What is an ecovillage? It turns out that the answer is neither simple, nor one. Whatever image of it you might have in mind, I bet you can find ecovillages that are completely different from it. And that is one of the best things about them.
Curiosity vs. city-hopping
The road-trip that allowed me to discover this inspiring diversity started with a simple idea: “On the way from Croatia to Finland, why don’t we visit villages instead of cities?” I had realised that the overwhelming majority of my visits to foreign places consisted of visiting cities. After all, cities are centres of arts, architecture, cultural life and so many things that interest me and attract their growing populations (besides the often most compelling thing – job opportunities).
Yet it dawned on me that by jumping from city to city, both in terms of geography and in terms of my mental landscape, I might be missing something very important. Don’t get me wrong – my life hasn’t been restricted to cities. As a kid I often visited my relatives in villages. I enjoy hiking, cycling, camping, walking through forests and just being in nature. I designed several wooden houses for rural areas of Croatia. I lived on the shore of a remote Norwegian fjord for two years. And yet, despite all of that, when thinking about visiting another country, my mind had the habit of jumping from city to city. The fact the vast majority of my friends lived in cities reinforced the habit further. But the habit was about to change: my road-trip companions – my wife Ana and our friend Monika – agreed with my unusual idea to visit the rural areas. The question was, “What exactly should we visit?” Rural areas are vast and an overwhelming number of villages is scattered throughout them. And then I thought of ecovillages.
My only contact with a place that even remotely resembled an ecovillage was during several sustainability-oriented courses (DIY solar collectors, straw-bale building and so on) I attended in a small educational centre (Zmag Recycled Estate) near Zagreb. In the immediate vicinity of the several little houses that make up the centre, there are a few plots of land where several members of the NGO running the centre live, mostly in straw-bale houses they built themselves. Although it would be an overstatement to call it a full-blown ecovillage, Zmag created an image in my mind about what an ecovillage could be: a place dedicated to low-tech building, DIY experiments in eco-sustainability, permaculture, hands-on courses, brave improvisation, the “let’s-just-do-it-and-see-what-happens” spirit and activism. It seemed like a place that attracted the cultural creatives with strong personalities who placed great value on practical skills. It also seemed like a place where men built and women cooked, but that might have just been a coincidence, as my visits didn’t provide me with a statistically relevant sample.
I was wondering whether ecovillages would be similar to the perception I had acquired through my Zmag experience. The trip to Finland seemed like a good way to find out. The car would allow us to go off the highways and not only visit the villages, but also get immersed in the countryside that surrounded them. So the remaining question was how to find the ecovillages and how to choose among them.
The search led me to the website of the Global Ecovillage Network and its map of ecovillages. I narrowed the choices down to those that were near the 3000 kilometre long route, and then to those that had some sort of a functioning contact. Out of those, I chose to contact the ones that were as different from each other as possible. This was all guesswork, but the visions, missions, photographs and visual design of the websites gave some idea so I decided to follow my instincts.
I contacted five ecovillages and, to my great joy (and even surprise), they all responded positively to my mail asking them if we could visit, have a look and talk about their motivations, experiences, lifestyles, intentions and choices. The itinerary was set and we took off near the end of July 2016.
In the car I was thinking: Both as a home-dweller (who had changed many addresses and types of habitation) and as an architect, I had for a long time been intrigued by the possibility of designing and living in houses that were low-tech, eco-friendly, maybe even self-sufficient, and affordable. (This was my perception of ecovillage living.) But there was always one problem that my potential clients and I had with this vision: the issue of comfort. Maintaining comfort is a craving of the spoiled Global North, for sure, but a craving that is very real, that is supporting the housing industry as it is – consumerist and polluting, and a craving that has to be addressed. So I couldn’t wait to ask our hosts if they managed to feel comfortable in their “alternative” dwelling style.
400km NE from Zagreb
The first response came at a wonderful lunch that was offered to us by our hosts, on the porch of their house in the Galgafarm ecovillage, some 30km from Budapest, Hungary. “So? What do you want to know?” The host wasn’t beating around the bush. Neither were we. The three of us asked him so many things that I was worried we would be too imposing. But in all of the ecovillages we visited the hosts seemed not only happy to reply, but also very able to give specific answers, betraying the fact that their work had been done with a lot of conscious intent, planning and awareness.
So when I asked the host about the issue of comfort, he said, “What exactly do you mean?” I started with the list and got a response for every item: HEATING: A common heating plant running on biomass from their own 20ha forest, with pipes running below the village road and supplying floor heating to each house. RUNNING WATER: Also centralised, using 1500m2 of solar collectors plus electric heaters running on photovoltaic panels; The water is pumped from a 180m deep well and periodic lab tests keep confirming there is no need for filtration or chemical treatment. ELECTRICITY: Computer, lights and appliances (including the washing machine) are supplied from the state grid as local production would not be feasible. WASTEWATER: They were thinking about composting toilets, but the ladies persuaded the community to go for a constructed wetland instead and two chambers for microbiological filtration. The “wetland” became a lake rich with fish and used for swimming. INTERNET: Of course. Many people work from here. Others can easily go to Budapest. Ease of MAINTENANCE: The wooden houses with straw-bale walls need one to patch up big cracks in the earthen plaster as they open up.
“Ok,” I said, “is there anything of the city life and comfort that you miss?” He laughed: “Nothing at all. I have everything here.” Indeed, they were in a beautiful place surrounded by nature, with their own garden. And they could be happy knowing that the ecological footprint of their village (1.1) was much smaller than what cities and city living required (the Hungarian average is 1.9, which means that humanity would need almost two planets if everyone lived like that). Building houses is a big challenge in that respect, but they managed to come quite close to having a sustainable eco-footprint even for that. They calculated everything and set the goal for house construction to consume up to 40.000kWh including materials, production, transport and building. Naturally, they turned to local materials: wood, straw and earth (they have a plant for producing earthen bricks).
I was amazed. It suddenly seemed possible to have it all: sustainability, comfort and affordability. I had meant to ask about the amount of living space as an aspect of comfort, but I saw the house myself: It was spacious, with a double-height living room and ample light coming from various sides and heights, just as Christopher Alexander recommended in his A Pattern Language. And yet, for all the space it had, it was not luxurious in the usual ways people show-off with their houses: with expensive materials and expensive construction methods. It was a traditional-looking, traditionally built house with un-traditional, more carefully shaped, proportioned, positioned and connected spaces. As an architect, I was impressed and uplifted.
The price that was paid for the combination of sustainability, comfort and affordability consisted of planning, perseverance and patience. Galgafarm is now a village of 50-60 inhabitants, most of them in family houses on separate land plots and some in a central building with apartments that also host guests. But all of that started in the late 1980s, when the founders found and bought a very big piece of land (250ha), made plans and established a foundation. The land is able to sustain their basic needs, including potable water, wastewater treatment capabilities, biomass for heating, most of the construction material, and space for dwelling (the latter took time to secure because repurposing a part of the land was an administrative nightmare). Last but not least, their land is the source of their food.
The village is not called a farm by coincidence or out of purely poetic reasons. The first project of the foundation was to establish a farming cooperative with the local rural community. The cooperative grows food and runs a food processing plant, providing for local needs and supplying organic markets in Budapest. This is an important source of the ecovillage income, alongside tourism and education. Some of the ecovillagers work in the farm, but the rest of the employees come from the neighbouring “conventional” village. The relationship with the nearby villages has been persistently nurtured since the inception of Galgafarm, including providing training in organic agriculture. There is collaboration with other ecovillages too: The one with the Slovak ecovillage Zaježka enabled them to implement an EU-funded educational project on sustainability topics and to install photovoltaic panels.
Educational links go very deep: Our host was very much involved with the Global Ecovillage Network and with the ecovillage education syllabus. So when one wants to become a Galgafarm resident, they are allowed to buy a flat, or a plot of land and build a house only after they pass a little test: An interview in which they have to demonstrate they had read the four dimensions of sustainability and are genuinely interested in a lifestyle that is compatible with them. Apart from that, worldview and spirituality are considered to be personal issues and the community is not built around any particular ones. Our host ensured us that the interview was not hard to “pass”, but that those who didn’t have genuine understanding of sustainability and enthusiasm about it didn’t stay long anyway.
Another jury is set up when someone wants to build a house. Since the community sees the interior of a house as a private matter, but its external appearance as a combined private and public matter, the jury has to approve the design. It also serves as a consulting entity, helping with the ecological aspects of building. In reality, however, the jury is not likely to refuse a design, but people would be wise to follow its advice. Someone built a “modern” brick house in Galgafarm despite advice to the contrary, and ended up selling it for half the price within a year. The new owners found that the interior felt cold in winter despite the heating: When it was -15C outside, they could heat it up to a chilly 16C.
So what does future hold for Galgafarm? Life seems to be slow and the community seems to be developing patiently and step by step, without anything that resembles the contemporary mindframe of pitching, “funky” projects, branding etc. The social life of the community does not seem to be very intense and village meetings take place only once a month in the form of a barbecue at someone’s house, while talking about current issues. A part of the reason for that may lay in the fact that everyone owns their own plot of land and house, and the only obligation to the community is paying for the utilities (which is sometimes problematic).
The village would definitely benefit from more inhabitants. With 60 families, not only would the place feel more like a community, but also the economies of scale would make the cost of utilities equal to those in a city, and would make a local currency feasible. It is a catch 22 though: More people would need to decide to live in Galgafarm in order for that to be an economically justified decision. But that is a symptom of a perverted system, our host explained: Currently, the way tax money is spent is actually one big subsidy for city services, which are big gobblers of resources and churners of carbon pollution. If the sustainable rural practices got the same kind of financial support (not bigger, just the same), there might be many more people interested in moving to ecovillages, making them even more feasible. But lobbying at the level of national politics has not been easy, even when our host used to be a parliamentary representative.
And thus it became apparent to us that things were amazingly interconnected. The complexity of what ecovillages were, and what their role in the world might be, suddenly grew in the minds of the three travellers. As we had to say goodbye to our hosts and their profoundly peaceful piece of the world, we were left with more answers than we hoped for, any even more fledgling questions. I didn’t know it at that point, but the beginning of the journey to Finland was also the beginning of a learning journey about ecovillages, how to design them and much more. And so we headed for Slovakia, saying goodbye to a landscape of sustainability that, being a part of the same Pannonian bioregion as the Zagreb county, looked like home, but was so much more advanced due to the regenerative presence of the people of Galgafarm.
130km N-NW from Galgafarm
In the late afternoon of the same day we found the little village of Zaježová in southern Slovakia and, up a gravel road, a hilly area with scattered houses that made up the eco-community called Zaježka. Unlike Galgafarm, Zaježka was not centred around a common business and it was not a contiguous property, but it had four NGOs at its core. The houses and plots varied widely in sizes, styles, levels of upkeep and legal statuses. But of all the sorts of variety, the variety that was most striking was that of people. There were different nationalities, volunteers from abroad participating in programmes and festivals, and a lot of children of various ages.
As our welcoming hosts took as around to see this diversity and we asked the people about how they got to be there, Zaježka started to seem like a place for experimenting with ways of living that were different from the mainstream city life. For many people, it was even a way to escape from what seemed a meaningless civilisation or a meaningless lifestyle and to start anew from scratch. It involved changing the approach to work, to personal and community life, to what it meant to feel at home (in a place and with oneself). It wasn’t always easy. Often it meant doing everything – from building to plumbing and agriculture – quickly, cheaply and as a DIY project, without much experience and income. So what was missing in terms of resources, knowledge and planning had to be replaced by courage, improvisation, perseverance and the mental and physical stamina to invest a lot of time and energy into repairing and redoing things.
But the greatest asset that people had in dealing with the challenges of the new ground they chose to tread was the support from other members of the community. There was a shared love for low-tech, environmentally friendly solutions, for personal freedom and for being surrounded by nature. People helped each other do work and didn’t hesitate to ask for help (which is how we ended up challenging our fear of heights while helping to cover an unfinished straw-bale house with a tarpaulin). And, equally importantly, people celebrated together (which is how we ended up around an evening bonfire in the backyard of our kind and welcoming host).
In terms of comfort, Zaježka was very different from Galgafarm. One of the houses was a 25m2 straw-bale cabin with no tap water, no fridge, and a different approach to spatial comfort: “Kids like small cramped spaces where adults cannot enter, so we’ll build a mini gallery for them instead of rooms.” But that was the image of a single moment. It seemed that the space of Zaježka was in constant change and it would be hard to predict what a house would look like in several years.
The following morning our host showed us the other ways in which the community worked for the benefits of all its members:
The storage for food bought in bulk, which significantly reduces the price of goods. It’s based on trust: There is a notebook where people write the quantity of what they took from the big bags and cupboards, and leave money accordingly.
Used-clothes storage and exchange (most of the clothes if given by city dwellers).
An informal “forest” kindergarten, which is located in the same building where the storages are. The community is renting the whole building and slowly repairing it by applying for external funding.
A school run by the members of the community, with renovated classroom spaces and didactic courtyard areas. The school had been closed due to a lack of students in this depopulation-troubled area. But the children of the newcomer families are now getting very dedicated education in the lower primary age.
A bus station built by the community, containing the mailboxes for the villagers.
A football field under construction.
Finally, we saw an assembly of ecologically renovated buildings repurposed into a centre for workshops and ecological/spiritual retreats. Some of the members of the eco community worked and/or held workshops and courses there, but it was not a proper community centre just as the “village” was not a contiguous area. The spaces were being rented out to the organisers of events and workshops. The amenities included a seminar hall, a tea place, a sauna, a greenhouse, and even a dark chamber for overworked city dwellers to spend a few days/weeks in solitude.
Spatially, materially and socially, Zaježka seems to be a very fluid entity hard to describe by common denominators. But in the search for a meaningful existence, that might be as normal as the fact that there are more questions than answers.
As we were driving away towards Banská Bystrica, I was thinking about how the financial, logistical and social challenges of building a meaningful existence from scratch might be resolved. I was thinking back to Galgafarm and the planning they had done before acting. And yet, somehow it seemed that the practice of “trial by fire” was an integral part of what Zaježka was and what its people needed in order to grow, at least in this phase. It also seemed like a running experiment that was useful to many more people than those who lived in Zaježka, because of the insight and inspiration it provided.
1250km N-NE from Zaježka
Coming to Zaježka meant saying goodbye to the Pannonian plain, but passing through the Tatra mountains led us to the huge North European Plain. We drove through eastern Poland, sleeping in Białystok, and on the following day left the Plain and came within reach of the third eco-community: Krunai in Lithuania, 40km NW of Vilnius. But first, our hosts welcomed us in their Latino dance circle in Vilnius (a shock, but a very good way to connect and also to stretch after two days of driving), and took us to an enchanting artistic B&B in Kernavė to spend the night.
Next morning, we had breakfast in the hosts’ “Soul House” on their big (1 ha or so) piece of land surrounded by beautiful meadows and forests. The house was, once again, a timber structure with straw-bale walls. It had been under construction for three years, and this was the first year that it was finished enough to be habitable (a marked change from the camper where the hosts used to live while building the house). The house was big (300m2), with large open spaces and ample natural light because the hosts intended to both live in it, hold workshops in it and host meetings and celebrations for the eco-community. As the hosts told us, a house is a place that enables one to get in touch with nature and with their deeper self, while creating opportunities for sharing with others. My thoughts exactly.
The funny thing was, we couldn’t see any houses around that would make up an ecovillage of some kind. And that was no coincidence. Our hosts’ plot of land was big enough to be able to easily support a family with children, both in terms of sustenance and in terms of being psychologically immersed in the natural rhythms. That was in line with the principles of homesteading described in the “Ringing Cedars” books by Vladimir Megre, written between 1996 and 2010. The books inspired the first Krunai ecovillagers to buy big pieces of land and build small, low-tech ecological houses, out of one another’s sight. Our hosts told us that these pioneers had set out to completely reshape their lifestyles, minimise all kinds of consumption (which, among other things, meant they used no electricity whatsoever!) and refrain from most contact with cities, with the intention of bringing up a new generation that would reunite with Mother Nature. It didn’t last. After a while, one by one they decided to move away and the big pieces of land were put on sale.
Our hosts bought one such piece of land, and they were not the only ones: As we took a walk, we could see other newly built timber or straw-bale houses, and some that were under construction. The new aspiring homesteaders were different from the pioneers, though. Their houses were bigger and more comfortable, but goals less “radical”. They were happy to live in cities while building their houses and slowly transitioning to countryside life, as well as to work in the cities, or hold courses in the cities (like our hosts), or do freelance work with occasional visits to the cities (the “cities” mostly meaning Vilnius). Obviously, with such distances between the houses, each house had to take care of its own waste (usually by means of septic tanks) and its own energy production (usually with wood for heating, and mains electricity).
The people of Krunai are looking for harmony and balance that immersion in nature can provide and they found a beautiful place to do it. (I too was enchanted by the flora, fauna, silence and fragrances that seemed to connect millennia.) But they seem to be practical about how to get there step by step, with minimal risk, and with dedication to personal growth. Whether or not the “neighbourhood” will grow beyond a dozen or so households and whether or not it will turn into a proper community remains to be seen. Our host’s Soul House, and the goal of hosting community-bonding events, may play a great role in providing the social “glue”. Our hosts see that leading to more practical kinds of glue too: production of their own food, a small local economy based around natural building and processing food. Thereupon it might be beneficial to create cooperative practices, tool banks, time-banking and so on. But the “practical homesteaders” of Krunai seem to be in no hurry and that’s alright.
590km N from Krunai
As the landscape became more coniferous and patches of forests within stretches of fields gave way to patches of fields within vast stretches of forest, the daylight hours stretched too, allowing us to see the fourth ecovillage we visited as we drove into it on the evening of the fourth day of our road trip.
Unlike the other ecovillages we visited, Lilleoru – located 20km from Tallinn in Estonia – is primarily tied together by a shared spiritual path. Its residents (around 60 people) are followers of the spiritual teacher Ingvar Villido, who holds courses in the Art of Conscious Change and Kriya Yoga. The initial impulse to create the ecovillage came through him too, when he was gifted a big swampy property. He decided to turn it into an ecovillage with the help of his followers. Today, the area doesn’t look like a swamp at all. On either side of the main street there are plots filled with family houses (and more plots to be established in the near future). On a little hill there is a sacred park, and around the garden there are vegetable gardens, greenhouses and forests.
Of all the ecovillages we had seen, that was the one where I felt the strongest intention to physically shape space as the expression of a common worldview. The Flower of Life Park was large and based on a precise “spiritual” geometry. The houses were big, colourful and shaped in various visually striking forms (for example spiralling), standing out amidst big plots of land with trimmed grass. The new building of the School of Practical Awareness was also a rather big building, designed in a “contemporary” architectural style (due to open in 2018). There was a little artificial lake under construction, with the excavated earth due to form a new hill, potentially with theatre seating.
The house of our kind host was – again – a straw bale house with timber structure. But it was different from the ones we saw or stayed in since the beginning of our journey. It was bigger, with precise detailing that didn’t show much handwork, and with a style, furnishing and general feel that was more similar to contemporary architecture and interior design, albeit with a quirky and organic touch. The houses were fully equipped with all amenities typical of contemporary city life and the garages were equipped with cars as most of the residents worked in Tallinn. Generally, we were told, the owners would self-build their houses only if they couldn’t afford to pay contractors.
In some ways, it felt like a typical “culturally creative” suburb, but built with more environmentally friendly materials. Most of the plots had fences around them and weren’t immersed in the nature. The village itself had a fence around it too. All of the utilities were individual, with heating provided by heat pumps and biomass, electricity from the mains. There was also street lighting, municipal waste collection and post delivery.
Although present and developing, organic agriculture based on permaculture principles was not the focus of this ecovillage any more than natural building. The main focus was supporting each other on a path of expanding awareness and providing opportunities for visitors to get on the path too. The community seemed to be well structured with rules about who can join and how things were run and decided. The uniform worldview made life simpler, but we were told by one person that the big challenges happened with the families who had a member who wasn’t Ingvar’s follower. For those who were, it was allegedly easier: In case conflict resolution failed, there was always the certainty of having a spiritual leader who was authorised to make final decisions on any issue. This was the only element that I felt weirdly uneasy with: What would happen if Ingvar weren’t there? However, this was described by one person only. We were told by others that such problems and situations actually didn't exist.
390km N from Lilleoru
Having slept like babies in the comfortable beds of our Lilleoru host, we went to Tallinn to catch the ferry that would take us to Helsinki. After the 90km at sea, we only had 300km to the last ecovillage on the list. We arrived to Keuruu late in the evening, in full daylight amidst pouring rain. We had travelled 2760km from Zagreb and it was clear we found a place that was – again – almost completely different from the others we had visited.
The first difference was the place where we established “first contact” with the community: It wasn’t a private house, but their community building. We were received in the canteen, not by one host, but by everyone who felt like hanging around and talking to us. People came and went, but a group of ecovillagers stayed with us for a long time and shared their experiences, stories, ambitions and opinions. The one story that struck me the most was about an argument between an Italian and a Finn. When the Italian raised his voice (or shouted, depending on the perspective), the Finn ran away. Why? Because he didn’t want to hit the Italian and – in his world – yelling was the beginning of a physical fight, whereas for the Italian it was the hallmark of a heated discussion. This story reminded my of my United World College (UWC) experience: two years of campus life with teenagers from all around the world, different nationalities, religions, social and economic backgrounds. Such experiences make you realise how many things you take for granted.
The following day we were taken around the ecovillage by one of its founding members and she told us that Keuruu had one most important purpose: learning how to live in a community. It was an amazingly clear and concise statement of purpose and it got me thinking: I had never considered that “learning how to live in a community” might be the central axis of an intentional community, but it suddenly made sense. It was both a worthy and useful cause, and something that needed to be learned and developed. And I realised that at UWC I had learned that humans are more profoundly similar than they are different, and that I had learned how to live with four roommates, but I hadn’t learned how to consciously create a community and sustain it. It was, I then saw, a skill that seemed to be painfully missing from our educational practices.
Keuruu was devoted to its practice of sharing circles and its consensus-based governance. All decisions were made by consensus, and even the decision to have us as guests was something that had to be discussed and approved by the entire community (around 50 people). Since its inception about 20 years ago, the community went through several phases and many challenges. But it survived and the challenges yielded various procedures, such as the sharing circles, the granting of membership, the way to calculate the rent, or the room price for guests (symbolic, but consistently charged), and so on. Due to the power of every single individual in the decision making process, it’s actually very prudent to take membership very seriously. Before gaining full membership, one has to be allowed to stay for two days. If that goes well, they’re allowed to stay for two weeks, then for 6 months, and only then can the final decision be made. In this case by “consensus minus one”, i.e. the person is accepted if less than two people object. This process also gives the applicant a good idea of their new home before they commit.
Unlike other ecovillages we visited, in Keuruu there are no private houses and there is no private ownership of plots of land or buildings. The building where we were first received – the community centre – has a canteen, a professional kitchen, offices, a sports hall and, of course, male and female saunas as per Finnish tradition. Then there are buildings with rooms (for singles and guests) and small apartments (for families). There is no luxury, and private spaces are small. On the other hand, communal spaces are big and full of amenities. Everyone pays rent and a share of utility costs (by square metres). Everyone has kitchen duties and is expected to contribute to the community by some sort of work. The definition of “work”, however, is rather different from the mainstream, where it too often boils down to “job”. In Keuruu, work is meaningful personal contribution, whether it’s art, carpentry, music, gardening or something else. It is therefore appropriate (and exciting!) that if you explore the several buildings in Keuruu you can find a carpentry workshop, a pottery workshop, a (rather small) vegetable garden, a greenhouse, many musical instruments etc.
None of these building are new. They are typical, old (one is even listed as heritage) red-and-white timber buildings in various stages of interior and exterior renovation (or disrepair). But it is true that the ecological footprint of the construction work done in Keuruu is very small. Why build new buildings if we can use old ones? The only downside is that the existing buildings are not very well insulated until renovation. However, the heating energy is provided by local biomass, which is among the least bad options.
In terms of ecological solutions, Keuruu takes water from a well and is slowly switching to composting toilets instead of septic tanks. The power comes from the grid, but the number of kitchens and saunas was decreased to save energy and expenses. Some of the food is produced by the community, some is bought from organic farmers, including those who work the land that the community rents out to them.
Before it became an ecovillage, Keuruu served other purposes. It used to be a farm, then a jail (labour camp) for men who had left their families and didn’t pay alimony. Later on, it was a treatment centre for alcoholics. And in the 1990s it was a centre for refugees from the Balkans. When it was abandoned, a group of enthusiasts got it from the state to start an alternative community. The renovation has been going slowly because material thing always follow social things, but also because there is little money. Many members of the community are freelancers, unemployed or starting up small businesses so life is simple. (It’s good that the Finnish unemployment benefits are big enough to cover the basic living costs in Keuruu.)
Also, the community has made little outreach towards the neighbouring areas in the municipality or other potential partnerships that could, among other things, boost the economic capacity of the ecovillage. This was so due to the need for the community to consolidate after several bumpy years (the membership rules were not selective enough so there was trouble with addicts), but our hosts told us that the ideas to connect to the outside world and turn the ecovillage into a cultural centre were gaining prominence within the community. This too happens slowly, but Keuruu gave me a feeling that slow can be good. Whether that can be applied to the whole world, given the environmental, social, economic and spiritual crises, is a different matter, and a very good question. Maybe the answer would surprise us...
On to creating communities
330km E from Keuruu and further on...
Having said goodbye to our kind hosts at Keuruu, we went to Kontioranta, a small place near the town of Joensuu. The three of us were to step into the roles of facilitators of a UWC Short Course on identity. One week of team-building and final preparations of the programme with the other 13 facilitators, and two weeks with participants – 48 high-school students from all over Europe and the Caucasus. We would spend the time in former military barracks, creating a learning community with governance procedures, community agreements, conflict resolution strategies, socialising and celebrating events, outreach programmes for the local community and so on, all in the spirit of UWC. Our short ecovillage visits prepped me for this experience in a very significant way.
We saw how vastly different communities can be even if they all belonged to the Global Ecovillage Network. So much depended on the motivations and dreams of people who were there, but equally much on the ways the communities chose to govern and handle themselves. All of them deserved respect for having the courage to turn dreams into action and explore ways in which our relationships with each other and with our environment can be different from the mainstream relationships, which are too often unconscious and destructive. And yet, there is no guarantee that an ecovillage community will not be destructive either. As hard and as beautiful as it may be, living in a community requires constant dedication and attention.
As I was “living” and facilitating in a temporary community in Kontioranta, I realised that an experience of studying and living in a high-quality ecovillage-school hybrid would be very beneficial for young people. Places and patterns of life shape us more than academics and discussions. So being a part of a community that “lives what it preaches” about environmental, social and economic sustainability would expand the worldviews and at the same time create a set of practical skills that those ecovillager-students could apply wherever they might be later on in life. I started to realise, from a new angle, how interconnected things were and how integrated our approach should be. This is the realisation that led me to start my Gaia Education journey.
As for the initial question – “What is an ecovillage?”... Ecovillages are places of exploration and creation of alternative futures. But that doesn’t mean anything until you visit some. They are so diverse that you can definitely find some that are on your wavelength, visit them and learn a lot about your prejudice, but also about your secret wishes for how you’d like to live your life to the fullest. It is definitely worth the time, effort and kilometres. As for the comfort of dwelling… That’s something that can be achieved without sacrificing ecology or economics, but it demands introspection, changing some habits and attitudes, giving up attempts to impress someone, being open to tradition as much as to novelties, and careful planning. The reward for that kind of effort includes comfort, but is much more than that, because it contains fundamental steps towards a life of harmony and balance.
Zagreb, 27th November 2017
Veljko Armano Linta