Prologue

The current article is a compressed, shortened version of a Master’s thesis that has been developed by two master students from the Environmental Management and Sustainability Science study program at Aalborg University in 2017.

In the present paper, we intend to show that when it comes to the topic of sustainability, a considerable amount of strong and motivating bottom-up civil society initiatives exist, working for positive social and environmental outcomes. Nowadays, from all industrialized countries, Denmark has the most eco-villages in proportion to its total population (Hansen 2009; Aagaard 2017), and here, the network and movement of eco-villages is quite powerful and well-organized. The role of Denmark was very significant and influential for the development of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) as well, having the idea evolved from the cohousing practices. Taking these facts into account, we identified a potential for knowledge and skill transfer, where (Danish) eco-villages could pave the way by showing good practices, alternative organizational forms, low-tech solutions and other crucial ingredients for a socially and environmentally sustainable future.

Our critical investigation is focused mostly on the topics of social metabolism, housing, food provision, aspects of communality and local democracy, as these are the main areas, where eco-villages can offer various small-scale solutions and alternatives.

The destructive global impacts of growth mania

As the ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer and the Nobel laureate Paul J. Crutzen proposed, human impact on the land, the atmosphere, the oceans and ice sheets has pushed our planet into a new epoch, which they called ‘The Anthropocene’ (Gaffney & Steffen 2017). Ecosystem degradation, the extinction of species and climate change all stem mostly from anthropogenic sources, and they come along with the unfair distribution of resources, social injustice and wealth inequalities (Urhammer 2016). During three centuries of industrialization, it has been possible to observe a correlation between economic growth and various forms of intensive resource use and extraction, increasing environmental pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss and social problems (Kallis 2017). The fact that economic growth has provided benefits in terms of profit growth, employment opportunities, healthcare, education and technological advance is undisputable, but at the same time, it also created a rising demand for products and services, while widening the inequality gap[1]. The growing demand constituted and reinforced materialism and consumerism, which came along with the unsustainable utilization of natural resources (Demailly et al. 2013).

Nowadays, it is widely accepted that economic prosperity is also a measure of well-being. The economist Richard Easterlin – who has been working on the topic for almost 50 years – points out that although until a certain point in time, a positive correlation can be observed between income levels and personal happiness, after that point, this relation breaks even if the income keeps increasing (Easterlin 1980). According to the philosopher and economist Serge Latouche, happiness cannot be determined only by material status, there are other crucial factors which play a role: quality of life, health, relationships within the community and families, satisfaction of work, etc. (Latouche 2009).

Common response to the negative environmental impacts of economic growth is decoupling, which suggests technological solutions in order to deal with complex environmental issues. The core idea here is that “promotion of eco-efficient innovation is needed in major investment decisions, which should in turn lead to less-pollution, less-resource intensive products and more efficiently managed resources” (Jänicke 2008 p.558). However, there is a detail often ignored by techno-optimists; namely that so far, technological improvements have led to decreased costs and respectively increasing demand (Jevons’ Paradox) (Victor 2010). During the last 40-50 years, representatives from the academic field, grassroots organizations and economists have been raising the attention on the need for a social transformation instead of technological development (Schneider et al. 2010).

Environmental and social issues in Denmark

Denmark is an ambivalent country. On one hand, positive patterns can be perceived, because this nation is already a forerunner in dealing with certain issues for years. Just to mention a few promising facts: renewable energies represent a significant, 56% share of the power mix (Danish Energy Agency 2016), 45% of Copenhageners cycle to work or school (City of Copenhagen 2014), 7% of the agricultural area is farmed organically, and 8.5% of food sold in Denmark is organic, which is a global record (Danish Agriculture & Food Council 2016).

On the other hand – according to the latest calculations – Denmark has the 4th biggest Ecological Footprint (8.25 global ha/person) globally, and the largest one in Europe. Only Qatar (11.68 gha/person), Kuwait (9.72 gha/person) and the United Arab Emirates (8.44 gha/person) demand more global hectares per person (WWF 2012). Moving further, the world average biocapacity is 1.8 gha/person, while an average Dane has up to 4.81 global hectares available. Comparing these numbers and the Ecological Footprint data, it can be clearly seen that an average Danish citizen uses 4.5 times more global hectares than the world average biocapacity, while they also use almost twice as much as their own biocapacity would allow (WWF 2012). The exceptionally high Ecological Footprint of Danes is mainly due to the intensive land use of the country for agricultural and infrastructural purposes, the excessive energy and material consumption, and the high meat consumption levels (Røpke 2015). Therefore, although Denmark is generally displayed and seen as a ‘green transition pioneer’, there are certain areas where immediate improvements should take place.

The country’s National Inventory Report shows that energy industries have the largest share from GHG emissions, which is mainly a consequence of CO2 emissions coming from fossil fuel combustion (Nielsen et al. 2015). Despite the fact that renewable energy sources are gradually taking over the determining role of fossil energy carriers in energy production in Denmark, no significant decline in energy use can be perceived (Haunstrup n.d.). This is related to the fact that Denmark has the highest numbers when it comes to single person households in the European Union, accounting for 47.4% of all households (EUROSTAT 2015). While technologies have become more efficient, energy consumption has been on the rise (22% increase since 1990). Some reasons for this are the growing population of Denmark, the extended heated space (m2) of dwellings and the undesirable growing trends of living alone in a household (Haunstrup n.d.).

As we continue investigating around the issues in Denmark, social inequalities also appear on the road. According to the independent think tank Cevea, currently, the wealthiest 1% of the Danish population owns almost one third of the total wealth of Denmark (in the form of stocks, bonds and their homes) and 32 times more than an average Dane (Baltzarsen & Gormsen 2014). This inequality gap is continuously increasing, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. Now, the wealthiest Danes have a larger share from the total net worth compared to the late 1990s, while the least affluent have less, mainly due to their housing debts (Baltzarsen & Gormsen 2014).

An alternative to growth-centered sustainability

Globally, the concept of sustainable development is aimed towards addressing problems in relation with the environment, society and economy. However, the discourse of sustainable development seems to have economic sustainability, along with ‘smart’, ‘green’ technologies and innovations as a focal point in the path towards solving the different global issues. It does not go deep into proposing a downsizing of production and consumption; it offers a new way of expanding the economy by greening the industries, while it delays the issues concerning the planet’s limited resources (Sachs 2010).

During our studies at Aalborg University we were intrigued by an alternative approach to sustainability, namely degrowth. Overall, degrowth criticizes the neoclassical idea of economic growth driven prosperity, achieved through liberalization, privatization, globalization and industrialization (Martínez-Alier et al. 2010). However, it is important to emphasize that degrowth does not mean involuntary economic degrowth (e.g. economic recession or depression) (Asara et al. 2015), but a voluntary shrinkage, offering a smooth, ‘prosperous way down’, through a range of environmental, social and economic institutions and policies, arranged to improve human welfare and equity while production and consumption decreases. To make this happen, the cultural imaginary also needs to be changed and material accumulation should not be in the centre (Kallis 2017). The primary focus in a degrowth society ought to be on sufficiency instead of efficiency, and the core principles include voluntary simplicity, sharing, conviviality and solidarity (Kallis 2017; Martínez-Alier et al. 2010; Sachs 1999). In practice, degrowth represents a diversity of social (work-sharing, communal living, autonomy), environmental (energy, water, resources, waste, agro-ecology) and economic (freedom of debt, local currencies, reciprocity, basic income and maximum wage) alternatives (Cattaneo et al. 2012).

Civil society and eco-villages

Being aware of the limitations of the sustainable development approach and the failure of the market and the state to properly address sustainability issues, we decided to focus on some bottom-up alternatives coming from the civil society in particular. These offer complementary initiatives in the current neo-liberalist system of the West, where the state has a main intention of providing stable and attractive conditions for capital, and the market actors have a main aim of continuous profit-making (Lipschutz 2005). There are some examples, where the civil society came up with solutions for providing alternative forms of living together, which can be seen in case of the Transition Network Movement or The Ecovillage Movement.

A particularity of eco-villages as the Gaia Trust co-founder Ross Jackson puts it: “in spite of differences in race, religion and culture, ecovillagers share the same vision, which can be summarized as the prioritizing of community, culture and a natural environment above Money-based consumerism.” Eco-villages can be traditional rural and newly existing urban settlements, or neighborhoods. The motivations for forming these social structures often differ geographically as a result of socio-economic, political and environmental peculiarities.

Research methodology

Considering our initial knowledge about eco-communities, we thought of such structures as degrowth in practice. It was extremely interesting to explore how such alternative societies survive, thrive, grow and spread under current economic, political and social conditions of Denmark, mainly defined by economic growth. Additionally, we investigated the role of these communities for generating transition towards a sustainable society in Denmark, keeping in mind the manifold being of these settlements and the diversity of applied projects, addressing the issues of production and consumption (food, energy, water etc.), housing, communality and lifestyle. Our research methods included interviews, and the use of various scientific reports, journal articles, surveys, and critical papers from the perspective of energy- and urban planning. During the investigation, we got in touch with inhabitants of eight Danish eco-communities (Table 1), the Danish Ecovillage Network (LØS), a board member of NOAH – Friends of the Earth Denmark, and the political leader of a Danish party; The Alternative.

Location Population Foundation
Karise Permatopia Karise 200 residents[2] 2017
Svanholm Skibby 130 residents 1978
Fri & Fro Egebjerg 16 families 2004
Soleng Broager 5 families 2017
Munksøgaard Roskilde 250 residents 2000
Foreningen Frikøbing Hvalsø 14 families 2015
Tranehøj Snertinge 10 residents approx. 30 years ago
Cooperative Society in Hjortshøj (AiH) Hjortshøj 300 residents 1992

 

Table 1: Brief presentation of the involved eco-communities

The following sections provide an overview about the most important findings of our original research paper from three aspects; environmental, social and economic.

Roots of communality and a short history of eco-villages in Denmark

Owing to a variety of past historical events, the strong sense of communality has become integrated into the Danish culture. In the 19th and the 20th century, Denmark went through a remarkable political, constitutional and geographic change after they lost against the German Confederation in the Battle of Dybbøl in 1864. As a result, the country had to cede the control over Holstein, Lauenburg and Schleswig, which caused a massive decline of the total population and area by almost one third (Jespersen 2003). Influenced by this shocking nadir, Denmark started the national regeneration with the motto: “Outward losses must be compensated by inward gains” (Jespersen 2003 p.3).

With the above mentioned slogan in mind, some initiatives started from below with the peasant farmer class by forming cooperatives to create social and economic security (Østergaard 2000). Besides laying the foundations of “a Food and Farming Country” (Danish Agriculture & Food Council 2016a p.5), the most important outcomes of the movement were fostering a homogenous and culturally coherent society, while at the same time impacting political and social life.

The history of eco-villages in Denmark can be traced back to cohousing projects and various alternative forms of living together in cooperation with each other with the main aim of generating positive social and environmental effects as well. The country was among the first European nations digging into the possibilities of communal living (Aagaard 2017). The organizational behavior and the above mentioned cultural and historical roots has undoubtedly influenced the cognitive perception about lifestyles among Danes and had an effect on the development of the eco-village concept in Denmark.

In 1993, the Danish Ecovillage Network (LØS) was formed and since then, this NGO has been significantly impacting the life, activities, initiatives and development of Danish eco-communities. LØS sees eco-villages as living laboratories for a more sustainable and just future, both on a Danish and international level.

What is the possible rationale behind choosing eco-village lifestyle?

Based on our findings, there is a colorful variety of motivations behind forming eco-settlements. At the village of Svanholm, the original idea was simply to promote organic farming as an alternative agricultural method. Today, Svanholm is not only an organic farming pioneer in Denmark, but also an example of a community which has developed into having core policies and values such as environmental consciousness, income-sharing, communality and self-governance. Some of the settlements – like Karise Permatopia – consider technological solutions as crucial for promoting sustainability. Karise was developed as a sustainability by design project rather than emerging as a community initiative. Self-sufficiency, recycling, low living costs, renewable energy utilization and a systematic approach based on the concept of Permaculture are the core components for achieving sustainability within this project.

Quite a few of the individuals we approached referred to communality, sharing, better interaction with nature, participating in eco-building, or environmental initiatives as their main motivations for choosing to live in eco-villages. Some of them simply carried a desire to escape from the fast reality, to slow down; to avoid the stress which cities generate; to live a less materialistic life and open their minds towards spirituality and arts; to improve the quality of their time by spending more of it with families or by participating in activities they enjoy. Furthermore, for some, a disappointment caused by the lack of effective political actions towards sustainability-related issues was the main motivation for starting a new life in an eco-village.

Energy, heat and water production and consumption

Following the line with our research, we identified that all of the approached communities address the question of energy, heat and water production and consumption on certain levels, depending on their phase of development, main goals and focus areas.

The utilization of renewable energies appear in almost every case, with the goals of increased self-sufficiency and reducing emissions coming from the burning of various fossil fuels. Munksøgaard eco-community developed a central heating system running primarily on wood pellets, providing domestic heating and hot water for inhabitants. Other examples for implementing complex electricity and heating systems based on renewable energies (mostly solar, wind and biomass) incorporate the Karise Permatopia, the Cooperative Society in Hjortshøj (AiH), and the Svanholm community. According to the representative of Svanholm, in rough numbers, the village is 100% self-sufficient with electricity and heating, the former being produced by 2 wind turbines and the latter coming mainly from solar panels and a central boiler fueled with locally sourced woodchip.

Solar energy utilization at AiH

Nowadays, we can perceive a renaissance of utilizing wood as fuel, mainly because this material has been considered as a significant contributor to the transition to renewable energies. Some general drawbacks of burning biomass are that it results in environmental pollution and land use issues can be connected to its production. Unfortunately, perfect wood combustion does not exist, and wood burning results in emissions containing substances which are hazardous for our health and the environment (Clean Heat 2016).

The questions of water provision, wastewater treatment and water saving for environmental purposes are also addressed by eco-communities, albeit on different levels. In Karise Permatopia, drinking water is provided by the local Karise-based corporation, Karise Vandværk, co-owned by 1085 people, whereas the remaining water consumption comes from rainwater collection. The collection of rainwater for washing clothes in common laundry rooms and watering the gardens appear in Munksøgaard and AiH, while residents of Tranehøj also utilize this natural source of water.

Speaking about wastewater handling, some of the communities implemented water saving and separation toilets and/or biological sand filters, and others solve the issue through the implementation of ‘willow-based treatment plants’ (pilerensningsanlæg), which works on a closed-cycle principle, where the nutrients from the sewage are absorbed by the willow plantation. After the trees are being harvested, the material is used either for composting and fertilizing the soil in the agricultural lands, or for heating purposes as a type of biofuel. The most common goal of eco-communities with this solution is to reduce solid and liquid waste, and lower the environmental impact through reuse.

Collecting and recycling waste also appear in many of the eco-communities, by composting organic and garden waste or collecting garbage selectively. However, we did not go further with the subject of waste, as it was not part of our investigations.

Buildings

In case of the building processes and materials used in the villages, a diversity can be perceived again. A few communities simply buy old farm buildings, stables or warehouses, which they later refurbish to family homes, common houses and other facilities, and improve the insulation or make the heating more efficient with the main aim of environmental and economic benefits. An interesting case here is the example of Tranehøj, which completely differs from the other examined communities. Tranehøj is a small community with 5 families, owning a farm together with four buildings on it. Two buildings are for living, but none of the residents have their own houses, instead, they occupy a ‘living space’, which consists of a differing number of rooms, small kitchenette and a living room. Only two residents have their own bathroom, all other inhabitants share these facilities, besides having a common dining room, offices, TV room, banquet hall, spaces for workshops, laundry room, and rooms for storing vegetables and waste.

Other eco-communities, that do not start with ready-made houses, buy a piece of land and hire (a) construction firm(s) to build their facilities using environmentally friendly non-toxic natural building materials, paying attention on the insulation and paints as well. In the community of AiH, materials can differ between the seven co-housing groups; they use compressed soil bricks, rammed clay and wood, and alternatives to rockwool as insulation, such as granulated recycled paper or flax. These materials are easily recyclable, reusable and biodegradable. Due to their environmental consciousness, they utilize clay as local material, while they also have their local construction firm, called Økotech, which reduces the burdens posed on the environment by transportation and decreases the costs of logistics as well. The idea of ‘re-localization’ or ‘localism’ appear in many degrowth and post-growth sources, highlighting its significance and importance on the road for us, humans, to achieve a viable future (Schumacher 1973; Kallis 2017; Latouche 2009; Sachs 2010; Raskin et al. 2002).

The first house in AiH, built from various natural materials

Another important aspect is craftsmanship and the do it yourself approach. These are also emphasized in the literature on degrowth, denoting that: The more we relate with our own hands (and heads) to natural resources, their scarcity and their vulnerability, the more we free ourselves from the market and from consumerism” (Busck 2016).

In line with these ideas, we found examples for settlements which establish their buildings by themselves, utilizing local materials, such as clay, shells, straw, reeds, woodchips and eelgrass (Holm et al. 2008). The community of Fri & Fro is specialized on construction, they have a principle of ‘low-economy’[3] and a positive list of building materials which inhabitants should use. This list excludes materials which are harmful for the environment or human health, while it takes into account the recyclability and reusability factors of building materials.

Food production and consumption

The topic of food production and consumption is certainly one of the areas in which eco-communities could improve in different ways. Again, we saw the technology-oriented approach especially in case of Karise Permatopia; they are aiming to use modern machinery and technology transfer in agriculture with the goal of greater self-sufficiency. They also harvest willow trees from their willow-based treatment plant and use the wooden residues for composting and fertilizing the soil in the agricultural areas, which results in a resource and nutrient cycle similar to natural ones. The community is still on an early stage of development, but their aim is to become largely self-sufficient with vegetables, fruits and meat. The same intention can be found in case of Soleng, where Permaculture is also a determining principle.

Organic goods from Svanholm

In terms of sustainable agriculture, Svanholm depicts a truly interesting case. The inhabitants of Svanholm produce fruits and vegetables for themselves, they have a forest area providing them with forest goods, while they also maintain livestock production. Besides supplying their own community with organic food products, the agriculture here also has the capacity to produce for selling a small share of the products outside Svanholm. As their representative emphasized: “We are all owners of the agriculture and the production that takes place at Svanholm. We all have a word to say, when we make our budget and do our priorities in the production, we are all the part of it.”

Preparing local honey at Svanholm

Almost all of the remaining eco-communities under study address the question of food provision and consumption, although on different scales because of various reasons. Tranehøj is able to provide vegetables for its residents for half of the year, having a large organic kitchen garden. In AiH, they have a farming group, which takes care of their biodynamic farmland and provides basic vegetables, meat (chicken and cattle) and eggs. The animal products are available for consumption for every inhabitant who wants to buy, but vegetables are only for people who participate in the farming activities. Having a higher population than average eco-communities, the amount of food is still not enough to fulfill the needs of AiH, therefore they supply themselves with organic food coming from local supermarkets. In case of Munksøgaard and Frikøbing, there is a desire of being self-sufficient with food, but it only happens on small-scale, meaning that only few residents produce their own vegetables covering part of their own consumption.

Social Aspects

Besides their pro-environmental actions and initiatives, eco-communities greatly promote human welfare and equity, and aim for a sustainable lifestyle where materialism is not central. During our research journey, we had the chance to observe core social degrowth principles such as togetherness, conviviality, sharing, simplicity and solidarity. A sense of deep communality in Danish eco-villages is strengthened by using common facilities, participating in common activities, collaborative ownership and sharing, cooperative decision-making or even by developing a ‘common purse’. However, inhabitants underlined that sharing buildings and participating in shared activities does not mean they are part of a dogmatic community. As a Svanholm resident said: “We have a common purse, common meetings and a common kitchen, but no common dogma. We also have apartments and privacy”.

People dine together at Svanholm

Social inclusion

Social inclusion is essential for eco-communities; a vast variety of people in terms of age, class, occupation, interests and skills inhabit these settlements. Policemen, teachers, therapists, engineers, biologists, carpenters, social workers, and representatives of the art branch live peacefully together, valuing and supporting each other. The diverse skills and knowledge can be truly beneficial for the development and maintenance of the village as well. In Munksøgaard for instance, this diversity resulted in 100% self-management. By painting the houses, mowing the lawns, maintaining the roads, wastewater and heating systems themselves, they do not only reduce their living costs, but enhance their sense of community.

A car-free environment and the closeness to nature allows kids to play safely and to interact more with the environment. In Svanholm, there is even a kindergarten for the youngest children. At the same time, eco-villages are also suitable for elderly people, since being part of a community gives them the opportunity to maintain their social interactions and be actively involved within everyday tasks, activities and events. AiH is a great example for an eco-community with a strong sense of inclusion, as people with special needs are also very welcome to live there and be an essential part of that micro-society; a collaborative project with the local municipality contributed to providing 16 houses available for them.

The intention of some eco-villages to enhance their sense of community and inclusion results in providing various types of ownerships as well, which allow people with low, medium and high incomes to be part of the community.

Local, joint decision-making

Even though there are numerous advantages which a socially diverse eco-community provides, sometimes this variety of different backgrounds generates confrontations. Thus, to maintain and manage these micro-societies, constant communication and discussion among inhabitants is crucial. In order to understand how this is being handled, we looked into the decision-making process of eco-communities. Despite the fact that the procedure varies between eco-settlements, we identified a strong intention to apply a political freedom approach which is in line with the degrowth discourse (Liegey et al. 2013). In some cases, inhabitants make their decisions over the management of the village based on consensus, while in others, the decision-making process is based on the principles of Sociocracy. According to inhabitants who adopted this approach, it encourages them to be open for new ideas, try new things and be more creative.

Albeit there are differences in terms of their decision-making processes, generally, all eco-communities we approached are aiming to achieve participatory democracy, joint decision-making and a high level of transparency. Most of the inhabitants agreed that the ability to avoid conflicts is a precious skill and maintaining a well-functioning democracy is a challenging task.

Volunteering and job opportunities

A widespread phenomenon in the eco-communities is volunteering; residents offer their services and work for each other without any kind of economic benefits in return. As the representative of Fri & Fro articulates: “Every work we do here, we do it not out of pressure, but because we feel good about it”.

Strawberry fields forever

Being part of the fast running reality, devoting free time to volunteering is quite ambitious, therefore, a strong consciousness among eco-villagers is needed in order to constantly maintain such an alternative way of living. Even though eco-villagers often have a genuine desire to be active within their community, their job and family duties do not always allow them to commit to voluntary activities. This is the case in AiH, where the initial idea of residents working outside the community for only four hours per day – and devoting the rest of their time to activities within the village – was impeded by the demanding mainstream political, economic and social reality, which they are still part of.

Creating jobs within the community is probably the most challenging aspect for these settlements. Currently, there are approximately fifteen persons employed in Svanholm. In AiH, one person is employed in relation to the collaborative project with the municipality, and there are local job opportunities available for people with special needs (e.g. working part-time in the local bakery). Within the rest of the communities, job opportunities remain very few or none.

Interactions with the surrounding areas

Even though often referred as alternative settlements, eco-villages under study are not completely independent of the current mainstream reality. Some of the eco-communities believe in the collaboration with the local municipality and some of them aim towards full self-sufficiency and autonomy. However, they maintain positive relationships with their neighbor communities, which is not surprising, keeping in mind that communal settlements are not a new phenomenon in Danish history: “Dialogue and exchange with the surrounding community is very important to us. We strive to share resources, ideas and knowledge with others.” There are eco-communities who regularly develop workshops, events and activities which are accessible for everyone who would like to participate. These interactions between eco-villagers and neighbors from the surrounding areas are beneficial, not only for eco-villagers, but also for the local area as a whole, contributing to its attractive and innovative image.

Svanholm – being a 40 years old eco-community – has been developing together with the local municipality and area. However, it is an eco-village which intends to achieve a ‘decent kind of self-government’. It was developed as a community project within the mainstream political framework, which at the same time follows its own rules in many aspects of life. Having their own internal economic system and own policies considering traffic, environment, education and health, Svanholm can be considered as a state within the state to some extent.

Economic aspects

In general, eco-villagers do not consider monetary means and property as determiners of happiness and prosperity, and they do not give high priority to these means within their normative values. However, almost all of the residents we approached admit that the main challenge they faced during the development of their settlements was a financial one. Most Danish eco-villages have been developed without any external funding or subsidies from governmental or non-governmental organizations. Residents of Soleng believe that in order to represent a valid example for an alternative lifestyle initiated from the bottom-up, they must finance the project themselves. The three families who established the village applied for a loan from the Danish Housing Association, but unfortunately their application was rejected and they had to go for a more costly option – a bank loan. Other eco-communities – such as Fri & Fro – follow a principle of ‘low economy’ which aims to decrease their dependence on loans as much as possible.

When it comes to internal financial management, some eco-villages are trying to develop their own systems aiming at greater independence from the mainstream economic system. Most of the eco-communities we approached manage their finances privately and partly share their spending when organizing common activities or events. One example for setting up a successful internal economic system is Svanholm. This settlement operates with a collective money pool; a common purse where residents collect their income together. At the end, 20% of their gross domestic income returns back to them, and it could be spent on ‘luxury items’ (coffee, alcohol, sweets etc.) or activities such as travelling abroad. The decision about how the common budget should be spent is taken collectively and according to the inhabitants, this management procedure helps to maintain a sustainable lifestyle among residents, with downsized, and more conscious consumption.

A possible model for a sustainable transition?

Nowadays, there is clearly an increasing need for actions initiated by civil society and grassroots organizations. This is mainly due to the fact that the state and the market have not been successful in addressing the current environmental and social crises. Furthermore, academic and intellectual criticism to the growth paradigm does not disclose a practical alternative, which – as our interviewee from NOAH stated – would be crucial: “Because it is not enough to criticize the growth paradigm, you have to show how you can live in another way, and they [eco-communities] are doing that.“

Our study shows that eco-villages could be beneficial for the local municipality by serving as a showroom for CO2 neutral buildings and sustainable solutions; these settlements are laboratories, where future sustainability practices are compounded.

An essential aspect that has not been mentioned before is education, which is crucial in order to generate a cognitive change towards a conscious behavior and lifestyle. In this sense, LØS plays an important role through their courses which are open for anyone who is interested. The course modules consist of social, ecological, economic and cultural – spiritual teachings, and the emphasis is on practice (Andersen et al. 2015; Jackson 2004; Aagaard 2017). LØS also has a quarterly magazine (LØSNET), online newsletter, and published several books about eco-villages and relevant themes. Meanwhile, the organization also looks into how to influence the decision-makers locally. According to our interviewee from LØS, this is a challenging process, since it seems like the central government is: “…in the middle of a dream seeing that there is no problem with the planet and we can do all our consuming and keep on growing the economy.”

On the other hand, critical voices also exist in the Danish political scene, advocating for a sustainable transformation: “We have to rethink and reframe how we understand production and consumption and the way how we develop our country and cities.”[4]

Since we had a critical approach in our thesis, common critiques towards eco-communities are also incorporated. These involve the disadvantages of decentralization, spatial organization and the question of land use (Næss 2001; Xue 2014). However, we avoid the thorough discussion of these here. Still, it has to be mentioned that eco-villagers do not live strictly within the boundaries of their own settlement. They also have other functional destinations outside their community, where various services, job opportunities, leisure facilities, universities and hospitals are situated. This results in increased weekly total traveling distances and the more frequent use of privately owned cars (Naess 2012). Going further, representatives from eco-villages emphasize that not all of the inhabitants are ready to give up on their present comfort and change their lifestyle radically. Another issue in Denmark is that even though eco-settlements are striving to be inclusive for everyone who is interested, the sometimes challenging process of becoming a resident and the long waiting lists exclude some people.

Despite the critiques and their challenges, we can conclude that in the context of Denmark, eco-villages – alongside with initiatives like green consumer and organic farming cooperatives – can provide a desirable model for a sustainable transition, where economic growth and profit-seeking are not core principles. Instead, communality, solidarity, local democracy and environmental consciousness define them as social structures. Remaining part of the contemporary society, eco-villagers are still dependent on public utilities and jobs, which in most of the cases are situated in bigger settlements. Even though there is an intention within eco-communities to develop local job opportunities as part of their decentralized approach, they are still facing barriers in realizing this in practice.

Speaking about the future, all interviewees who participated in our study agreed that there is a need for joint action where civil society, academia, NGOs, businesses, media and policymakers collaborate. Individuals can make a difference but a renewed institutional framework is necessary in order to change the general picture:

“…today we have to revive such a sense of movement that we are moving together; that eco-communities are moving together with the degrowth people, who are moving together with the organic farmers, who are moving together with these new parties and parliaments; that we all are part of one big movement. We have to create that sense”. (Holten-Andersen 2017)

If you would like to read the full project, feel free to contact the authors:

Magdalena Trifonova – [email protected]

Erik Péter Párdi – [email protected]

 

Bibliography

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 Endnotes

[1] Currently, the richest 1% of the world population holds more wealth than the rest of the world together. In 2015, 62 people owned the wealth equivalent to the wealth of 3.6 billion people (Hardoon et al. 2016).

[2] There is no data available about the current population, however, they expect to have around 200 inhabitants in the future.

[3] Besides addressing the topics of loans and social activities, they apply this principle for influencing people to build their own houses from locally sourced organic materials.

[4] These critical voices include the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) and The Alternative (Alternativet) parties. The quote comes from the political leader of the latter.