It Takes an Ecovillage

Green Learning Begins with Hands-On Community Experience

America’s 20-somethings are well aware that we’re facing a global environmental crisis. But they grew up in an era of prosperity, peace and opportunity. How can they remain optimistic? What skills will they need to clean up the ecological mess they’re inheriting?

Living Routes students in an underground kiva, or Native American ceremonial structure, at the Findhorn Foundation in 1997.© Daniel Greenberg / Living Routes

Living Routes students in an underground kiva, or Native American ceremonial structure, at the Findhorn Foundation in 1997.
Daniel Greenberg / Living Routes

Young people "have a lot of motivation to change the world for the better, to create a sustainable future, and they’re looking for opportunities to put that into action," says Daniel Greenberg, a Massachusetts educator who serves as executive director of Living Routes, a nonprofit organization creating ecovillage-based educational programs.

Ecovillages are intentional communities emphasizing cooperative living and harmonious coexistence with nature. From a handful of collectives in the 1960s, the number of ecovillages has swelled to thousands worldwide. There are 500 of them in North America, mostly in the U.S. Ecovillages try to meet communal needs while safeguarding natural resources for future generations. They may cultivate organic gardens, recycle human waste, build with cob and straw bale, and employ solar and wind power.

Ecovillages seek sustainability in human relationships, too. Frequently, members share in bulk purchases, in cooking, cleaning and childcare. Residents often eat, socialize and celebrate together. The ecovillage mandate is full member participation. Conflict resolution and consensus decision-making are high priorities.

These characteristics make ecovillages "living laboratories" for researching and teaching sustainable practices, according to Greenberg. Anyone can enroll in the programs, but college students are typically the ones with the financial resources—and the time—to immerse themselves in two or three months of ecovillage study.

For that reason, Living Routes courses are created with college students in mind. In conjunction with a half-dozen host institutions, Living Routes offers semester-long courses melding experiential learning with conventional techniques like assigned readings and term papers. The host colleges—including the University of New Hampshire and Cornell—issue grades and credit hours. More than 50 colleges accept Living Routes coursework as transfer credits.

Living Routes conducts programs in the U.S., Scotland, India, Australia and France. The organization plans to expand to sustainable communities in Israel, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Africa. Greenberg admits the exotic locales may attract youngsters who care more about travel than environmentalism. Still, he asserts, "It’s often the students who come with very little experience and very little background in sustainable living who make the biggest changes in their lives."

Lawry Gold, a professor at Pacific Lutheran University who has directed the school’s Center for Teaching and Learning, says, "It’s one thing to read about how one can live a more environmentally aware life, but it is quite another to come to feel it through a genuine, fully embodied experience. My opinion is that the most challenging aspect of the ecovillage experience is in returning home. Students are often profoundly affected, and the changes that they have gone through can estrange them from other friends and family. They are then challenged to integrate, often without help from their own institution."

Ilana Silverstein, a Denison University student, knew about sustainable agriculture and water conservation when she arrived in Auroville, a community of 1,500 in southern India. But "seeing the environmental issues right in front of my face" was very different from learning in a classroom, she says.

Auroville was founded on barren land ravaged by excessive logging and monsoon floods. Residents helped plant over two million trees, reclaiming the wasteland. At Auroville, students choose from a multitude of internships. Silverstein collected data on the capacity of community wells. Megan Bracy, a University of New Hampshire student, taught children at the village school. Others work in organic farms, or assist in the architectural design of green buildings. Developing concrete skills that produce tangible results fuels student optimism—even as they confront a world in ecological peril.

Though communities like Auroville approach the ideal, a fully sustainable, self-sufficient ecovillage probably doesn’t exist, Greenberg acknowledges. But there are many ecovillages striving to meet the goal. "They’re on the path," he says. This philosophy can be liberating for Living Routes participants. It gives them permission to make smaller lifestyle changes, and to approach sustainability in stages.

"Even if it means we make better consumer decisions, like buying rechargeable instead of throwaway batteries, it does have an effect," says student Adam Schutzman. In fact, many ecovillages have televisions, telephones and automobiles; even Auroville has Internet access. Because ecovillages aren’t isolated from the modern world, students adjust more easily to new experiences like composting toilets and solar-heated showers.

And students say that, after an ecovillage experience, it’s much easier to forgo creature comforts and relinquish privacy. "I’ve never lived so intimately with 14 other people," says Bracy. "It’s very intense. But if there’s a conflict, we learned that if everyone talks about it, it can be resolved."

While the college-based Living Routes programs are expensive and scholarships are few, ecovillage study is available to everyone, including people with limited finances. Numerous communities offer low-cost workshops in everything from permaculture design, vegetarian cooking and solar ecological building to ecovillage development and renewable waste management. Chances are, if a community is engaged in a sustainable practice, someone from the ecovillage will agree to teach it.

Ecovillage instructors may be young adults, middle aged or elderly, since sustainable communities are typically intergenerational. And, because they’re inclusive, they welcome students of all backgrounds. Apprenticeships at Sirius ecovillage in Shutesbury, Massachusetts, for instance, cost $200 a month for room, board and expert tutelage. The lesson: For a relatively small investment of time, money and effort, ecovillages provide tools to help build a better future.