Taking good intentions one step beyond
For Micah Sewell, a 25-year-old environmental studies student-to-be, it’s the chicken factory that did it. His couchsurfing host who lived just outside of Oslo worked every day cleaning eggs chicken had “spat out” at a concrete factory her neighbor had built next door.
“If I needed a wake-up call to see that I was doing the right thing by investigating ecological living, that was it,” he explained, comfortably nested on an earth-colored couch from the common room of a strawbale house of an ecovillage named Munksoegaard, located about 25 km outside of Copenhagen, in Denmark. “I don’t think anything should be raised this way,” he added, referring to the less-than-humane conditions the hundreds of chickens living in the factory had to endure. (Not to mention the mechanical tasks its workers repeated eight hours a day.)
Along with a team of six other people, the young American spent over two months exploring six eco-villages in Norway, Sweden and Denmark with the project One Step Beyond, whose aim is to document that living more sustainably and ecologically can be rewarding and fun.
Etienne Gernez, a 26-year-old French engineer who was inspired by another couchsurfer during the summer of 2008, conceived the project. The original idea was to cross the Atlantic with five sailing vessels and to travel across Europe for six months to visit the sustainable sites of Europe. Unfortunately, although the idea generated a lot of interest, it never took off.
But Gernez, a young man full of energy and passion, decided to realize the project on a smaller scale, in Scandinavia, by focusing on five different themes: waste, transportation, food, social life and energy. He had received an inheritance from a family friend, Brian Plummer, part of which he wanted to use for a good cause. Taken aback by the frenetic and stressful lifestyles his coworkers lead, constantly attending meetings, flying from one place to another a couple of times a month, he wanted to show that a different life, one closer and more respectful of nature, is possible.
Ecovillages, which are “human-scale, full-featured settlements, 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,” according to sustainability thinker Robert Gilman, seemed like the perfect laboratory for exploring such lifestyles. “They are places where people have invested time and money in finding new and alternative solutions to what is offered and what people are accepting,” Gernez explained. (This is also why ecovillages are often referred to as intentional communities. “When you live [an urban life], you have to use the way energy is produced by the city, its waste management system, its transportation… you have all these services and facilities that are offered. You can just use them without any thinking about how improving them. These people in eco-villages are working on making them better.”
In practice, this involves mainly two things: shared living spaces (or in some cases, co-housing) and modes of living that are respectful of the environment, which represent the pillars of eco-villages.
29-year-old Adrien Raybaud, the team’s cameraman, was interested in the greater impact eco-villages could have on reducing humans’ influence on the environment. “You make efforts to recycle plastic, glass; you try to take public transportation. Then you take the plane and your efforts go to waste. Do you stop living trying not to ruin the planet, or try to do your best and hope the others do too?” he asked. “That’s why I participaged in the production of this movie, because by yourself, you don’t do this much. By making this movie, by diffusing information, you can have a bigger impact.”
The One Step Beyond team visited communities at various stages of development. Suderbyn on Gotland Island in Sweden, for example, is a start-up project developed by a family of four with the help of volunteers. Munksoegaard and Svanholm in Denmark, however, are more ancient and established communities housing over 100 inhabitants each. The amount of individual financial liberty individuals give up represent one aspect differentiating the communities visited. In Munksoegaard, each inhabitant pays a part of the common budget through house rent fixed once a year based on a common agreement. But at Svanholm, inhabitants put in common 80% of their salaries. They keep the rest as pocket money. However, in exchange, they receive housing, organic meals, a kindergarten and a part of higher education fees paid for children, access to the community’s 30 cars (an extra fee is paid for every km driven) and most importantly, a community to rely on. (For a more in-depth look at the social aspect of eco-village life, please visit the section “the social aspect of eco-village living.)
“When you live in a place like this … you are much more inclined to go to a neighbor to help you solve a problem. You can meet a lot of your needs and build relationships rather than exchange money. People share energies to solve problems. They are more rooted in a place,” Micah Sewell explained. Decisions are generally achieved on a consensus basis, which means that everyone must agree on a proposal before it can be approved. This serves to avoid the frustration and dissatisfaction the minority can feel after a majority decision. But just because someone is against a decision, it doesn’t mean it cannot be carried out. Inhabitants are invited to propose alternative ideas. Proposals sometimes have to be redrafted a few times before they are finally approved.
How does it work in practice? “You won’t believe it,” explained 64-year-old Tom Michaelsen, a Svanholm inhabitant. “The hardest case we’ve had was about the bike shed. You can never agree on small things. It took 15 years for us to agree on this bike shelter!” However, when it came to the central heating system, which involved a cost of about six million kroners (close to 1 million euros), the decisions were made rather quickly. “Nobody knew anything about it. People thought, ‘it sounds ok’, we must have it. And the new cow stable cost about 6 million kroners: there was some discussion about it, but not that much,” Michaelsen added.
Lars Levin Jensen, one of the founding members of Munksoegaard, explained that “basically, we do the things that people want to do. If a lot of people are interested in building a playground, then a lot of money flows there. And that has worked.”
The One Step Beyond team is currently busy editing a one and a half hour documentary showing how inhabitants of eco-villages are attempting to “close the loop” through the use of rainwater for laundry washing, clean energy such as solar panels and windmills, buildings that once destroyed, can be turned into soil (for example, strawbale and cob houses), composting toilets, car-sharing, co-housing, common kitchens, local food production and bulk purchases, amongst others. With news of the consequences of the financial crisis still making headlines, the documentation work could inspire people to explore new living patterns and find information about existing solutions they can use right now.
According to Robert Hall, the founder of the start-up ecovillage Suderbyn in Sweden, “the financial crisis is not a bad thing ecologically. It might be an opportunity where more sustainable investments can be made because it’s a cooling off period. Governments have to stimulate the economy. I think people may see inherent dangers in the unstable financial system…. We’ve had people interested in living like this because they want a secure future. And [I believe] this is a secure future, a good wholesome way of living.”
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