Domestic Protest: The Ecovillage Movement as a Space of Resistance

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The rise of a protest movement to challenge the forces that promote the globalization of a non-sustainable capitalist industrial system has been paralleled by the rise of the ecovillage movement as a national and international enterprise.
Andy Kirby

Issue #65, January 2004


The rise of a protest movement to challenge the forces that promote the globalization of a non-sustainable capitalist/industrial system has been paralleled by the rise of the ecovillage movement as a national and international enterprise. Members of ecovillages, such as the Ithaca ecovillage in upstate New York, cite similar factors in their choice of lifestyle to those voiced by protestors at such events as annual meetings of the WTO and NAFTA. Residents may even be involved in active street protest over these issues, combining demonstrative activism with the development of an alternative lifestyle that promotes social and ecological sustainability in a domestic venue.

The notion of a domestically based mode of protest challenges conventional understanding of civil disobedience, which has tended to be conceived as responding to specific, time-sensitive events taking place in public (though increasingly shielded) venues. Engaging in a domestically-based protest offers the potential for modeling a positive response to a social situation that is viewed as untenable, inequitable, corrupt, and repressive. Such domestically-based protest has a long and distinguished history. This is especially so in the US, where intentional communities, based on values that run counter to accepted norms, are as old as the settlement of the country itself.

Utopianism vs. Consumerism

When Thomas More wrote his most famous work in the sixteenth century it was in response to the disruption of the social fabric that he was witnessing as a result of early capitalist ventures. His concern was less with the problem of producing more goods than with the inequity of their distribution. Foreseeing the devastating effect of the new modes of production on traditional communities, he began to dream of a better way of life, and to create an imaginary space, now the common term for all imaginary spaces, called "utopia."

Throughout the period of the settlement of the US, islands of difference have surfaced in the creation of visionary communities that have sought to demonstrate an alternative to the capitalist/industrial system. Over this period there have been ebbs and flows in the level of activity, often in response to the major issues and challenges of the day. Whether on religious, political or social grounds, all community builders believed that social change could best be achieved through the construction and demonstration of a single ideal model that could be duplicated throughout the country. Observing that individual dissent, gradualist reform, and revolution had proven ineffectual in creating change, citizens and reformers were drawn to a mode of protest that was novel, non-violent and total in scope.

The space that has been created by the ecovillage at Ithaca represents an alternative space in which its residents are striving to create a viable alternative to the consumer-driven society that surrounds them. This society has, through three hundred years of linear development transformed the country into what may be termed a "consumer landscape." This term defines the manner in which the principles of consumerism have been given physical form. Consumer values have been inscribed upon the landscape, such that our adopted patterns of consumption appear perfectly "natural" to us, and without consequence. The co-evolution of physical form and selfhood that has been promoted by the dominant social paradigm has resulted in a self that is identified through patterns of consumption and a landscape that is constructed to fulfill our consumption needs.

The social and normative character of the environment that we inhabit tends to set limits on our ability to mould that environment, making it difficult for us to envisage or explore new possibilities, even though such potential for change may exist. An increasing sense of dissonance between our sense of our own values and ethical standards and the behaviors that we are forced to adopt through participation in consumer culture leads to the drive to find new ways of relating to the world around us. The rise of a movement that is concerned with the social and ecological consequences of the industrial/capitalist system reflects the emergence of new ways of thinking about the world and our place in it. The ecovillage movement represents the most radical expression of this movement towards reworking the self-world relationship. This is to be achieved through the creation of an alternative space in which the prescriptions and proscriptions of the dominant culture are excluded in favor of values that represent what has been termed a "new environmental paradigm." An emphasis on supporting sustainable practices such as organic agriculture, bioregional initiatives, recycling, and the practice of voluntary simplicity, flies in the face of the consumptive and globalizing force represented by the dominant social mode. It is through the support of such initiatives that domestic protest flexes its muscle, creating markets for equitably and sustainably derived products, and denying the connection between status and possession of goods.

Ideologies of Spatial Possession

Ideologies of possession have become a defining factor in the Western lifestyle. While the industrial/capitalist system generally captures the loyalty of its members through the promise of economic reward, the capacity to possess material things has tended to become entwined and confused with struggles to possess the self. This phenomenon has two related aspects.

First, success in the capitalist system results in an increasing ability to isolate and disconnect oneself and one's family from the social world. While the poor generally live in closer physical proximity, the middle class strives for their free-standing suburban house and yard, the upper-middle class move into gated communities, and the rich seek isolation on their estates. Thus, possession of the self has been defined by the ability to exclude and separate from others. Members of ecovillage communities question the given-ness of this association of class and success with space, linking it with increased isolation. By way of alternative they invoke notions of community, involvement, support, and mutuality as a kind of wealth that is ultimately more personally satisfying as well as less destructive to the environment.

Second, in a capitalist environment that defines human-ness in relation to systems of production, self-possession reduces identity to a question of power. In order to freely possess oneself in such a system one must be free of dependence on the will of others. This takes the form of an individualistic struggle to achieve independence within a set of culturally circumscribed limits. This is a struggle that disparagingly became known as taking part in the "rat-race."

Opposed to these ideologies, the ecovillage movement developed out of the counterculture movement that flourished over a relatively brief period in the 1960s and early 1970s. Recognition of the devastating effects of unrestrained industrial development, together with a sense of dissatisfaction with the purely material rewards that were offered by a capitalist society led to the rise of the commune movement. This was particularly strong in the US, where the communes were predominantly psychosocial in nature and anarchist in organization, adopting a largely isolationist stance to the wider society. Many of those involved in the ecovillage movement today were either involved in, or influenced by, the commune movement and other protest movements of the counterculture days.

Middle-Class Communalism

Aside from this link between the communes of the past and the ecovillage movement of today there are few similarities. The ecovillage movement is a solidly middle-class venture. Undertaking the purchase of land for development, and the construction of homes that incorporate environmentally friendly technology, means that ecovillage homes do not come cheap. Financing such a project requires commitment that is every bit as economic as it is ideological. It is a task that, as one resident of the Ithaca ecovillage explained to me, is left to the middle classes almost by default. As this resident saw it, the rich are too rich to care, and members of the working class are stretching just to make ends meet. It is only the middle class that are comfortable enough to be able to pool their resources in order to be able to commit to a project such as the construction of an ecovillage. Thus, while the middle class has not been generally associated with protest, innovation, and challenge to the dominant cultural mode, often seeming in fact to represent the very antithesis of radicalism, it finds in the ecovillage a just cause.

The ecovillage at Ithaca is situated on the outskirts of Ithaca, an upstate New York town. The site consists of 176 acres of land that had originally been zoned for the construction of suburban homes on half-acre lots. Instead, residents plan to build up to five ecovillages on the site, eventually achieving a similar population density to that proposed by the original suburban model. However, the ecovillage plan will leave over 90 percent of the land open for woods, conservation, recreation, and organic cultivation.

Ecovillage at Ithaca - image from ecovillage.ithaca.ny.us

While the first ecovillage on the site was built in 1995, the second is now nearing completion. Each of the two ecovillages consists of 30 households, living in individual homes, constructed according to ecologically friendly criteria. Initial figures for the first neighborhood indicate that its residents use approximately one third of the resources that a typical comparable residence would use. While this represents a considerable improvement, those residents whose primary focus is on achieving ecological sustainability point out that on a global scale this is still way too much.

The ecovillage movement offers a critique of the current social mode, proposing that environmental degradation follows from social degradation. It is our culture's unwillingness or inability to connect with people that is reflected in a similar attitude towards the ecological environment. Accordingly, failure to understand the complexity of our social needs is mirrored by a lack of comprehension of our ecological needs. Cut off from relations with each other and with the environment, this culture has tended to apply makeshift and expedient solutions in both areas. The ecovillage movement proposes a radical solution to social and environmental alienation on a local level in the creation of an ecologically sensitive community. It seeks to contrive, by the spatial arrangements of its built form, a reintroduction of individuals to each other and to their surrounding environment. In this way, a sense of connectedness in various forms is expected to be produced. The web of interconnections thus formed constitutes a binding force that supports the lives and aims of the residents of ecovillage communities.

On a global level, residents of the ecovillage at Ithaca are keenly aware of the ways in which membership in the dominant culture imposes upon the lives of those in developing nations through the predatory and exploitative practices of global capitalism. The adoption of practices that aim to reduce their ecological footprint are intended to address global inequalities through ensuring that the products of exploitation and repressive practices find no place in their domestic environment. Creating a space in which such products play no role is part of the overall strategy for demonstrating the viability of a socially and ecologically sustainable lifestyle to the American middle class whose spending power drives the practices that destroy the cultural and ecological environments of developing nations.

As already indicated, the ecovillage movement is the latest manifestation of a long history of intentional communities that have sought to demonstrate a workable alternative to the mode of the day. The assumption has often been made by adherents of such communities that all that they needed to do was to present the results of their social experimentation to the general public in order for its obvious merits and superiority to be immediately grasped and emulated. Needless to say, this has seldom been the case, with most intentional communities dying out within a few years of their creation, although some notable exceptions have persisted beyond the lives of their original members. This observation poses a challenge to the ecovillage movement which is barely a decade old in America.

One potentially decisive difference between the modern ecovillage movement and earlier intentional communities lies in the conditions under which it has emerged. Previous intentional communities, often espousing concern for social relationships and an ethic of stewardship towards the land, were begun during a time of rapid expansion in a relatively unpopulated country. They were often sidelined by the rise of an individualistic conceptualization of selfhood that arose as a response to the resources and riches offered by the "empty" landscape that was assumed to be there for the taking.

Linking Protest Forms

Today, the limits of resource exploitation are beginning to be recognized, as well as the negative effects on both social and ecological environments that have resulted from human productive activities. It has been said that an emerging ecological worldview is replacing the modern industrial worldview that has been responsible for the decay that we are experiencing. The seemingly inescapable consequences of past productive activities are creating a groundswell of public opinion that is unprecedented in American history, perhaps being paralleled only by such changes as the abolition of slavery and the advent of universal suffrage. From this perspective, protest, whether a demonstration in the context of specific events or domestic protest in the form of the creation of alternative spaces, represents the most radical form of attitudes that are already beginning to find acceptance in the general population.

Despite the fact that active protest and domestic protest spring from the same perceptions of and beliefs about the current social paradigm, their respective treatment by the press and media differs radically. Reports of demonstrations against organizations such as the WTO and World Bank generally focus on the negatives, presenting the demonstrators as misinformed, antisocial, and anarchistic in nature. By contrast, coverage of the ecovillage at Ithaca, which has been particularly successful in gaining national and international attention, has focused on the positives, the potential ecological gains, and the potential for social connectedness that is often felt to be lacking in contemporary society. Thus, the ability of the ecovillage at Ithaca to affect public opinion by providing educational opportunities and demonstrating effective alternative strategies continues to be an important factor in the development of a social and environmental consciousness.

The difference in treatment between active and domestic protest may be partly explained by the respective markets for which they provide fodder. While active protest attracts the kind of live news coverage that seeks sensationalism, graphic images, and simplistic interpretation, a project such as the ecovillage at Ithaca finds itself the subject of feature and lifestyle articles that cater to a more considerate, middle-class audience. Their radicalism is not viewed as threatening the status quo in quite the same dangerous and in-your-face way that active protest is portrayed, despite the fact that both forms of protest may involve the same individuals.

It has been observed that most people today define themselves as concerned about the environment, although few are willing to adopt the measures that many experts believe are necessary to forestall environmental catastrophe. As previously indicated, this may be due largely to the "view" from within the consumer landscape that we inhabit on a daily basis. This view privileges consumption over community and economics over ecology, and presents us with seemingly insuperable structural constraints to adopting alternative behaviors. Yet, changes are underway. Although the ecovillage movement is little more than a decade old, in the US there are already more than a couple of dozen built, with over four hundred more in the planning stages, according to the Global Ecovillage Network.

The ecovillage movement is presented as the relatively benign face of the quest for equitable and just social and environmental relations. Ecovillage residents are presented as fitting the mold of traditional American innovators. They themselves express a sense of pioneering a new form of social relations, as they engage in an exercise in environmental and social problem-solving that echoes the kind of innovative approaches that Americans traditionally take pride in.

Yet, at the same time the ecovillage movement represents one of the most radical expressions of the emerging ecological worldview. It is an approach to self-world relations that stresses our responsibility to the wider social and ecological environments that sustain us, and promotes an ethic of stewardship over continued exploitation. The demand that adopting such a lifestyle makes is to uncover the many ways in which our lives are the cause of oppression for both human and non-human life, and to create our own domestic space of resistance that presents an irresistible form of protest to the globalizing industrial/capitalist system. The message that emerges from a community such as the ecovillage at Ithaca is — if we don't buy it, they can't sell it.

Andy Kirby is a graduate student in the Department of Environmental Psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Credit: Image from http://www.ecovillage.ithaca.ny.us/default.html

Copyright © 2004 by Andy Kirby. All rights reserved.

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