What are ecovillages?

April 19, 2017

Note: This is post accompanies episode #45: The End of Civilization Ecovillage

The charitable association Gaia Trust, managed by Danish co-housing activist Hildur Jackson, commissioned American ecological researchers Robert and Dianne Gilman to study 26 different models of intentional communities in order to identify best practices for sustainable living. The Gilmans’ report, written in 1991, coined the term ‘ecovillage,’ defined as a:

human scale full-featured settlement in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.

They fall under the broader umbrella of intentional communities, or planned communities that typically maintain a common social, political, or religious lifestyle. According to numbers I pulled from the Fellowship of Intentional Communities (FIC) during December 2016, there are 990 intentional communities in the United States, with the highest proportions in California, Oregon, and Washington State. In Canada, 30 of 82 listed intentional communities are in British Columbia. However, it should be noted that these figures are not scrupulously verified or regularly updated. For instance, 3 of the 82 listings are clearly not intentional communities—they are educational or event spaces. Further, 38 of the listings are labelled “forming” or “re-forming.” Of these listings, some have since formed but not updated their listings, while others probably never will form. In sum, these figures should not be considered as precise statistics, but merely as an approximation based on the best attainable data (table 2.1).

Table 2.1 Canada’s intentional communities, according to data I collected and analyzed from the Fellowship for Intentional Communities. *Includes land-shares

Despite the limitations of the available data, certain broad trends can be identified. For instance, as already stated above, a preponderance of these listings are in British Columbia. After further analyzing each of the listings, I roughly categorized them into their ideological commitments (figure #2.2). Cohousing and land-shares are typically little more than cost-sharing arrangements, which is why the majority are categorized as  “unclear/no particular ideology.” Although they include consensus decision-making for important matters, they rarely follow a clear social, political or spiritual lifestyle. Alternatively, communes feature a much tighter commitment. Typically, they are avowedly primitivist (a theory that rejects modern technology), religious (all of the religious communes are Christian) or they follow some form(s) of spiritualism (paganism, shamanism, earth worship, yoga, etc). Ecovillages, although by no means completely uniform, follow a broad framework defined by the Gilmans’ report and key planning principles set out by the Global Ecovillage Network. These data reveal that majority of Canada’s intentional communities with salient political ideologies or spiritual commitments are ecovillages. The figures are likely similar in the United States, though I have not analyzed the 990 listings. Put simply, it is no exaggeration to say that the ecovillages represent the largest and most significant communal utopian movement in North America today.

Table 2.2 Canada’s intentional communities, by ideology, according to data I collected and analyzed from the Fellowship for Intentional Communities.

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