Sunday, April 4, 2010

Living in Community to Help the World — 7 Observations from Living in an Ecovillage

Written by Zachary Shahan

I became very interested in sustainable communities, intentional communities, ecovillages, new urbanist communities, etc. while studying sociology and environmental studies as an undergraduate at New College of Florida (years ago). Something about working in community and living a fairly self-sustaining life (on the community scale) stood out to me as one great solution to many of the world’s problems.

Nonetheless, it went against the modern-day cultural norm. And I wondered what it would actually feel like and how it would work to live in such a place, especially being a bit of a solitary, I-need-my-space kind of person.

For five months or so, as a full-time intern, I got the opportunity to look into that by living in and throwing myself into all the workings of an ecovillage in upstate New York — EcoVillage at Ithaca.

Some of what I expected, I found. Some of what I expected, I didn’t find. Much more than either of those, I think I found a lot that I didn’t expect. A lot of what I experienced can’t actually be put into words — it was about an experience, not an intellectual thought. But for what I can convey through words, I decided to write this post.

Benefits and Challenges of Living in EcoVillage at Ithaca

I wrote an 18-page paper on my reflections of life in EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI) upon my return home. These are the most salient points from that, greatly condensed.
  1. Living in community is a great way to strengthen your environmentalist resolve. The support, positive social pressure, and just simple reminder that residents should (and wanted to) live environmentally friendly lives definitely seemed to create much more environmentally friendly behavior in most peeople. The practical result being more bicycling, more carpooling, more transit use, more local meals, less eating out, less meat-eating, more energy efficiency, more water conservation, more ecological stewardship, and so on.
  2. Information-sharing blows up (in a good way) when living in community. Think you know a lot about various green issues (or about anything, for that matter)? Wait ’till you surround yourself with dozens of other people who know a lot as well. You will learn a ton and will also probably know someone to go to if you want personal, expert advice on any specific topic.
  3. It’s modern! Maybe I should write ” it can be modern”. You might have the image of a stereotypical hippie commune (not that there’s anything wrong with that) when you think of an ecovillage or sustainable community, but even though some might be just that others can actually be extremely high-tech, cutting edge places. EVI had cutting edge green buildings and technology, more techno geeks (or experts) than I had ever met, and essentially normal, modern-day people.
  4. Human touch. You may not think it is necessary in today’s world to be in touch with people physically. We can communicate with anyone we want whenever we want by phone, email, instant messenger, etc. these days, right? Yes, but to have an in-person interaction with someone is a different experience, and even if you think you’re not a very “community” kind of guy or gal, I found having a community of neighbors you know well and can trust to be a very nice thing — something I cannot adequately express in words. It just felt nice.
  5. Intergenerational sharing. It is common knowledge these days that a lot of older people get sent to retirement homes when they become “too” dependent on their children. EVI has a fairly balanced mix of age groups, and this seemed to me to be a huge benefit to everyone. The elderly seemed to be rejuvenated by their occasional, but not too occasional, interactions with youngsters and middle-aged people. The kids seemed to have a very healthy and true relationship to older people (something that doesn’t seem very common to me these days). And parents with young children could easily get help from retired community members or other parents when they needed it.
  6. Balancing the public and the private — the biggest challenge, but can be done. I think one of the biggest challenges for anyone living in a close-knit community is to identify what level of community-involvement they need and what amount of time alone they need. In other words, how much privacy and how much public involvement is best for them? Different communities have different rules and different norms. At EVI, I thought a good level of choice was given to members to live relatively solitary lives (it really was possible and some residents really did live like that) or to live extremely community-oriented lives. At that point, it is just up to each individual to identify exactly what they need and to set their own limits.
  7. An example to others. On the individual level, we should all do our best to be a positive example for others. But on the community level, the ability to draw broader attention can be much greater and if your community is doing things right, it can help the world to strive for higher and better things. EVI got wide national and international media attention when I was there and beforehand. I suppose it still is getting such attention as it continues to grow. As part of my internship at EVI, I was the teaching assistant for a college-level course that was based at the ecovillage and was being offered to students from Ithaca College, Cornell University and Wells College. The way in which the ecovillage was exposing students, professors and others to a variety of progressive ideas, technologies and practices , was truly inspirational. The experiences of the students in my course were of a lifetime, many said. The whole experience was an extremely memorable and influential one for me as well.
In the end, my experience from those five months brings me to these conclusions: 1) if you have the opportunity (or can make the opportunity), try out life in such a place sometime; 2) at least visit a few such communities; 3) take a look at the some of the various innovative and inspirational communities around the world at Global Ecovillage Network.

Related Stories:
1) Ecovillage Spotlight: Findhorn Ecovillage, Scotland
2) Auroville, India: Ecovillage Spotlight

Image Credit: EcoVillage at Ithaca