The Eco-village Challenge
The challenge of developing a community living
balanced harmony - with itself as well as nature - is tough, but
by Robert Gilman
President of Context Institute
Founding Editor of IN CONTEXT, A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable
Partout dans le monde, un outil de
vivre durablement émerge : les éco-villages. Plus qu’une communauté
d’habitants voulant un plus fort lien avec l’environnement, les
éco-villages sont définis comme : « un établissement avec toutes les
fonctionnalités sociales à l’échelle humaine dans lequel les activités
humaines sont intégrées sans nuire au monde naturel dans une manière qui
soutient le développement sain des êtres humains et qui pourrait être
continué l’avenir indéfini » (Traduction de Gilman, 1991). Chaque
partie de cette définition contient des idées importantes, et une
compréhension de ce qu’est un éco-village nécessite une explication de
chaque partie.« Un établissement avec toutes les fonctionnalités
sociales » décrit une communauté qui a des habitations,
l’approvisionnement de la nourriture, le commerce, le travail, l’emploi,
les en droits pour les loisirs, et un fort esprit de communauté. Cela ne
veut pas dire qu’un éco-village doit être auto-suffisant – souvent, les
éco-villages sont liés aux villes voisines. Un éco-village à l’échelle
humaine implique une taille qui permet à chaque personne de connaître
tous les autres habitants et d’être connue par tous autres habitants, et
qui donne a chaque individu l’opportunité d’influencer la direction de
la communauté. La partie éco du mot éco-village vient de l’idée que les
activités humaines sont intégrées sans nuire au monde naturel. Le
recyclage, l’utilisation durable des ressources locales, et l’efficacité
énergétique servent comme des exemples de comment un éco-village
maintient un équilibre avec la nature. Le développement sain des êtres
humains est composé des pluri facteurs, mais en bref, un éco-village
donne à ses habitants une vie qui aide au développement de soi-même
ainsi que le développement social et économique. La dernière partie de
cette définition n’est pas souvent obtenue – elle exige qu’un
éco-village puisse survivre pérenne (Gilman, 1991).Robert Gilman a créé
cette définition d’un éco-village – qui est une des définitions la plus
souvent citée – en 1991 pour classifier une tendance qui était à cette
époque relativement nouvelle. En ce temps-là, il y avait déjà plusieurs
éco-villages autour du monde (Gaia Trust). Au cours des années
suivantes, les éco-villages sont devenus de plus en plus reconnus, et de
plus en plus nombreux. Aujourd’hui, il y en a 535 selon une base de
données des éco-villages créée par le Global Ecovillage Network (GEN)
éparpillés partout dans le monde. La Figure 1 montre une carte du monde
mise à jour tous les jours avec l’emplacement des éco-villages.
For humankind at the end of the 20th century there is hardly anything
more appealing - yet apparently more elusive - than the prospect of
living in harmony with nature and with each other. What are the
possibilities for realizing this dream, and what are the
highest-leverage actions that could help us all toward such a future?
This issue explores this question by considering the current status and
likely prospects for a particularly powerful approach to achieving this
dream of harmonious living: the eco-village. We will also explore the
broader concept of sustainable communities, and the idea of community in
There is, at this time, no generally agreed-upon definition of an eco-village.
For the purposes of this issue, we will define an eco-village as a
"A human-scale..." * Human-scale refers to a size in which
people are able to know and be known by the others in the community, and
where each member of the community feels he or she is able to influence
the community's direction. There is considerable practical evidence,
both in modern industrial societies and in other cultures, that the
upper limit for such a group is roughly 500 people. In very stable and
isolated situations it can be higher, perhaps as high as 1,000, while in
situations typical of modern industrial societies it is often lower,
even less than 100.
"...full-featured settlement..." * A "full-featured
settlement" is one in which all the major functions of normal
living - residence, food provision, manufacture, leisure, social life,
and commerce - are plainly present and in balanced proportions. Most
current human settlement in the industrialized world - urban, suburban,
and rural - is entirely divided by function: some areas are residential,
some are for shopping, some are industrial, etc. These districts are
usually too large to be human-scale, even within a single function. In
contrast, the eco-village is a comprehensible microcosm of the whole of
This does not mean that eco-villages have to be fully self-sufficient or
isolated from the surrounding community. As an ideal, an eco-village
will have as many jobs within it as there are employed people who live
in the eco-village; but some of the villagers will go outside the
village to work, and some of the jobs in the village will be held by
people who reside outside the village.
There are also many specialized services that clearly cannot be located
in each eco-village - hospitals, airports, etc. Yet with cooperation
among villages, essentially any large institution could be successfully
run by clusters and networks, permitting a fully functioning modern society
to be mostly comprised of eco-village units.
"...in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the
natural world..." * This idea brings the "eco" into
the eco-village. One of the most important aspects of this principle is
the ideal of equality between humans and other forms of life, so that
humans do not attempt to dominate over nature but rather find their
place within it. Another important principle is the cyclic use of
material resources, rather than the linear approach (dig it up, use it
once, throw it away forever) that has characterized industrial society.
This leads eco-villages to the use of renewable energy sources (solar,
wind, etc.) rather than fossil fuels; to the composting of organic
wastes which are then returned to the land rather than sending these to
a landfill, incinerator, or sewage treatment plant; to the recycling of
as much of the waste stream as possible; and to the avoidance of toxic
and harmful substances.
"... in a way that is supportive of healthy human
development..." * This fourth principle recognizes that
eco-villages are, after all, human communities, and without genuine
human health at the core, these communities are unlikely to be
successful. What is "healthy human development"? To attempt a
complete definition would take a book, at least! Suffice it to say here
that I see this as involving a balanced and integrated development of
all aspects of human life - physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
This healthy development needs to be expressed not just in the lives of
individuals, but in the life of the community as a whole.
"... and that can be successfully continued into the indefinite
future." * This last principle - the sustainability principle -
forces a kind of honesty on eco-villagers. Without it, it would be easy
(or at least easier) in the short-term to create human-scale communities
that seemed to be harmoniously integrated into nature and to be
full-featured, but in fact were in some not-so-visible way living off
the capital accumulated in other parts of the society; or dependent on
unsustainable activities elsewhere; or not inclusive of a major aspect
of life (such as childhood or old age). The sustainability principle
brings with it a profound commitment to fairness and non-exploitation -
toward other parts of today's world, human and non-human, and toward all
Sustainable Community * The more general term "sustainable
community" includes eco-villages, but it also includes clusters and
networks of eco-villages, and non-geographically based
"communities" (such as businesses) that are nevertheless
human-scale in their components, diverse, and harmoniously integrated
into the natural world. In this sense, an eco-village is a distinct
place, either as a rural village or as an urban/suburban neighborhood. A
city could not be an eco-village, but a city made up of eco-villages
could be a sustainable community.
FORWARD, NOT BACK
If eco-villages are such a great idea, why don't we already live in
One oft-suggested response is that, in fact, most people already do live
in "eco-villages" - that is, the best model for an eco-village
is the traditional agricultural village - and to regain harmony with
nature and with each other, all we need do is return to that traditional
way of life. I disagree.
While it is true that there is much to be learned from these villages
(they still contain about half the world's population), few people today
- including most traditional villagers! - would describe these villages
as either full-featured or supportive of healthy human development. The
work is hard, life expectancy is short, opportunities for personal
development and education are few (almost non-existent for women), and
the diversity of livelihoods is small.
In addition, the harmony between these villages and the natural
environment has often depended on low population densities - a luxury we
no longer have. Traditional villagers around the world use three main
types of agriculture: slash-and-burn, dry-land rain-fed, and irrigated.
Of these, slash-and-burn is the most environmentally demanding and
requires the lowest population density. But even irrigation, which
supports the highest population density, can be environmentally
damaging, as the ecological collapse of many past irrigation-based
And finally, traditional villages are hardly paragons of harmony between
humans. Village life is often, from a modern point of view, painfully
patriarchal. Beyond the household there is feuding and mistrust within
villages, between neighboring villages, and toward the world beyond.
True eco-villages, in contrast, are a distinctly post-industrial (and
likely even post-agricultural) phenomenon. While they draw on lessons
from all of human experience, they are not a return to any previous
period or way of life.
Eco-villages grow out of the needs and opportunities caused by:
new ecological constraints - which grow out of high levels
of population and technological capability;
new techniques and technologies, from better understanding
of ecosystems to more diverse channels of communications; from
efficient technologies for renewable resource use to new forms of
human organization; and
new levels of consciousness and awareness, symbolized in
part by the picture of the Earth from space, with all that means in
terms of global consciousness and an awareness of the
many-billion-year history of life on this one small planet in the
vastness of the Universe.
In spite of its increasingly-evident lack of sustainability, industrial
society has the momentum of hundreds of years of institution building
and capital development. Given the enormous infrastructure and social
patterning in place, it has so far been much easier for people to keep
living in the same old unsustainable ways than to pioneer sustainable
The answer, then, to why we aren't living in eco-villages yet is fairly
simple: these needs and opportunities are so new we have not had time as
a society to adjust to them. We are at the very beginning of a new era,
and we can expect much of the development of technique and awareness
that will characterize this era to be still ahead of us.
While it may seem more difficult to pioneer sustainable communities
than to live within an untenable status quo, numerous groups have been
doing so for decades (with precursors that go back much further), as
some of the articles that follow will illustrate. To appreciate the
difficulties these pioneers have faced, let's look at the various
challenges that the eco-village vision entails.
The bio-system challenge * To fulfill the ideal that the activities
of the eco-village be harmlessly integrated into the natural world
requires that the eco-village find ecologically friendly ways to:
preserve natural habitats on the village land
produce food, wood, and other bio-resources on site
process the organic waste produced on site
render harmless any initially toxic waste from the village
recycle all solid waste from the village
process liquid waste from the village
avoid adverse environmental impacts off site from the production
and delivery of any products brought in from off site
avoid adverse environmental impacts off site from the use and
disposal of any products.
The built-environment challenge * To fulfill the ideal that the
activities of the eco-village be harmlessly integrated into the natural
world also requires that the eco-village:
build with ecologically friendly materials
use renewable energy sources
handle solid, liquid, and gaseous wastes from buildings in an
ecologically friendly manner
have a minimal need for motorized transport
build in ways that have a minimal impact on the land and the local
To fulfill the ideal that the eco-village support healthy human
development requires that the buildings in the community:
have a good balance of public space and private space
encourage community interaction
support a full diversity of activities.
The economic system challenge * To fulfill the ideal that the
eco-village support healthy human development and be full-featured
requires that there be significant economic activity in the eco-village.
To fulfill the ideal of fairness and non-exploitation that is part of
the sustainability principle requires that the economic activities of
the members of an eco-village not depend on exploitation of other people
and places, nor on exploitation of the future by the present. The
implications of these goals are not as clear as, for example, the
implication for the built-environment that energy sources should be
renewable. Instead, we can identify some of the likely questions that an
eco-village will face concerning its economic system:
sustainable economic activities, both in terms of what will sustain the
members of the community and what is sustainable in ecological terms?
What parts of the
community should be held in common and what parts owned privately?
how should the ownership of land and buildings be handled?
How can we be
simultaneously economically and ecologically efficient, so as to reduce both
expenses and environmental impact?
What are the most
appropriate forms of business organization for eco-village associated
Are there useful
alternatives and/or supplements to the money economy for facilitating
economic exchange within and between eco-villages?
The governance challenge * As with economics, the ideals of fairness
and nonexploitation point eco-villages in a general direction, but do
not provide clear guidance as to how these ideals are to be put into
practice. Here again, however, we can identify some of the likely
questions that an eco-village will face concerning its governance:
decisions be made, and which methods will be used for what types of
conflicts be resolved?
decisions by the community be enforced?
What will be the
roles for, and expectations of, leader-ship?
How will the eco-village
relate to the government(s) in the surrounding community?
The "glue" challenge * To deal with all these challenges
the members of the eco-village need something that holds them together,
some basis of shared values and vision that can provide a
"glue". Developing and maintaining this glue is yet another
level of challenge which will raise questions such as:
What is the
appropriate interplay of unity and diversity?
values, behaviors, or practices will be expected in the group?
What, if anything,
is the group's shared vision?
How shall the
group discover, develop, and evolve that vision?
How close shall
the group be interpersonally?
How is this
closeness best developed?
How will the
group relate to others outside the group?
The whole-system challenge * There is an even deeper, and often
unperceived, "whole-system" challenge. Perhaps the biggest
challenge faced by anyone attempting to create an eco-village is that it
requires change in so many different areas of life. All too often
community founders attempt to, or feel forced to, work on all aspects of
these changes simultaneously. Almost all of these changes take longer
than expected and are often more costly than expected. In addition, each
area of change interacts with the other areas in unpredictable ways. In
the process, financial resources, emotional resources, and interpersonal
relationships can be put under great stress. When attempts to create
communities have failed, one of the reasons has almost always been that
the group simply tried to do too much too fast relative to the resources
they had available.
The whole-system challenge is to get an honest sense of the scope of the
undertaking and then develop an approach that allows the community to
develop at a sustainable pace. In other words, sustainability is not
just a characteristic of the "completed" community; it needs
to be part of the thinking and the habits of the group from the very
Building a successful eco-village requires a balance of activities among
three major phases - 1) research and design, 2) creation and
implementation, and 3) maintenance - for each of the challenge areas.
It's helpful to use a simple diagram to represent the basic relationship
between these challenges:
This is a "building block" diagram, in which some parts of
the system "rest" on other parts. The bio-system and the
built-environment provide the most obvious and visible
"requirements" for an eco-village. They are the
"top" building blocks.
Moving down the diagram, we see that it represents the idea that
achieving success in the bio-system and the built-environment areas
depends - is "built on" - successfully dealing with the
economic and governance challenges. Success in these areas in turn
depends on successfully dealing with the glue challenges.
Finally, all of the more specific challenge areas depend on successfully
dealing with the whole-system challenge. It encompasses, rather than
underlies, all the others. It is not a building block, but a living
Given these challenges, it should be no surprise that as far as we have
been able to discover, there are as yet no communities that fully express
the eco-village ideal. This is the bad news. The good news is that there
are many communities and other groups that have made considerable
progress on every one of these challenges. There are even some
communities that could, within a few years, be considered full
Those who would now turn their efforts to reaching this goal - either by
starting a new community or by evolving an existing one - fortunately do
not need to start from scratch. We invite you to read on.
Dr. Robert C. Gilman, Ph.D.
President of Context Institute
Founding Editor of
IN CONTEXT, A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable
The first phase of Robert's life was devoted
to the sciences. He received his bachelor's in astronomy from the
University of California at Berkeley in 1967 and his Ph.D. in
astrophysics from Princeton University in 1969. He taught and did
research at the University of Minnesota, the Harvard Smithsonian
Astrophysical Observatory and served as a Research Associate at NASA's
Institute for Space Studies.
The second phase of Robert's life began in the mid 1970s when he
decided that "the stars could wait, but the planet couldn't."
He turned his attention to the study of global sustainability, futures
research, and strategies for positive cultural change. With his late
he designed and hand-built their own solar home in 1975 and then in 1979
they founded the Context Institute, one of the earliest NGOs to focus
directly on sustainability.
In 1983 Context Institute began publishing
CONTEXT, A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture, with Robert
as the editor. IN CONTEXT became internationally acclaimed and in
1991 and 1994 won the Utne Readers Alternative Press Award for
"Best Coverage of Emerging Issues." During this phase Robert
developed a wide background in all aspects of sustainable development
including cultural history, innovation theory, sustainable economics,
and greening of the built environment.
He and his family were also actively involved in
Citizen Diplomacy with the former USSR. They were instrumental in the
founding of the Global
Ecovillage Network, and lived for three years in Winslow CoHousing,
one of the first cohousing projects in the US based on this Danish model
for community living.
During this time Robert and Diane also raised their
two children, Ian
(b. 1971) and Celeste
(b. 1981). Robert was a key resource for their home education.
And now ...
The third and current phase of Robert's life began in the second half of
the 1990s when Diane developed a brain tumor. The intense personal
journey of serving as Diane's primary care-giver during her last 6
months deepened his appreciation of and connection to the underlying
mystery of life.
In addition to his on-going direction of Context
Institute, he has recently helped the
Community in Scotland developed a community constitution and
established its own self-governance and served as faculty in Antioch
University's Environment and Community Master's program.