly developed spiritual person and an accomplished poet. Here is one poem on education written during the opening and read loud at the 1998 education conference at Fjordvang.
Of Learning and Immortality.
Then they asked:
Master what is education?
The wise man spoke silently,
“There is no master
and no education,
People were bemused
“Life is an opportunity
to realize ourselves.
We are creatures
To learn is to be creative.
To learn is to know
the root of our existence.
To learn is to preserve
Our sacred Earth.
To learn is to live
in harmony with the whole.
To learn is to give
birth to the future.
To learn is to reach
enlightenment – Nirvana.
To learn is to be liberated
from the finiteness
of Space and Time
To learn is to be
Master was no more.
Spirituality in Ecovillages
Ecovillages tend to include many aspects of the mandala in their lives. They learn from each other. It has been exciting to follow and visit so many communities with different spiritual practices. One thing stands out. In a world torn by religious strife, GEN has never had any problems in this area. Quite the opposite. We have prayed and meditated in all existing traditions and felt enriched and accepted by all. In our international community, people from so many spiritual backgrounds cooperate, accept and love each other. We all have the same values, independent of religion and culture. The world needs this kind of interfaith work.
As forewarned, Gaia Trust was forced to cut back on its level of funding for GEN by a factor of ten after July 2003. For all intents and purposes, GEN had become a volunteer organization.
Education for Sustainability
Ever since the start of GEN, the idea of creating an educational program was on the table. By the late 1990s, most of the larger ecovillages were teaching in their regions as they naturally wanted to share their knowledge. They were typically teaching permaculture and sustainability and design of ecovillages. Some of the larger ones began to call themselves “Living and Learning” centers, a concept first conceived by Philip Snyder. But there was no universal curriculum.
In 1998, Hildur got the inspiration to invite 55 educators from within the ecovillage network to come to Fjordvang to celebrate Ross’ 60th and Max Lindegger’s 50th birthdays and to brainstorm on the idea of creating a comprehensive educational program for sustainability design, which would integrate the concepts of organic farming, permaculture, renewable energy, wastewater treatment, facilitation of meetings, ecological building, conflict resolution, green businesses and economy and much more into a program which can be taught at ecovillages and illustrated with on-site field work, based on the “Living and Learning” concept as a new paradigm in education, i.e. you can live the new lifestyle, while you are learning how to establish and design it.
Hildur took the initiative for a further meeting at Findhorn in June 2004 with 30 invited educators. The starting point was the “sustainability wheel” described in Hildur and Karen Svensson’s book Ecovillage Living: Restoring the Earth and Her People, which was published in 2002. ”
Gaia Education (See www.gaiaeducation.net) was formally launched in October 2005 at Findhorn, at the GEN+10 Conference, and flourished under the wonderful leadership of May East. Since the Findhorn GEN+10 conference in October 2005, GEN and Gaia Education have worked very closely together, but as two separate entities. The first “product” was a four week course called Ecovillage Design Education (EDE), which continues to be taught all over the world (in 35 countries at last count). In 2008 an on-line version of the EDE was developed with the Open University of Catalonia in Barcelona and is scheduled to become an accredited 2-year Masters course in its 8th season 2015/16. The curriculum is now available on the Gaia Education website in 10 languages.
After the cutback in 2003, GEN continued to develop slowly over the next six years or so. These were difficult years. A positive aspect was the annual GEN-Europe assembly, which attracted more and more people each year, as the ecovillage idea gradually spread, not least to Eastern Europe and Russia. With the introduction of the Gaia Education program in 2005, new life emerged in many ecovillages, as education was seen not only as a vehicle for local outreach but also for generating some income. The free material and a polished curriculum with UNITAR and UNESCO’s stamp of approval made it easy to get started and attract people. Education was becoming an essential part of every ecovillage’s story.
A new activist phase in GEN’s history began with the election of Kosha Joubert as president in 2008. Kosha was one of the 30 educators that had developed the Gaia Education curriculum and she had been very successful in introducing it to her ecovillage, Sieben Linden in Germany, inviting many foreign participants and getting financial support from the German government. One of the major goals of this time was to support the emergence of an independent African network which was initiated in 2012, with financial help, once again, from the German foreign ministry, which followed developments with great interest.
A new generation of GEN was very creative in extending its range of activities, while inspiring increasing momentum in all regions. A more streamlined organization and broader vision was established. In 2013, an independent South American network—CASA—evolved out of ENA. The youth organization, NextGEN, flourished.
In December 2012 the world was celebrating the end of one Mayan age and the beginning of a new one. Gaia Trust decided to give 5 rewards to 5 of the initiators and main persons of GEN and Gaia Education as symbols of all those having given birth to a new culture: Max Lindegger, Albert Bates and Declan Kennedy for building the GEN networks and to May East and Kosha Joubert for being inspiring leaders of Gaia Education and GEN in recent years.
By visiting an ecovillage like Findhorn, Sieben Linden, Tamera, Damanhur, Auroville or Ecovillage at Ithaca, you can experience a new culture emerging. They are all a little different but common is a whole body culture where people are in a process of change, where the goal is to live a full and joyful social life, while keeping the ecological footprint low, and not forgetting the old GEN saying: “If it ain’t fun, it ain’t sustainable!”