Let’s Bulldoze the Fences:

A Critique of Eco-Villages

Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne have redefined and perfected the art of home economics. Over the last decade and a half, the two have managed to transform their measly 1/12-of-an-acre plot into a productive and purposeful homestead. Their Los Angeles property boasts a chicken coop, two beehives, vegetable beds, and fruit trees that supplement their diets; this is only the beginning. Through thoughtful planning and handiwork the couple has also developed a gray-water system, composting & worm bins, an adobe oven, as well as an Appalachian dehydrator (passive solar cooking device). Itching to learn more? Check out this youtube video that takes you on a tour of their property.

Though Knutzen and Coyne’s commitment to such projects may seem a little extreme, the two would argue that before World War II, self-sufficient food-bearing practices were the norm: “for all human history people have kept livestock… grown food…even in cities”, Coyne exclaims. Moreover, the couple insists that not only are their efforts money-efficient, but they are simple enough that nearly anyone could incorporate similar tactics into their lifestyle.

During the tour, Erik says he “believe[s] in communities; human beings are meant to work and live and trade together”. Community interaction, though it may not seem to be a theme of the video, is clearly something near and dear to this couple’s hearts. Keeping this in mind, I interpret their video as a critique of eco-villages: not only can you live sustainably in a standard neighborhood, but you can also make meaningful connections and share knowledge with those around you.

Surely, this implies nothing negative about eco-villages, solely another viable option for sustainable living. Regardless, if one thinks of the affects an eco-village may have on the surrounding community, this argument holds more weight. Under Robert Gilman’s famous definition of an eco-village, one of the criteria is “multiple centers of initiative”. That being said, such communities surely contain a wide breadth of knowledge, expertise, and opinions. Perhaps this gathering may be beneficial for those involved, but are the communities on the outside affected in any way?
I would argue that one con of eco-villages is that no matter how inclusive they may be, they might act as a barrier between people and shared knowledge. In this way, could eco-villages actually be detrimental to overall sustainability? If the most innovative and committed community members cluster together (even if they are doing something wonderful), they are leaving their former communities behind. The knowledge they once could provide to their network of neighbors has now been transferred to a new neighborhood.

Part of the beauty in eco-villages is the collaboration on meaningful projects that occurs: this can yield amazing results and systems grounded in stewardship. But, no matter how great their efforts may be, by living in an eco-village members separate themselves from the outside world. Don’t buy it? Here’s an example: at “Ecovillage at Ithaca” in New York, one can only tour the facilities if they pay a fee and come at a prescribed time. Not only might this avert people from the idea of joining an eco-village, but it sends a contrasting message to Erik and Kelly’s. So it seems, not everyone can participate in such a community.

What I want to know is, what makes an eco-village, an “eco-village”? Through browsing the Internet, one can come up with countless definitions, however I would argue that collaborative, community-wide stewardship efforts are one of the main conditions. This can happen anywhere, and by allowing it to occur outside the fenced walls of an “intentional community”, those with a passion for sustainability and self-reliance can spread their messages to people less likely to know about things. Essentially, by starting a “green” community through the development of a green home and relationships with those around you, knowledge is more accessible: not only can it pass more accessibly from person to person, but it is very likely that it could be passed to people who otherwise would never have come across such ideas.

In Knutzen and Coyne’s video, one cannot gauge the strength of their relations with their neighbors. Nonetheless, if I were to walk by their house and see their yard (clearly based on functionality rather than pure aesthetics and conformity) just by strolling past I can recognize the statement they are trying to make, and see the success behind that statement. Whether miniscule or deep, the connections formed between themselves, their homes, and those around them may be just as effective and meaningful as those developed within the walls of an eco-village. Of course, I have nothing bad to say about eco-villages; their missions are honorable and they often see great success, but wouldn’t you like to see more Knutzen and Coyne’s in your neighborhood?

–S.F.

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One thought on “Let’s Bulldoze the Fences:

  1. Wow, wow, wow: this video is so beautiful and compelling — because Erik & Kelly’s life/yard/world is. But boy, this really quietly asks some excellent questions about what = ‘ecovillagery.’ Like you say, Sam: aren’t the baseline “collaborative, community-wide stewardship efforts” THE main underlying conditions? Tie this kind of care and stewardship into (something like) City Repair’s community repair ethos and we’ve got some pretty solid foundations for convivial and ecologically more sound neighborhoods — even if they aren’t self-proclaimingly ‘permaculturist’ or ‘eco,’ right?

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