In pursuit of a green Utopia


European Environment Festival: Environmentalists from across Europe are digging compost pits and taking cold showers in Co Clare, writes Gordon Deegan

European environmental protectors who have flown in for this year's Ecotopia festival in Co Clare will be gnashing their teeth if they read the small print on their festival travel-pack.

Co-organiser Róisín Garvey explains: "If you travel here overland, you receive two-thirds of the cost getting here. There is no subsidy if you fly because it is not a sustainable way of travelling - just think of the jet fuel needed to fly from Shannon to Dublin."

"Sustainable" is a key term for the 500 or so "ecotopians" who, according to Ms Garvey "will live as a sustainable community" over the next two weeks in a purpose-built "eco-village" on the shores of Lough Derg.

Speaking before the expected arrival of a bike tour that has been travelling across Europe over the past four weeks to be at Ecotopia, Ms Garvey says: "This is not about fluffing about in the forest. We are here to learn ways to make a difference, either by doing it in our own lives or educating other people on how it can be done."

This year is the 14th annual Ecotopia festival and the first time it has been held in Ireland. Last year it was held in Bulgaria while in 2003, the festival will move to Ukraine.

Organised by the Irish environmental umbrella student group, Gluaiseacht, through the European Youth For Action (EYFA) network, the focus for much of Ecotopia will be on a series of daily workshops on environmental awareness, climate change, energy efficiency and hunt sabotages. Lighter fare is offered through street theatre and music.

Nestled in Bealkelly Wood on the shores of Lough Derg between the two east Clare villages of Ogonnelloe and Tuamgraney, this year's festival is taking place on lands owned by forester Dale Harding.

Taking an active role in the construction of the eco-village, Mr Harding says he is too busy to know if he is enjoying Ecotopia or not.

For many ecotopians - the majority of whom are Irish - it is the first time that they have lived the "sustainable" life. Mr Harding expresses frustration with those who haven't yet adapted.

Speaking above the din created by the low-level construction work going on around him, he says: "You don't use massive tree trunks for firewood. I think that it is an absolute crime against nature and I think there are one or two individuals who haven't grasped that yet."

In return for allowing the forested land be the site for Ecotopia, participants are to build a one-room eco-house and help Mr Harding manage his forest. "Basically, the agreement is that anything not advantageous to me is taken away," he says.

Mr Harding says that local people are curious as to what is happening at Ecotopia. "There has been no negative reaction. People ask what is going on down at Harding's place." The event is alcohol- and drug-free, while Mr Harding has stipulated that participants launch no protests.

Taking a break from helping to erect a "geodome", east Clare farmer Mr Robert Morgan remarks that "the one thing participants have in common is an open mind to ideas that will be shared here over the two weeks. I don't think you can categorise the people that will come here".

Preparation for the event has been going on over the past number of months, according to NUIG Ecology Society and Gluaiseacht member, Ms Clare Butler. She says it is costing €20,000 to stage, with half the budget going on food. The funding has been sourced from the EYFA and fund-raising, while participants pay €7 a day for food and accommodation.

"There is a real sense of achievement now it has begun and it is great to be part of a sharing community where everyone gives and helps out. It's getting back to basics," she says.

Getting back to basics involves digging holes for compost toilets and living on a vegan diet for two weeks. And, to avoid cold showers, ecotopians are advised to leave a plastic bag full of water in the sunshine for an hour.

"Most of us would be vegetarians, so from a storage point of view, going vegan was the thing to do here. For breakfast this morning, we had porridge, bread and fruit and pots of mint tea. For dinner, it will be vegetables, salad and couscous," says Ms Butler. "I'm really enjoying this way of life as long as the horseflies stay away."

A short distance away is a blackboard outlining the day's tasks for the 100 or so who have already arrived. It reads: "Dig compost pit, build cold storage, chop firewood, find or buy sugar and salt." The response to the scribbled words is overwhelming and the site is buzzing with activity, with ecotopians chopping, hammering, and directing with such enthusiasm that new structures, including an improvised sauna, are added on to the village by the hour.

Each day will start with the "morning circle", where, according to co-organiser, Colm O'Broin, decisions involving all the ecotopians are based on consensus.

"It is a very important part of each day," Róisín Garvey. "The workshops will give us the facts, I hope, on a whole range of subjects, to be able to speak authoritatively on them and take actions. The world is too messed up to be just talking about doing things and doing nothing."Ecotopia continues until Saturday, August 24th. Email is:, website: