Making Ends Meet

Balancing the needs for a business head alongside the ethics of the ecovillage movement hasn't alway

With every passing week, no fewer than three or four requests for assistance land in my email box from folk around the world wanting to create ecovillages.

This message I received yesterday, with the subject line “help required”, gives a representative flavour: “At present I am planning an ecovillage of sorts in Central America or any part of the developing world that is in dire need of social development through sustainable living and the protection of their environment…….The reason I am writing to your organisation is to find technical advisors and directors in the fields of, sustainable living, organic farming, animal husbandry, organic housing construction, community planning, holistic medicine, child development, water and waste management, eco energy production.”

Great!…….ah, but here is the rub: “These technical advisors will be paid a basic wage with a company profit share and accommodation benefits (free house)”. In other words, what is on offer is the opportunity for experienced, professional people to go build an ecovillage in Central America for local basic wages and a roof over their heads.

This sparks images of the great international solidarity camps of the 1980s – with young people heading off to bring in the cocoa harvest in Ghana or to show solidarity with Sandinista or Zapatista rebels.

Indeed, it is also redolent of the heroic phase of the creation of many ecovillages. Most have in their archives photos of great work-parties out building the new Jerusalem – digging trenches, erecting buildings and working in the fields.

One hopes that the radicalism of those days is not entirely behind us – indeed, dear reader, let me assure you that it is not. However, many of those among the youthful work-teams who stayed on to make their home in the ecovillages they helped build are now esteemed professional men and women. A good number of them now make their living using the skills they developed while creating their communities.

This morning in the community café, the Blue Angel, I sit at the next table to Randy Clinger, a fine artist, who has led a successful campaign to raise £400,000 to build a regional art centre here in the community. (I write this to the rhythm of hammers falling on the building site just across the way where it is taking form.)

In another corner of the café, two friends, Michael Shaw and Alex Walker, both older-timers in the community with decades of experience as consultants behind them, are discussing the performance of the new wind park they helped to create – weighing in at over £600,000 and comprising four wind turbines that make us net electricity exporters.

On the journey back from the café to my office, I bump into Alan Watson, Director of the award-winning Trees for Life charity that he helped create 25 years ago. Trees for Life has planted over 300,000 native trees in the Highlands of Scotland and plans to plant a further 100,000 in 2007 alone. I myself have spent 15 years working as a consultant in Africa, working on local economic development initiatives for clients as diverse as the World Bank, the UN and a host of NGOs.

And yet, as soon as we don our ‘ecovillage’ hats, it is apparently assumed that we will work for subsistence wages – if not for free! This curious fact betrays the strongly voluntaristic foundations of the ecovillage movement – created by visionaries turning their backs on misguided mainstream society. Solidarity within and between ecovillages was seen as paramount in a context of indifference or even open hostility from neighbouring indigenous populations.

However, this has changed – and it has changed fast. Many who were scornful of ecovillages as recently as a decade ago are now coming to realise that we were perhaps not after all barking up the wrong tree – nor barking mad. Meditation and complementary therapies have now become mainstream. Green is the colour of the age. And as local authorities ponder the environmental performance targets they have been set, they notice that ecovillages have been laboratories for just the sorts of technologies that they need to understand and adopt.

This is great news. We are seeing the development of a growing number of partnerships between ecovillages and local authorities across the world, and this is providing a much-needed source of income for many. However, the transition has not come without its growing pains as the suit and tie occasionally replace the overalls and as we learn to renegotiate our relationship with money, with power – and with those looking for advice for free.