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UW prof discovers the cutting edge in green living

Some residents of part of an Italian ecovillage live in wooden buildings among the trees so keep them as close as possible to the plants with whom they want to communicate. Credit:

In a world of dwindling natural resources and mounting environmental crisis, who is devising ways of living that will work for the long haul? And how can we, as individuals, make a difference?

To answer these questions, Professor Karen Litfin embarked upon a journey to many of the world’s ecovillages – intentional communities at the cutting-edge of sustainable living. From Los Angeles to South India and Denmark to Senegal, she discovered an under-the-radar global movement making positive and radical changes from the ground up. 

Part travel adventure, part sneak preview into community living arrangements the world over, "Ecovillages, Lessons for Sustainable Living" by the University of Washington's Karen Litfin is a book that offers hope. Litfin who teaches global environmental politics was on a mission to find inspiration for herself and her students in the face of failed environmental treaties, unchecked carbon buildup, habitat loss and species extinction. She found it in micro-level living experiments.

With guidance from the Global Ecovillage Network, Litfin's journey took her to 14 communities around the globe, three in the United States, several in Germany, and others in Australia, Denmark, Italy, Japan, Senegal and the United Kingdom. “I wanted to study communities in the global north and global south because after all about 80 percent of humanity lives in the not-so-affluent world," Litfin says. "On the other hand those of us in the global north are living the least sustainably, so we really are in desperate need of the models.”

The models that ecovillages provide may appear alien to many in the “developed world.” Sharing is their taproot, says Litfin, a way of living that makes them a pioneer species. In botany it's known that whenever land has been devastated through natural or human means, certain tenacious plants are the first species to grow. Ecovillages are like that, she says. They're showing a way forward with ecological awareness, interdependence and tenacity.

Unlike the back-to-the-land movements of the 1960s and '70s, ecovillages aren't interested in being separate from the world but in demonstrating what Litfin calls "low energy cosmopolitanism." “Basically that's how do you have a planetary identify and planetary consciousness, even a planetary civilization and do so with as little energy as possible?”

We don't all need to go out and build new ecovillages, says Litfin. Instead, we need to glean their lessons and apply them wherever we live in order to lower our own carbon footprints. The average American is responsible for 19.8 tons of carbon per person annually while the average Chinese citizen clocks in at 4.6 tons and, for India, it's a mere 1.2 tons per person.

The ecovillage that attracts the most attention is Damanhur in the Italian Alps. Spiritual yet high-tech, it boasts a molecular biology lab for testing genetically modified food, a smart phone for every member, and an address that's listed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” Gaia theory, the idea that Earth is a living sentient being, is taken a few steps further at Damanhur, says Litfin. “They believe their community in the foothills of the Alps is actually tapping into the nervous system of Gaia.” A foundation of the 1,000-member community is respect for the environment, which means growing organic food, using green building principles and implementing renewable energy projects. Twenty-five nucleos or communities are devoted to a particular kind of work — everything from animal husbandry and international relations to learning how to communicate with plants. “I stayed in the community that was trying to learn from plants and communicate with them. They live in tree houses, arboricoli.” Litfin laughs.

Another ecovillage, Auroville, in South India's Tamil Nadu state, is one of the few places on earth where biodiversity is increasing. Called the “City of Dawn,'” the 2,000-member community has people from 43 different countries who live smack in the middle of 40,000 Tamil villagers. “You have a minority of people from the affluent world and a majority of people from the global south living cheek by jowl and somehow they have to work it out.”

One of the first things the community did when it was started in 1968 was to plant trees, 3 million of them. A forest was restored. As a consequence says Litfin, “the birds came back and the insects came back and even some mammals and this is on a desertified plateau where there was no firewood, there was really nothing for the villagers and it was a pretty desperate place to live.”

Ecological practices at Auroville have repercussions around the world. They were at the forefront of modern earth building using compressed earth, mud brick, cob, loam and other techniques and pioneered a machine that compresses earth into durable bricks. An estimated one-third of the world's 7 billion people live or work in earth buildings. Auroville was also ahead of its time with wind mills capable of pumping water in a renewable way, solar power water heaters and lighting and biogas for cooking. All of it, says Litfin, comes out of a spiritual commitment to the principle of human unity and teachings of Sri Aurobindo, a 20th century Indian philosopher and spiritual thinker.

A large solar bowl on the roof of Auroville’s Solar Kitchen provides steam for cooking several hundred meals each day. Source: 

After a year visiting 14 thriving ecovillages, Litfin, a political theorist as well as a professor of global environmental politics, came up with a new theory for these low-carbon living labs. Sustainability is often framed as a three-legged stool: ecology, economy and society. “But I think,” says Litfin, “it leaves out the most important dimension, which is who we are inside of ourselves. They understand themselves to belong to the earth in a very active way and to be doing it together not just individually.” This inner dimension prompted a theory she could use in the classroom: E2C2, for ecology, economics, community and consciousness or what she considers to be four windows in the house of sustainability. "Ecovillages, Lessons for Sustainable Community" is organized around each window.

“One of the nice things about this house is if you look through the window of ecology you can see the window of consciousness and if you look through the window of consciousness you can see the window of economics and community," Litfin says. "So it really is much more holistic than this three-legged stool.”

The question it leaves for all us in an age of climate change and ecosystem disruption is, How do we live in our own house? Our actions, says Litfin, are unintentionally unraveling our home planet's life-support system. “That's alarming, but it also means that what we do makes a difference and you could say its lighting a fire under us to make some real changes.” Just back from a two-month book launch, Litfin is once again in the classroom sharing her journey and lighting fires of understanding. 

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