26 February 2007

Habitat and yoghurt culture

In the ethereal realms of academic discussion the buzzphrase of the moment is ‘ecological modernisation’. This phrase relates to the idea that, now that we have won the argument that the ecological crisis is real, there is a struggle going on about how to respond to it. This struggle boils down to a choice between business-as-usual with a few green tweaks, or a wholesale reorganization of society and economy. The question being asked is whether it is possible to have a sustainable world without fundamental social and economic change.

In the field of habitat the ecological modernizers would like to expropriate and commodify the learning that has been developed in low-impact communities, wipe it clean of its radical overtones, and make it profitable business. They are seeking to divorce the technological wisdom from the social wisdom that gave it birth. They are ignoring the lessons of holism that are the most important lessons of the sustainable vision. Knowledge based on practical experience cannot be reduced to information to be written into technical manuals.

Much of the knowledge about how sustainable communities might look has been garnered within the Ecovillages network, co-ordinated by Jonathan Dawson of the Findhorn Foundation. He recently published a book sharing some of this experience. The communities he studied are found in rich and poor societies and offer an experience of creative living. He likes to think of them as ‘yoghurt culture . . . small, dense and rich concentrations of activity whose aim is to transform the nature of that which surrounds them’.

Most of the ecovillages are success stories, but many ‘collapse’ because of the difficulty of building new relationships and social structures. It is vital that we do not see these shorter-lived projects as ‘failures’. The learning and positive experiences generated by experimental living are not lost when the people move on and the structures decay. Learning to live experimentally requires learning to accept that the natural life-span of some of these ventures may be short.

Is it possible to build sustainable communities without asking questions about ownership, equality and hierarchy? In my view, not only can we not ‘solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’; we also cannot save the planet without asking questions about who owns it. The message of ecovillages the world over is that these issues are intrinsically linked to the building, physically and metaphorically, of a sustainable future.

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