Process Perspectives on Ecovillages:
Building Community for a Postmodern, Ecological Civilization
by Zach Walsh
THE PHILOSOPHY OF ECOVILLAGES
The social and ecological costs of modern development have inspired creative new ways of living in the 21st century. While those of us with modern lifestyles often remain complicit in modern industrialism’s exploitation of people and planet, members of ecovillage communities proactively experiment with the art of sustainable living for a postmodern world. The global ecovillage network’s design curriculum states that “Eco-villages are the ‘seed’ communities of the not-too-distant future”—seeds with the creative potential to generate new forms of life where interdependence, not independence, will be the guiding ethos. According to Karen Litfin, the ecovillage represents a living model of a sustainable community that “may be understood as a form of constructive postmodernism.” She explains, ecovillages “represent a postmodern perspective, but one that seeks to construct a viable alternative rather than merely a deconstruction of modernity.” In general, the global ecovillage movement marks the beginning of a constructive shift from modern civilization toward ecological civilization— one which exemplifies Alfred N. Whitehead’s constructive postmodern philosophy.
The Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) comprises a distributed network of local, self-sufficient communities sharing information and connecting with each other through the internet. In this respect, the ecovillage reflects the type of community that Bill McKibben advocates. In Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, McKibben argues that food and energy must be regionally produced by local communities to minimize ecological impact and build resilience. He also claims that economies will have to become smaller and decentralized, so that they limit their exposure to systemic risks. As communities become decentralized, McKibben says, information shared globally via the internet will prevent their isolation from each other and encourage innovation. McKibben’s model communities share much in common with the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) which Litfin describes as a “planetary knowledge community.”
According to Litfin, the ecovillage movement replaces the symbolic logic of “atomism and the machine” with the “organism and living systems.” Like process philosophy, ecovillages uphold science and religion as inseparable partners in dialogue, and they eschew the cosmological division between the divine and the world. “Their spirituality is embodied and relational, aiming not for liberation from this world, but rather for the transformation of it.” As Litfin illustrates, “eco-villages are consciously seeking to birth new ways of living that transcend the modern dichotomies of urban vs. rural settlements, private vs. public spheres, culture vs. nature, local vs. global, expert vs. layperson, affluence vs. poverty, and mind vs. body.” Ecovillages therefore reflect a shift in philosophical orientation away from modernism’s various bifurcations and toward a more holistic postmodern organicism.
Although ecovillagers each have different approaches to spirituality, the common thread uniting them is a core belief that intrinsic subjectivity is the principle link connecting all living beings— a principle also shared by process-relational thinkers. The mission of the global ecovillage movement, Litfin says, is to create viable social and ecological structures that reflect our embeddedness in nature and take responsibility for sustaining its creativity. Ecovillages are life-affirming communities that dissolve the separation between the individual, social body, and the Earth. In She Who Changes, process theologian Carol P. Christ writes that “some traditional people understand the boundaries of the self to be inclusive of particular landscapes or parts of the earth… [so that] the relationship of the self to the land is also an internal relationship.” Yet in most modern societies, our connection to the land has become severed by the scientific materialist view that bodies and spaces are devoid of intrinsic value, as well as by capitalism’s enclosure of the commons and its privatization of space. By contrast, ecovillages represent communities that cultivate an organic relationship to nature.
THE STRUCTURE OF ECOVILLAGES
In order to revive our connection to each other and to the land, we must re-inhabit the Earth as our home. The Greek word for household (oikos, -eco) forms the root of both ecology and economy. Barry Commoner said the environment is “a house created on the Earth by living things for living things,” and ecology is “the science of planetary housekeeping.” In The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History, Edward S. Casey calls the house “our first universe” and our “first world.” He says, it “acquires the physical and moral energy of the human body” and it embodies “one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories, and dreams of mankind.” Since the planet is our collective home, as such, we must orient ourselves and social organizations toward the construction of an ecological civilization embedded within the cosmos.
In line with this goal, Litfin explains that an ecovillage is like a house that orients inhabitants to the cosmos. In a holographic cosmos, the ecovillage is a holon integrating all of life’s dimensions in a single place. Litfin metaphorically describes the ecovillage as a house with four windows:
From each perspective, the house looks different and yet it is still the same house… each window would offer a view of every other window. So, we can look into ecovillages, and any human endeavor you might think of, through any or all of these windows: ecology, economics, community, and consciousness—or E2C2 for short.
Litfin describes ecovillage life as comprising these four interpenetrating components: ecology, economy, community, and consciousness. These components structure life in the fourteen ecovillages that Litfin studied in Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community. Each community (listed here) demonstrates unique ways of adapting to new ecological realities in socially and culturally appropriate ways. They are not perfect copies of each other, but rather unique examples from which we can all learn to style our lives.
Architecturally, the ecovillage deconstructs the separation between inside and outside, particulars and wholes. Peter Eisenman says the paradox of architecture is “to dislocate that which it locates.” Similarly, Elizabeth Grosz asks, “Can architecture be thought [of], no longer as a whole, complex unity, but as a set of or site for becomings of all kinds.” Ecovillages mimic Bachelard’s discourse on dwelling in and out of structures that bring the world into greater relief, while also breaking down the binary itself by allowing us to dwell in and out of transitioning spaces. In the documentary Tiny: A Story about Living Small, a member of the tiny house movement articulates ecological and process thinking when he says, “My ideal house... is where the outside draws you in, and the inside draws you out.” In a similar vein, Litfin observes that “eco-village homes felt less intrusive; often they enhanced the landscape.” She says, “If I had to find one word to describe how eco-villages look and feel—especially the ones that have built themselves from the ground up—it would be ‘organic.’”
Although unresolved tensions naturally remain, ecovillagers seek to balance them by inhabiting their homes as organic members of the planetary community:
In contrast to the dissecting lines of cities and suburbs, eco-village landscapes have a sense of fluidity… When it comes to eco-village gatherings, the most ubiquitous physical structure is the human circle. A circle, that magical shape that enables everybody to see everybody else, lends itself to open sharing and an egalitarian disposition.
Ecovillages embody a holistic worldview, but not a totalizing and oppressive holism that subsumes individuality, because unlike the failed communes of the sixties and seventies, ecovillages generally follow a co-housing model, whereby “people share common spaces but live in private homes.” Litfin also notes that there’s always movement between circles that prevents stasis, because “each individual inhabits the center of a series of concentric circles beginning with home and extending to community, ecosystem, nation, and planet.”
In many respects, ecovillages fundamentally embody a process-relational approach to spirituality. Using concentric circles to describe ecovillages’ embeddedness within larger structures reflects the Confucian pursuit of harmony through ritual practices that orient us toward the well-being of the family, community, nation, Earth and cosmos. At another ecovillage, called Damanhur, the Hall of Mirrors represents an architectural example of inter-being, reminiscent of Buddhist philosophy. It is a temple filled with light and reflection that “was designed to give each person who enters the feeling of being both a distinct individual and in relationship with the entire universe.” It resembles the Buddhist Dharmadhatu— a place where not only particulars and wholes are unobstructed, but where particulars are also enfolded within one another. It also mirrors Whitehead’s insight that “everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location,” and it mirrors Nicholas de Cusa’s “multiplex spatiality of folds,” whereby “everybody is in every body; but no body is the same as any other, nor could ‘each thing…be actually all things.’”
Politically, ecovillages could be considered heterotopias—a term Foucault uses to rethink modern space in terms of “places that contest the hegemony of dominant social and political structures.” Not only do ecovillages contest accepted bodies of knowledge and structures of meaning, they also “move beyond the politics of protest.” As Litfin documents, community members consider themselves to be “engaged participants in planetary socioecological systems rather than as utopian fugitives:”
Ecovillages are not utopias; they are living laboratories… eco-villagers are like applied scientists, running collective experiments in every realm of life: building, farming, waste management, decision-making, communication, child rearing, finance, ownership, aging, and death… [it] is not necessarily an easy path. It is a path of adventure.
Ecovillages orient the ideals of constructive postmodernism toward the adventure of constructing an ecological civilization. They prefigure “a viable future by creating parallel structures for self-governance in the midst of the prevailing social order.” This means that they simultaneously resist the unsustainable structural order of global capitalism, while generating new lifestyles and social systems that harmonize with the planetary ecosystem. As a result, ecovillages reject pre-formed solutions, which are often disguised reiterations of capitalism’s structural logic, and they instead offer performative, pre-figurative responses to the sustainability crisis, which are practical, but not ready-made, because they are processes for articulating an ecological worldview through new forms of social organization. Since ecovillages seek a full integration of social and ecological systems, they often have a more holistic worldview than many intentional living and back-to-the-land communities. They engage in global political discourse, they integrate “low-tech” and “high-tech” approaches to sustainability, and they embody practical and spiritual alternatives to modernity.
In addition to innovating lifestyles, the ecovillage movement redefines politics for a postmodern world. In many ecovillages, government is practiced by consensus, “meaning that everyone has to accept all decisions.” Typically, nonviolent communication methods provide the framework for achieving consensus, and they are widely used within ecovillages as “the social skill set of choice.” In light of their holistic worldview, many communities have applied the notion of consensus to both their social and spiritual life in their attempt to “try to communicate with the Divine in order to work together as one body.” Consensus decision making reflects ecovillagers’ “core belief in the power of the group mind,” or as Litfin puts it, the idea that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This divine emergence of something greater than the sum of its parts aligns with Whitehead’s famous dictum, “the many become one, and are increased by one” In ecovillages, Litfin observes that “consensus decision-making can mirror how healthy ecosystems operate. In both cases, each individual offers a unique and essential contribution to the collective intelligence of the whole.” Social, political, and ecological processes are viewed as mutually dependent and supportive.
Governance of these interlinking processes is often self-organizing, and the community’s spirituality often serves as the guiding impulse, or as Whitehead would say, as a lure for feeling. For instance, the Findhorn ecovillage organizes its work cycle around an “attunement circle” that allows people “not to choose what [they] wanted to do but rather what [they] felt called to do.” Approaches to child rearing in ecovillages are similarly based on self-governance and self-regulation. Although “children know their biological parents, they also have, in effect, twenty to thirty parents.” This practice of raising children in community both supports child development and enhances the health of the community by improving inter-generational relationships.
Although most ecovillages do not consciously advocate process philosophy, they provide examples of communities designed to cultivate many of its core principles. The myriad connections between ecovillages and process philosophy illustrate that the gradual breakdown of social, economic, and ecological systems provides the basic conditions for building a postmodern, ecological civilization. The conditions are now ripe for constructing a global ecological civilization in local communities that are culturally differentiated, but holistically oriented toward a positive, enriched way of life in the face of crisis. Developing a greater cross-pollination between the global ecovillage movement and process philosophy can help cultivate that way of life to inspire human-earth flourishing.
TAKING YOU INSIDE AN ECOVILLAGE
To get a more in-depth look into the various aspects of ecovillage life, I have provided a virtual tour of L.A. ecovillage. This virtual tour will display key aspects of the L.A. ecovillage, including information on its history, long-term vision, membership structure, non-profit structure, economy, political process, resource use, transportation, architecture, and communal activities. By combining digital photos and field research, the tour provides an exemplary case study of the global ecovillage movement as a whole. You will see how ecology, economics, community, and consciousness inform the entire construction and daily operation of an ecovillage. The tour is available here, and the audio transcript is available here.
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