Academic journal article Communal Societies

Sustainability in Practice: A Comparative Case Study Analysis of the EcoVillage at Ithaca, Earthaven, and Sirius

Academic journal article Communal Societies

Sustainability in Practice: A Comparative Case Study Analysis of the EcoVillage at Ithaca, Earthaven, and Sirius

Article excerpt


Many people who see the progress of the current environmental movement as insufficient are seeking a new way of living. (1) Ecovillages offer one method for pursuing an alternative, environmental lifestyle. An ecovillage is a "semi-self-sufficient, human-scale, cooperative, sustainable settlement that integrates all the primary facets of life--sociality, alternative economics, food production, energy, shelter, recreation, and manufacturing--with a sensitivity toward the environment and its natural cycles." (2) The impetus to develop these communities can be seen in the 406 ecovillage projects registered in the Global Ecovillage Network. (3) Ecovillages exist in many countries around the world, in various sizes and settings. For example, the Los Angeles Ecovillage, consisting of approximately forty members, occupies two blocks in the East Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles and represents one end of the ecovillage spectrum, both in terms of its size and its urban, developed location. Auroville, in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, is home to more than two thousand members seeking to improve local ecosystem health and develop new ways of life. It represents another end of the spectrum, being large, rural, and located in the developing world. (4)

Ecovillages foster strong relationships among their members and are designed not only to enhance community among members but also to include the natural world. To a certain extent, ecovillages embody the land ethic espoused by Aldo Leopold, which "enlarges the boundaries of community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land." (5) An ecovillage's viability is tied directly to the commitment of its members, and it is this commitment to all its members, including the land, which influences the environmental impact of the ecovillage. (6) Research conducted on the three ecovillages included in this study (EcoVillage at Ithaca, Earthaven, and Sirius) found an average reduction in environmental impact of 66 percent, when comparing the ecovillage residents to the average US resident, across a variety of measures of environmental impact. (7) Given their success in reducing environmental impacts and their focus on the integration of nature into their communities, ecovillages provide a rich source for the investigation into the support of sustainable living.

Each ecovillage develops its own web of thought and activity in the form of its culture and practices. These communities work to enhance and reduce their negative impacts on their local ecosystems. Our research question was: What are the sustainability practices in these three communities? We used criteria adapted from previous work by Hu and Wang, focusing on (8)

1. environmental protection and resource use;

2. planning and development; and

3. social institutions and culture. This factor includes membership practices, decision making, ownership and resource sharing, and village commerce.


Qualitative case studies of the three ecovillages were developed through repeated stays at each ecovillage, interviews with current and former community members, participation in community activities, and a review of published and unpublished documents produced by the ecovillages and by individual community members. These case studies attempt to provide an understanding of life in the ecovillages and of how each community's culture and practices lead to environmental sustainability.

Our multiple-case-study methodology focuses on the similarities and differences between the cases, drawing out trends and providing results that are more robust and reliable than a single case study. Multiple cases also provide the ability to examine themes and patterns due to the replication of cases. (9)

Developing the case studies for this analysis consisted of three major steps: (1) selection of the case study sites, (2) an initial review of data about ecovillages and the specific case study ecovillages, and (3) site visits, interviews, and follow-up. …

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