Community Movements emerge as a response to failures in a particular society. Throughout human history, people have decided that their society differed so drastically from their own ethical understanding, offered a life so different from that they wanted to live, that they decided to take the drastic step of starting a new way of living. The Torah recounts the journey of a group of people who found their society so oppressive that they wandered through the desert for 40 years to create something new. Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam started with the foundation of new communities, based on new ethical principles. The ethics of these pioneer community then began to spread out across the world.
The history of the European colonisation of the ‘New World’ is full of people who found the conditions in Europe, with its oppressive Church and aristocratic regimes, so intolerable, that they were willing to sail to the other side of the world to start something new. Thousands of settlements began to spring up across the American continents in which people intended to live by a code of ethics that they saw as right. North America was a hotbed of different projects, often highly influenced by Christian Theology, that were building new ways of organising the human experience. Some of these projects managed to carve out a space for themselves and still exist today (the Amish for example), but for the most part this idea of the ‘New World’ being a space of utopic creation slowly resided. The post-independence US Nation State started to expand its reach, and, with it, a new way of life – industrial capitalism. The ‘New World’, which to many meant the possibility of a new ethical foundation of existence (although its hard to understand how these people couldn’t see the contradiction of this new ethical existence being made possible by slavery and genocide), became the ‘American Dream’, one of material wealth, of reaping the riches of this new machine of industrial capitalism.
People stopped coming to the New World to create new communities and instead tried to find a place in capitalist society. This largely remained the case until the end of the 1960’s. Although, on the surface, it seemed like a golden era for capitalism – with the growth of the middle class, the expansion of workers rights, the rebuilding of countries which had been devastated by two apocalyptic wars – people all across modern civilisation started to rebel against the society they grew up in. Rebelling against the warmongering and repressive State, rebelling against the corporations who they had little choice but to work for, rebelling against the vision of the ‘good life’ that their society presented them with (9-5 office job, nuclear family, etc.). These people, inspired by new form of music, spiritual knowledge of the East, and psychedelic plants and synthetic compounds, again took up the project of starting new ethical communities based on fundamentally different ideals than the society they found themselves in. Based on the principles of peace and love, many new experiments began, in which people tried out entirely different ways of existing with one another; new relations between men and women, between humans and nature, new ways of understanding ourselves and our place in the world. This movement exploded onto the world stage and took many forms depending on the local conditions – the hippie movement in the US, the student movement in France, the 68er Movement in Germany.
This was a time of wild experiment, a time when it seemed like a radical new world was possible. But the hippie movement had problems. As well as attracting many visionaries and pioneers, the movement was also home to many people who wanted to lose themselves in momentary excess of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. On top of this were the many pitfalls that come with experimenting with new ways of living. Often times they fail, old power dynamic re-establish themselves, community feelings turn toxic as competing ethical visions become personal strife. Then, unsurprisingly, the movement came under attack from global power brokers; Nation States everywhere began campaigns of violent repression and incessant propaganda to demoralise and the delegitimize the hippies. These campaigns were effective. Most of the hippies disbanded. The propaganda campaign proved so effective that today hippie is a derogatory term, evoking imagine of drug abuse and unrealistic ideals, rather than what they were – a radical movement that challenged the core ideals of consumer capitalist society.
But, although the hippie movement lost a lot of its momentum, its sense of urgency, some of those that were dreaming of a better world kept at it. These people were determined to learn from the mistakes of the past, and create the better world that the hippies had dreamed of. In the next few decades, new communities started springing up. These communities were based on the same ideals as the hippies – living a life in harmony with nature, each other, and ourselves. New methods of communication for living in groups began to be developed. New and old forms of agriculture, opposed to modern industrial agricultural, began to be discovered and rediscovered. A new form of technological progress began to take shape, one which did not see progress as an end in itself, but instead developed technologies around an ethical way of living. In the beginning these new communities were developed largely independently from each other. But as more and more of these villages began being built, it was clear that a new movement was taking shape. People were independently building new modes of living, but shared the same values, had the same vision for a better way to exist in this world. It is from that realisation that the Global Eco Village Network (GEN) was born.
History/Structure/Values of GEN
Founded in 1991, GEN is a network of communities that arose in response to the ethical, social, environmental, spiritual and economic failures of modern society. The network is a framework for these communities to exchange skills, information, experiences, co-ordinate projects – working collectively toward a shared vision of a better world. Today the network is made up of over 6,000 projects in 5 continents. The global network is sub divided in 5 continental networks (Africa, Europe, Latin America, North America, Oceania+Asia), and further divided into national networks. There is undoubtedly huge variety between these projects. The network brings together small rural eco-villages like Huehuecoyotl in Mexico, to much larger projects like the Federation of Damanhur in Italy – from projects centred on education such as Findhorn in Scotland, to ones centred on Urban regeneration like Christiania in Copenhagen. In places like Europe and the USA these communities tend to be new, people consciously aiming to create a new way of living – in Africa or Latin America these villages are often already existing communities, indigenous communities, who have been ‘eco-villages’ long before there was a term for such a thing.
But, despite the variety of appearances, all of these communities are brought together by a shared vision for a better way to organise life. They are attempts to build alternative structures to the ones offered by modern capitalist society. They are places of experimentation, models for a more ethical mode of existence. From the GEN website: ‘An ecovillage is an intentional, traditional or urban community that is consciously designed through locally owned, participatory processes in all 4 dimensions of sustainability (social, culture, ecology, economy into a whole systems design) to regenerate its social and natural environment.’
We can unpack this definition to get a better sense of the world that the members of GEN, not only envision, but are already putting into place. ‘Locally owned’ means these communities are owned by the people who live and work on the projects. This is in stark difference to the current capitalist system, in which a small minority of people own huge swaths of land and capital, and a huge majority own nothing and are forced to work for the benefit of the tiny minority. ‘Participatory processes’ means that everyone involved in the project can participate in the direction of the project. There is no ‘leader’ or who makes on decisions that other members of the group just have to live with. This again contrasts modern society, which is made up of hierarchical corporations, where workers have little to no say, and modern nation State, which, behind a thin veneer of ‘democracy’, are run by a group of elites. So far we can see that eco-villages are run on the anarchist principle of non-hierarchical, decentralised modes of organisation.
The next element is that these communities work toward with the aim of regenerating the social and natural environment according to the four dimensions of sustainability. It is a regenerative process because of industrial genocide that the world has suffered over the preceding few centuries. Human history is full of tales of violence, destruction, and oppression – but the past 500 years have been particularly brutal. The European colonial era was one marked by genocide and slavery on an unimaginable scale, and its not over. The the material comforts of those inside the walls of the modern imperium being secured by the untold suffering of those on the outside. Levels of violence against nature has reached such an extent that ecosystems all over the world are beginning to collapse, and scientist have now began to speak of this era as the Anthropocene, in which human activities are causing mass extinction event. With such levels of destruction there is much healing that need to happen, and eco-villages are places that have begun this undertaking. This process of healing is done according to the four elements of sustainability, and we can again look to the GEN website to see what this means in practice;
Embrace diversity and build community
Cultivate inclusive, responsive and transparent decision-making
Empower participatory leadership and governance
Ensure equal access to holistic education and healthcare
Practice conflict facilitation, communication and peacebuilding skills
Develop fair, effective and accountable institution
Connect to a higher purpose in life
Nurture mindfulness and personal growth
Respect cultural traditions that support human dignity
Engage actively to protect communities and nature
Celebrate life and diversity through art
Reconnect to nature and embrace low-impact lifestyles
Clean and replenish sources and cycles of water
Move towards 100% renewable energies
Grow food and soils through organic agriculture
Innovate and spread green building technologies
Work with waste as a valuable resource
Increase biodiversity and regenerate ecosystems
Reconstruct the concepts of wealth, work and progress
Work for equitable ownership of land and resources
Cultivate social entrepreneurship to create sustainable solutions
Empower and strengthen local economies
Invest in fair trade and ethical systems of exchange
Generate wellbeing for all through economic justice
Keep in mind that these are not abstract visions for a utopic future, or demands that people are making of a government, but the framework for a new way of life that people are already putting into practice – already, to greater and lesser extents, living.
GEN Deutschland Treffen
As I already mentioned, the global network is divided into continental and then further divided into national networks, one of which is GEN Deutschland. GEN Deutchland has two meetings every year, and in Autumn of 2019 this meeting was held in Lebensgarten Steyerberg, about 80km west of the city of Hanover, and one of the founding members of GEN. Here you can read about Lebensgarten so this article will stick purely to the GEN programme.
Of the two annual meetings held by GEN Deutschland, the summer meeting is one more open to public, where people curious about eco-villages can come and learn about the movement and the autumn one is more closed, focusing on collaboration between eco-villages. And you could definitely feel the sense of familiarity in the air. This was a group of old friends. One of the most important functions of this meeting is to give this network of people, all on the same path but living geographically far from each other, the chance to meet up and share their experiences. People can share the latest news from their eco-village, enthuse about their new projects, or plan joint actions. The network is also a source of support. A place to learn from other’s mistakes, to share your problems, helping you realise you’re not along – that many communities go through the very similar difficulties.
Aside from the networking aspect, the meeting is the platform where eco-villages can take decisions about how to act as a group. It is an opportunity for any structural changes to be made to the organisation. One thing that was being discussed, for example, was a way for the group to be able to take collective decisions faster. Until now every time an important GEN Deutschland decision needed to be made, they would have to wait until one of the bi-annual meetings. Another question that discussed was ‘who/and in what way can we authorise people to speak on behalf of GEN Deutschland as a group?’ Another was ‘what other groups (for example climate activists) do we want to form partnerships with?’
Eco-Villages and Climate Activists
And this was a question which was important, not only for the organisational element of the meeting, but also in terms of its content. Aside from networking and organisational matters, there was also a variety of topics that were explored. This time it was the link between the eco-village movement and the movement of other radical activists. Having concerned myself with this question for a while, travelling between the two prongs of this forks, mulling about the potential to bring these forces together, it was a delight to see that others are concerning themselves with the same. Recently movements like Hambacher Forst, Ende Gelände, Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion have grown very quickly, attracting the attention of the media, as well as those involved in climate justice. While environmental activists and eco-villages are working toward a common goal, their methods are different. Social change is composed of the construction of the new structures, and resistance to (as well as transformation of) old ones. Eco-villages are the creation of new structures, activism is the resistance to old one.
This difference in method naturally attracts different kinds of people. The type of person to join or start an eco-village is not necessarily the same type of person that would chain themselves to the entrance of a factory. The personality of these two groups is generally quite different. To make a couple of broad generalisation: eco-villages are often made up of people with more ‘new age’ tendencies and aesthetics; interested in nature, spiritual practice; comfortable in a loving, harmonious environment. Climate activists, are more often cultural anarchists, punk aesthetic, interested in building things themselves from what modern society throws away, highly adverse to co-operating with hierarchical institutions. Because of these cultural differences there is not as much contact between the two movements as one might first assume, leading to stereotypes on both sides. To the eco-villages, the activists are angry youth, building barricades but not looking to real solutions. To the activists, the eco-village movement is composed of people who have retreated into a little bubble and aren’t doing enough to change wider society. While there may be some truth to these stereotypes, the differences between the two groups aren’t great as they might first appear. Looking past the stereotypes, both groups are people committed to the same cause, hold very similar values, and could greatly support one another.
And to this end the content of the GEN Deutschland Treffen was about how to build bridges between these two groups. In order to work on these question, there was a number of activists invited along, mainly from Extinction Rebellion and Hambacher Forst, to talk about their movements and suggest ideas for where these two forces could begin to collaborate. There was a few suggestions about how the infrastructure of the eco-villages could support activism. Examples include; allowing activists to hold their organisational meeting at communities, or eco-villages offering themselves as a place of retreat for activists. After long periods living in damp tree houses, having daily stand offs with the police, or after traumatic events like suffering police violence, or even after long periods where you are expected to constantly put of the needs of others over your own, it is not uncommon for activists to experience a ‘burn out’. You have given all you had to give, and now have no energy left for the struggle. In such cases it is best to take a step back from activism and recuperate your strength. And it was suggested that eco-villages could be there for people who need that (and it turned out that there was such a project already underway, Zähne Putzen)
Another thing suggested was that the eco-villagers help the climate activists with the problem of social dynamics that emerge within climate movements. One activist from Extinction Rebellion (XR) Berlin spoke to me of the problems that existed in the movement in Berlin. On the one side you have the more radical leftist who say that of course XR is anarchist and anti-capitalist, on the other hand you have the more conservative group who say this is not necessarily an anti-capitialist movement, and want reform from inside the system. Then you have another group which is more spiritual and wants create peace between the two sides, while the other sides think that spiritual people are a bit strange. In order to create a successful movement, it is necessary for these group to become a community, transitory, spacial scattered, but unified. Since eco-villages have been experiments with methods of community building for decades, they are naturally in a position to offer advice, facilitation, and frameworks of organisation.
The last point suggested was only briefly mentioned at the time, but its radical potential is worth considering. It was suggested that eco-villages could help activists to set up their own activist communities. As we have seen, the process of organising into a activist movement is the process of creating a community. Sometimes, such as in Hambacher Forst, people would live and work together for months or even years, going through all the normal process of building a collective consciousness. But a community built on the front lines of resistance is clearly not one that can last for so long. No one wants to spend their whole lives occupying a forest, confronting police. Eventually the battlefield is redrawn, the front line shifts, the struggle moves elsewhere, and the community that was built around the struggle disintegrates, and with it, all the effort of building a coherent group. All of the institutional lessons that were learned, all of the love and solidarity that was nurtured in the struggle, is then lost. But if the activists were instead to start a permanent community, a place that they could organise, train, and recuperate, then each struggle would learn from the last, experience could accumulate. Solid links, relationships, could be built, those wanting to join the struggle would have a clear and accessible entry point.
And this is only the way that organising in communities, or communities organising as activists, would be a fruitful endeavour. Because communities not only help with political activities, they also help to better understand the alternative that many of activists are struggling for. Even if not all activists realise it, many of the things that they are struggling against (destruction of nature, exploitation of the third world) find their solution in local and community organisation. When you can provide yourself with, or find locally, everything you need, then you no longer need to operate within the destructive, exploitative, system of global capital. Much of the problem of the progressive energy witnessed since the economic crisis of 2008 (from Occupy, to Gilets Jaunes) is that they were merely against something, rather than for something. You are never going to able to topple a system unless you have something to offer in its place, and so the creation and understanding of alternatives is essential to a successful revolutionary movement. By actively creating alternatives, activists are in a better position to develop strategies that challenge the current system.
When looking at the situation in Europe, one thing in particular springs to mind when considering a potential rallying point of a new, community orientated, type of activism: the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The beginning of the industrial revolution marked a new era in humanity’s relation to agriculture. To accommodate our new industrial society our relation to land and food had to change. Industrial societies needed a centralised industrial workforce, and so began a huge migration of people to densely populated urban areas. To deal with the clearing of the countryside, industrial machinery was developed to farm the land. We began organising nature like a factory line, with each department concentrated on one task, leading to the creation of huge mono-cultural farms. This lead to two problems – the degradation of the land, and the rise of ‘pests’. Instead of solving these problems at the root (that is abandoning the industrial model of factory farming) modern society ‘solved’ these problems with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. These ‘solutions’ are leading to the disappearance of fertile lands upon which to farm and the collapse of insect populations worldwide. In this situation, it should be apparent that it is time to address the problem at its source. The industrial model of agriculture has to change. And yet the modern mind cannot give up on the idea that it is in control, that technological solutions are the answer. We are now coming up with ideas such as genetically modifying dragonflies to pollinate flowers because of collapsing bee populations. Modern rationality stumbles around, confused, inventing elaborate ways to secure its own downfall.
Aside from its highly destructive nature, modern agriculture doesn’t even function economically. The only reason it is able to persist is huge government subsidies that pay to ‘ensure food supplies’ to its bloated cities. The main source of these subsides in the Europe is the EU. Half of their annual budget goes on the CAP, an agreement by which the EU buys what everything that some farmers produce at a guaranteed price. The majority of these selected farmers are, surprise surprise, huge multinational agricultural corporations, or large landowners, despite the majority of production in Europe being done by small farmers. The fact that these Agricultural corporations know they can sell at a guaranteed price means that these corporations end up producing as much as possible. This creates huge surpluses which then flood markets in Africa, artificially lowering prices, impoverishing small African farmers. As well impoverishing small farmers for the benefit of the wealthy, the CAP’s rewarding mainly on the basis of output means that industrial methods of heavy machinery, poison, and chemical fertilisers are greatly favoured.
It is this clear that the modern system of factory agricultural is only made possible by billions worth of EU subsides every year. If these billions would instead go to a movement of people back to the land, practising not only sustainable but regenerative agriculture, then we start to see the transformation of society that needs to happen over the next few decades. It is therefore essential that the climate activists in Europe adopt this as one of their primary demands of government. Right now we are witnessing a slow trickle of people endeavouring to live sustainable lives, and work to restore the natural world we have for too long destroyed. A concentrated movement backed by billions of euro would turn this trickle into a gushing torrent.
The radical potential of the ‘political eco-village’ is immense. The strategy of the eco-village up till now has been to serve as model for what is possible. To set up spaces of self-realisation, in which people live in a way that is harmonious with nature and community based. There has been little effort in the way of actively trying the change wider society. But perhaps now it is time for a change. The models are now there. There are many examples of a better way of living but the problem is they are only accessible to a small group of the privileged. Most people are caught up in the global system of violence, and see no way out. What’s more, the forces of global capital are destroying the world at such and alarming rate that it is not an exaggeration to say we are facing the possibility of extinction. And if not extinction, then at the very least the collapse of industrial society, with all the chaos and suffering that would bring with it. The method of creating ‘models’ of a better organisation is no longer enough, the models are now there, it is time to start a widespread societal transformation along these lines.
Radikale Liebevoller Aktivismus
After spending a day mulling the possible links between the eco-village movement and climate activism, next on the agenda was to re-think the concept of activism as some people in the room may have understood it. Again turning to the stereotype of an activist, one may have in mind angry youth with a balaclava, hurling Molotov cocktails, or at least hurling abuse at state authorities. Those with such an image of political resistance see it as coming from a place of angry, of staging confrontations to give voice to that anger. And this very much fits in with the model of social transformation of the 20th century which understood social transformation as ‘class conflict’, one group in society struggling against another. There is an elite ruling class that runs the show, and a subjugated class that must rise up and overthrow this ruling class (violently, if necessary). What the second day of content was about was trying to re-conceptualise this idea of activism.
To this end their was a guest speaker in to talk about the idea of radikale liebevoller Aktivismus (radical loving activism). During his talk, he expounded the ethics of activism based on an ethic of common humanity. This understanding of activism is what was practised be the likes of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and, most recently, Extinction Rebellion. That is, it is not a group of people we are struggle against, but a system of injustice. The people on the other side of the barricades (the police, politicians, etc.) are just as trapped by the system as you are, and it is only by freeing them that we can free us all. That the most powerful weapon that activists have is truth. That the current system is endangering the planet and that we must radically change it is becoming clear to all. Police know it, politicians know it, and it is by appealing to this truth that we can change this system for the better. The current wave of activism is not done for one group against another, it is done for all life on earth, and because of that activism can be done with the force of love, rather than the force of anger.
However, an activism with a disposition of love and non-violence, does not mean passive. In fact, when one commits to acting according to the principle non-violence, then it becomes a duty to work to change a system of violence which we are all caught up in. In attempting to change the system the non-violent resistor has two methods at their disposal, non-cooperation and disruption. The first, non-cooperation, is based on the fact that the current system of violence doesn’t keep us in chains, that it only functions because of the co-operation of the people within the system. It only because we buy cheap clothes, that there are children in Bangladesh making them. It is only because we buy the food from multinationals, that they poison the landscape and level the rainforest. When we stop co-operating, when we organise our lives that we no longer need to co-operate, and help others to do the same, than the system doesn’t even need to be toppled, it will simply be superfluous to requirements.
The second method is disruption. There are many things that have to change about the system that are hard to affect at the level of the individual, or community. Governments and corporations often take decisions which can have a large impact but only directly affect small groups of people. In such cases, it becomes necessary to realise the duty of solidarity (solidarity with the oppressed, solidarity with nature) and to organise into larger groups, to disrupt the activities of destruction. Thus when we an injustice is taking place (a coal mining company levelling a forest and forcibly evicting a village, or a government agreeing to the construction of a gas pipe for importing fracking gas) then the non-violent resistor must do everything in their power to peacefully resist that injustice. That may mean disrupting the operation itself, where possible. That may mean tactically disrupting the normal functioning of society elsewhere, in order to put pressure on the government or corporation to change its ways.
The capitalist elite are under no illusion as to where the power ultimately lies – the people. It is only by securing their co-operation that the current system can operate. If we rescind that co-operation, create alternative structures of living, and disrupt the normal functioning of the system, then the empire of global capital will fall without firing a single shot.
The GEN Deutschland meeting was made up of about 80 people. The generally energy in the air was friendly, enthusiastic, open, and loving. For four days there was a constant stream of pleasant encounters and deep conversations. The demographic was older, entirely German (natural enough for the GEN Deutschland meeting), entirely white, and essentially all middle class – representative of the European eco-village movement in general. It is overwhelming the privileged educated middle class who make up the movement. This makes sense as those on the margins of society are more worried about getting by, rather than transforming society. But if the goal is to transform the whole of society, and not just create little bubbles for the privileged, then something has to change. New strategies to reach out to other social groups have to be developed. One thing for example, is to change the fact that most eco-villages charge quite a lot of money to visit, often even when one works there. This fact automatically excludes those earning less money.
Another point is that the group personality, very much influenced by the ‘new age’ subculture, would probably feel quite alien to a lot of people. For many centuries, European society was dominated by a Church which wielded spiritual power by encouraging a feeling of shame in the population. People felt shame about their desires, thoughts, feelings, bodies. Even after the secularisation of European society, strict social norms furthered this regime of repression, long after the local priest was able to enforce it. With the cultural upheavals of the 1960’s people began to challenge these norms of repression, began wanting to express themselves in ways that were often not acceptable in normal society. From this cultural impulse came a large set of ideas and practices we can designate with the term ‘new age’, and it is from this cultural field that a lot of the group understandings come from. People are encouraged to be more open with one another, not to be so reserved about body contact, not be afraid to express their feelings, not be afraid to do things that might appear a little strange. For example, when a talk was going on a bit long people would start doing impromptu yoga stretches on the side. Or the days would begin with everyone walking around, stretching, jumping, grunting, etc. At a certain point you told to sit with the random person you are in front of and ask each other questions like ‘How are doing today?’, or ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’, or simply stare into each others eyes.
While I personally think that most of these developments are positive (that we should feel more free to open ourselves up to others, not feel obliged to hold ourselves to social norms, not be so afraid of bodily contact with others), many of these things appear strange to those not inside this culture. While I am quite used to standing in a circle, holding hands, singing songs, many people aren’t – and many people would have felt uncomfortable at the GEN, and NextGEN, meeting because of it. If the eco-village movement wants expand from a small cultural movement on the edge of society to a mass movement, than it will have to reconsider some of these cultural traits that make it somehow exclusive. This is no simple matter however. On the one hand, we want to overcome the social norms of repression that they have learned. As well these techniques open people up to each other and quickly build a sense of closeness. On the other hand, most people are not used to opening up to strangers so quick, and would make most people think that life in an eco-village is not for them (although not all eco-villages are like this). But we can return to this point, turning eco-villages from a sub-cultural to a mass movement, another time.
The day after the GEN Deutschland meeting was NextGEN, which was organised for younger people to come and learn, and share experiences, about living in communities. Compared GEN Deutschland, this meeting was a lot less structured, or rather the structure was not designed beforehand. After a few morning exercises, most of the day was made up of ‘open slots’, where people could suggest their own topic of interest to talk about, or have workshops on. These topics and activities were a mix of discussions on hierarchy and education, to acro-yoga, or cuddling. After the GEN Deutschland meeting I didn’t have too much energy to give, but did manage to take part in a group discussion on ‘how do we image the future?’
This talk was a mix of strategic planning on the best groups to try and appeal to with the eco movement, as well as a fiery discussion of where or not the environmental movement has to be intersectional (with some arguing that the urgency of the environmental crisis means allowing potentially all people into the movement). This discussion became too heated however, and we ended by doing a round where we talk of our personal, concrete needs for the immediate future, and where or not we could help each other with them.
For more information: https://ecovillage.org/