Hurdal Ecovillage as an Alternative Ecological Space
Co-written with Hugo Ferreira and published electronically by Tvergastein.
The stories from Hurdal are Hugo’s, as he has carried out anthropological fieldwork there for an extended time.
“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – says the famous phrase, often attributed to Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, and referring to the lack of realistic alternative systems. At the same time, in the age of “liquid modernity”, Bauman 1,2 explains, prevails the immediate relationship and ultimate development of individualism – there is no room for collective projects, and politicians are mistrusted as they fail to solve long-term global challenges. Among these global challenges stands the ecological crisis, which is seen by the anthropologist Alf Hornborg 3 as a consequence of a thermodynamic imperialism – a global-system of unequal exchange that drains natural resources from the poorest areas and favors those in the richer areas who control technology. For Hornborg 4, the “root of all evil” is nothing less than money itself, the magical artifact that enables people to extract resources from anywhere and exploit anyone. Or, in Hornborg’s 5 words, “encouraging long-distance transports, economic and environmental inequalities, and a pervasive indifference with regards to the distant social and ecological consequences of consumption” (Hornborg , 2017, 625).
In Eriksen’s 6,7,8 terminology, the contemporary world is characterized by a series of interrelated runaway processes – growth spirals with no regulating governor or thermostat. The concept of overheating tries to capture the global situation of the early 21st century, where modernity has shifted to a higher gear, leading to the acceleration of acceleration. This has resulted in long-term disastrous effects on the environment and human well-being. The economy of scale, where large-scale operations almost inevitably outcompete the small and locally anchored, creates a growing gap between human life-worlds and the forces shaping them, leading to alienation and resentment (and, in many cases, a withdrawal into retrograde identity politics). In this world, where neoliberalism and mass production-consumption expand drastically, one may legitimately ask whether it is possible to believe in positive change – or if the end of the world somehow seems closer than the end of global capitalism.
“In this world, where neoliberalism and mass production-consumption expand drastically, one may legitimately ask whether it is possible to believe in positive change – or if the end of the world somehow seems closer than the end of global capitalism.”
The ecovillage movement
Some would say that The Ecovillage Movement has the potential of bringing forth an alternative. In order to assess this claim, we first need to define an ecovillage. As stated by Hilda Jackson 9, an ecovillage is “a human scale, full-featured settlement, in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world, in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future” (Jackson, 1998, 2). In short, ecovillages are communities that seek self-sufficiency and a simple life as an alternative way of life. According to Kasper 10, the ecovillage movement can be understood as a paradigm shift; “The ecovillage paradigm is not only different from the dominant western worldview, it is an understanding of the world that is consciously articulated and embodied in ecovillage practices, relations, and the physical setting itself” (Kasper, 2008, 23). Finally, the sociologist Ted Trainer optimistically postulates: “would it be an exaggeration to claim that the emergence of the ecovillage movement is the most significant event of the 20th century? I don’t think so” (quoted in R. Jackson, 2004, p.1)11.
However, the ecovillage movement has also been exposed to severe criticism. For instance, Fotopoulos 12 defends that ecovillages are “divorced from reality” and based on elitism and strong dependence of the capitalist system rather than real rupture, not creating a solution but rather a part of the problem. Or as Alexa Clay13 puts it: “If today’s communities offer escape from the cult of individualism only to end up being ‘walled gardens’ for a privileged class of bohemians, entrepreneurs or spiritual seekers, then perhaps, for all their material success, they might yet be said to have failed” (Clay, 2017).
Of course, all ecovillages may experience contradictions, reality shocks and frustrations – but also dreams, hope and engagement. Regardless of the various levels of enthusiasm shown to these communities, this article will handle the ecovillage as a serious project based on ideas of a simpler life, self-sufficiency, degrowth, ecolocalism and communitarian sharing. Notwithstanding the efficiency to change the present world system, the ecovillage is a sincere attempt to develop a slower, humane, downscaled and sustainable alternative to the aimless frenzy of overheated global capitalism.
For the purpose of discussing the scope and feasibility of ecovillages, we now move to a closer look at a specific ecovillage in Norway where I (Ferreira) am currently conducting anthropological fieldwork. Hurdal Ecovillage is located an hour’s drive north of Oslo. It is approximately 15 years old, and it can be divided into two periods: the early years (2002 – 2013) and the new era (2013 – now). In the beginning, there was the land and a house occupied by three families. Those who lived there at the time described it as quite challenging, especially sharing a single bathroom. From that point, the goal was to expand and build other houses with their own hands. Throughout the years around 7-8 houses have been built. The composition of the small community shifted somewhat through time, and the population consisted of a few stable families and drifters and hippies coming and going.
Some people who still live in the ecovillage describe those times as nice but tough. They were trying and experimenting, and for that many mistakes were made, leading to high debts. By 2012-2013, for economic and political reasons (which will be discussed later), it turned into a bigger project and nowadays it has approximately 100 residents living in 70-75 new houses especially adapted for heat storage and equipped with solar panels and waste separation boxes. Surrounded by a forest, the village has its own food production; 10,000m2 of land has been set aside for agricultural purposes. Accordingly, the whole community is able to generate wood-fire, plus solar energy and seasonal vegetables. In terms of village life there are a small range of ‘services’ that the inhabitants provide or ‘sell’ to each other, such as massages, therapies, wine/beer, carpentry, dancing lessons, homemade soap, baby-sitting and hitchhikes. Additionally, the dugnads (the Norwegian word for collective volunteer work) appears to be well functioning in the village.
However well-functioning these services seem to be, it is relevant to ask to what extent they can be conceptualized as part of an alternative economic space. Depending on the connotation of the concept, it would be easy to identify economic relations outside the market logic, or relations based on gift exchange systems. However, we suggest a different approach to this question by arguing that the Hurdal ecovillage can be seen as an alternative ecological space. As such, it consequently must be an alternative economic 14 space. The support for this argument will be discussed in the following sections.
The power of a simple life
Several critics view ecovillages as “romantic”, “idealistic” or “an escape from ‘the problem’”.
This has been a topic during Ferreira’s time in Hurdal Ecovillage. One of the inhabitants, Sabina (fictitious name), was once confronted with this by a friend; “Come on, what’s the point of living in an ecovillage? Do you think that becoming a farmer will really help? 15”
Sabina – who takes recycling at home and “conscious consumption” extremely seriously – thinks differently. She believes that to live in an ecovillage or to live a simple life is an essential form of action to make the world better. A simple life for Sabina means less consumption: to be more self-sufficient equals less stimulation to a global market that is leading the world towards an ecological and human catastrophe. The more independent you are from the system, she says, the less you contribute to it. Is that a silly thought?
Sabina is not alone in having these beliefs. The emphasis on local action and global thinking is widespread. As Catherine Blinder, a commune ex-resident, wrote in 2004:
By going ‘back to the land’ we would not be bound by the structures of society. We existed largely beyond the edges, beyond the rules… We were creating an alternative life, and many of us genuinely believed we could make a difference, that we could stop the war and work for social justice while practicing guerrilla farming and modelling a collective existence (quoted in Clay, 2007).
Many people in Hurdal ecovillage told me that “we do not really need all these things”, referring to material belongings. Somehow, this view is reminiscent of Isak, the main character in Knut Hamsun’s book Growth of the soil. In contrast to the other characters of the book, driven by their desire for material belongings, Isak is a simple-minded, hard-working farmer who does not really find use for the money he makes.
The inhabitants’ attraction to the ecovillage vary considerably. Almost everyone states sustainability and living in community are at the core, but other features are also important. Several people experience community and nature at a more spiritual level; a kind of mystic connection that cannot be reached in a big city. Others see the ecovillage as education: learning about “real” social relationships, as well as greater awareness of consumption habits and waste production. Others again see it as a social experiment and consider the project as a potential model for the future. Actually – and this is crucial – many of the villagers stress the unsustainability of cities, and therefore see ecovillages as the future. In other words, rather than seeing the ecovillages as an ‘escape’, the inhabitants themselves view them as an authentic engagement for a better world.
Scaling down, rebinding relations
In order to understand the ecological and economic crisis, a fundamental concept is scale (see Eriksen 2016c: Chapter 2). Indeed, ecovillages in general state the importance of “scaling down” life. There are several reasons to see the global scale as problematic, and accordingly we will show how Peter (the gardener in Hurdal Ecovillage) understands it. He illustrates his view with this anecdote:
Imagine that all the people in the world are now reduced to five persons sitting around a table. One of them has most of the resources and some of them have nothing or almost nothing. You see, this situation cannot stay much longer, because either the starving ones will attack the rich, or the rich will sincerely feel sorry for the others. But on a global scale, people are disconnected from each other, just like with nature.
Moreover, Peter speaks about spoilt consumers – in short, the average consumer of our times who is used to finding what they want in the supermarket. The consumer (referring especially to Europeans) buys food no matter the season, the climate in which it grows or country of origin. The problem is further summarized in his words:
The producer is not connected to the consumer. Is that important? Yes, that is important because if I know that you make something then I have a connection, a human connection, and life is about human connections. We need each other. The best way is to know each other. If you know the carrot, you will have more respect for the carrot and will not complain ‘oh but this carrot is a little bit ugly’. I think that there is even research done on it…if you know who made it, you will accept the ugly carrot. If you are in a supermarket, you will never ever buy that carrot, so you will leave it and eventually it will go to the dumpster and it is wasted. So sustainability is all about you knowing me. Like that, the carrot would be sold instead of thrown away or becoming animal food […] this place is so unique. Because you have a face behind the product, this guy working with all the volunteers, sitting on their knees…a lot of people say ‘wow, look what we have, here, in front of our home! We should embrace this’.
Interestingly, Peter has similar conclusions to what Hornborg – a highly recognized author in the fields of Ecological economics and Political ecology – has written:
The contemporary disarticulation of consumption from the resource flows and inputs of human labor that sustain them keeps economy and morality – things and persons – effectively apart. Such commodity fetishism rests on the invisibility of production. Its implications can sometimes protrude clearly in rural economies where this disarticulation is not always guaranteed. A relocalization of a “subsistence sphere of exchange” might thus increase our ability to grasp the social and ecological consequences of our consumption, and to reintroduce morality into economic life (Hornborg, 2007, p.68).
However, the ecovillage has been dealing with many challenges –like other alternative projects. In order to understand these challenges, we now provide some historical background.
Rooting dreams, facing reality
When the ecovillage was still in its early years there was some political-institutional pressure from the municipality: the houses did not conform to the official standards, and new houses had to be built. We know that the ecovillage did not have a very good reputation in the neighborhood, and there were rumors about “junkies”, “vagabonds” and “girls who do not shave their legs”. There was even a threatening episode where an anonymous caller told residents that they should leave or “the caller” would take action; the morning after there were some slaughtered hens by the farm and some offensive writing on their cars.
Summarizing the story, in order to make money for building the new houses and keep the ecovillage alive, they sold the property to a company that would build on the land. The old inhabitants had to either leave or buy a house, which resulted in most of them leaving. So, today, there are many new and modern houses (with mostly new inhabitants) that make up the ecovillage. Interestingly, since the ecovillage became “fancier”, many people in the area started to see it in a more positive way. Today, the ecovillage is considered a more prestigious place. Thus, most of the people who live in the ecovillage are no longer drifters and vagabonds, but people with jobs and a reasonable income. If before the problem was income, now the question is how to create jobs in the ecovillage and thus reduce their need for permanent positions in the cities.
To summarize, it is possible to see this short history as “environmental politics in a nutshell”: in the “roots phase” the project was based on lofty principles and strong convictions, and partly as a result, it was marginalized and even attacked by local people, but once it developed into a more pragmatic and compromising community, many doors were opened, and it was accepted more easily by mainstream society. Consequently, an important question fundamental to any project aspiring to change the world-system is: how “alternative” can an effective project allow itself to be?
We have already discussed the problem of scale, and so the next question is: how much can an ecovillage be scaled up? Obviously there is no intention here to find a magic number for sustainability and social harmony (even though some scientists argue in favor of a “natural scale” for human life). But Hurdal ecovillage itself has de-facto potential for 200 houses – approximately three times more than now – and it is striking how different the views of various residents are.
Some inhabitants believe that the bigger community the better. If the ecovillage grows it will draw more attention, and as such they would become more important and powerful. Some say that to grow is good because it will attract more people, and a bigger community would make it possible to find like-minded friends. Others say that it is big enough, and that growth would lead to a weakening of its cohesiveness; the inhabitants really know each other by now and live well together.
Nonetheless, in spite of the disagreements of scale, most of them would agree that ecovillages are the future and a viable way out of this socio-ecological crisis. In their view, big cities are unsustainable and alienating, and ecovillages represent a step forward (rather than withdrawal or isolation). In this sense, although there is no agreement on the virtues and disadvantages of scaling-up an ecovillage, it seems clear that most (if not all) ecovillagers take a positive view of scaling sideways, i.e. a world widespread with myriads of interconnected, yet autonomous and largely self-sufficient ecovillages. As one informant said, “we have been sustainable for thousands of years…the ecovillages would not be very innovative, but just a reinvention”.
Conclusion: an alternative ecological space?
As pointed out in this article, Hurdal Ecovillage is trying to be as self-sufficient as possible (in food, energy and certain services)based on principles such as degrowth, ecolocalism and permaculture, by emphasizing the importance of being detached from the global market. To scale down means making “visible” social and material relations that are normally obscured and fetichized by the capitalist system. Moreover, it is a step towards independence (as the common phrase says: to control food is to control people). Thus, its residents believe that to live a communitarian simpler life entails not only resistance to the political status-quo and to the socio-ecological crisis, but also to promote independence and to build a new society.
Yet the question needs to be raised again: is Hurdal Ecovillage an alternative economic space? Well, not necessarily. But if we see this ecovillage as an alternative ecological space, and consider that ecology entails economy – as many ecologists have been saying for decades – it in turn makes it an alternative economic space.
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3 Hornborg, A. 1992. “Machine fetishism, value, and the image of unlimited good: Towards a thermodynamics of imperialism.” Man, p.1-18.
4 Hornborg, A. 2007. “Learning from the Tiv: Why a Sustainable Economy Would Have to Be” Multicentric”. Culture & agriculture, 29.2, p.63-69.
5 Hornborg, A. 2017. How to turn an ocean liner: a proposal for voluntary degrowth by redesigning money for sustainability, justice, and resilience. Journal of Political Ecology, 24, p.623-632.
6 Eriksen, T. H. 2016a. “Overheating: the world since 1991”. History and Anthropology 27.5, p. 469-487.
7 Eriksen, T. H. 2016b. “Sobreaquecimento: pequenos lugares e grandes questões na antropologia do século XXI.” Etnográfica. Revista do Centro em Rede de Investigação em Antropologia, 20.1, p. 197-208.
8 Eriksen, T. H. 2016c. Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change. London: Pluto.
9 Jackson, H. 1998. “What is an Ecovillage.” Gaia Trust Education Seminar, Thy, Denmark in September (with minor updates).
10 Kasper, D. S. 2008. “Redefining community in the ecovillage”. Human Ecology Review 15.1: p.12-24.
11 Jackson, R. 2004. “The ecovillage movement.” Permaculture magazine, 40: p.25-30.
12 Fotopoulos, T. 2006. “Is the eco-village movement a solution or part of the problem”. The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy 2.3.
13 Clay, A. 2017. “Like start-ups, most intentional communities fail – why?” Aeon Essays, February 28.
14 Of course, one should note that this sense of economic is not a “monetarian” one, but rather the way to manage specific things. Reckon that both ecology and economy has the radical “oikos”, from Greek, which means “household”; and “nomos” is the Greek word for “rules” or “management”. So, economy would be the management of the household – and nothing strictly related to money itself.
15 Ferreira has been travelling around in ecological farms, and it is clear for him that “act local, think global” is a serious common thought among the environmentalists. Once he was taking with a Swedish organic farmer in his 70s. The farmer spoke a lot about global political problems and concluded: “so what can I do? Well, I can make good food!”