The potential of communities for global change

This July DRIFTer Ilonka Marselis attended the annual Global Ecovillage Network Conference in Estonia, where she gave a workshop on the role of envisioning in ecovillages, based on her thesis research. In the beautiful ecovillage Lilleoru just half an hour outside of Tallinn, over 500 ecovillage inhabitants and enthusiasts from all over the world gathered for the conference to exchange knowledge and to be in community with each other. Ilonka provides a reflection on the conference and its central theme: ‘the wisdom of conscious communities’ and the potential this holds for change towards a sustainable future.


The African proverb “if you want to go fast you go alone, if you want to go far you go together” brings up a dilemma, as with the current ecological, economic and social crises across the globe, we need to change fast and far at the same time. Community holds the key to working on joint and individual ideas at the same time, providing space for individual empowerment as well as effective cooperation. Community is a feeling much more than a physical group of people. It arises from a shared passion, vision and/or dream and creates a sense of belonging and connection between people. Community is a group consciousness and a collective intelligence that holds a vast potential for action, creativity and problem solving. It is exactly these qualities, which enable Community to play a crucial role in overcoming the current biophysical and socio-economic tensions that are felt across the globe. The same qualities have also been the source of my profound interest in the ecovillage movement for years.

Welcome to the GEN-Conference – Picture by Ilonka Marselis


The ecovillage movement
Whenever I talk of ecovillages to friends and colleagues in the Netherlands, I quickly lose my audience because of their associations with hippies, vague spirituality or naivety. The ecovillage movement is however far from naïve and goes much beyond some local manifestations of living in harmony with nature. The ecovillage movement is a global community and a powerful force of change, away from the current, destructive societal systems. Conscious communities like the global ecovillage network and its local manifestations demonstrate and promote a vibrant alternative to the individualistic, neoliberal society that is destroying our planet and livelihoods. A driving force behind this is the potential that arises from community and collective intelligence.


Before I elaborate on the role community can play in global change towards sustainability, let us look at the ecovillage movement and the variety of its local manifestations. Primarily, ecovillage inhabitants are people who see the importance of putting their values into actions. Rather than fighting against the current system through activism or lobbying, they focus on demonstrating a positive alternative. They do not (just) resist the current system, they actively ask themselves what a sustainable world could look like and continue to actualize their visions. Ecovillages are living examples of what a democratic, ecological, non-violent, free world can look like and how deteriorated landscapes can be regenerated and bonds between people and nature can be healed. For many people this is an inspiration, as a frequent visitor of the Scottish ecovillage Findhorn states:


“Being at Findhorn always reminds me that powerful and positive visions for the future can be realized…”


Local manifestations of ecovillages are very diverse and to many, this is exactly what makes the movement strong. The Ecovillage concept, is one in which many concepts fit; there is space for various interpretations and worldviews. This facilitates freedom in adaptation of the concept to local needs and circumstances and with that resilience. There are ecovillages that focus on repurposing abandoned land or starting alternative economies, some offer a home and purpose for traumatized refugees, others experiment with off-grid, renewable energy technologies. Some ecovillages focus on regenerating traditional ecosystems, yet others center around personal development and spirituality. All ecovillages have in common that they apply self-sufficient, sustainable building and agricultural practices in order to live in harmony with nature. On top of this, ecovillage inhabitants often practice non-violent communication techniques and embrace conflict as a source of creativity.


Through having a shared passion and living in community, individuals in ecovillages feel belonging and purpose, from which arises empowerment to express themselves in realizing the shared vision. An inhabitant of the ecovillage Tamera in Portugal illustrates how this can serve as a model for a sustainable future:


“A model for the future needs not only new technology and a healthy ecology, but also people who are able to use these tools in a meaningful way. It needs people who have learned how to stay together even during conflicts, solving them in non-violent and creative ways and remaining committed to solidarity even in difficult times. Community knowledge is the foundation of social sustainability.


In: Dregger (2011). Tamera; a model for the future. Verlag Meiga, Germany.

The Flower of Life Park in Lilleoru – Picture by Ilonka Marselis


The importance of dreaming about alternative futures
An insight from the conference is that what really keeps the current system in place is not the lack of technical solutions, but actually social inertia. One of the keynote speakers, environmental rights lawyer, author, teacher and permaculture expert Albert Bates, emphasizes that this is the real barrier that has to be overcome for achieving fundamental system change. Social inertia can be explained as the resistance or unwillingness of people to change, or they might be willing to change but do not act upon this. The technical solutions for living self-sufficiently using local materials, simple techniques and inclusive processes, as well as how to regenerate soils and landscapes and heal places and people are known to a large extend. A call arising at the conference is therefor to stop discussions about which technical solution is better than the other or trying to work out every detail of renewable living, but instead focus on the core of the systemic inertia: people. If one really wants to create a sustainable future (or nowadays even a future for humanity at all): focus on people. Once people are willing to change and feel empowered, the technical specifics will follow.


How to tackle this social inertia? Based on various talks and discussions at the conference, at least two things will play an important role: the capacity for dreaming and community. John Croft, founder of a project management technique called dragon dreaming, provided insight on the importance of individual and collective dreaming. Individuals need to fantasize about alternative futures and they need to believe in every single dream that comes up. If one hold the possibility of a dream open in their mind, even without making any concrete plans of actualizing this dream, it keeps open the potential and the intention for it to be realized. Croft illustrated this with wisdom from the Australian indigenous people who believe that when a person has stopped dreaming, their soul has left their body. Signs of a soulless person are depression, feelings of powerlessness and apathy; symptoms I see increasingly more all around me here in the Netherlands.


Disempowerment of individuals keeps a system in place. Certain media and bodies are now enhancing this by constantly conveying messages like “the system is so strong and rigid it can never be changed. You as an individual can never influence anything”. By sending out these messages, people feel more disempowered and lose their capacity for dreaming even more. Simple first steps towards breaking (your own) social inertia is to start dreaming or fantasizing about positive futures and believing in the possibility of every single dream. Other futures are possible and can be actualized by however small a group of dedicated people. Because after all, quoting John Croft: the only thing that ever changed the world were small groups of people.


Collective visions for empowerment
If we want to go fast and far at the same time in overcoming ecological and socio-economic tensions around the world, we need to somehow create joint projects out of individual dreams. For this, according to Croft, we need shared dreaming. To actualize a personal dream effectively, you need to find a group of people in order to start a project. For this to be successful and effective, this group has to create a collective dream or vision.


Collective envisioning is a technique at the core of ecovillages and is even an aspect of transition management as used by DRIFT. Creating a collective vision means that individuals have to let go of their own dream and instead co-create a collective dream with a group of people. Each individuals dream should become a part of the collective dream, creating a much more comprehensive dream or vision. On top of this, when a dream or vision is shared across a team instead of owned by the initiator of a project or the director of a company, the energy will be much more equally divided amongst the people involved. When every person can also take up a role in the process, which they like and that suits them, they can contribute to actualizing the vision from intrinsic motivation and inspiration. The shared dream becomes the center of an organization, rather than a person or board. A shared dream will instantly create community as there is now a group of people sharing a passion. And, where there is community, there is access to collective intelligence.

Dragon Dreaming describes and guides us toward a huge liberation of collective intelligence.” www.dragondreaming.com

Vegetable Garden at ecovillage in Estonia – Picture by Ilonka Marselis

Keynote speaker Jonathan Dawson, sustainability educator at Schumacher College, articulates that creating communities will ultimately result in decentralized, democratic network organization. There lies a big intelligence and power in networks, which can be seen as a form of collective intelligence. When several communities working towards similar dreams arise, networks can arise where people look at three things to support the nodes in the network. What is each node doing the same, maybe we can provide this as a resource; what is unique in one node that other nodes can benefit or learn from, maybe we can spread this; what does every node dislike to do, maybe we can provide this as a resource. The Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) is a good example of a network making use of collective intelligence as they support local ecovillages. One level higher, networks like ECOLISE support networks like GEN by coupling several networks of community-led, sustainability oriented action. Like a beehive structure, communities can support each other through networks and higher level networks can support these networks and so on. As keynote speaker Jonathon Dawson phrased it:


“If we overcome the bottleneck of current biophysical dislocation, historians will look at this moment as the shift from top-down centralized organization towards distributed, highly democratized network organization forms


Let’s start dreaming today
For many attendees of the conference, tapping into collective intelligence is crucial for realizing a sustainable future. To access the potential of collective intelligence, we need community. This, to me, uncovers the immense relevance of the experiences and knowledge accumulated in the ecovillage movement.


I believe in the power of community. Having experienced community feeling and the empowerment that comes from setting intentions based on personal and collective dreams, I would want to suggest that perhaps the next step in evolution and also our chance for overcoming climate change and other global crises lies in collective intelligence, network organization and community. The capacity for dreaming, of visualizing alternatives and fantasizing about futures, will play a crucial role in this. So let’s start dreaming today that a better world is possible. To me it is one of community, individual empowerment and deep connection to each other and to nature.


Read more
Visit the website of the Global Ecovillage Network – Europe or read more about dragon dreaming in the open access e-book.

August 13, 2018