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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2015

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Books of Note: Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community

In Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community, Karen Litfin offers observations and preliminary analysis of a broad range of ecologically-focused community-design experiments on 5 continents. Generally described as ecovillages, she presents a diverse range of 14 different sustainable community models that range in size from a community with 35 members in Berlin, Germany, to 15,000 “traditional villages” in Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka. She frames the thread that holds these 14 communities together as E2C2: ecology, economy, community, and consciousness. The reader, through the descriptive story of her travels, is given a glimpse into how imminent concern for ecological well-being, creative alternative economies, new forms of community, and the application of consciousness, are expressed in the ecovillage movement. The book offers a unique opportunity to compare several different forms of sustainable communities around the world, giving us a glimpse of the best practices and challenges of the global ecovillage movement. Because she has covered a lot on a tight time budget, some depth in her observations and analysis is sacrificed.

The book begins with an illustrative summary of the 14 communities, giving the reader a detailed orientation to her year-long project. The next four chapters provide specific examples that are used to weave the tapestry of E2C2. Beginning with ecology, we learn of the variety of ways Western and non-Western communities are addressing environmental degradation. Here, for example, we learn of alternative ecological approaches to building designs including solar panel adoption and straw-bale insulation. While she characterizes the inability of some Western ecovillages to be off-grid as a failure in mainstream acceptance of alternative designs, using the example of cement buildings, she laments the “knee-jerk preferences for modern technologies I saw in Africa and Asia” (p. 45). Obviously, those continents are large and heterogeneous, and the author's treatment of the social, ecological and political factors is at best suggestive. This might have been a good place to examine how composting toilets and off-grid living are seen as desirable, innovative green technologies in some Western ecovillages, while non-Western communities are struggling to get on-grid in order to provide access to clean water and improved sanitation.

In the economy chapter, Litfin defines “right livelihood” as “putting our labor in the service of our dreams while foraging high quality relationships with people and resources” (p. 89). Residents of these communities attempt to build an economy that is based on doing what one loves, finding kindred spirits, acknowledging the interconnections between ecology and economy, and creatively seeking new opportunities. Her discussion of the myriad of creative ways money and resources are exchanged, such as Damanhur ecovillage in Italy's Credito, an alternative currency used to keep their economy local, veers again towards oversimplification. Similarly, the diversity of her examples invites her to address the important question about the possibilities for a sustainable economy in an increasingly capitalist global environment. The far more useful community chapter provides detailed descriptions of the everyday life of ecovillage residents. Sharing everything from meals, decision-making, appliances, child rearing, work, and mourning the loss of a member, is highlighted as one of the many ways ecovillages create a sense of community. This is a powerful chapter, full of details that make you feel a part of the communities she visits.

Contradictions and ironies in the ecovillage project is not lost to the author and she acknowledges that there are many unsolved problems. For example, Litfin acknowledges the underpinnings of neocolonialism; she admits discomfort with the large economic disparity of Auroville, India, where the ecovillage is populated by wealthy Europeans simplifying their lifestyle while “almost all the physical work in Auroville is done by Tamils,” the local, poor inhabitants that surround the ecovillage island, entering each day and leaving at night servicing the residents. Although the author grapples with these dilemmas, she exhibits—and admits—to a clear bias in favor of ecovillages, noting that “…when criticism is leveled at ecovillages, I tend to defend them.”

Litfin's range of study sites opens up a raft of opportunities for achieving inside and comparative leverage. The author highlights the multifaceted and contentious ways communities are attempting to find a sustainable way to live. Her experience and analysis is a valuable contribution to understanding the ecovillage movement. Specifically, both her framing of E2C2 and “right livelihood” offer an opportunity for scholars and practitioners alike to begin to theorize this growing and under analyzed field. This enviable scope has, perforce, come at some sacrifice. Her site visits of two weeks were arguably too brief to provide the perspective needed for more than a preliminary discussion, and that becomes apparent in overbroad generalizations and unsubstantiated conclusions. Her suggestion that ecovillages exhibit the necessary foundation for addressing social and environmental degradation is enticing and suggestive. But her assertion that “in the long run, sustainability is not a luxury; it is inevitable” (p. 170) leaves the reader hungry for more depth in explanation.

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