Member-driven, bottom-up ecovillages around the world epitomize the “think global, act local” insight that humans can understand and respond to undisciplined human consumption—and do it where we live.
Because our communities were gradually shaped by the dreams, designs, and compromises among a diversity of people, each village has become a unique creation. This is part of our charm and could not be otherwise. Yet having been created along distinctive historical trajectories, the resultant physical configurations of our communities prevent them from being globally replicable—not at scales sufficient to shelter the millions of humans relentlessly moving into already overtaxed urban areas in the teeth of equally relentless climate change.
The deep-rooted knowledge we embody of how generations can thrive together in community harkens back to millennia of human experience. In recent decades much of this experience, withered by a century of heat from the atomizing furnace of industrial demographic concentrations, has been recovered in cohousing cultures like the one I live in. While these evolving patterns of liberating experience cannot be reproduced on a robotized assembly line, the physical components that permit them to thrive sustainably can be. And they must be if we want our culture to radiate globally.
It is by economies of scale that the devices of modernity we often love to hate have “trickled down” through all social levels. Systems far more complex than those that compose a fully outfitted ecovillage have become the ordinary trappings of our daily life. But they have become so only when actually exposed to a market-driven discipline of evolutionary redesign and cost cutting.
Consider the gradual social diffusion of automobiles, piped hot water, flush toilets, gas and electric ovens, refrigerators with freezing compartments, telephones, radios, airlines, air conditioning, televisions, microwave ovens, personal computers and smart phones. These were restricted to the few until increased production numbers and competitive engineering reduced costs so they could be afforded first by a solid middle class and finally by folks of modest and low income.
Now consider a couple of questions. What social-economic level is typically represented in today’s member-created ecovillage—shaped as they have been by current construction and technology costs? On the trajectory of economic accessibility, what social range cannot be served at these costs? My own answer is that at current costs ecovillage projects are almost exclusively the preserve of solidly middle to upper class folks and that others of modest to low income are excluded. And absent the prototyping of a technically integrated and mass-replicable alternative, I think they must remain so.
The relative lack of affordability inherent in member-designed and built communities is a moral dilemma much discussed in my community—EcoVillage at Ithaca. Even when dramatic steps are taken to keep our communities from going the way of exclusionary gentrification, a painfully obvious fact remains. To date there is no way that folks of modest income can plan and build ecovillages. So far there has been a missing link in the evolutionary trajectory of the ecovillage movement. This article will argue that that link is a developer-driven prototype for a technically integrated and maximally autonomous ecovillage and that such a model has recently emerged—RegenVillage.
What is the RegenVillage model?
It is a developer-driven, replicable, global-scale ecovillage model. The Venice Architecture Biennale in May 2016 generated a flood of interest in the RegenVillage conceived by James Ehrlich and his associates at Stanford and designed by EFFEKT Architects of Copenhagen. A prototype of this model is soon to begin at Almere in the Netherlands. Lund, Sweden and other northern European locations appear ready to follow. I try to see this development in the light of the last century and a half of economic history. As such I regard it as a necessary first step in making the ecovillage culture an affordable, social option for all classes.
The RegenVillage project has self-consciously set for itself the task of designing and prototyping autonomous ecovillages suitable for all the world’s climatic regions. It will initially focus on adapting its design to the rigors of the colder climates of Europe and the more arid climates of the Middle East. It reasons that proof of concept at these extremes would also ensure success in more forgiving regions.
It plans to build “autonomous, regenerative villages powered by renewable energy, and managed by machine learning MEMS (micro-electrical-mechanical-system) inputs. Energy-efficient, aesthetically pleasing and comfortable homes capable of producing redundant high-yield, organic food and energy sources for self-sustaining communities.” (Stanford RegenVillages Initiative, www.youtube.com/watch?v=PN67HuUtrSo)
Global challenges and the Regen response: the re-villaging of mankind
The historian Arnold Toynbee argued that societies grow by creatively responding to challenges and then successively transcending any unanticipated consequences that result.
This section looks at some of today’s challenges and the RegenVillage effort to play a serious part in addressing them at a global scale. A self-monitoring component is part of the Regen business model. From the outset, the RegenVillage project intends that each local village should become an open-source, information-sharing venue. These will provide continual input to advance overall curriculum development, research, incubation, and innovation. The goal is to meet the following challenges.
About 40 percent of Earth’s land surface area is now deforested, biodegraded farmland. Every acre devoted to Regen’s integrated system of fish, livestock, and vertical aqua farming could replace 10 of these conventional farmland acres, while producing a biologically diverse yield of food in equivalent amounts. The other nine acres could be regenerated using permaculture techniques that would gradually sequester carbon naturally.
Today 70 percent of global water consumption is used for terrestrial farming, causing rivers and lakes to dry up. Every gallon of rain water harvested and stored or grey water recovered and cycled into a RegenVillage’s integrated system of fish, livestock, vertical aqua-farming, and seasonal terrestrial farming leaves nine gallons in the aquifer to regenerate rivers and lakes.
Globally, the manufacture of fertilizers, along with current farming practices, food transport, and refrigeration accounts for about 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions as well as causing nitrogen and phosphorous contamination of groundwater, rivers and lakes. In the RegenVillage model livestock consumption of food scraps and composting displaces those fertilizers. Phosphorous and nitrogen no longer wash into the environment. Black Soldier Fly larvae digest human waste and scraps and become protein-rich fish food whose detritus then enriches the water mediums of aquaponic and aeroponic systems for growing organic food. Farm-to-table, doorstep-accessible food eliminates transportation costs and is the only definitive cure for hunger since it empowers its erstwhile victims to become self-sufficient where they live.
Traditionally, humans work in large part to pay for their shelter. The Regen project aims for the shelter to provide rather than absorb personal income. It would embed human life within a self-reliant community of asset-producing dwellings and infrastructure. This would ultimately reverse the flow of income. Redundant energy, water, and food produced would become mortgage-eating income assets. A smart house that is also embedded in a smart community creates valuable assets. Meanwhile, regenerative residency not only restores its actual footprint but also de-stresses that portion of the world beyond that is no longer required to supply its needs.
Today 842 million people cannot produce the food they need to live active, healthy lives. They are mostly rural farmers in climatically challenged areas. While one in every seven people in the world suffers from hunger, one in every three pounds of food is wasted in storage, transport, and undisciplined disposal of scraps. Food transfers from other regions are currently the only backups when transient weather or long-term climate change turn on challenged farmers. Would it not be more helpful to empower them where they are now? A truly unassailable form of food security would require empowerment through local self-sufficiency. It requires that sunlight, water, human waste, food scraps, and technology close a virtuous biological circle with gardening and fish and livestock husbandry.
Regenerative basal metabolism replacing unprincipled human consumption
It is not any particular level of human consumption of natural and manufactured goods that has compromised our Earth. Rather it is the undisciplined acquisition of their components and the indiscriminate dispersion of their waste that has so compromised our life on Earth. Transforming the outputs of human consumption from being waste into becoming value-added inputs in the natural circle of life is the regenerative circle that autonomy embodies.
The RegenVillage model mixes rainwater and sunbeams with human waste to produce potable water, organic food, and power in a sustainable self-reliant circle. Its community metabolism displays embodied energy constantly shape-shifting through multiple channels. Since a given category of human leavings might economically enter different processing streams at different times, their flows will be monitored with MEMS sensing and triggering devices that will channel them efficiently to meet community needs.
Regenerative flows of waste, food, water, and energy characterize the metabolism of the Regen Village prototype. Except for the critical inputs sun and rain these flows form continuous cycles within the community:
● Human “waste” starts to become an asset as it is being sorted into compostable and non-compostable leavings.
● Compostable lawn and garden cuttings can stream toward compost bins or biogas digesters.
● Compostable food scraps can stream toward compost bins, to a biogas digester, to livestock as food, or to feed the larvae that emerge from the eggs of black soldier flies.
● These larvae then become a protein-rich food for pigs, fowl, or fish.
● Fish water becomes a nutrient-rich soup channeled into aquaponic tanks or mist in aeroponic vertical farming.
● The fish and the livestock can be harvested as protein-rich human food.
● Non-compostable human fecal matter can stream toward either soldier fly larvae for fish food or a biogas digester for energy and water recovery.
● Urine can stream toward a bio-digester or be diluted for direct use as a terrestrial garden fertilizer.
● Biogas processing recovers water that is channeled to a water storage facility.
● It also produces gas that is fed into a smart grid to be used directly as combustible fuel or indirectly by generating electricity for local use or regional trade.
● Electricity is also harvested from rooftop solar panels for similar dispositions.
● And adjacent to these are solar thermal devices that directly transfer heat energy into maintaining water and room temperatures within homes.
● At the water-storage area, grey water from homes is separated toward a holding tank for irrigation of the seasonal farm whose soil has been enhanced by manure-enriched compost.
● Meanwhile, potable water harvested from rain or separated out from the bio-digester effluent will provide community drinking water and irrigate aquaponic and aeroponic organic produce as needed.
Summing up: Why the urgency?
My own home of EcoVillage at Ithaca required an entire generation to build a community for 100 families in three neighborhoods. EVI grew within the warp and woof of families knitting their lives and their dreams together. Its particular patterns of dwellings, infrastructure, agriculture, and self-governance and management are deeply sustainable by today’s standards. EVI’s achievement is an against-the-odds accomplishment that honors the imagination and endurance of the generation who created it.
But we may not have much more than the time of another such generation to re-village an entire planet’s worth of urban and rural neighborhoods with a community metabolism based on locally produced food and harvested energy—if we are to slow and stabilize climate change and provide definitive food security for all humans.
Here’s how I hope folks in the ecovillage movement see the RegenVillage model. It is a blueprint for a tightly integrated and constantly evolving group of building and farming techniques that can produce a strategically autonomous community about the size of a neighborhood or village. It transforms sunbeams through food into smiles.
Many of us spent years and tears designing and building sustainable communities. We know where bodies are buried. So, here’s what I suggest. Draw upon your own heritage and having read through this essay, now go to the EFFEKT RegenVillage website and study their model. Then ask yourself this question: “If this model had been available to me when I joined a group in search of a just and sustainable community, would I have insisted that we design our own model or would I be trying to persuade my partners that we aim from the outset for the autonomous patterns of EFFEKT’s RegenVillage model?”
And here’s another more critical question. Which model, a member-designed and built village like yours or mine or a RegenVillage model, is most likely to bring meaningful security to those whom an earlier generation often referred to as the “Wretched of the Earth.”
In an article by Sheila Shayon, James Ehrlich addresses meeting the needs of marginalized rural populations: “While ReGen chose Almere [in the Netherlands as its( first prototype] for its upper-middle class potential, the bigger prize is in developing countries as billions migrate from rural communities in search of better living conditions. Half the world’s population lives in cities today and projections are that 2.5 billion people will be moving to cities in the next 50 years….
“‘Our intent from the very beginning is global scale, and bringing thriving, regenerative and resilient platform design thinking into peri-urban and rural areas where it’s frankly needed the most….
“‘With the inclusion of high broadband access into each ReGen Village, along with other managed services at the neighborhood scale, it is our ambition to encourage families to stay in their local villages, and eventually to attract city dwellers back into these areas….for the future of humanity.’” (www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/cleantech/sheila_shayon/regen_villages_behind_design_self-sustaining_eco-communities)
The return to a form of community life locally sufficient in food and energy, but enhanced with modernity’s option-expanding innovations, is not a radical idea. It seems radical only from the perspective of our addictive dependence on a globally trafficked web of energy and food that, not unlike those for outlawed drugs, services us by despoiling the natural order of life on Earth. I would add that the above-mentioned “wretched of the earth” also dwell in the hollowed-out cities and in the rural backwaters of America.
Mac Maguire lives at EcoVillage at Ithaca; contact him at larremag [AT] gmail.com.
Sidebar: Neighborly Questions and Critiques
After reading an earlier version of this article some of my brothers and sisters at EVI were kind enough to reply to my request for their thoughts. Since I take them seriously, the article has morphed a bit where my writing may have misrepresented. Their questions and views can be summed up as follows:
● If this model is prototyped among educationally underserved communities must there not be some instructional component to develop the skills necessary to deal with the technology involved?
● How would this model deal with transportation issues?
● Is there a place for social gatherings and common meals in this model or is it more like a super-green condo franchise?
● The Regen Model does not seem to fully appreciate the social muscles and instincts that can only be honed in a community of folks intentionally sharing their lives in meaningful ways. These are critical to the success of any community no matter how technically savvy the physical side may be.
● If the Regen Model as described actually did succeed on the scale described it might have the unintended consequence of undermining local economies and regional solidarity.
● However green and regenerative, some folks would be excluded from what would likely become more gated communities that cut themselves off from the needs of the ambient region.