Ten years ago, 300 people from around the world assembled in the Universal Hall at Findhorn, the veteran green community on the Morayshire coast in Scotland, to launch the Global Eco-village Network (GEN). This month, they and others came back to celebrate a movement that is growing rapidly and spreading expertise on sustainability, communal living and post-modern spirituality around the world.
Officially, GEN lists 325 eco- villages, with 2 217 members, but this is believed to be a fraction of the real number of green/spiritual communities that now exist round the world. The United States-based Fellowship of Intentional Communities alone lists more than 700, mostly dedicated to sustainability, and there are thought to be thousands in Asia and Africa that still practise sustainability with a spiritual or religious content.
Findhorn, by far the largest in Britain, is one of the global grandaddies, and is thriving in its fourth decade. It has come a long way from its beginnings in the heady days of the early New Age in the 1960s, when Eileen Caddy, its founder, was living in a caravan and reporting conversations with God while her husband, Peter, grew giant cabbages on composted sand.
Today, the community of 200 members blends its spiritualism with economic pragmatism and is growing rapidly. Findhorn’s burgeoning industries and services contribute Â£5-million a year to the local economy. Its organic vegetable plantations feed the community as well as local customers. The wealthy residents share communal meals with others who earn their keep for humdrum services, and its shop sells everything from New Age books to whisky. Findhorn recently doubled its land area when a group of members bought shares to buy 66ha of the adjacent dunelands. Half was donated for public use and the rest will serve as housing for members.
Yet no two eco-villages are alike and none claim to be wholly sustainable. Robert Gilman, co-founder of GEN, calls them “human-scale settlements in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world, a place where we can birth new culture’‘.
The mood of the six-day meeting this month was sombre, yet hopeful. After the recent hurricanes, which many in the movement believe are aggravated by global warming, and the looming oil crisis, the pioneers heard Ross Jackson, a former industrialist who has helped fund the network, speak of a “once-in-a-civilisation transformation’‘.
Jackson says the eco-village movement provides the example of a “large minority walking their talk, who can provide real leadership, whether the coming crash leads to a soft landing or a hard one’‘.
But can the eco-village ethic penetrate the mainstream before the crash that many of its members expect? A too-rapid global meltdown may turn out to be a New Orleans scenario in which rich minorities barricade themselves into comfort zones, leaving the masses without shelter. On which side of that fence will the eco-villagers be?
Meanwhile, eco-villages remain experimental and their achievements are limited. All exist uncomfortably between two cultures and two economies.
Gilman warns that economic stability remains elusive. “Where you have places that have a quality of life with capital coming from elsewhere and tourism — including spiritual tourism — being the main business, you have a formula for a boom and bust economy.’‘
Eco-villages range in size from five men and a dog on a hillside in Wales to settlements such as Auroville in southern India, with 2 000 members of 45 nationalities in residence. Auroville aims to be a spiritual, self-supporting city in a poor rural area. It has steadily upgraded, with improved techniques and tree planting. It has a zone for “green’’ industries, a business school and a scientific research centre devoted to the idea that all life is yoga.
Most are much smaller and younger. Siebenlinden, in east Germany, took over the site of a former training camp for the secret service, Stasi, and 17 adults with 15 children devote much time to promoting a “peace ethic through harmonious community living’‘. On 44ha, they grow 80% of their own vegetables, use straw bales for housebuilding, reed beds for sewage, passive solar panels for power, and horses for ploughing.
Eberhard Bechtle, from Swanholm, near Copenhagen, says his eco-village of 60 adults was started by two couples living in city flats “who grew tired of theoretical discussion and sought partners for rural self-sufficiency and a lifestyle that broke the mould of conventional ... relationships’‘.
They have just bought their second windmill. They run a packaging business, a bakery, an alternative health clinic, a farm shop, and a dairy with 200 Jersey cows. Swanholm’s economics are a compromise with the world outside: farming doesn’t make a profit, so a third of the members have outside jobs to pay the bills and reward the farmers for their work.
The search for communal happiness is carried further at Zegg (Centre for Experimental Culture Design), a community of 80 near Berlin. Zegg’s unique contribution is a highly organised form of free love — practised on condition that everyone agrees, including regular partners.
As Ina Meyer-Stoll, one of GEN’s two executive secretaries, explains, a peaceful culture involves caring for the Earth “in true mutual solidarity, in full acceptance of our own physical body’‘.—Â