(The article was originally published in Slovenian in the printed edition of Jana Mazagine end of August 2022.)
It’s been a while since I’ve been so cold in the middle of July, my tent rattled by the fierce wind and the glow of the northern night keeping me awake. Denmark’s fickle weather is a magnificent distraction from climate change—the heat wave back home and droughts around Europe seem like problems of another planet. Delving into the power of living communities at the Ecovillage Gathering is so energizing! The cacophony of voices discussing the burning topics of our time reminds me of the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times!”
Say what you will about ashrams, Denmark’s Ananda Gaorii center showed a level of hospitality I haven’t experienced in a long time, especially not at such a large event. A handful of monks and volunteers who live, meditate, and teach here opened the doors widely to more than three hundred guests—not only their entrance door, but also their kitchen, bathroom, office, and temple doors. Monks in orange robes called “dadas” stood among us as steadfast as mighty oaks. They made it clear to us how important inner peace is in times of chaos.
Perhaps the times are coming when we will be called (or even forced?) to open our doors to others and stand with them in solidarity. The posture of the smiling dadas was no less inspiring to me as the posture of the Ukrainian volunteers who helped organize the event. The Danish Ecovillage Network opened its doors to them soon after the war broke out and offered them a huge amount of help in their country too. Already in the first days of the war, ecovillages across Europe activated aid for refugees from Ukrainian cities in the much safer countryside.
The ecovillages were quickly joined by smaller projects in the countryside and in the cities, and this is how the Green Road was created to connect refugee shelters. At the Ecovillage Gathering, we heard a series of stories about how small communities of ten or twenty families welcome hundreds of refugees in their homes, share food with them, involve them in their daily lives and teach them how to coinhabit their houses and participate in the community.
I had a conversation with Anastasia Volkova, whom I met in Kyiv in the winter of 2020 when she was still pregnant. Now she arrived with her two-year-old daughter on the second day of the gathering, and she told me, with tired but glowing eyes, what a boom the ecovillage movement is experiencing currently in Ukraine—precisely because of the war. Obviously, we need a crisis, a real crisis, to change our lifestyles. Then there are no more excuses, no more pretenses. Changes are inevitable. We are forced to live together in solidarity. There is actually something beautiful about this.
Other Ukrainians talked about how much work is involved in integrating urban folks into rural life. Fine city ladies land in ecovillages in high heels and with long polished nails, tidy gentlemen come with tender palms and are unaccustomed to physical work. But the ecovillagers are patient and find suitable activities for everyone. I am meeting visibly tired but smiling Ukrainians and I can tell that they are fulfilling a very special mission that doesn’t even need a name. The only discomfort on their faces comes up when I talk with those who do not speak English because we use Russian, the language of the aggressor.
Alisa Sidorenko is a passionate Russian woman born in the polar region who grew up in Kazakhstan. Currently, this young activist, eight months pregnant, lives in Scotland. She stepped in front of the crowd and pointed out that the plight of many of her friends in Russia is similar to the plight of Ukrainians. Protesters quickly find themselves behind bars. Even mentioning the word “war” in public can cause serious consequences. Men, despite them opposing the war, face the threat of forced mobilization. It is wrong to talk about the whole of Russia as the aggressor because many Russians oppose the measures of the regime, but they fear for themselves and their families, so they remain silent. Yes, a military invasion is a terrible thing, but we must not react to it with primitive and blind revenge and forget the need for solidarity with all those who suffer.
Ross Jackson, one of the founders of the Global Ecovillage Network in the early 90s, also spoke about solidarity in his address. He went back to the birth of the idea of urban cohousing communities in the early 70s and how they were designed into clusters of housing units for a higher quality of life. In those years, no one talked about ecology, that only came in the 80s. The cohousing community was not enough for Ross, so in the early 1980s, he and his wife Hildur moved to the countryside for more touch with the land, growing food and building resilience against the crisis that many predicted. Let’s not forget that the historically important book Limits to Growth was published in 1972 and that it greatly influenced environmental activist groups.
Together with other pioneers, Hildur and Ross were the godfathers of the first three ecovillages: Crystal Waters in Australia, Lebensgarten in Germany and The Farm in the USA. Many others followed. When Ross traveled through the first ecovillages, he noticed that they were very diverse, but two values united them all: care for the Earth and care for fellow humans. Wherever he went, these values radiated into the world. Most ecovillages are places of solidarity, and the question of what role they will play in periods of severe crisis has always been in the air. Are these spaces suitable to serve as stress relievers?
The war in Ukraine shows that ecovillages are excellent stress relievers. They inspire people and give them hope that is not hollow but full of life. Ecovillages teach us to live together—a simple but very good life with a high degree of autonomy in close connection with our environment, on which we depend for our existence. We are learning what is really important for a good future. It sounds simple and nothing special, but in this simplicity lies the key to the survival of civilization.
The writer Dougald Hine linked the survival of the civilization to the imaginative potential of the apocalypse—in the good sense of that word, as an uncovering or a revelation. Yes, also the revelation that Jews and Christians had in their traditions over the centuries. But primarily, the apocalypse is a literary genre “in which a supernatural being reveals cosmic mysteries or the future to a human intermediary.” The catastrophism came later.
Suppose someone revealed to you how everything will turn out—for better or for worse. How would you act if you knew how our civilization is going to end? Dougald pointed out that the end of the world as we know it is not going to be the end of the world, period. We are all descendants of people who went through many “ends of the world”. Various communities will salvage the scattered fragments of our civilization in one form or another. Just as the Natufians, living between 15,000 and 11,500 BC, preserved bits of their culture through the 1,500-year ice age that ended life as they knew it.
The Natufians most likely survived in small groups in locations with a more favorable microclimate, similar to many plants that the ice would otherwise destroy. These microclimatic pockets are called “cryptic northern refugia.” Maybe something similar is awaiting our civilization and it will be the “cryptic refugia” that will preserve what can be preserved.
The Natufians offer a glimpse into our future. In these interesting times that smell of an end, it makes sense to turn all civilizational assumptions upside down and ask the question: what types of activities are meaningful? Dougald proposed four types of activities:
- Salvaging everything we can bring with us.
- Mourning for all the good stuff that we will not be able to take with us.
- Attention to notice everything that was never as good as we told ourselves it was.
- Finding abandoned threads from the past that have been marginalized but are worth picking up in the present.
A lot of what we considered old-fashioned or unnecessary will be very important in the future. Dougald urged us not to aspire to lofty goals and try to save the world. He invited us to take responsibility for something that will most likely exist once we are gone. This can be a piece of land, skill, or knowledge, for example, the knowledge about child-rearing. It is imperative that we preserve many stories!
There are two types of logic, why would you even want to do anything at all in our world today. The logic of the market is that you do it because someone pays you to do it. The logic of the state is that you do it because someone requires you to do it. But people need to come together and do things outside of these two types of logic. Perhaps the communities and networks present at the Ecovillage Gathering in Denmark are going to be “cryptic refugia” when harsh future comes upon us. Many of their activities are worth pursuing even for their own sake, let alone when we realize how deeply troubled the world is.
The impression that radiated through all the speeches and workshops was that effective response to any crisis is more or less a side effect of community empowerment. This was especially evident in the presentation of Camilla Nielsen, who spoke about the varied events in more than 600 communities in Denmark.
A set of circumstances and cultural peculiarities fosters the growth of Danish communities, which Camilla classified into three categories:
- self-grown (fully developed and financed by the founders)
- concept-driven (based on a specific concept)
- developer-driven (developed by investors and sold “turnkey”)
In self-grown communities, there are more and more copy-paste models of community building that shorten the tedious pioneering phase. Some communities focus on providing space for the elderly. Usually, such communities are more well-off and tidy. Simpler ones concentrate on food production, connecting tiny houses to villages, smart utilization of existing common facilities and other resources, environmental and political activism, etc. In the surroundings of developed communities, new communities are growing according to a similar model, and thus real estate prices are increasing. No wonder the incentives to keep communities accessible to the less wealthy are strong too.
Conceptual communities can be realized in many ways, they can be hybrids of self-grown and developer-driven. They can manifest with both bottom-up and top-down approaches and focus on permaculture, people with special needs, various methodologies or spiritual practices, etc.
Developer-driven communities often emphasize buildings and sometimes lack community spirit among residents. The Danish ecovillage movement responded to this by putting together a guide called “Building Blocks of Community Building,” which many developers rely on. The guide covers finances, managing legal affairs, communicating with municipalities, and, of course, community development and environmental measures. They also provide support to developers to make their projects actually work as communities.
There is no panic in the Danish approach, there’s simply dynamic proactivity. They do what needs to be done and what improves the quality of life while reducing the impact on the environment. There is still a lot of room for improvement, but the methodical approach inspires hope. It inspires especially those of us coming from countries where something like this is (still) difficult to imagine.
A lively debate about Covid was inevitable too. In the past two years, some communities have experienced a similar schism as the wider society. Some other communities went through the crisis period without major problems or they even did better than usual. Urban and northern communities fared worse than those located in warmer climates or in rural areas. All of them believed that the crisis affected them much less than their neighbors who do not live communally.
This does not mean that the members of these communities were in full agreement regarding the measures. Some communities adhered to measures above average and had stricter internal regulations than the rest of the public, they demanded full vaccination and moved all meetings online. At the other extreme were the communities that ridiculed the measures and functioned exactly as before—with meetings, meals, and live events without masks. Some have added activism against vaccinations and masks and against state interference in individual freedom. Most communities were between the two extremes, some a little to the left, others a little to the right.
It was refreshing to talk about Covid with rational distance, with respect and understanding, without judging those who think differently. It seemed to me that we all understood what a waste of energy it is to whine about something we know so little of. We were looking for motivation to act outside the logic of the market and the logic of the state, in some other dimensions where community and solidarity are essential. We will all die sooner or later in one way or another and Covid is a much smaller threat than civilization. Ralph Waldo Emerson beautifully said that the end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.
This may not be the end for us and our children’s children yet, but it is utopian to think the end will never come—especially given the way we’re acting as a civilization. What to salvage, what to mourn, what to pay attention to, what threads to connect to in the past and how to act on this basis? The Ecovillage Gathering in Denmark was a celebration of activities that are worth doing, scaling, and passing on to our children. Our cryptic refugia seem insignificant, but they are already amazing to live in. If times become even more interesting than they already are, many will be able to take refuge in these places, because the doors in ecovillages are always open.