Ecovillages: Vacation Homes for the Wealthy or Hot Spots for Hope and Change?

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Gerry Chicalo was a software engineer with a “window office in a skyscraper in downtown Vancouver” and lived in an expensive apartment.

Today he lives on Lasqueti Island, one of British Columbia’s Northern Gulf Islands, 144 kilometers west of Vancouver and home to white sand beaches and giant red cedars. It’s a scene quite removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. Chicalo has lived here for over 14 years, committing, along with 400 other residents, ever more wholly to an off-grid lifestyle. He has distanced himself from the busyness of the city and lessened his reliance on the products and services of society. He makes his own shelter, harnesses his own solar energy, filters his own drinking water and grows his own food — different kinds of kale and root vegetables, among other things.

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Gerry Chicalo stands in his garden.

This year, he hopes to distance himself from “society” further. He will attempt to step completely outside of our current economic system.

“I am working towards total self-sufficiency,” Chicalo says, outside what he calls his “yurt” — a large, plastic-covered enclosure. “I’m almost there. In another year or two, I will be totally self-sufficient.” Opening the door of his shelter, he walks around a workspace consisting of a few chairs, tables and greenhouse plants. “At that point, my only expenses will be about 300 Canadian dollars a year for government land taxes.”

Currently, private property on Lasqueti comes in two categories: Free Title Land, owned by one holder and going for an average price of $300,000 for 10 acres, and Land Group Land, owned by multiple holders who are free to divvy up the land as they see fit. On average, it goes for half the price of Free Title Land. Chicalo belongs to the Land Group category.

Although he holds a clear disdain for the global economic system, he doesn’t deny he is still involved in it. “I do need some money — I’m building a house!” he says. “But not much. I easily go for weeks and weeks here without spending money on anything. I don’t even carry money with me when I go about my business here.”

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Chicalo hopes to achieve self-sufficiency in a couple of years.

Chicalo’s weariness with 21st-century capitalism and the global economy’s far-reaching hold is an attitude shared by many ecovillages and off-grid communities throughout the world. Studies show there are now thousands of such people.

Alternative economic systems have cropped up alongside them, with some communities returning to the ancient system of barter and some creating their own currency, as in the ecovillage of Damanhur in Italy, where residents use the “Credito,” a local currency invented in Argentine barter markets during the economic crisis of 1995.

Still, Jonathan Dawson’s report on the local economies of ecovillages, commissioned by the Global Ecovillage Network, shows that the story behind ecovillages is more complicated than a narrative about an idyllic escape from modern city life.

“Almost all villages are inextricably tied into the wider and destructive global economy that surrounds them,” says Dawson. “Participants in [ecovillage] training courses tend to leave large air-mile carbon footprints behind them.” In addition, those who can afford to live in ecovillages tend to be well off.

A Canadian member of an ecovillage in Costa Rica agrees. The ecovillage resident, who is from an upper-middle-class family and is raising children at the village, notes, as Chicalo does, that a great number of ecovillage residents view their beachfront or jungle homes as vacation spots where they take time away from their “hectic lives in the city.”

Some only “come only in the winter months and assume the ecovillage lifestyle,” says the resident, who asked not to be named. “Then they go back to their corporate jobs.”

However, not all ecovillages are simply offbeat resorts. Dawson’s report gives examples of ecovillages that have successfully found a “middle ground between integration into the global economy and cutting all — or most — links with it,” most notably those belonging to the cooperative movement.

Dawson believes the global economy is too large, with a “perverse gravitational pull,” for ecovillages to escape.

“The boundaries of mutuality must extend far beyond the limits of the ecovillage itself,” he says. “This only becomes possible if ecovillages consciously identify themselves, in the economic sphere at least, as belonging to a family of initiatives significantly larger than themselves.”

Chicalo, in his own way, acknowledges this need to grow an off-grid network. He believes that if enough people started to share the same lifestyle, as he and the other residents of Lasqueti Island do, “de-growth would naturally occur.”

“In the end, I think, the vast majority of people would be happier and live fuller and richer lives,” he says.

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