Sustainable Civilization: From the Grass Roots Up
Chapter V - Ecovillage
What is the minimum level gathering to allow individuals to practice personal specialization in providing daily goods and services, even basic schooling, within walking distance?
A typical present day community is dependent on a constant inflow of energy and goods, and outflow of "waste". Providers of goods and services, even basic schooling, often requires trips beyond walking distance, such as long bus rides for children. What happens when the fuel which allows this to happen stops flowing?
Consider if you will an "ecovillage" to be the primary unit of society. A homestead may provide indefinite life support, and a modest neighborhood continuing generations for an indefinite period, but it is doubtful that complex technology, specialized or technical knowledge, or even "modern" K - 12 education would be maintained in an isolated neighborhood of 20 families. The next logical step “up” in complexity is the infrastructure for basic education, community meeting places and marketplace, location for unique limited demand services, etc.
Ecovillage does not necessarily mean that human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world. As touched on earlier, humans in general do not want to live in direct contact with nature, in simple fact humans generally want to override what would have naturally occurred.
This does not mean that humans can, or want to continue in complete isolation from other life forms, rather humans want to choose the life forms the cohabitate with.
The word “ecovillage” frequently initiates thoughts and comments along the lines of finding that perfect pristine piece of idealist wilderness, and quite frankly cutting, digging, paving, and planting there to meet human desires and needs, essentially destroying the local microenvironment in the name of creating a human ecovillage.
Wherever the location, it must be possible, and within the scope of community capability for the local resources to sustain the climax stage population for the indefinite future, and the population must be large enough (without exceeding the local resources) to be self-sustaining not only in the physical essentials of life, but also education of the children sufficient to at the least continue maintenance and operation of the infrastructure, awareness of plant and animal requirements and characteristics, etc.
Research has shown that merely assembling climax stage factors does not a climax stage environment create. The climax stage tree may need the fact that earlier pioneer species have accumulated nitrogen, opened pores in the soil, etc.
Developers may construct collections of new houses & roads, but it is not a neighborhood or community until the people are there and make it their own. Expanding this thought, the author if further skeptical of those who purport to create a village in the wilderness. In general, the designer/builder has no contact with the prospective owner/occupant until after the facility is constructed. A wilderness location means of course that the facility is cut-off from human infrastructure, it is in essence a pioneer species, and does not represent a long-term climax stage.
Frequently new developments are houses and roads, and little else. The houses were probably built at the lowest cost, to present the greatest attractive appearance, disregarding practical long-term use. A heavy rainstorm or wind, settling of disturbed soils, and there may be more than a few surprises.
Existing neighborhoods, in particular perhaps those that pre-date extensive auto ownership and grid utilities may in this author’s view be better candidates as a basis for evolution into a climax stage, low power human residential community. The evolution may take deliberate guided effort, or perhaps for those who realize they must take personal responsibility for their own situation, it will simply arise as the “right thing to do”. If an ecosystem develops and runs on information and feedback, hopefully false-starts and blind alleys can be avoided if clear facts are available to the residents on how to build (or grow) their community.
A primitive village would hardly notice the effects of peak oil. What would happen in YOUR neighborhood? Could the children can play openly in the streets? (Can they now?) Do you know and trust your neighbor? Can you and your neighbors tell when someone is in the area who does not live there?
The ecovillage concept considered here is a deliberate microenvironment for ongoing generations of human habitation, embedded within a larger system to provide more complex goods and services.
One does not have to be a developer or politician to seed development of more ecological communities. You do not necessarily have to have personal contact with members of the community. Think how many lives have been changed throughout history by the great works of literature. The author has no delusion that this treatise is a great work, it is just one of many attempts to alert people to the need for change, and samples of the information and tools available. It is hoped that presented with the basics for life support, ongoing generations, basic education, and specialization, and the true extent of current community “footprints”, that people will take responsibility for their past actions, and act toward a more sane future.
Every location has its unique advantages and disadvantages. Wherever you decide to reside, or reside by default, you must ensure sustainable access to the above life support factors, air, water, food, shelter, etc. If we are indeed confronted with a worldwide disaster, natural or manmade, humanities future will need numerous far flung self sufficient seed communities.
Not everyone can live in a "Garden of Eden". Indeed, as the lyrics of the song go, "...call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye..."
Is the site conducive to daily walking scale for even the young & the elderly to make such physical trips as are required? Can a fix of built and growing aspects function to provide a new level of resource complexity?
I encourage every reader to brainstorm on locations and all aspects of your planning. Location, and the resources of the location, can vary significantly the area needed per person. An "ecological village" will have greater area requirements than a "survival" location.
Air: An ecologically sustainable village concept includes a consideration that the village air usage (i.e. CO2 from breathing) is balanced by plant activity in the area under village control.
Water: The renewable water supply (in the worst year) must exceed the total needs of the population, AND allowances for the natural surroundings.
Park space for flora and fauna: The "common" areas of the village need space for an appropriate "park" ecosystem. I don’t want to call it "wild" or "natural", as it's intended for a place for humans, and therefore still excludes any "threat".
While it is a "bonus" if isolated village property is surrounded by BLM or state preserve lands, since those are under the "ownership" of someone else, they really should not be counted in overall village planning. For example, if the village determines that human activity should only predominate on 20% of the area, and that one acre or so should be dedicated per each family, then the village would need to own 5 acres for each family residing therein.
My personal selection for location is "high desert", in Arizona. My current job is in Arizona, so work on a project here is within the realm of practicality. Over the years, I've grown to tolerate, if not appreciate the heat. In the appendices I further develop a high desert village scale, and other proposals.
Wilderness. Do you believe we need to preserve such wilderness as remains? Then do you object to proposals for human habitation which requires any further paving over of, or disruption of a natural ecosystem. We should use our intelligence and capabilities to "rescue" some area already disrupted by some lesser concerned human.
Urban. Just as a wilderness "gathering" of families does not necessarily mean all of the homes are clustered into a single compound, neither is such clustering an absolute requirement for an urban ecovillage. What is required is the contact and cooperation that goes with the village concept. The town / city is not a natural ecology, but it is the ecology of a technological human civilization, and we must find a way to make it work.
The above photo, taken by the author while on a trip along the California coastline, shows the potential for multi level structures, here with retail on the lower level, and living spaces above. Envision the spaces behind a square block of such a structure as being an orchard.
To provide, in a manner which is sustainable for an indefinite number of future generations, a location where all human life support needs are met. To provide a location where following generations have access to at the minimum the same resources as the initiating generation. To provide a location where following generations can be adequately educated such that they can at a minimum maintain the basic knowledge expected of a high-school graduate.
The practical upper limit for an ecovillage is the life support capabilities of the relevant ecosystem, organizational issues, and "human scale". The practical lower limit is that needed to maintain knowledge and relevant appropriate technology.
Education Factor. Assume a healthy population at an essentially stable number, with an average lifespan of around 80. Assume a kindergarten to12 classroom size is 20 students per grade. On the average then the community needs to have 20 citizens of each age, for a minimum population of around 1600. This is a collection of 10 Homestead association units (20 families per unit). This now implies the beginnings of a core services area, if for no other purpose than a modest school, and marketplace.
To use education to set an upper limit for an ecovillage, if we want the kids to walk no further than one half mile each way to school, the organized and occupied area of the village is a mile on a side (640 acres). Setting aside the central 40 acres for school, marketplace, and other village common functions, this walking (human) scale max ecovillage has 60 Homestead association units (1200 homes), for an average population of around 9600, with an average of 120 students in each grade, requiring 72 teachers.
Reaching beyond the scope of personal friendships and a gift / lend / borrow economy, and with expanded specialization, a formal currency and organized economic system is probably required.
The currency must be in some unit that all in the community can understand and readily translate the goods and services of the community into the denomination of the local currency. While there will certainly be need for some translation of the local currency into the national currency, the exchange rate must NOT be pegged at some specific value, or the local currency will suffer whatever fate befalls the national currency.
Whether internal or external, confidence in the medium of exchange, and stability of it's value are required. Think in terms of the "gold standard". The U.S. economy has experienced great changes in prices (value of currency) since the 1800's, but consider, in the 1800's, a $20 gold coin would buy a quality firearm, or good suit. "Today", $20 can make such a purchase, BUT, a $20 gold coin or such amount of gold can still make similar purchases. How do we get a stable currency without fixing its value to an arbitrary mineral?
As a defined unit of exchange, the author presents for argument the kilowatt hour. Electricity is the premier means of power. It can be generated and utilized or promised for future delivery. It can be expended in investment, or the means to generate can be collected and held as a store of value. Generating more of the basis for the currency adds useful value to the community, which can be expended on luxury, entertainment, or invested in a means to further generate power, or eliminate some power drain.
Family homesteads are privately owned. Homestead association / association units have some "common" assets, which are still privately owned by the association. The entire community can be privately owned by a collection of the associations. "Private" ownership of streets and facilities permits the village, under present laws in most areas, to enforce "NO TRESPASSING" aspects not only at homes, but in otherwise “public” areas such as sidewalks and streets.
Artisan technology. If for no other reason than a larger concentration of population, hopefully specialists, and individual interactions, I would hope the group would be capable of higher technology than simple handicrafts, repairs, reworking, etc. With time and practice, a skilled person could hand-make, if needed, screws, bolts, and more complex parts, as well as unique services inside the community, and for potential surrounding populations.
Farming. 2% of the population is 192 people This size group of farming workers should allow for significant specialization - custom knowledge of custom crops.
Ecological aspects. Earlier "homestead", and "cooperative homseteads" discussions really deal primarily with survival on a physical level, an individual family, and a large enough group for continued generations. The village represents a great jump in capability, and threat if environmental impact is ignored.
A stable minimum population of 9600, living in multigenerational family homes, is a community of around 1200 such homes. Given this population, which exceeds an expanded family / personal friends scope, this level probably needs formal administration and internal security.
Starting at this level, it appears that "government" cannot necessarily be dismissed out of hand. But what is the minimum required "government? Do you grant or acquiesce to having someone else power over how you live, or do you merely want someone to turn to with a grievance whenever someone else "steps on your toes"?
Internal organization. Absent order imposed by an external authority, the group needs an internal charter to define operations. The charter, being agreed upon by the originators, and impliedly agreed to by everyone who inherits from the originators, or later joins, should only be capable of being modified by unanimous agreement of each property ownership.
Where the charter provides leeway for decisions, each property / homestead location to have one vote, either direct or by proxy. The homesteads are gathered into associations of 20 homesteads each forming the neighborhood associations. The ecovillage groups together 60 of these associations, therefore direct representation to the village of one person from each association is a village counsel of 60. My recommendation is to have these positions unpaid, to help avoid incentives for "empire building", extended meetings, lavish offices, etc.
Existing authority. While present government remains viable, any unit will have to deal with such external authority. Under present law in the U.S., if the community organizes as a formal government, it becomes subject to a great deal of requirements, at many levels, and loses a great deal of it's ability to deny external access to it's property.
Growth. If the village is the only entity in an area, or the most viable to lead appropriate restructuring, it probably needs to consider eventual growth beyond the village size, and what the maximum community size per the resources would be.
If there is time, finance, and resources, an intentionally constructed, sustainably oriented gathering is probably cheaper, and would function better, than attempting to adapt an existing neighborhood. (Consider building a solar oriented, earth bermed home, vs. modifying an existing home) But in location selection also consider the need to avoid any further destruction of natural ecosystems.
It does not matter whether the village is composed of individual homesteads, or a single arcology, or anywhere in between. What matters is the relationship of population level to resources.
Interior Roads. If the gathering is to create, in a brief period, in physical isolation the physical infrastructure that would have otherwise taken decades, or perhaps indeed centuries to evolve, I expect that heavy vehicle access will be necessary. But that does not necessarily mean that natural surroundings must be destroyed, or paved over. If we are anticipating the end of motor vehicle traffic as we know it, interior "roads" could be two paths of stepping stones, spaced wheel width apart. Should a road, in the future, need to be manually removed, or relocated, (or used as building blocks) such individual pavers could far more readily be moved than the work involved in breaking up a monolithic concrete or asphalt road. While internal paths may generally only carry foot traffic, bikes, etc., nevertheless on a general grid, for a 1 mile on a side village 18 mile of access pathway/road is needed.
Service and Supply Court, walking scale within.
I suggest thinking of each Homestead association unit in terms of the cooperative housing movement, where jointly owned facilities allow for interaction and economics of scale. (i.e. a central pool vs multiple home pools) If each village has set aside a central core of 40 acres, (a square about 1300 ft per side) there should easily be room for schools, marketplace, some small industry, etc.
These photos are more of the same outside center referenced elsewhere, where autos are kept out of the shopping area.
Although the particular facility shown has a focus on retail sales, the same buildings could obviously function as offices for physicians, dentists, school rooms, etc. It presents a pleasant, stress relieving atmosphere.
Supply sales. Some services, and supplies, are used so infrequently that every resident doing it for themselves, or owning the item, is simply irrational, especially in a post fossil fuel era where high "real" fuel costs impose high real costs on good and services.
For example, there are times now that I need a truck, but I don't need one every day. When I do, I rent one. It should be the same with the village. The entity should own the large, infrequently used resources, and rent them to residents at a rate designed to maintain and eventually repair the item, and provide reasonable income to the entity, to lower the temptation to create taxes.
Fish farming. Serves as a local source of high quality protein, and fertilizer for crops. It can be done on a very small scale for a family, or a community project. In utilitarian tanks, or aesthetic pools.
A fish farm could be incorporated into a much larger facility. The decorative ponds, streams, pools in the above shopping plaza could perhaps if interconnected serve an overall "farm".
Library. If there is spare space and labor available, a physical library as is thought of today in an American town can be operated. In a village though an alternative that works for a library (and other functions) is to establish a simple central information resource showing books owned by individuals, with borrowing being either a private transaction, or processed thru a central resource manager.
Layout of streets and paths. For an isolated community, rolling terrain provides advantages not only in security, but in esthetics. Even with an urban environment, the terrain surrounding buildings need not follow the level streets and sidewalks. The typical U.S. neighborhood development is first bulldozed as flat as possible. Consider instead rolling terrain, with earth bermed homes.
At each home you could have a wall of glass, looking out onto your own small garden, deck, natural terrain, etc., which as you reach the edge of the property rises in a gentle slope, then drops down again on the next property. You see only nature, not your neighbor's wall. Even if there are flat paths or roads cut thru the terrain to connect the homesites, with planning the "road" could pass such that the homes were not really visible.
The slope and mass between the homes absorbs and deflects noise and vibration.
Minimum outside open lighting reduces electrical demand, preserves the beauty of the night sky, and preserves night vision. When the human eye is in the dark then exposed to light, it takes at least several minutes for "night vision" to return. In that time, places appear dark and threatening which, if night vision were preserved, would be relatively clear to see.
At the ecovillage level, at least at the upper size levels, the community may have its own assets, funded by donations, or taxes. What type of hostile "enemy" is expected? In the 1950's and 1960's, talk of atomic war prompted some to prepare fallout shelters. At the time, and perhaps in retrospect, some saw the shelter building activity as foolish. Your self-reliant home may be similarly cause you to be the object of criticism by those who will not see the problems we face. But if done well, those shelter spaces continued to be an asset, and may once again, in the coming crash, prove their value as fallout shelters. Similarly, your self reliant home, even if there is an energy breakthrough, has reduced your living costs, while providing peace of mind and a form of "insurance".
Organized Army. As shown in the operations of formal Armies, against less well equipped and trained adversaries, "strongholds", even those constructed by the oil rich Iraq regime, are no match for computer guided bombs. Likewise though, standing Armies readily fall victim to hidden insurgents. Probably the best defense against a formal Army is to simply avoid a conflict in the first place. Don't be an enemy. Mob. A stronghold has value against a mere mob, and while each home has it's own reinforced safe room, at the ecovillage level the ability to gather the entire community in the courtyard in a secure spot has great advantage in self-defense capabilities. (Think castle.)
Individuals. If not hostile, do you feed them? Even if you send them on their way, if you've fed them, will they return? Will they return with others, or send others your way, as an easy "mark" for a free meal? Do you let them camp on the property, or ignore their camp just off the property? How to guide them to establishing their own sustainable village? Perhaps the hardest question of all is the arrival of Friends / family. If you've got a year of food storage, and gardens sufficient for your family, and not much more, what will you do?
Central management. Provided the numbers of incoming "visitors" (and the threat they may pose) does not overwhelm the village, the village may want to set up a formal "visitor center" to serve as the contact point for arrivals, assess skills and assets vs village needs, and perhaps set up an arrangement to add to the village, or work on set up of a new one, leading to development of a city.
It would probably be a significant challenge for a village of 1,200 families to establish a functioning community in secret and isolation. As with an isolated neighborhood, so long as the external infrastructure continues to function, the gathering should be capable of keeping up to date with the rest of the world.
A question: Assume your group has somehow established a square mile, or more, of homesteads, roads, schools, etc. You can achieve anything possible with your own property and own assets, that you have the capability to achieve. BUT: If in isolation, does your village yet have the technology and technique to repair or replace a broken plate or cup? How about a p/v panel? Or even a light bulb?
Producing a silicon p/v panel requires some minimum level of "high tech", and an ongoing demand to require ongoing production to maintain the facility in operation. If each homestead has twenty five 100 volt panels, the collected homesteads of the village have 30,000 panels, with an expected lifespan of 30 years. A replacement schedule could then require production of around 1,000 panels per year. Can you village then produce say 3 or 4 new, or re-worked p/v panels every day?
Each unit, homestead, neighborhood, ecovillage, ecocity, are parts that build toward a sustainable civilization. Do not expect the physical, or mental, transformation to be a quick process.
In the August 2006 issue of Scientific American, an article on developing expertise indicates that it takes approximately a decade of heavy mental labor to master any field. This would imply then that until any individual or group has been intensely involved in thinking and acting "sustainably" for such a period of time, it is still not going to be "natural" to them.
We have a physical infrastructure that has developed around fossil fuel waste, with over 100 years of work that must be re-done.
As education and management of more complex communities comes to the forefront, we need to ensure that the projects into which we invest our time and assets are in our long term interest, or acknowledge our interest is other than long term.