Does It Take an Eco Village to Save the World?

Critics warn that large-scale eco-communities aren’t all they’re hyped up to be.

Conventional wisdom has it that despite Simon & Garfunkel’s harmonies to the contrary, no man or woman could possibly get by in this world living as a rock or an island.

Sustainability activists have applied that same logic to eco-villages, communities of intentionally-minded neighbors who share the same code of social ethics or the goal of achieving total or relative self-sufficiency. Translation: Despite all of your personal homesteading, composting, upcycling and permaculturing efforts, one-off sustainability is simply not enough to make a meaningful impact on the world. Rather, it takes a village to raise the world to a higher standard of living.

The Eco Village of Cloughjordan, Ireland’s first and only official eco-village, is one such experiment in sustainability. While residents and environmentalists have raved about its many virtues, building community being chief among them, critics and detractors wonder if large-scale developments of its sort make good sense or contribute to an environment of idealistic wastelands.

The Eco Village, In Context

Robert Gilman, founding editor of Utne Reader fave IN CONTEXT, A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture, is considered the godfather of the modern eco-village, which shares its roots with the anarchist naturism philosophies of Thoreau, the “back to the earth” hippie communes of the ’60s and even Yamagishism, a Japanese income-sharing movement in which the quest for happiness takes place on rural communes called “jikkenchi.”

To Gilman, a functioning eco-village is human-scale, fully featured, healthfully and harmoniously integrated into the environment, and future-oriented. The Village at Cloughjordan, with a maximum capacity of 130 homes in the Irish countryside built from ecological materials like timber, lime, hemp, and cob construction (earth mixed with straw), certainly declares itself to be that. They’re on their own energy grid, each resident is allotted 100 square meters to grow their own food, and according to village spokesperson Dave Flannery, “The car is backgrounded or as we say, the ‘car is a guest.’ The eco-village is designed around people and the family.”

Sounds lovely, but it’s been a long haul.

A Great Idea, Caught In the Eye of the Tiger

In 1999, founding members eagerly bought in committing up to £30,000 apiece, paid to the non-profit Sustainable Projects Ireland Ltd., for a piece of what looked like a modern day utopian dream. Come 2007, all 130 of its plots had been committed, but by then the Celtic Tiger economy had devolved into a pussycat.

Houses got bigger, amenities got more costly. In their wake, inflated property and construction costs pushed the original move-in costs up to three times higher than what the members had originally bargained for. Dystopia ensued. Spearheaded by self-professed village renegade, Joey Cleary, almost half the membership decided to leave.

“Basically, the project was claiming to be opposite of what was going on in Ireland, but in the end it got caught up in the same property speculation,” Cleary says. “It was a real moment of truth. The direction we were going in was economically unsustainable.”

Cleary, who’s now living as an expat in Barcelona, runs a private online community for ex-members like him.

Sustaining “Wealth”

Alanna Moore, a permaculture writer, farmer and teacher who’s lived in numerous intentional communities throughout Ireland and Australia, wrote a rather biting review of The Village as well, after she and a group of other curious tourists toured the site. Her biggest gripe, she wrote, “[it’s] too big and too concrete, [and that] makes for non-eco-friendly homes. A depressing sight with more in common with a modern unsustainable city environment than a friendly eco-village. Would people really want to be in such a soul free environment?”

Cement is an influential billion-dollar industry in Ireland and the material was used liberally in housing construction during the Tiger years. Environmentally, however, it comes at a cost producing more than 5% of global emissions of carbon dioxide. It also contributes to higher energy costs because it is so expensive to heat, especially given Ireland’s winter climate.

In a separate conversation with EcoSalon, Moore also talked about economic sustainability. When she first started living in sustainable communities during the 1980s, she says, “I was a single parent and saw them as a great way to raise children. We were poor, but poverty is a state of mind. We were wealthy in terms of fresh air and growing your own food and living among gorgeous rainforests, swimming holes and creeks.”

Echoing Cleary’s broader economic perspective, she says, “The Tiger Era boom was totally unsustainable and you can’t use the same sort of thinking to create a sustainable community.”

The Village of Tomorrow

For their part, the Village is now reducing the price on some of its sites to make them more affordable. They are also exploring co-housing as an option.

Moreover while revitalizing one’s own existing community is the more eco-friendly avenue to take, residents, who in addition to Ireland hail from England, Canada, Germany, Japan and the United States, don’t seem to mind living in what Moore describes as “An ivory green tower.”

Deirdre O’Brolchain, who moved to The Village from Dublin with her husband and two young boys in 2010, feels right at home. “Fundamentally,” she says, “sustainable communities don’t happen on a small scale. [It takes] diversity in numbers on a large scale.”

Indeed, as Seneca said and Joey Cleary’s ex-member’s board reminds us, “No man can live happily who regards himself alone; who turns everything to his own advantage. You must live for others if you wish to live for yourself.”

K. Emily Bond

K. Emily Bond is the Shelter Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in southern Spain, reporting on trends in art, design, sustainable living and lifestyle.