The Eco-village Challenge

The challenge of developing a community living in balanced harmony - with itself as well as nature - is tough, but attainable

One of the articles in Living Together (IC#29)
Originally published in Summer 1991 on page 10
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

For humankind at the end of the 20th century there is hardly anything more appealing – yet apparently more elusive – than the prospect of living in harmony with nature and with each other. What are the possibilities for realizing this dream, and what are the highest-leverage actions that could help us all toward such a future? This issue explores this question by considering the current status and likely prospects for a particularly powerful approach to achieving this dream of harmonious living: the eco-village. We will also explore the broader concept of sustainable communities, and the idea of community in general.

There is, at this time, no generally agreed-upon definition of an eco-village. For the purposes of this issue, we will define an eco-village 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.

“A human-scale…”
* Human-scale refers to a size in which people are able to know and be known by the others in the community, and where each member of the community feels he or she is able to influence the community’s direction. There is considerable practical evidence, both in modern industrial societies and in other cultures, that the upper limit for such a group is roughly 500 people. In very stable and isolated situations it can be higher, perhaps as high as 1,000, while in situations typical of modern industrial societies it is often lower, even less than 100.

“…full-featured settlement…” * A “full-featured settlement” is one in which all the major functions of normal living – residence, food provision, manufacture, leisure, social life, and commerce – are plainly present and in balanced proportions. Most current human settlement in the industrialized world – urban, suburban, and rural – is entirely divided by function: some areas are residential, some are for shopping, some are industrial, etc. These districts are usually too large to be human-scale, even within a single function. In contrast, the eco-village is a comprehensible microcosm of the whole of society.

This does not mean that eco-villages have to be fully self-sufficient or isolated from the surrounding community. As an ideal, an eco-village will have as many jobs within it as there are employed people who live in the eco-village; but some of the villagers will go outside the village to work, and some of the jobs in the village will be held by people who reside outside the village.

There are also many specialized services that clearly cannot be located in each eco-village – hospitals, airports, etc. Yet with cooperation among villages, essentially any large institution could be successfully run by clusters and networks, permitting a fully functioning modern society to be mostly comprised of eco-village units.

“…in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world…” * This idea brings the “eco” into the eco-village. One of the most important aspects of this principle is the ideal of equality between humans and other forms of life, so that humans do not attempt to dominate over nature but rather find their place within it. Another important principle is the cyclic use of material resources, rather than the linear approach (dig it up, use it once, throw it away forever) that has characterized industrial society. This leads eco-villages to the use of renewable energy sources (solar, wind, etc.) rather than fossil fuels; to the composting of organic wastes which are then returned to the land rather than sending these to a landfill, incinerator, or sewage treatment plant; to the recycling of as much of the waste stream as possible; and to the avoidance of toxic and harmful substances.

“… in a way that is supportive of healthy human development…” * This fourth principle recognizes that eco-villages are, after all, human communities, and without genuine human health at the core, these communities are unlikely to be successful. What is “healthy human development”? To attempt a complete definition would take a book, at least! Suffice it to say here that I see this as involving a balanced and integrated development of all aspects of human life – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. This healthy development needs to be expressed not just in the lives of individuals, but in the life of the community as a whole.

“… and that can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.” * This last principle – the sustainability principle – forces a kind of honesty on eco-villagers. Without it, it would be easy (or at least easier) in the short-term to create human-scale communities that seemed to be harmoniously integrated into nature and to be full-featured, but in fact were in some not-so-visible way living off the capital accumulated in other parts of the society; or dependent on unsustainable activities elsewhere; or not inclusive of a major aspect of life (such as childhood or old age). The sustainability principle brings with it a profound commitment to fairness and non-exploitation – toward other parts of today’s world, human and non-human, and toward all future life.

Sustainable Community * The more general term “sustainable community” includes eco-villages, but it also includes clusters and networks of eco-villages, and non-geographically based “communities” (such as businesses) that are nevertheless human-scale in their components, diverse, and harmoniously integrated into the natural world. In this sense, an eco-village is a distinct place, either as a rural village or as an urban/suburban neighborhood. A city could not be an eco-village, but a city made up of eco-villages could be a sustainable community.


If eco-villages are such a great idea, why don’t we already live in them?

One oft-suggested response is that, in fact, most people already do live in “eco-villages” – that is, the best model for an eco-village is the traditional agricultural village – and to regain harmony with nature and with each other, all we need do is return to that traditional way of life. I disagree.

While it is true that there is much to be learned from these villages (they still contain about half the world’s population), few people today – including most traditional villagers! – would describe these villages as either full-featured or supportive of healthy human development. The work is hard, life expectancy is short, opportunities for personal development and education are few (almost non-existent for women), and the diversity of livelihoods is small.

In addition, the harmony between these villages and the natural environment has often depended on low population densities – a luxury we no longer have. Traditional villagers around the world use three main types of agriculture: slash-and-burn, dry-land rain-fed, and irrigated. Of these, slash-and-burn is the most environmentally demanding and requires the lowest population density. But even irrigation, which supports the highest population density, can be environmentally damaging, as the ecological collapse of many past irrigation-based civilizations attests.

And finally, traditional villages are hardly paragons of harmony between humans. Village life is often, from a modern point of view, painfully patriarchal. Beyond the household there is feuding and mistrust within villages, between neighboring villages, and toward the world beyond.

True eco-villages, in contrast, are a distinctly post-industrial (and likely even post-agricultural) phenomenon. While they draw on lessons from all of human experience, they are not a return to any previous period or way of life.

Eco-villages grow out of the needs and opportunities caused by:

  • new ecological constraints– which grow out of high levels of population and technological capability;
  • new techniques and technologies, from better understanding of ecosystems to more diverse channels of communications; from efficient technologies for renewable resource use to new forms of human organization; and
  • new levels of consciousness and awareness, symbolized in part by the picture of the Earth from space, with all that means in terms of global consciousness and an awareness of the many-billion-year history of life on this one small planet in the vastness of the Universe.

In spite of its increasingly-evident lack of sustainability, industrial society has the momentum of hundreds of years of institution building and capital development. Given the enormous infrastructure and social patterning in place, it has so far been much easier for people to keep living in the same old unsustainable ways than to pioneer sustainable communities.

The answer, then, to why we aren’t living in eco-villages yet is fairly simple: these needs and opportunities are so new we have not had time as a society to adjust to them. We are at the very beginning of a new era, and we can expect much of the development of technique and awareness that will characterize this era to be still ahead of us.


While it may seem more difficult to pioneer sustainable communities than to live within an untenable status quo, numerous groups have been doing so for decades (with precursors that go back much further), as some of the articles that follow will illustrate. To appreciate the difficulties these pioneers have faced, let’s look at the various challenges that the eco-village vision entails.

The bio-system challenge * To fulfill the ideal that the activities of the eco-village be harmlessly integrated into the natural world requires that the eco-village find ecologically friendly ways to:

  • preserve natural habitats on the village land
  • produce food, wood, and other bio-resources on site
  • process the organic waste produced on site
  • render harmless any initially toxic waste from the village
  • recycle all solid waste from the village
  • process liquid waste from the village
  • avoid adverse environmental impacts off site from the production and delivery of any products brought in from off site
  • avoid adverse environmental impacts off site from the use and disposal of any products.

The built-environment challenge * To fulfill the ideal that the activities of the eco-village be harmlessly integrated into the natural world also requires that the eco-village:

  • build with ecologically friendly materials
  • use renewable energy sources
  • handle solid, liquid, and gaseous wastes from buildings in an ecologically friendly manner
  • have a minimal need for motorized transport
  • build in ways that have a minimal impact on the land and the local ecology.

To fulfill the ideal that the eco-village support healthy human development requires that the buildings in the community:

  • have a good balance of public space and private space
  • encourage community interaction
  • support a full diversity of activities.

The economic system challenge * To fulfill the ideal that the eco-village support healthy human development and be full-featured requires that there be significant economic activity in the eco-village. To fulfill the ideal of fairness and non-exploitation that is part of the sustainability principle requires that the economic activities of the members of an eco-village not depend on exploitation of other people and places, nor on exploitation of the future by the present. The implications of these goals are not as clear as, for example, the implication for the built-environment that energy sources should be renewable. Instead, we can identify some of the likely questions that an eco-village will face concerning its economic system:

  • What are sustainable economic activities, both in terms of what will sustain the members of the community and what is sustainable in ecological terms?
  • What parts of the community should be held in common and what parts owned privately?
  • More specifically, how should the ownership of land and buildings be handled?
  • How can we be simultaneously economically and ecologically efficient, so as to reduce both expenses and environmental impact?
  • What are the most appropriate forms of business organization for eco-village associated businesses?
  • Are there useful alternatives and/or supplements to the money economy for facilitating economic exchange within and between eco-villages?

The governance challenge * As with economics, the ideals of fairness and nonexploitation point eco-villages in a general direction, but do not provide clear guidance as to how these ideals are to be put into practice. Here again, however, we can identify some of the likely questions that an eco-village will face concerning its governance:

  • How will decisions be made, and which methods will be used for what types of decisions?
  • How will conflicts be resolved?
  • How will decisions by the community be enforced?
  • What will be the roles for, and expectations of, leader-ship?
  • How will the eco-village relate to the government(s) in the surrounding community?

The “glue” challenge * To deal with all these challenges the members of the eco-village need something that holds them together, some basis of shared values and vision that can provide a “glue”. Developing and maintaining this glue is yet another level of challenge which will raise questions such as:

  • What is the appropriate interplay of unity and diversity?
  • What common values, behaviors, or practices will be expected in the group?
  • What, if anything, is the group’s shared vision?
  • How shall the group discover, develop, and evolve that vision?
  • How close shall the group be interpersonally?
  • How is this closeness best developed?
  • How will the group relate to others outside the group?

The whole-system challenge * There is an even deeper, and often unperceived, “whole-system” challenge. Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by anyone attempting to create an eco-village is that it requires change in so many different areas of life. All too often community founders attempt to, or feel forced to, work on all aspects of these changes simultaneously. Almost all of these changes take longer than expected and are often more costly than expected. In addition, each area of change interacts with the other areas in unpredictable ways. In the process, financial resources, emotional resources, and interpersonal relationships can be put under great stress. When attempts to create communities have failed, one of the reasons has almost always been that the group simply tried to do too much too fast relative to the resources they had available.

The whole-system challenge is to get an honest sense of the scope of the undertaking and then develop an approach that allows the community to develop at a sustainable pace. In other words, sustainability is not just a characteristic of the “completed” community; it needs to be part of the thinking and the habits of the group from the very beginning.

Building a successful eco-village requires a balance of activities among three major phases – 1) research and design, 2) creation and implementation, and 3) maintenance – for each of the challenge areas.

It’s helpful to use a simple diagram to represent the basic relationship between these challenges:

This is a “building block” diagram, in which some parts of the system “rest” on other parts. The bio-system and the built-environment provide the most obvious and visible “requirements” for an eco-village. They are the “top” building blocks.

Moving down the diagram, we see that it represents the idea that achieving success in the bio-system and the built-environment areas depends – is “built on” – successfully dealing with the economic and governance challenges. Success in these areas in turn depends on successfully dealing with the glue challenges.

Finally, all of the more specific challenge areas depend on successfully dealing with the whole-system challenge. It encompasses, rather than underlies, all the others. It is not a building block, but a living wholeness.

Given these challenges, it should be no surprise that as far as we have been able to discover, there are as yet no communities that fully express the eco-village ideal. This is the bad news. The good news is that there are many communities and other groups that have made considerable progress on every one of these challenges. There are even some communities that could, within a few years, be considered full eco-villages.

Those who would now turn their efforts to reaching this goal – either by starting a new community or by evolving an existing one – fortunately do not need to start from scratch. We invite you to read on.

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