POSTED: 9 SEPTEMBER 2007 - 8:30am HST

Green Acres

image above: John Bokaer-Smith, right, helps out with the pepper harvest at EcoVillage int Ithaca NY

by Bryan Walsh on 6 September 2007 in Time Magazine

Gail Carson would like you to know something about the EcoVillage at Ithaca (EVI): it is not a commune. "It's the first question people ask when they visit," says Carson, a pleasant, shy woman who runs a bed-and-breakfast at the upstate New York village. But you could be forgiven for not believing her.

At the moment, Carson, 66, is speaking to a circle of about 20 fellow ecovillagers who have gathered in the purple August twilight outside one of the community's common houses, where they've just polished off a group meal of broccoli pasta (regular, as well as wheat-free for the allergic). The 160 members of EVI eat several meals a week together, prepared by rotating teams of volunteer cooks.

They share laundry machines, babysitters, organic produce, TVs (for the few who watch), even cars. If all this togetherness doesn't make EVI a commune, that's because it's potentially much more: a clean, green village hoping to show the rest of us how to live a fully modern life while reducing our environmental footprint to little more than a tiptoe.

"We're trying to create an attractive, viable alternative to American life," says Liz Walker, 53, who co-founded EVI in 1991 and still serves as its philosophical engine. "For us this feels like the way people should live on the earth."

Americans have sought out companies of like-minded souls since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, organizing around religion, politics, philosophy and--by the time the 1960s rolled around--long hair, free love and poor hygiene. But today that need for community is paired with a desire to live in harmony with the environment. The result is the ecovillage, and EVI is hardly the only one of its kind. The Global Ecovillage Network lists 379 such groups, from EVI in Ithaca to Findhorn in the wilderness of Scotland, and there are even some in cities like Los Angeles and Cleveland.

"It's clear the communities are growing stronger," says Erik Assadourian, a researcher at the environmental think tank Worldwatch who just completed a report on the movement. "I think they're the way of the future."

At EVI, the future is now. The collective of adults and children occupies 175 acres (70 hectares) of bucolic land, including an independent organic farm that supplies much of its produce. The property was purchased by a nonprofit organization formed to help shape the community; the board of directors, which includes both villagers and outsiders, plots the direction of EVI with the consent of residents. The 60 tidy homes, all duplexes to save energy, are privately owned by the residents, who pay a monthly fee for the upkeep of common buildings and future capital projects, like a shared root cellar for storing vegetables. Most of the territory is undeveloped and reserved for community space, where parents allow their kids to go free range, trusting that other villagers will be there to look out for them.

All the homes feature passive solar design, with densely insulated walls and multipaned Fiberglas windows that save energy through the freezing New York winters. The lightbulbs are efficient compact fluorescents, of course; some houses have compost toilets to save water; and a recycling and reuse program keeps waste at about a quarter of what a similarly sized development would produce. Simple solidarity goes a long way toward keeping green. "There's a real culture of encouragement here," says Elan Shapiro, a founding resident.

Such green strategies pay genuine environmental dividends. Even though EVI is still on the electrical grid and many residents commute by car to their jobs--as far as 20 miles (about 30 km) away--the group estimates it has an ecological impact 40% smaller than that of a comparable mainstream community.

EVI's group-hug 1969 atmospherics do not come at a 1969 price. Ranging as high as $300,000, the houses aren't cheap, in part because of rising land prices in the Ithaca area. Draped in vegetation and occasionally sporting solar panels, the homes are Norman Rockwell meets Al Gore. "We were drawn by the fact that this was an environmentally based community," says Alison Cohn, 36, watching from her front porch as her 4-year-old son Asher digs in a nearby sandbox. "But it's when I see how much my kids love it here that I really know we made the right choice."

Her opinion is shared by many at EVI, who came as much for the village as for the eco. What many of us might dread--all community, all the time--ecovillagers seek out. Laura Beck, 42, and her husband moved to EVI from Austin, Texas, in 2001 with their son Ethan, then 2. The family thrived in the village. The couple's marriage did not, and they soon divorced. Instead of leaving, Beck just switched to a new house, while her ex-husband stayed in their first home, with Ethan walking between the two. "I never thought about moving out," says Beck, sipping tea in her living room. "This is such a supportive environment." Most residents would agree: membership has remained fairly stable, and there's a waiting list to join.
If ecovillages were just isolated, survivalist lifeboats amid a sea of rising temperatures--the Branch Davidian compounds of the green movement--they wouldn't mean much. But Walker, a veteran community organizer and activist, is determined to spread the word. She has forged links with Ithaca College and the surrounding area, turning EVI into a living laboratory. At nearby Cornell University, EVI residents teach courses on environmental collectives, and villagers have become accustomed to camera-toting visitors peeking through unlocked front doors.

Of course, at any ecovillage, larger ambitions must still yield to the gentle demands of daily life. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, residents lined up at the on-site farm to pick up their weekly share of organic fruits and vegetables, which some had helped harvest earlier in the day. As mothers bagged eggplants the color of a deep bruise and the size of Popeye's forearms, the talk was not of peak oil and alternative fuels but of kids and the fast-approaching fall term at the public school most EVI kids attend--just the kinds of unremarkable things you'd discuss in any unremarkable community.

GMO Free Kauai
phone: (808) 651-9603

Hawaii Seed
PO Box 2353
Kealakekua, HI 96750

phone: (808) 331-1211

see also:
Island Breath: Protect Haloa 10/8/07
Island Breath: Taro Research Protested
Island Breath: WCMS Poisoning
Island Breath: Gene Networks
Island Breath: GMO Moratorium
Island Breath: GMO Corn Toxicity
Island Breath: GMO News
Island Breath: GMO permit requests
Island Breath: GMO Papaya Contamination
Island Breath: Hawaii Taro Patents

Island Breath: GMO crops & superweeds
Island Breath: BioPharming Lawsuit
Island Breath: GMO Algae in Hawaii
IslandBreath: China & Kraft GMO
Island Breath: GMO Free Kauai
Island Breath: GMO free Molokai
Island Breath: Mendocino GMO ban
Island Breath: GMO Experiments

Island Breath: GMO Rice

Island Breath: GMO in Hawaii

Island Breath: The Future of Food
Island Braeth: Percey Schmeizer