Sustainability Transitions: the potential of ecovillages as “classrooms” for the future

We live a deep socio-environmental crisis. Since the 1960s, several scientists have alerted us to the problems caused by pollution, global warming, water crisis, and loss of biodiversity. The alerts indicate that, if we want to keep the environmental basis of human societies, we need deep transformations in our techniques, infrastructures and lifestyles. However, in spite of all our knowledge and all the technological development humankind has achieved, we live in apathy and inertia. We keep our usual lives, not being able to put in practice these transformations which are so necessary. Small grassroots innovation niches, such as ecovillages, Transition Towns, urban gardens and orchards, and many other groups from civil society have emerged as protagonists, initiating this revolution of daily life so badly needed, but yet so shy.

For us to achieve a sustainability transition, these initiatives have to upscale. Economists, architects, administrators, teachers: each one has an important role to play in this transition and the new generations of professionals will have to face these inevitable changes in their fields of work. When we think about the education of these future professionals, we need to ask ourselves: How to supply the new generations of professionals with the tools needed to deal with pressing environmental problems? How to present to students not only the problems that afflict humanity, but also the ways to transform reality and to work towards the transition to a more sustainable society?

It is crucial to take the youth out of apathy and present the situation of humankind today not as a reason for despair, but as an opportunity. Opportunity to live a life full of purpose and meaning. Opportunity to work towards the construction of a more sustainable, just and collaborative world. The desire to change the world is a natural desire of youth, but which is easily muffled by the pessimistic discourse. A new narrative is needed. A narrative that generates engagement and motivation.

Since the beginning of 2019, IBC (ecovillage and eco-centre), in partnership with the Centro de Estudos do Cerrado (CER) at University of Brasilia, has welcomed students for an undergraduate class called: “Sustainability Transitions and Grassroots Innovation niches” (STGI). Classes take place at IBC and include theoretical lectures on transitions, and practical workshops on sustainable practices, such as bio-construction, permaculture and emotional management. This project, idealized by the ecovillage resident Rebeca Roysen, was inspired by two similar projects of partnership between institutes of higher education and ecovillages, both in the United States: the Living Routes program from University of Massachusetts and the Environmental Studies Program at Ithaca College. However, at IBC, the class was designed according to the scientific and practical knowledge existent at the ecovillage.

The goal of STGI class is to reflect, through theory and practice, on the challenges and possibilities of transition processes towards a more sustainable society, based on the transition experience of Aratikum ecovillage at IBC. After two semesters, it was possible to carry out a fist evaluation of the experience, reported on a working paper.

The first draft in Portuguese is available on the following link and a translation to English is underway:

image: Marcel Carneiro

There were 136 students from 34 different courses, mostly from Environmental Management, Architecture and Urbanism, Engineering, Environmental Sciences, and Social Sciences. Students’ reports reveal that the experience at the ecovillage was capable of instigating a deeper reflection about habits and lifestyles normalized in our society, and about the cycles in which our daily practices are embedded: where our food comes from and where the waste goes afterwards, where the sewage from our toilets goes, where the construction material comes from and where it goes after being discarded. Students could get in touch with several innovative technologies and social practices, broadening their repertoire of tools and solutions.

While experiencing the ecovillage lifestyle, students could see that there are people who are building new ways of life and developing sustainable innovations in practice. Beyond the critique of socio-environmental issues, the class offers a range of solutions. As small as they may seem, they strengthen the feeling that we are capable of doing something for the world. Also, in realizing that there are so many diverse people who share these ideals, there is a renewed hope that larger changes are, indeed, possible. When they see many people and projects seeking transitions, students and ecovillage members feel strengthened in their purpose and inspired to keep seeking changes.

The experience has also led students to reflect on their personal lives, their interpersonal relationships and their life purpose. It becomes evident that the education of critical citizens and professionals who can lead profound changes in society also requires that students are able to reflect on their place in the world, to stop the frenetic pace of social reproduction to question their goals in life and to bring meaning to what they are studying and searching. This possibility of reflection about the world and about themselves has renewed in students the desire to fight for a better world and to achieve concrete changes in their daily lives – personally and professionally. The feeling of apathy and powerlessness was replaced by the desire to make a difference. When this dream is shared by a group, hope is reborn and motivation emerges.

In face of the pressing environmental problems and the apparent incapability of our society to generate profound changes in technologies and lifestyles, higher education has the responsibility of educating individuals and professionals who can lead these changes. Graduates from different fields of knowledge need to learn to work together, and with civil society, to deal with the problems that emerge with the environmental crisis and to be able to create innovative and transformative solutions that promote sustainability transitions. This requires not only theoretical knowledge, but also motivation to seek change, capacity to work in a collaborative way with different stakeholders, openness to innovative solutions, and the ability of self-regulation. To accomplish all this, higher education needs living “classrooms” that dialogue with civil society and generate new narratives of the time we live in. This can help mobilize the new generations to leave the apathy and to work towards a more sustainable, healthy and collaborative society.

This innovative experience, connecting academic research, practical knowledge and personal development, shows the potential of partnerships between ecovillages and universities in contributing to the education of more responsible and reflective professionals, capable to lead transitions within their specific fields in continuing collaboration with other fields and social actors.

image: Marcel Carneiro

Below, we share some excerpts from students’ reports:

This class was one of the most different and rich in many factors that I have participated until now during four years at the university. […] I was able to experience many feelings, the strongest of them, the feeling of belonging and embrace. It was beautiful to see how collective work is important and can generate positive results. It was important to see that I am not alone and there are many people with the same dreams, goals and willingness to build a better future, with more balance, love, harmony and unity. (Environmental Management student)

I can affirm that I left the experience with renewed strength, with many ideas to put in practice and uncountable goals to be reached. […] The feeling of hopelessness was replaced by the desire not to run away from this fight that is to change people’s lifestyles to a more sustainable system, environmentally and socially speaking. (Biology student)

In my head, all the time, there were questionings, such as “can I throw this trash here?”, “Was this trash really necessary?”, “Where does the water from the shower go?” Questionings that do not exist in my daily life, but today I see the importance of questioning everything, because things do not disappear from the world, they are just destined somewhere else. (Forestry Engineering student)

The class work was beyond the conventional academic work […] to show us how much we are responsible and active agents in the cycles we live in. Knowing where the food had come from, where they went afterwards, the trash we produced, the water we consumed – everything has a beginning and an end and this process can be harmonious and not degrading for either part. As a future architect and urbanist, I will take with me the awareness of the possible impacts my projects may directly have in the environment depending on my choice of material, the final destination of used resources, and spaces destined to environmental practices. (Architecture and urbanism student)

[...] I love the spiritual and social dimensions being worked out at the ecovillage and how everybody has an opportunity to listen and to talk freely about feelings […] I went to the ecovillage expecting to learn more about sustainable practices and I left learning more about that, but also, learning much more about myself. (Architecture and urbanism student)

I was surprised to see how it's possible, in only two weekends, to encompass so many subjects, which would not have been possible in the classroom. […] Many people cry at the end, get deeply moved, because the change spans common learning, touches at self-knowledge, in simple things such as living collectively, it breaks our beliefs in many ways, so that’s extremely important. I am extremely grateful for having been a part of it. (Social Service student)

image: Marcel Carneiro

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@2023 INSTITUTO BIORREGIONAL DO CERRADO | desenvolvido por Alisson Sindeaux