The Global Significance of the Ecovillage Movement

Ted Trainer — University of New South Wales, Australia

Cobb Hill Co-housing community, Vermont

Series: Ecological Design for Sustainable and Regenerative Futures

This article provides some of the meta-issues or global perspectives relevant to ecovillage designing. Ted Trainer, a long time proponent of the ecovillage solution, continues in this vein by offering the rationale for instituting his Simpler Way. Professor Trainer claims that most ‘greening’ doesn’t go far enough, that the transition to any truly ‘sustainable’ society will require a complete dismantling and replacement of current market economies and social systems based on the uninhibited acquisitiveness of a few. Ted is sharp in his critique of these outworn systems; yet it becomes apparent that his motivation is an underlying compassion. The article closes with an urging for ecovillage designers to apply their ‘craft’ to the larger scales of societies and political systems.

The basic argument in this article is that when the nature of the global predicament is understood it is obvious that the alarming problems now threatening to destroy civilization cannot be solved unless we move toward the ideas and practices evident within the global ecovillage and permaculture movements. Thus it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of these movements and the role they have played over recent decades in the transition to a sustainable and just world.

My argument will be that the alarming global problems we face cannot be solved in a society that is obsessed with affluent consumer lifestyles, production for profit rather than need, letting market forces determine society, and especially with a growth-forever economy. We cannot solve the big problems unless and until we accept the need for vast and radical transition to some very different systems, ways and values. My hope is that this article will persuade permaculture and ecovillage designers that this is the appropriate perspective from which to operate, and that their craft is therefore of far greater importance than is generally realized. Their field is nothing less than the design of not just gardens, homesteads, farms and villages, but of whole satisfactory societies. Sustainability and justice on a global scale cannot be achieved unless we build very different economies, political systems, geographies, and indeed cultures.

Ecovillage at Ithaca, Upstate New York

The foregoing remarks reveal a quite radical view of our situation, indeed one which goes much further than most ‘green’ people are willing to go; so here is an indication of the reasons why I think this view is valid. There are two major faults built into the foundations of our society: one to do with ‘sustainability’ and the other to do with ‘justice’.

Fault 1: Sustainability

The way of life we have in rich countries is grossly unsustainable. There is no possibility of the ‘living standards’ of all people on Earth ever rising to rich- world per capita levels of consumption of energy, minerals, timber, water, food, phosphorous, etc. These rates of consumption are the cause of the many alarming global problems now threatening our survival. Yet most people have no idea of the magnitude of the overshoot, of how far we are beyond a sustainable level of resource use and environmental impact. Consider: If all the estimated nine billion people likely to be living on Earth after 2050 were to consume resources at the present per capita rate in rich countries, world annual resource production rates would have to be about eight times greater than they are now. There are already worrying signs of shortages of food, water, fish, various minerals, forests, and especially petroleum.

‘Footprint analysis’ indicates that the amount of productive land required to provide one person in Australia with food, water, energy and settlement area is about eight hectares. The US figure is closer to 12 hectares. If nine billion people were to live as Australians do now, more than 70 billion hectares of productive land would be required. However, the total amount available on the planet is only about eight billion hectares. In other words, our rich-world per capita footprint is about 10 times as big as it will ever be possible for all people to have.

The greenhouse problem provides probably the clearest argument. It is increasingly becoming evident that we must completely eliminate all CO2 emissions by about 2050 if we are to keep global temperature rise below two degrees (Meinschaun, et al., 2009).

Such considerations make glaringly obvious the impossibility of all people having the ‘living standards’ we have taken for granted in rich countries like Australia. We are not just a little beyond sustainable levels of resource demand and ecological impact — we are far beyond them. Yet few people seem to grasp the magnitude of the overshoot. We must face up to dramatic reductions in our present per capita levels of production and consumption, and this cannot be achieved without abandoning the pursuit of affluent ‘living standards’ and facing up to enormous changes in institutional and system dynamics.

Damanhur Community, Italy

Now Add the Absurd Commitment to Economic Growth

The main worry is not the present levels of resource use and ecological impact, it is the level we will rise to given the obsession with constantly increasing volumes of production. The supreme goal in all countries is to raise incomes, ‘living standards’ and the GDP as much as possible, relentlessly, without any notion of limits; that is, the most important social goal is economic growth.

If we assume a) three per cent per annum economic growth, b) a population of nine billion, c) all the world’s people rising to the ‘living standards’ we in the rich world would have in 2070 given three per cent growth, then the total volume of world economic output would be 60 times as great as it is today. So even though the present levels of production and consumption are grossly unsustainable, the determination to have continual increase in income and economic output will multiply these towards absurdly impossible levels in coming decades.

This ‘limits to growth’ perspective is essential if we are to understand the most serious global problems facing us.

Tamera Community, Portugal

Fault 2: It is a Grossly Unjust Society

We in rich countries could not have anywhere near our present ‘living standards’ if we were not taking far more than our fair share of world resources. Our per capita consumption of items such as petroleum is around 17 times that of the poorest half of the world’s people. The rich 1/5 of the world’s people are consuming around 3/4 of the resources produced. Many people get so little that 850 million are hungry and more than that number have dangerously dirty water to drink. Three billion live on $2 per day or less. Conditions for the world’s poorest are deteriorating.

This grotesque injustice is primarily due to the fact that the global economy operates on market principles. In a market, need is totally irrelevant and is ignored — things go mostly to those who are richer, because they can offer more to pay for them. Thus we in rich countries get almost all of the scarce oil and other resources traded, while billions of people in desperate need get little or none. This explains why one third of the world’s grain is fed to animals in rich countries while tens of thousands of children die every day because they have insufficient food and clean water.

Even more importantly, the market system explains why Third World development is so very inappropriate to the needs of Third World people.

What is developed is not what is needed; it is always what will make most profit for the few people with capital to invest. Thus there is development of export plantations and cosmetic factories but not development of farms and firms in which poor people could produce for themselves the things they need using the land, water, talent and labour they have all around them.

These are the reasons why conventional development can be regarded as a form of plunder. The Third World has been developed into a state whereby its land and labour benefit the rich, not Third World people. Rich world ‘living standards’ could not be anywhere near as high as they are if the global economy was just. Rich world governments will not allow poor countries to pursue any other approach to development than one which lets the market determine development, and which therefore gears their economies to our interests.

It should be clear from this that a just and peaceful world cannot be achieved unless we in rich countries move to lifestyles and an economic system which allows us to live well on a small fraction of our present resource consumption, allowing the Third World to have its fair share.

Sieben Linden Ecovillage, Germany

These considerations of sustainability and global economic justice show that the big global problems cannot be solved in consumer-capitalist society. This society cannot be fixed. The problems are caused by some fundamental structures and processes of our society. Thus reform is ruled out; the faulty systems and structures have to be replaced.

If the foregoing analysis of our situation is valid, then many radical implications follow regarding the form that a sustainable and just society must take. We must move to ways that allow us to live on a small fraction of present resource consumption and ecological impact. The basic principles for an alternative way that would solve the big global problems, would work well, and would be attractive and enjoyable, must be as follows.

  1. Adopt far simpler material living standards

2. High levels of self-sufficiency within households, nations and especially neighbourhoods and towns, with relatively little travel, transport or trade.

3. Basically cooperative and participatory systems, whereby local citizens govern themselves

4. A quite different economic system, one not driven by market forces and profit, and in which there are far less work, production, and consumption.

5. Most problematic, a radically different culture, in which competitive and acquisitive individualism is replaced by frugal, self-sufficient collectivism.

Advocates of the Simpler Way believe that its many benefits and sources of satisfaction provide a much higher quality of life than most people experience in consumer society.

As I see it, the principles and designs I have put in terms of the Simpler Way correspond to those advocated by the ecovillage and permaculture movements. If there is any significant difference, it is probably only in focus. But when it comes to the design and functioning of towns, neighbourhoods and households, it should be obvious that the ecovillage and permaculture movements are pioneering the essential ways.

ZEGG Community, Germany

The transition cannot be driven or forced on people by government. The new local societies can only be built and made to work by the willing efforts of local people who understand why the Simpler Way is necessary and who want to live that way because they find it rewarding. Only local people know the local conditions and social situations so only they can develop the systems, networks, trust, cooperative climate, etc. that suit them and will generate enthusiastic and energetic contributions.

Thus, the most important task for people concerned about the fate of the planet is to help ordinary people where they live to understand the need for transition from consumer society, and to move toward willing and happy acceptance of alternative ways. By far, the best way for concerned people to do this is to plunge into the actual building of whatever new ways we can initiate where we live; thus the enormously valuable contribution of the Ecovillage movement in providing examples over thirty years is apparent.

But there is an extremely important point here that I fear is not clearly understood by people in these movements. Simply building here and now more of the practices we want in the new society is not enough, and if this is all we do it will not result in a sustainable and just society. Nothing of lasting significance will be achieved unless we bring about that huge change in general awareness of the need to transition from consumer society to some kind of Simpler Way. This is the supremely important task for anyone concerned about the fate of the planet. Building new permaculture gardens and even whole ecovillages is not nearly as important as building the collectively-shared vision. If we can do that, people will begin happily remaking their settlements and economies in no time!

It is, I think, beyond dispute that if we make it through the next fifty years to a sustainable and just world, then this transition will have been led by the ecovillage and permaculture initiatives. As I see it, ecovillage and permaculture designers have a special opportunity and responsibility here. My hope is that they will define their task widely and radically, as going beyond designing gardens, farms and villages to embracing the design of whole sustainable and just social, economic and political systems.

Findhorn Community, Scotland


Many of us feel that our current consumer lifestyles are no longer sustainable nor desirable, on a personal to global level and that our ecological systems appear to edge closer and closer towards collapse, but we believe that more sustainable or regenerative ways of living our lives are possible, feasible and viable, but what are these alternative ways of living? In trying to Design for Sustainability we seek to consciously reinvent ecological living from the ground up, honing in on aspects traditional knowledge and connection to land and country, but similarly integrated them with modern sciences and ideas such as sustainable production and consumption, regenerative agriculture and food production, appropriate technologies for water and energy systems, green and sustainable building and construction, and weaving all together through whole systems and regenerative design approaches and methods to achieve one planet living design and development outcomes.

Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability offers you an opportunity to learn practical effective ways to create the change we all seek in your community. The Ecological Design dimension of the course starts on 15th January 2018 and there are a limited amount of places left for this year, so sign up now.

This series of excerpts was created by Peter Gringinger for Gaia Education, from the Ecological Key, a collection of articles collated in the book ‘Designing Ecological Habitats- creating a sense of place, offer background material to the curriculum of the Ecological Design dimension of both Gaia Education’s face-to-face EDE and our online GEDS programmes. This series highlights some classic articles from that compendium. Enjoy!

This article features in Designing Ecological Habitats, the second volume of Gaia Education’s ‘Four Keys to Sustainable Communities’ series (officially endorsed by UNESCO). The book is available for purchase here and on Gaia Education’s online shop:

Gaia Education is a leading-edge provider of sustainability education that promotes thriving communities within planetary boundaries.

Want to know what you can do? The Ecological Design dimension of the course starts on 15th January 2018 and there are still places left, so sign up now!

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