[This is the first of a projected three-part series focusing on innovative ways to foster places of equity, integrity, and sustainability.]
By Joel Rothschild of the Ecovillagers Alliance – Gaia’s Dance Ecovillage started with beautiful intentions. The founders were visionaries who saw the power of place could be equal to, perhaps greater than, the power of institutions or electoral politics. While others built companies, organizations, and political campaigns, Gaia’s Dance went back to the basis of human life, the Land, and used this most powerful of foundations to build a physical manifestation of our values.
What did we achieve? Today the Ecovillage is an inspirational place. The community generates a third of the electricity it uses, it grows a fifth of the calories it consumes, and its waste and carbon footprints are half those of the neighboring subdivisions. A spirit of independence shines in the children running in packs around the Common grounds, queer and non-monogamous residents living their lives openly without judgment, and the Free Store overflowing with books on every subject known to humankind. It is a vibrant and warm community, where no one eats or drinks alone who doesn’t want to and no one gets sick or depressed without daily offerings of support. Yet many introverts enjoy well-respected solitude and clean freaks happily keep their distinctly tidy homes. Flowing through it all is a ?culture?, a palpably different, greener, more self-sufficient ?culture of love and nonviolence toward each other and all living things.
And what did we not achieve? Today, the Ecovillage is a tease. It’s a diamond in a glass case locked up by market forces. The land was already a rare find in the ‘90s. Now competition for parcels to build on is a losing game against swarms of deep-pocketed developers. What we hoped would inspire a movement of exponentially more ecovillages, until sustainability became a mainstream way of life, has proven too hard to replicate. Instead of a template for sister ecovillages throughout the area, Gaia’s Dance is, in a sense, a negative inspiration too. Standing alone, it inspires many to see sustainability as a strange, niche lifestyle.
It doesn’t help that the Ecovillage is so white. It doesn’t help that its ownership structure, which once made debt financing easier to come by, now makes it hard for the community to offer affordable housing. It doesn’t help that the community’s governance, devised by the founders, is resistant to the adaptations younger residents want. It doesn’t help that the location is far from the jobs, families, and community institutions most people rely on, especially most people of color. If enough additional people experienced ecovillage life, maybe their spirit could overcome the barriers to starting new ecovillages, but the barriers to joining Gaia’s Dance may be just as high.
(Not Just Like) Starting Over
Gaia’s Dance isn’t a real ecovillage, but the story of its triumphs and its limitations is, arguably, the real story of the global north’s ecovillage movement as a whole. The movement started with beautiful intentions and produced some of the world’s most inspiring places, yet after three decades its impacts on society are negligible. Why?
When Robert Gilman first articulated “The Eco-village Challenge” in 1991, the “eco-village” was an idealized vision of future human settlement and the “challenge” was a checklist for getting there. Dutifully, the pioneers of ecovillage design tackled that checklist, answering questions like “how will decisions be made?” and “what are sustainable economic activities?”
Before laying out the work to be done in these cogently-organized bullet points, Gilman asks a profound question: “If eco-villages are such a great idea, why don’t we already live in them?” He suggests an equally profound answer:
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 […]
And then, a tragic turn! Instead of asking, “how can these hundreds of years of industrial capitalist momentum be resisted and subverted?” Gilman simply announces, “we are at the very beginning of a new era!” As though declaring the dawn of the Age of Aquarius erases capitalism’s history or the immense power of all that social patterning.
So the “eco-village challenge” was conceived as a societal do-over, premised on the wishful thought that anyone can start from a clean slate. And this is how many an ecovillage project has been conceived, free of the expectation that capitalism, racism, and every other harmful “ism” would sneak in alongside our beautiful intentions like a virus at the playground.
Gimme Shelter (From Structural Oppression)
Of course, wishing away our real circumstances only gives them more power. Any institution assuming itself “color-blind” is almost certainly awash in unconscious racial bias, to take just one example. Ecovillages and intentional communities of all kinds have tended to assume that the mission is to start over, therefore we do not have to build from the compromised resources—and people—that we’ve already got, and indeed we shouldn’t.
So a typical project will begin with a committee to vet members and ensure that only “evolved” people join, magically pre-endowed with good ecovillagey values. A typical project will not begin with, say, anti-oppression training for all would-be members irrespective of how evolved they may be.
A typical project will begin with a decision to adopt this or that democratic decision-making model. A typical project will ?not? begin by assessing the community’s capacity to practice democracy in the first place, identifying and planning how to mitigate the obstacles to full, equitable engagement like educational and cultural differences, sexism, racism, trauma, and learned aversion to power.
A typical project ?will? begin with a search for the perfect piece of land, ideally land unencumbered by housing and workplaces built the bad old way. So-called “greenfield” development is anything but green. New construction, even the most LEED Super-Plus Eco-Groovy new construction, rarely has a smaller ecological footprint overall than retrofitting the buildings we already have, and that’s to say nothing of the transportation and infrastructure costs of building farther from existing hubs. Yet a typical project will not even consider existing neighborhoods as potential ecovillage sites, and the urban ecovillages of North America can still be counted on one hand. The presumption is that those buildings, and the people in them, don’t want to be part of an ecovillage. Maybe they’re even unfit to be. No wonder the movement stays small!
Perhaps most insidiously, a typical project begins in debt, usually multiple bank loans for land and construction and home mortgages. Debt is capitalism’s prescription for every kind of fresh start: a first home, a new business, an ecovillage. It is even seen as equalizing—better to shoulder debt together as equals than for one rich member to own half the land! These dangerous illusions trick us two ways. We may assume the pre-existing wealth gap between community members can be left at the door and won’t show up in unintended power dynamics over time, which, if we aren’t on the lookout, it surely will. And we may fail to recognize debt itself as a means of structural oppression, ensuring the powerless remain powerless and the powerful gain power.
Structural oppression cannot be resisted passively, given the enormous infrastructure and social patterning in place. If forced to choose between affordable housing or repaying a construction loan, even the most progressive community will tend to favor the bank, even though cash-strapped members are committed to their community and the bank is not. In imagining that we can start over, literally moving out of a sick world and into a healed one, we tend to skip past the healing process, which is where any movement’s true power lies waiting.
People before Profit, Process before Product
I can’t count the intentional communities I visited before the LA EcoVillage (“LAEV”), but when I stepped inside I saw immediately that this community took a more realistic approach, one with more promise to change the world. LAEV was conceived as a platform for activism in the city, evidenced by the class on cooperativism, open to the public, taking place in the commons the moment I walked in, as well as by the community food hub and the bicycle co-op and countless public programs.
LAEV is retrofit from buildings that already stood in Koreatown, a central LA neighborhood rich in access to services and institutions, and also histories of violence and abuse. The LA EcoVillagers never imagined they could just start over. People needed help, so they created a center for work that heals. When LAEV bought its original apartment building, everyone there was invited to stay put, either as members of the ecovillage’s new housing co-op, if they chose to join, or otherwise as tenants like they were before. Everyone was assumed to be a potential ecovillager.
If the typical ecovillage is somewhat of a bubble, LAEV tries to be more like a living lung, breathing in, breathing out, supporting life amidst the dust and toxins. Those “hundreds of years of institution building and capital development” are taken as a given, along with the brokenness and trauma they have wrought. Rather than futilely declare the status quo’s abusive patterns null and void, this approach embraces them as opportunities to come together and help each other repair.
LAEV’s mechanisms for owning and financing real estate are also designed to be a healing part of the industrial capitalist world as we know it. A community land trust protects the ecovillage’s land, and therefore its residents, from the profit-seeking property market. A limited-equity housing co-op gives all residents the opportunity to hold wealth in their homes—a common financial need and, for the historically marginalized, a form of financial justice—without allowing property speculation to pass inequity forward. Perhaps most radical, LAEV was not financed with institutional debt, but rather through a kind of financial barn-raising that involved hundreds of individuals lending modest amounts to support the cause.
Of all the ecovillages one could photograph, Los Angeles is perhaps the last one you’d pick for a glossy magazine. There are no architect-designed eco-buildings. It is not surrounded by lush forest. Its deepest beauty is in the diversity of its people and the organic, healing nature of its processes, first and foremost its social processes. People and process were always LAEV’s driving priorities, coming before this exciting building technique or that photogenic landscape design. In short, its weaknesses as a marketable product are its very strengths as a human community, and as a model for others to follow.
A Movement for Ecovillagers
It is also true that there is only one Los Angeles EcoVillage. One could echo Robert Gilman’s question three decades ago and ask, why aren’t we already all living like the LA EcoVillagers? The answer too could ring familiar: The inertia of industrial capitalism continues to perpetuate itself, through many attempts to envision (and finance, market, and sell) community as a product, rather than as a people- and process-centered social movement.
The good news is, contrary to the ecovillage in its 1990s formulation, today’s social movements aren’t taking their first baby steps. We have generations-deep wells of wisdom and technique to draw upon, including, but by no means limited to, the lessons of LAEV’s experiments.
When we see our purpose not as teleporting out of a broken society but healing it from within, we find ourselves among many comrades, such as those organizing for racial justice, labor equity, cooperatives and the “solidarity economy,” restorative justice, queer rights, non-“traditional” families, and gender equity. These and other aligned movements already bring healing, education, and empowerment of just the sort an ecovillage needs for its ecovillagers. At the same time, the work of these movements is often made more difficult by the housing and gentrification crisis, environmental injustice, and the lack of community control of land—exactly what a well-organized movement of ecovillagers could and should offer to remedy.
In the second of this three-part series, we’ll summarize the many years’ work underway to make LA-style ecovillaging more accessible to neighborhood organizers everywhere, starting with cities and towns in the US Mid-Atlantic region. A spectrum of co-op and community land trust principles have been distilled into a holistic method for cooperative property investment and stewardship that organizers can use in existing communities.
We’ll describe how the Community Land Co-op combines cooperative investment with community-based education and grassroots democracy to hold space for equity, justice, and sustainability at the neighborhood level. Finally, we’ll dip into some of the activist possibilities for ecovillage neighborhood-based racial injustice reparations, ecological repair, and economic re-localization.