Learning How to Start a Successful Ecovillage

July/August 2010 in Ecovillage Newsletter

I began teaching workshops and courses on how to start successful new ecovillages almost by accident. I was editor of Communities Magazine in North America for many years, and visited many communities in the US. This led to presenting workshops on how to start new communities, including ecovillages; writing two books on ecovillages; and now publishing this newsletter about ecovillages internationally. Then becoming an instructor in an Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) course as well as an instructor in a month-long course on ecovillages at a small college in the Midwest.

Over the years in this work I’ve become passionate about what experiences really help people become informed and empowered enough to create successful new ecovillages. What learning methods work best?

In this article I’d like to share effective ways I’ve found to help people who take my courses and workshops learn how to start ecovillages, including wonderful online resources you can see right now.

1. “Visit” ecovillages through well-produced media. I advise anyone who wants to start an ecovillage to visit successful ecovillages to find out what they look like and feel like. What is daily life like? How does the ecovillage function — ecologically and economically? How do ecovillage members govern themselves and create the unique social, cultural, and spiritual life of the place? However, another way to learn about ecovillages is to watch ecovillage videos. I like to share the following short videos (two to nine minutes) with course and workshop participants.

2. Show the rewards of ecovillage life. I want course participants to know why we create ecovillages: that it’s not only good for the Earth but feels good too! The following short video of La’akea Ecovillage, Hawaii, expresses these social and cultural benefits of ecovillage life.

3. Draw from real-life stories of people who created successful ecovillages.Course participants need to know what ecovillage founders actually do to get their projects up and running. To write Creating a Life Together, for example, I interviewed founders of successful as well as failed projects in the US in the 1990s. Like a permaculture designer observing the landscape, I saw obvious patterns about what seemed to work well. Permaculture designers incorporate the way nature actually functions in their landscapes (instead going against it!). Thus they get higher yields with less time and effort. Similarly, I learned that successful community founders designed communities that incorporated the way human nature actually works (instead of going against it!). These founders too, got “higher yields” — successful, thriving communities. But this design was incorporated with only 10 percent of those I interviewed! The other 90 percent didn’t do this, and their communities failed.

A decade later Russell Austerberry asked the same kinds of questions, interviewing 35 community founders in 18 ecovillages up and down Australia's East Coast. Even though it was a different country, and in a different century, the same kinds of patterns were revealed. See his article, Rules of Thumb for Starting an Ecovillage” in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of this newsletter.

I also like to share GEN co-founder Robert Gilman’s insights on “multiple centers of initiative,” a phrase he added in 1998 to his famous ecovillage definition. Please see article: “Robert Gilman on Multiple Centers of Initiative,” in the September 2008 issue of this newsletter.I want ecovillage course participants to have access to the valuable set of principles and best practices that Russell and I each found. This includes “how we did it” stories and the roughly 15 different steps and

stages ecovillage founders take, from identifying and articulating a shared Mission & Purpose — the first thing a group should do — to creating a village-scale economy! Like Newton, these course participants get to “stand on the shoulders of giants.”

4. Give ‘em a taste — of ecovillage design. The best way to learn something, I believe, is to apply what you’ve learned soon after learning it by teaching it to others. So I ask course participants to meet periodically in small groups to design an ecovillage they envision, and present it to the rest of the group at the end of the course. It could be a real project one of them is working on, or an imagined project they make up for this exercise. I ask them to include many of the above elements, and encourage them to make it seem as real as possible — through verbal description and visual aids such as power point presentations, realistic-looking site plans, and so on.

5. Give ‘em a taste — of small-scale ecovillage economics. Another exercise is for participants to study alternative currency systems used in various ecovillages (like Findhorn’s EKOS or Dancing Rabbit’s ELMS, for example) and then design and create an alternative currency scrip out of construction paper to exchange among themselves for small goods and services. And to periodically adjust their currency system when needed, as is done in real ecovillages that use alternative currencies. (See “Ecovillage Economics: Dancing Rabbit’s ELMs System,” this issue.

I also like to introduce the idea of micro-loans. Here’s a wonderful short video“Senegal Ecovillage Microfinance Fund” about how micro-loans help villagers in the Senegalese Ecovillage Network (SEN).

6. And a taste — of communication and group process skills. Participants in an ecovillage course want to experience the “spirit of community” with each other too. What works well for inducing this sense in the temporary community of a residential course can include getting to know each other better through check-ins, sharing circles and/or talking-stick circles, and learning conflict resolution processes, just for practice — as well as for actually use if conflict arises in the group!

7. And a taste — of ecovillage decision-making. Future ecovillage founders will need good decision-making skills, so I like to include workshop sessions about the consensus decision-making process, followed by participants learning to make proposals about various minor aspects of the course, creating practice agendas for meetings, and practicing facilitation.

An ecovillage course can be empowering, inspiring, and filled with practical information. It can help grow more ecovillages and ecovillage-like projects in the world. It’s an honor to be an instructor in these courses... and watch the global ecovillage movement grow! This September, my friends Penelope Reyes and John Vermuellen and I will put these learning methods together in an EDE courseoffered in the Philippines (in Cabiao, south of Manila, August 28-September 25, 2010). It’s the first time that we know of that these methods will be used in this particular combination in an EDE course. We’re quite excited about it.

Diana Leafe Christian, author of "Creating a life together" and "Finding community", editor of Ecovillage Newsletter, lives at Earthaven Ecovillge in North Carolina, US.

For more information on the Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) course Diana will co-teach in the Philippines, see the Happy Earth website.

Portions of this article first appeared in the May, 2010 issue of the “Ecovillage Roots” column on the GEN website (Global Ecovillage Network) home page.