The Path To Surviving Peak Oil

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Jonathan Dawson investigates how green eco-villagers really are.
your footprint’ guides, there is no apparent sign of any drop in general consumption. What can be happening? How can it be that the tidal wave of messages – about the importance of turning off the standby function on devices, using energy-efficient lightbulbs and travelling by mass public transport rather than private motorcar – are not translating into significant reductions in resource and energy use? Some interesting clues emerge from the findings of recent research into ecovillages. Studies undertaken in association with universities in Scotland, Germany and the United States have found that ecovillages have succeeded in achieving footprint results far below the national average. Moreover, the study results come packaged in two further significant wrappings of good news. First, they have succeeded in reducing their footprints while retaining a high quality of life; small
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ootprints are suddenly all the rage. As recently as four or five years ago, mention of the term evoked blank stares – now carbon calculators abound and even the proverbial ‘man in the street’ seems to have a fair idea of how many planets we would need if everyone in the world enjoyed the average West European lifestyle. (The answer is about three and nearer five and a half were North American lifestyles to become the global norm.) Yet despite the increase in eco-literacy and the proliferation of ‘How to reduce

footprints, in short, do not need to mean pinched feet. Second, while ecovillages tend to be highly distinctive initiatives, there are good grounds for believing that at least some of the core factors explaining the low footprints can be replicated – easily and with pleasure – into more mainstream contexts. By far the most important factor accounting for the low footprints in the ecovillages under study was communality. That is, by working together and co-operating, far more options are open to people than if they try to work alone or in nuclear units. (Really, this should be a surprise to no-one: we have, for almost the entire existence of our species, lived in relatively small, co-operative communities and only the historical blip of plentiful fossil fuel energy has given us the illusion that we can live well outside of a community context.) Yet, it seems to be a truth that is hard to swallow. After

Above: Flying is one of the main problems that eco-villagers need to address. Bottom left: Low-energy lightbulbs are most people’s introduction to energy saving. Below: Footprints are suddenly all the rage.

Footprints a all the

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© Findhorn Foundation

Community residents have a footprint a fraction over half of the national average.
Above: Saving energy in more ways than one at the Findhorn Foundation Community, Scotland. Bottom right: Eco-villagers’ decisions are rarely black & white but they do aim to be green. enjoying the bulk of Al Gore’s film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, I winced through the final rolling credits with their multiple messages about what the individual could do to address climate change. What a missed opportunity I thought, when the message could have been framed in terms of simultaneously reducing resource use and reweaving the fabric of our communities. The truth is that the gravitational pull of the global economy and the structures and ideology that support it are so strong that individuals have little chance of significantly breaking its orbit. As a group of cotton workers in Rochdale first demonstrated in the 1830s, cooperative action is necessary. So, let’s take a look at several specific recent studies. The first was an emissions study undertaken by the University of Kassel in 2003, that compared two ecovillages with two ‘ecofriendly’ households and the German average household. Per capita, CO2 emissions in the Ökodorf Sieben Linden and the Kommune Niederkaufungen – two members of the Global Ecovillage Network – were respectively 72 per cent and 58 per cent lower than those of an average German household. Tellingly, both were also significantly lower than the green households. Sieben Linden scored especially well in the fields of heating and housing, where the community recorded reductions of CO2 emissions by 90 and 94 per cent respectively of the national average. Then, Ecovillage at Ithaca in upstate New York, had several ecological footprint studies done, one by Cornell University, another by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). These both found that the community’s footprint was more than 40 per cent lower than the national average. Finally, the recently published ecological footprint
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study of the Findhorn Foundation community in Scotland reveals that the community’s residents have a footprint a fraction over half of the national average – 2.71 hectares per capita compared to a UK national average of 5.40 hectares. The community achieved an especially low footprint in the areas of home heating and food – 21.5 per cent and 37 per cent of the national average, respectively. EARTH CARE, PEOPLE SHARE The communal nature of the ecovillages emerged in each of the studies as the most

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are suddenly e rage.
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important factor. Many meals are cooked and eaten communally: up to 300 people eat in Findhorn’s two main dining rooms. This involves a substantial saving in terms both of energy consumption and in the equipment needed for a small number of large kitchens as opposed to many small ones. Ecovillage residents also tend to have more communal residential arrangements than conventional communities. This permits a significant sharing of energy, with numerous ecovillage buildings designed around heating systems, often based on the use

of recycled woodchip as fuel, that heat entire residential districts. Sieben Linden’s combined heat and power district heating system was a key factor in its historically low footprint score. The benefits of communality are also reflected in a relatively low ownership of ‘consumables’ – that is, washing machines, lawn-mowers, television sets and the like. Rather than everyone owning each of these, people share. There are community laundries. People gather in private homes for showings of DVDs and videos. Car pools or less formal car-sharing arrangements are common. Moreover, the vibrant arts scene within many ecovillages – choirs, dance classes and community organised concerts are common – reduce the demand for televisions and other toys and tools of distraction. The advantages of communality also emerge in more subtle forms. Both Findhorn and Ithaca have organised community supported agriculture (CSA) schemes that
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© Jim Bosjolie © Findhorn Foundation

feed the communities with predominantly local, organic, seasonal and vegetarian food. Similarly, Findhorn has been able to build on strong ties of social solidarity to create a community wind park, comprising four wind turbines that make the community a net exporter of energy. Most ecovillages – and each of those examined by these studies – also generate substantial employment on-site, reducing the need for commuting to a minimum. There are also formal and informal car sharing schemes. Car mileage per capita in Findhorn was found to be six per cent of the national average. Together, these various factors have permitted the ecovillages studied to dramatically shrink their footprints. Yet, there is no indication that the average ecovillage resident would consider him or herself to be especially poor. No sign here of the deprivation that seems, in the popular media, to be the necessary price to be paid for reducing resource consumption.

Top left: Community food preparation, Findhorn. Above: Communal dining at Ithaca in the USA. Bottom left: Shared white goods leads to low personal ownership. LOVE MILES Before we get too carried away, these ecovillages are some distance short of being perfect models. None has a footprint below the permissible level for global per capita sustainability. To a significant extent, this demonstrates the difficulty that even ecovillages have in escaping the wider trends and behaviours of the societies in which they are located. In addition, many ecovillages are to greater or lesser degrees dependent economically on course participants jetting in from far and wide. International communities like Findhorn have the additional problem of

© Jim Bosjolie


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Above: Self-made entertainment is a feature of community life as here at Ithaca. Top right: All benefit from community growing as here at Findhorn. Bottom right: Beyond You & Me, book.

munity residents feeling the need to return occasionally to visit friends and family in their country of origin (what George Monbiot has so memorably called ‘love miles’): Findhorn residents typically fly around two and a half times the UK per capita air miles. Having said this, most ecovillages today are seeking to develop more local sources of income and to be less dependent on visitors coming from afar. ZEGG and Sieben Linden, in Germany, are both working hard bioregionally to build up networks of social and economic solidarity through, for example, strengthening networks of local, organic, food producers. Findhorn,

meanwhile, now focuses the great bulk of its promotional activities on the UK and is developing strong partnerships with Scottish universities and local government organisations through, for example, its CIFAL UN training programme.1 The moral of the story is not – or, rather, not necessarily – that a sustainable world will be comprised of places looking like ecovillages. The point, rather, is that ecovillages are developing models and lessons that can be applied elsewhere in more mainstream contexts. The principle of these is that as long as our worldviews and behaviour patterns remain dominated by the notion of individuals and nuclear units operating largely independently of each other, the gravitational pull of the global economy will keep us in its orbit. The power of community lies both in weaving us back into humanscale settlements and in giving us the tools to significantly reduce our footprints. It will, in the end, be the power of community that will help us all survive peak oil

© Findhorn Foundation © Jim Bosjolie

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator and consultant based at the Findhorn Foundation. He is President of the Global Ecovillage Network. He is organising a conference at Findhorn next Easter called ‘Positive Energy: Positive Community Responses to Peak Oil and Climate Change’. See: positiveenergy

It is for anyone seeking the elusive goal of social sustainability: the art of living in peace with all our fellow creatures, especially human beings. The 4 Keys series is born out of the Gaia Education Ecovillage Design Curriculum, which has the endorsement of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and is an official contribution to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD). Beyond You & Me, Permanent Publications, 304pp, £19.95, is available from the Green Shopping Catalogue. See also page 33.

USEFUL WEBSITES english2035.html kommune/english.htm NEW ECOVILLAGE BOOK Beyond You & Me – Inspiration and Wisdom for Building Communities is the first of four books that provide the 4 Keys to Sustainable Communities. It is a practical anthology from social and ecovillage pioneers the world over.
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