- Ecovillages: Lessons for Sustainable Community by Litfin, Karen
Karen Litfin swings for the fences in this courageous work of discovery and self-discovery. Aspiring to “write a book that would inspire people to transform their lives” (p. 68), Litfin synthesizes more than a thousand pages of notes gleaned from over 140 interviews at fourteen ecovillages to argue that a world of greater justice, deeper community, and genuine environmental sustainability lies within our collective grasp, if only we would heed the lessons and clues offered by the women and men she encountered during her travels. The result is less a rigorous comparative study of ecovillages than a first-person, sometimes deeply personal account of one observer’s attempt to draw meaning from these “evolutionary laboratories” where “applied scientists” are “running collective experiments in every realm of life” (p. 149).
The pencils and paints of Litfin’s “global portrait of the leading edge of sustainable living in the 21st century” (p. 32) are an eclectic mix of ecovillages (defined as “a gathering of individuals into a cohesive unit large enough to be self-contained and dedicated to living by ecologically sound precepts,” p. 3), each of which she describes briefly in an early chapter. The heterogeneity of her sample will trouble readers expecting a systematic comparison of ecovillage experience. Her “data” range from an inner-city intentional community in Los Angeles to a network of 350 West African villages aspiring to self-sufficiency, and from iconic settlements such as India’s Auroville to less distinctive experiments in suburban co-housing in upstate New York, and scales from a community of 35 individuals to networks of thousands of participants. At times this diversity strains even the broad characterization of ecovillages guiding Litfin’s inquiry.
In less capable hands this kaleidoscope would prove unwieldy, but Litfin is generally up to the analytic task of generating meaning from sometimes incomparable experience. She does this by building her book around four elements of sustainability: ecology, economy, community, and consciousness—or E2C2. Separate chapters on each element integrate the history, practices, and struggles of selected ecovillages to generate “clues,” in Litfin’s words, about how the rest of us might begin the hard but rewarding work of transforming our lives in the service of sustainability.
In her chapter on ecology, for instance, Litfin explores in almost travelogue fashion the virtues of permaculture, the rewards of collaborative consumption, [End Page 138] and the possibilities for small-scale organic farming, among other topics. The result is an accessible articulation of how the rest of us might go about reducing our ecological footprint. We can’t all live in an ecovillage, Litfin notes, but even a glimpse into this alternative life can help us better see and embrace the realms of possibility, and begin to change our lives accordingly. In this way, ecovillages become the raw material for larger arguments about the politics of imagination and the intrinsic rewards of living more lightly on the planet. The genius of Litfin’s approach is captured in the ecovillage “citizens” she quotes, describes, and invokes. They aren’t heroic, sacrificial, or fanatical. They are instead, by and large, likeable, intelligent, humble, and earnest, finding their way and sometimes filled with doubt like the rest of us, yet seemingly happier and more secure than one might expect. Suddenly, making our way step by step toward radically lower ecological-footprint living doesn’t seem impossible, or even unattractive.
The remaining core chapters follow the same strategy, though with a twist. In the economy chapter, Litfin’s gaze settles on questions of ownership, work, currency, and consumerism, with attendant “lessons learned” and “next steps” for the reader. The virtues of communal governance and social connectedness, as well as Litfin’s own yearnings, loom large in the chapter on community, which concludes with advice for the reader. But in her chapter on consciousness, she suggests that few if any of the ideas and actions she has thus far described will grow and spread absent a new earth-centered consciousness, one that would birth a “collective intelligence” about the limits of the...