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Synthesis/Regeneration 43   (Spring 2007)

Biofuels in Ecological Perspective:
Energy Efficiency and Intentional Community

by Joshua P. Lockyer

Considering how the interests of giant energy corporations are embedded within the political system in the US and around the globe, it will be extremely difficult to achieve structural changes that will massively reduce the use of energy. Due to this overlap between the political and economic spheres and considering the difficulty of creating significant change at an individual level, change must be sought at a medium scale within the sphere of civil society.

Fortunately, many within the contemporary intentional communities movement are creating living arrangements that lead to reduced energy consumption at the neighborhood and community level. The innovations of these sustainability-oriented intentional communities can serve as models and, if replicated in regionally appropriate ways in enough different regions, could lead to a massive reduction on energy usage at a national or even global scale. Here, I wish to explore the particular efforts underway in Earthaven Ecovillage where I lived for six months while conducting my doctoral research in environmental anthropology. Earthaven Ecovillage is an off-grid community that produces all of the electricity consumed by members through a combination of small-scale photovoltaic systems, gravity-fed micro-hydro generation, localization of their economy, and reduced demand.

Earthaven Ecovillage is an off-grid community that produces all of the electricity consumed by members …

I make my way along well-worn foot paths in Earthaven Ecovillage’s central Hut Hamlet neighborhood among a diverse array of photovoltaic solar panels that provide power for the neighborhood’s residents and their shared common kitchen. I cross the creek and follow it upstream past the micro-hydro power mill that produces power for the community’s Council Hall and business district where I will later plug in my laptop to check my email via satellite internet. I follow the road up to the Rosy Branch neighborhood where terraced home gardens will soon dot the south facing slopes of this steep mountain valley. One of the residents continues to make progress on his bio-digester that will turn the neighborhood’s sewage into methane gas that will one day power cooking stoves.

In the valley from which I have just emerged, two of the community’s residents are likely hard at work on the Gateway Agricultural Field where they plan to use livestock and appropriate-scale technologies to turn locally produced corn and soybeans into ethanol that will be used to power community vehicles. While there is much debate on the viability and efficiency of biofuels, in a recent column in From the Wilderness (see http://www.fromthewilderness.com/free/ww3/072506_small_local.shtml), biofuels skeptic Michael Kane, who recently visited Earthaven, admits that the project being undertaken at Gateway in Earthaven holds promise due to its scale and to the ingenuity and dedication of those putting it into motion.

These are only the most obvious of Earthaven’s innovations in the realm of energy efficiency and reduced energy consumption. There is a statistic that is commonly quoted that states that the average morsel of food eaten at an American table travels 1,500 miles before it reaches that table. If this is anywhere near the truth, the energy inefficiency of the global food economy is obvious.

Earthaveners are aware of this and are working on solutions to this as well. Most of their solutions are relatively nascent as the ecovillage itself is just over 10 years old, rising from an almost completely forested (since the last clearings for agriculture in the 1940s) piece of land. But the solutions are numerous: home gardens, wild harvesting, community-supported agriculture gardens, and edible landscaping. As I return to the Hut Hamlet I pass through the blueberry commons where, during blueberry season, I often stopped to harvest on my way to the kitchen to make blueberry pancakes from scratch for myself and others who happened to be in the kitchen that morning.

While greater community self-sufficiency in food production is a goal at Earthaven, they recognize that it is not entirely realistic. Much of what isn’t currently produced within the community is purchased at the local farmers’ market or organic groceries in the nearby city of Asheville. And while the drive to Asheville to buy food does consume a significant amount of energy, this is offset by the fact that most members of the ecovillage collectivize their trips to the city. In the Hut Hamlet neighborhood, one person makes a weekly trip to Asheville to buy the necessary groceries for the 15 to 20 people who share the kitchen with her.

While there is considerable variety in dietary choices at Earthaven, many members are aware of the inefficiencies involved in meat consumption and, for this reason among others, they have chosen a vegetarian or vegan diet. The A&A House in the Medicine Wheel neighborhood at Earthaven, a large residence that serves as an inn for many guests of the community and a temporary residence for a number of work exchangers and apprentices, serves only a vegetarian menu. Among those who do eat meat, there has been a significant effort to cultivate relationships with local farmers and butchers (if the meat isn’t itself raised and butchered on Earthaven land), again reducing some of the inefficiencies in the vegetable matter to meat to human consumption equation.

Just as the members of Earthaven Ecovillage are conscientious about their dietary choices, they have made deliberate choices about their other consumptive patterns, keeping in mind the embedded energy represented by every piece of material culture consumed in American society. Conspicuous, competitive consumption is definitely not valued within the community; one might say it is even taboo. And while books and movies are still popular pastimes at Earthaven, there is a significant lack of redundancy as personal libraries are made available to others (according to individually designed rule systems) or community libraries are consciously created.

Many of the buildings at Earthaven were constructed with materials harvested on the land itself, guided by experienced natural builders resident within the community. Where natural building isn’t practiced and significant amounts of material are imported from outside the community, a diligent eye is trained on using them in the most efficient way possible. Residential spaces are small and community spaces are designed to accommodate multiple uses. Passive solar design is incorporated as an unquestioned rule and many materials are salvaged or recycled. As I pass the community-supported agriculture gardens on my way east, I am reminded that the A&A House was constructed largely out of recycled fruit juice pallets and parts from an old bridge.

Residential spaces are small and community spaces are designed to accommodate multiple uses.

The story of those recycled fruit juice pallets brings home the inefficiencies of the political economies that Earthaven is trying to build alternatives to. The wood itself was harvested in Siberia and shipped to South Africa. There it was transformed into plywood pallets, loaded with apple juice concentrate, and shipped to South Carolina. The company that received those pallets of apple juice was burning the wood or sending it to the landfill before company employees suggested that it could be put to better use. How appropriate that those pallets are now providing permanent shelter to refugees from our energy-hungry society who are dedicating their lives to creating more efficient, just, sustainable, and satisfying ways of living.

Earthaven Ecovillage is just one manifestation of a global movement to create ecologically conscious communities and more sustainable cultures. In the late 1980s, Robert and Diane Gilman of Washington state had been gathering stories of sustainable communities and publishing them in a magazine called In Context. In 1990, Hildur and Ross Jackson, a Danish and Canadian couple who had formed an environmentally oriented charitable organization called Gaia Trust, asked the Gilmans to compile the information that they had gathered. The subsequent report was entitled Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities. The Gilmans defined an ecovillage as “A human-scale, full-featured settlement 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.”

With the Gilman’s report as a foundation, the Gaia Trust convened a series of meetings that let to the formal inauguration of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) in 1994. Although the original definition of ecovillage may have set impossibly high standards, the number of ecovillages in existence today, which some estimate as high as 15,000, represents hope that a more energy efficient and sustainable future might be possible. If Earthaven Ecovillage is any indication, we may get there yet.

Joshua P. Lockyer is a doctoral candidate in ecological and environmental anthropology at the University of Georgia. His research focuses on sustainability and the contemporary intentional communities movement. He thanks the members of Earthaven Ecovillage and the dedicated members of all the other intentional communities that he has visited over the last several years. To learn more, contact Josh at jlockyer@uga.edu or visit the websites of the Fellowship for Intentional Community http://www.fic.org and the Global Ecovillage Network http://gen.ecovillage.org.

[2 apr 07]

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