Ecovillages within bioregions — a visionary ideal

The longstanding trajectory of our civilization toward over-development has become problematic ecologically and socially. It’s brought us to a point of crisis in many ways, on many fronts: pollution, depletion, climate disruption, habitat destruction, Sixth Mass Extinction, inequality, the anomie of mass society.

In order to reduce the stresses on people and the planet we need to go in a very different direction — toward living more lightly and more simply. Toward lifeways informed by the concepts of Ecology and Community.

‘Eco’ for ecology; ‘Village’ for community = EcoVillage.

An ecovillage built on a parcel of acreage can be a model of the “greening” direction we want to go in. The models can inspire the greening of extant neighborhoods. The ultimate goal is to have the new eco-communitarian lifeways be embraced universally.

The ideal I have in mind is exemplified by the potential of the EcoVillage at Ithaca. The founders bought a 175-acre parcel outside of Ithaca, NY in 1991. They had plans to construct five neighborhoods of thirty or forty clustered units so that in the end there would be about 160 homes and apartments that would house about 500 people.

Realization of this wonderful vision proved to be difficult. After the construction of just one neighborhood of 30 houses in 1997 the founders were so exhausted that they doubted much more could be accomplished! But they got a second wind and constructed a second neighborhood in 2007. Then a third in 2015.

There’s room for five, and I hope in the long run the original conception will come to fruition. Discussions about human-scaled communities tend to arrive at a conclusion that 500 people is a good size. Living in such a community you can know the hundred or so in your neighborhood pretty well and you can have some familiarity with just about everyone in the village-at-large. Five hundred is a critical mass able to support a rich internal cultural life, with clubs, sports, theater, music, etc. Five hundred can self-sustain a vibrant community — grow food, provide services, share resources, etc. And 500 people can self-govern.

The 330 million people of the United States can’t really self-govern. To realize the ideal of a deeper form of democracy, a direct democracy, a participatory form of democracy, a population of five hundred or even a thousand is viable, but not too many more.

People used to live in this more local, more intimate, more interdependent way. Along with direct democracy we should want to foster direct responsibility — less dependence upon the distant state/national governments and the globalized economy for sustenance.

I participate with an ecovillage project in Chester County, PA. There is some chagrin about what can be accomplished vis-a-vis the ideal that we have in mind. Those who want to take steps toward “building the new society within the shell of the old” face a lot of challenges in trying to create something that’s alternative relative to the existing norms — financing and zoning; skepticism and apprehension.

Our parcel of land is smaller than ideal. We probably can build fewer units than we’d like to. The mandate from the authorities is limiting.

I think what we need to do is (a) not get discouraged, but, rather (b) keep in mind our ideals and do what we can to make real some approximation of them. We can message that the process is incremental, we’re just taking steps — one step at a time in an effort to indicate a direction toward the ultimate ideal of transformed lifeways.

It’s quite a transformation. Over a long period of time things have come very far in the unfortunate direction of social and ecological unsustainability.

I view the ecovillage movement as a sub-movement. It offers a chance for the broad social-change movement to accentuate the positive. Rebellion, protest, civil disobedience, etc. have their place, but we’ll never get the support of the population at large if we accentuate the negative. Informing our message and guiding our praxis should be a positive vision of green-living neighborhoods within ecovillage communities. And, more generally: Decentralization. Back to the human scale in all things (institutions and technologies). Sovereign bioregions instead of nation-states. Cultural diversity. Devolution of power. Localization of resources and responsibilities.

A Green world!

That’s the vision to hold in mind as we take the small steps that we can, build the best-possible approximations, and forge the new pathways that lead toward a sane, sustainable, and satisfying future.

The editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a movement activist for many years (he was an original co-editor of DSA’s “Ecosocialist Review”).

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Steven Welzer

The editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a movement activist for many years (he was an original co-editor of DSA’s “Ecosocialist Review”).