Civilised society has always had its outsiders: people who reject the dominant cultural, political or socio-economic status quo and set up communities, following a specific intellectual or spiritual path.
Living in harmony with nature has arguably been one of the driving forces of such groups – many of which become both self-sustaining and self-limiting due to the particular mix of resources and personalities within them.
However, the realisation that man-made climate change can (and does) wreak environmental havoc around the world is bringing more attention to communities focused on environmental resilience and sustainability.
O'Hara believes that many 'climate action communities' have been operating outside the mainstream
“People are now looking at the effectiveness of these communities to see if policymakers could learn how to upscale some of their projects to mainstream society,” says Eamon O’Hara, founder member of Ecolise (ecolise.eu), a new international non-profit organisation keen to develop better links between sustainable communities, policy makers, researchers and European agencies.
Networks already exist for ecovillages (gen-europe.org), transition towns (first developed in 2004 to create communities less dependent on oil transitionnetwork.org) and permaculture projects (working with rather than against nature, permaculturecouncil.eu) but O’Hara believes that many “climate action communities” have been operating outside the mainstream and “off the radar” of European funding and research bodies.
With a background in Leader projects in Ireland and later in the European Network of Leader and Life programmes in Brussels, O’Hara did a masters on climate action communities and lives close to a few transition initiatives in rural France.
“I believe there is now a willingness among sustainable communities to introduce their experimentation and innovations in energy, housing, waste management and food production to the mainstream,” says O’Hara.
In Europe, these projects range from community-supported farms which have been given licences to grow food on the streets of Liege in Belgium to a large-scale landscape restoration project run by the Tamera Ecovillage in Portugal to Som Energia, a Spanish consumers’ co-operative that produces and sells 100 per cent renewable energy to Fahrwerk Kurierkollektiv, a courier service in Berlin that only handles deliveries by bicycles and electric cars.
On Friday, September 22nd, Ecolise launched a booklet promoting the role of climate action communities in Europe’s transition towards a sustainable, resilient and low-carbon future. O’Hara says that while there hasn’t yet been a Europe-wide study of these communities, some research exists. For example, the EU-funded Tess project found that if 5 per cent of EU citizens engaged in effective community-led climate mitigation initiatives, the carbon savings would allow 85 per cent of the 28 EU member countries to achieve their 2020 emissions reduction targets. REScoop, the European federation for renewable energy co-operatives, suggests that with the right supports, half of the EU population could become energy citizens (people who produce their own energy) and deliver 45 per cent of Europe’s electricity demand by 2050.
To discuss these findings and plan more research collaborations, Ecolise brought some of its 38 member organisations together with MEPs and Eurocrats from the climate action and regional and urban policy directorates in Brussels yesterday. Today, the organisation hopes to highlight the diversity of projects across Europe in its first European Day of Sustainable Communities.
The ecovillage in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, is hosting a sustainable community fair to mark the day. Visitors can join guided walks of the community farm and ecovillage and tonight hear surfer Easkey Britton and community farmer Fergal Smith talk about their motivations to be environmental champions. The Kerry Sustainable Energy Co-Op will also promote community owned and led projects at the Tralee Food Festival today (transitionkerry.org)
Oliver Moore, who lives and works from the Cloughjordan ecovillage, says the village is well integrated into its surrounding area and has helped regenerate this rural part of Tipperary.
“The children from the ecovillage help keep numbers up in the local school and there is a community co-operative, a pottery studio and cafe in Cloughjordan now all run by people who don’t even live in the ecovillage,” says Moore.
And one-third of the members of the ecovillage’s community farm don’t live in the 50 low-energy homes in the ecovillage itself.
Sustainable community projects across Europe can and need to learn faster from each other
“There is also a level of activisim, academic work and religious/spiritual dark green environmentalism in the ecovillage which is less engaged with the local community,” he adds.
The Scottish Communities Climate Action Network is hosting a talk and workshop on how sustainable communities can build good governance in the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation today. David Somerville from the network believes sustainable community projects across Europe can and need to learn faster from each other.
Scotland is one of the European forerunners in terms of community energy projects. And the network works with 120 community-led renewable energy groups across Scotland, funded through the Scottish government’s climate action fund. “Scotland’s Environment Protection Agency has a One Planet Strategy which bringing activists, academics, business leaders and public servants together to agree a common agenda to make Scotland a low-carbon, fairer society,” says Somerville.
Rosalie Poskin is a founder member of Los Portales, a rural ecovillage on 200 hectares near Seville in Spain. “When we started 32 years ago, we were completely member based, off grid, producing our own solar and wind energy and 80 per cent of our food but 15 years ago, we opened up to volunteers, temporary members and visitors,” she says.
Since Los Portales opened up to non-members, it has become more connected to local networks, she adds. “For 28 years, we have our own school but then Spanish people here wanted their children to go to the local school. Our main purpose is to adapt to world needs – ie climate change – but we have a human purpose too which is to be at peace with ourselves, to learn to collaborate with nature, have good quality relationships and resolve conflict.”
Poskin believes ecovillages can show other communities the way forward. “All ecovillages are different in that they all started from one inspiring idea and build up the other aspects of sustainability as they developed,” she says.
“It’s not a Utopia but we have solutions and we also need financial support for bigger projects. For example, in Los Portales, we need to find ways to retain water and regenerate soil as this part of Spain is prone to desertification.”