Ecovillages vs. Big Cities: What’s Better for the Planet?

Earthaven living

I was surprised when I first entered Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina during a recent weekend and immediately heard the rumbling sound of a tractor on a barren patch of land that had obviously been forest not long before. How can an “ecovillage” have heavy machinery and clear its forests? I was expecting this to be an eco-paradise!

Without dwelling much on that first encounter, my weekend at Earthaven had many aspects of an eco-paradise. I learned about the many tasty and medicinal uses for wild plants, interacted with the vibrant kids of the village, and learned the ways of humanure (yes, human manure) and urine fertilizers.  Then, sitting around a campfire on my last evening, one of the Earthaven residents – Galen – asked boldly to the group, “Who do you think has a smaller carbon footprint—an Earthaven resident or a New York City resident?”

In our heads, I and the others around the fire were pretty much thinking, “Well, duh! An Earthaven resident has a smaller footprint. I mean, it’s EARTH-haven!” But, as we talked about some key differences between Earthaven and New York City, the answer became less clear. Life at Earthaven requires clearing land for new homes, trucking in tanks of propane gas to keep the village “off the grid,” and frequent hour-long drives to Asheville for farmers markets and laundromat visits. A New Yorker, on the other hand, has access to most necessities within a couple blocks, travels by foot or public transit, and generally benefits from efficiency of scale for all sorts of goods and services.

Galen even cited a recent study that calculated per-capita carbon emissions from transport and residential energy usage in 100 U.S. cities.  New Yorkers had the fourth lowest footprint, at 1.5 tons of carbon per year, compared to the 2.2 ton average among all surveyed cities, and 2.6 tons for the average American.

In the face of New York’s apparent efficiency advantages, for a moment Earthaven seemed unsustainable. I recalled a study from the Association of Danish Ecovillages that calculated the average footprint of three Danish ecovillages to be roughly 0.4 tons of carbon per person. [For the study, see p. 63 here] That was encouraging, but wouldn’t quite apply to Earthaven – a young and growing village, still building and working out many kinks in the path to off-grid sustainable living. “But that’s just it,” someone insisted. “It’s where we’re headed that counts. The footprint we’re aiming for is far lower than a New Yorker’s.”

New York City living

This final point articulated for me the essential role of cultural pioneers. New Yorkers may have achieved fairly efficient lifestyles, but not efficient enough to support a planet of 7 billion people living equitably and without environmental degradation.  Cultural pioneers will lead us to further levels of efficiency, through innovations we’ve never thought of before. Earthaven is a hotbed for these innovations: nearly all human waste is handled with very little water usage, and the village hosts herbal medicine and organic plant businesses that are popular and locally marketed. They haven’t perfected electricity-free laundry or biodigesting food waste for gas, but those systems are in the works. When finished, they will not only lower Earthaven’s footprint, but their ideas could be adopted in many other settings as well.

In his chapter entitled “Ecovillages and the Transformation of Values,” State of the World 2010 contributor Jonathan Dawson argues that the most significant role of ecovillages is their contribution “to a radical transformation of values… that may make the transition to sustainability easier and more graceful.” They do this in four ways: “delinking growth from well-being, reconnecting people with the place where they live, affirming indigenous values and practices, and offering a holistic and experiential educational ethic.”

That is not to say New York City is void of cultural pioneers. In fact, efforts to reduce New Yorkers’ environmental impact abound in the city.  In both New York and Earthaven, the pioneers of a sustainable culture are not yet living in the sustainable world they envision for the future. Indeed, they’re not supposed to be. Cultural pioneers are working in education, government, business, media, and entertainment to demonstrate sustainable practices and excite others about the prospects of a more sustainable future. If a teacher starts an organic classroom garden, but the school is highly energy inefficient and has terrible environmental practices overall, the school should still be viewed as a pioneer of sustainable culture. A garden may lead to a lunchroom composting system. True pioneers continue to expand the frontiers of sustainable living, wherever they are.

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