Eco-villages are urban or rural communities of people who strive to integrate a supportive social environment with a low-impact way of life while highlighting the importance of spiritual ecology: the need for us to live in harmony with ourselves, nature and the sacred. To achieve this, they holistically integrate various aspects of ecological design, permaculture, ecological construction, green production, alternative energy, community building practices, and much more in order to rejuvenate the social and natural environment. The populations in eco-villages vary from 50-100 individuals in smaller communities to over 2000 individuals in larger communities.
Many eco-villages have started from the perspective of developing low impact lifestyles with an aim to reduce the “ecological footprint” by as much as 80%. Permaculture design, based on the values of "care of the earth and of people", has been their primary method of choice. Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design principles centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems. Crystal Water Permaculture Village in Australia and Earthhaven in North Carolina are examples of ecologically inspired eco-villages based on permaculture. There are also various other types of eco-villages like co-housing and socially motivated eco-villages and cultural/spiritual eco-villages. In Auroville, Tamil Nadu (India), a huge golden plated globe surrounded by twelve petals, known as Matrimandir, functions as their meditation hall. The City of Auroville is divided into four parts representing four different cultural aspects. In traditional villages there is often a central meeting place (a tree, a well) where villagers get together.
Eco-villages are living models of urban and rural sustainable communities with minimal ecological footprint. They represent an effective, accessible way to combat the degradation of our social, ecological, and spiritual environment. Most communities build new eco-villages, while some make their existing villages sustainable wherein their austerity is involuntary. Eco-villages are a grassroots initiative by private citizens and such eco-citizens value community living. They are minimally dependent on government, corporate, or other centralized sources for water, food, shelter, power, and other basic necessities. Many offer educational experiences for others, and the villages often serve as research and demonstration sites. The majority of the practices undertaken by eco-villages are aimed at taking care of the land. Eco-villages demonstrate a unique economic dimension, as many seek to keep money within the community, circulating between members. Income is often generated through the retail sale of their products and services and thereafter recycled to reduce eco-footprint.
Fig. 1: An eco-house at Findhorn with solar panels embedded in turf roof
More recently many eco-villages have moved toward sociocracy and related alternative decision-making methods. Also, eco-villages look for an alternative governance mechanism with emphasis on deeper connections with ecology rather than economy. On a general level, eco-villages offer an entirely different example of how people and communities based on cooperation can help in the transition to a more sustainable future. They promote innovative solutions to issues like climate change, resource shortage and social problems. Such villages encourage a culture of mutual respect, fair energy exchange, sharing, inclusiveness and positive intent. Their principles are aimed at using nature in a sustainable way by amalgamating healthy socio-cultural systems with individual well-being.
Fig. 2: Google Earth Image of Auroville Eco-village in Tamil Nadu, India
The Global Eco-village Network (GEN) - a network which was to be co-ordinated by the Gaia Trust, was established in 1994. The goals of GEN were to “support the development of sustainable human settlements; assist in the exchange of information amongst the settlements; make information widely available about eco-village concepts and demonstration sites”. What makes this movement vastly significant is that no research papers and in-house experiments are being done and it is being directly implemented in a community setting in groups around the globe.
However, the GEN movement does little to directly address ecological or environmental crises. It does not lobby governments or try to change the actions of corporations. Eco-villages are still dependent on municipal sources for water, petrol, power and other basic needs. While the first generation of eco-villagers tended to adopt consensus decision-making as a governance method, some difficulties with consensus as an everyday decision-making method emerged; it can be very time-intensive, and decisions too often could be blocked by a few non co-operative members. In such communities it is the rules set by the few founders which supersede the needs of sustainable development making such communities dysfunctional, although not all communities face the same levels of dysfunctionality. These eco-villages have spiritual overtones but what attracts most residents to such alternative communities is the chance to live more simply and to be part of a supportive community. While the basic principles of eco-villages are drafted within the framework of sustainability, every individual’s/ community’s interpretation and implementation results in varying degrees of achieving sustainable living. A large scale implementation of such a lifestyle has been initiated across many developing and developed countries by means of solar water heating, composting, recycling waste water and solid waste management. It is now necessary to identify the shortcomings in the interpretation and implementation of eco-village principles and turn global communities into eco-friendly entities.