Lara Monticelli

Critical Research on Sociological Alternatives

Lara Monticelli

Critical Research on Sociological Alternatives


Ecovillages as Laboratories of Sustainability and Social Change

The Context

The urgent need to tackle human-induced climate change, massive pollution and unsustainable development has never before been such a prominent feature of contemporary political debate. The European Union (EU) has stressed the necessity of a coalition of governments, supranational institutions, citizens and civil society actors engaged in grassroots-activities . These include producer and consumer cooperatives , participatory municipal budgeting , community and urban gardens , food sovereignty, initiatives, Time Banks , Transition Towns and ecovillages.

In an historical moment where citizens of the world are called to take action to face ‘multiple crises’ in the environment, the economy and society, research into these initiatives is crucially important and timely. They constitute, in fact, ‘glocal’ laboratories, real utopias where citizens are engaging in prefiguring a more inclusive, just and fair society through the experimentation with new social practices, the enhancement of social power and the imagination of alternative futures.

The Idea

In the field of social sciences, the debate on transformative grassroots initiatives is emerging but a comprehensive theoretical and analytical framework is still lacking. To date, among the literature produced, the definition of prefigurative politics seems the one able to best capture the common trait underlying these various initiatives. The term indicates, in fact, how civil society and social movements embody their ultimate goals within their ongoing social practices,social relations, decision-making processes and culture. These processes, unfolding over time, involve collective experimentation, production and circulation of new meanings and future-oriented social norms, and their consolidation and diffusion into mainstream society.

Within this broader academic debate, interest in the ecovillage movement is growing rapidly. The ecovillage movement represents, in fact, an extremely interesting case of prefigurative movement since it aims at radically transforming and rethinking all the aspects of everyday life, inspired by the concept of ´holistic sustainability´. However, in the field of sociology, and, more specifically civil society and social movement studies, research on ecovillages is rare. ‘Ecovillages as Laboratories of Sustainability and Social Change’ (EcoLabSS) is conceived as an international, inter-sectoral and interdisciplinary project aiming at producing a theoretically and methodologically innovative study of one of these grassroots initiatives: the ecovillage movement.

"It is impossible to achieve a harmonization of man and nature without creating a human community that lives in a lasting balance with its natural environment."
Murray Bookchin (Ecology and Revolutionary Thought)

Ecovillages as Laboratories of Change

The term ‘ecovillage’ was first coined in 1991 and refers to an intentional, traditional or urban community that is consciously designed through locally owned, participatory processes to regenerate their social and natural environments. In 1998, ecovillages were officially included among the United Nations top 100 list of ‘best practices’.

To date around 10,000 ecovillages have been documented in both the global North and South in many different spatial contexts, be it urban neighbourhoods, rural communities or traditional villages. The majority of ecovillages around the world belong to GEN. Founded in 1995, GEN supports the activities of ecovillages around the world and acts as an international spokesman reaching out to governments, NGOs, supranational organizations and broader society.

More on the Global Ecovillage Network can be found here.

The Research

Theoretically, the goal of EcoLabSS is to develop an original analytical framework based on the conceptualization of community-based, prefigurative social movements. Empirically, EcoLabSS is conceived a multi-level and mixed-method project that combines the comparative study of two local ecovillages in Denmark and Italy with a systematic analysis of the actions and networks of the transnational organization Global Ecovillage Network (GEN).

The empirical analysis is structured along three mutually informing levels of analysis: micro-individual level, meso-community level, and macro-societal level. The first level is focused on the study of individual life trajectories and biographies of ecovillage inhabitants.

The meso-community level is analyzing the everyday practices and processes involving organization, decision-making and creation of future-oriented norms and codes of conduct inside the two case studies.

Finally, the macro-societal level is centred on the study of how the ecovillage movement – represented by the transnational organization GEN – translates and diffuses its practices, narratives and visions of a just and sustainable society to policy-makers, institutions, other civil society actors and the wider public.