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Robert Gilman on "Multiple Centers of Initiative"

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Robert Gilman downtown in his hometown of Langley, Washington in the US.
Independent decision-making alliances within a community, and with and between close neighbors, are how ecovillages ideally develop and evolve, Robert Gilman told me last October when I visited him in his hometown of Langley, Washington. Robert is co-originator along with his late wife, Diane Gilman, of the famous “Human-scale, full-featured settlement . . . ” ecovillage definition.

In our October interview I had asked what he meant by the phrase, “multiple centers of initiative,” which he added to his ecovillage definition in 1999.

Most intentional community-style ecovillage projects are not truly ecovillages, he told me, because they are considerably smaller than actual villages, usually 500-1000+ people. But more importantly, intentional community-style ecovillage projects don’t function like villages. They usually have one central governing body which is their only source of initiative, since that body approves, funds, and manages all community projects.

But real villages, he said, have many different centers of initiative: the village governing body itself and the many autonomous enterprises, associations, and projects of its residents — which together comprise the physical, economic, and social fabric of village life. These entities, along with the village’s own governing body, develop, fund, and manage social enterprises which provide everything the village needs; from water, food, and shelter, to agreements, dispute resolution, and other necessary or desirable goods and services.

In medieval Europe, Robert told me, villages developed naturally around a rural manor house, which was the sole governing body. Over time, the manor house would be surrounded by increasing numbers of other buildings, dwellings, and enterprises: the miller, blacksmith, herbalist, midwife, wheelwright, harness maker, livery stable owner, tavern keeper, and so on. Soon village residents outnumbered those in the manor house. The manor house was the largest single entity in the village, the oldest, and it provided the “seed” around which the village grew. But it was no longer the sole governing body.

Intentional communities function similarly, Robert said. They are like catalysts or seeds that begin as what he calls “centers of research, demonstration, and training” and over time can develop into true ecovillages.

Robert added the phrase “multiple centers of initiative” to his ecovillage definition after working with Findhorn in 1999.
This is what happened at Findhorn in Scotland, he said. The Findhorn Foundation is an intentional community of about 100 people organized as an educational nonprofit; its members work for the Foundation in exchange for onsite room and board. Over the years approximately 250 to 300 other people have moved to the area, either renting from the Findhorn Foundation and living onsite, or living in their own homes nearby. Some are former members; others were never members but moved there to be part of the greater Findhorn scene.

Over the years these 250-300 non-members have begun 40 different social initiatives — businesses, nonprofits, consultancies, and other social enterprises — that benefit the Findhorn Foundation itself and the whole northern Scotland bioregion. These social enterprises include various co-ops: the Phoenix Store, a dairy co-op, CSA farm co-op, woodlot co-op, and wind generator co-op. They include the Ekopia Resource Exchange, a credit union, with its local currency, the EKO. Like a manor house and its village, the former members and neighbors now outnumber the members of the Findhorn Foundation intentional community, and together they all create the rich ecological, economic, social, and cultural life of what has become the greater Findhorn Ecovillage. The Foundation is part of the ecovillage, and is its largest and oldest single entity. The Foundation provided the seed around which the ecovillage developed.

The Phoenix Store at Findhorn is funded and managed by community members and others, rather than by Findhorn itself.
Two other large, well-established ecovillages have developed in similar ways. At the 175-member Farm community in central Tennessee, community members work for about 20 different autonomous, individually owned businesses and co-ops, including Farm Soy, the Farm Store, Village Media, The Book Publishing Company, or onsite nonprofits such as Plenty International, the Ecovillage Training Center, and the Swan Conservation Trust. A private land trust owns the 1750-acre property, the Farm’s municipal water system, and other aspects of its physical infrastructure. The nonprofit Farm Education/Conference Center hosts retreats and conferences for outside groups and is the umbrella organization for the Farm School, providing alternative education for the children of community members and neighbors. The Second Foundation is a group of about 30 members in an income-sharing, resource-sharing, mutual benefit association.

Crystal Waters in Australia is similar. Many ecovillage members own and operate their own businesses and nonprofits onsite, including several mail-order businesses; an artisan bread company; a bed and breakfast; EcoLogical Solutions, an ecological design firm founded by GEN co-founder Max Lindegger; and the offices of the nonprofit GENOA (GEN Oceania-Asia).

How Findhorn, The Farm, and Crystal Waters have developed is a natural evolutionary process, Robert continued. Larger, more fully developed ecovillages like these — which clearly now have multiple centers of initiative — are more healthy and functional than intentional community-style ecovillages with just one governing body, he said. Here’s why:

  1. First, they handle failure better, since failure of any one entity doesn’t bring down the whole place.
  2. They support success better, because innovative, energetic people are free to create the social enterprises the ecovillage needs.
  3. They are more healthy and resilient because of their diversity. Diverse decision-making entities in a community is like a permaculture-designed landscape with many different species, multiple inputs and multiple outputs, and redundant systems, which results in healthier plants and animals, greater yields, and better survival value.
At Dancing Rabbit in the US, Ironweed subcommunity runs an enterprise to grow food for themselves and sell to others.
The benefit of intentional community-style ecovillages with just one decision-making body is that they’re like seeds: they get things started. Robert noted that a single decision-making entity works well when everyone is focused on the same goal, say, of paying off the land. But once an aspiring ecovillage has paid off its land, the seedlings and saplings of social enterprise seem inevitably to pop up.

What if an intentional community-style ecovillage continues to have just one decision-making body?

“The downside of a one-body decision-making entity is that it can stifle energy, creativity, and innovation,” Robert cautions. He told me it can drive out some of the most creative people, or those who work at a faster pace. It can alienate the very people who could most help the community achieve its goals. When visionary entrepreneurs are slowed down by people who don’t understand them, or who feel intimidated or rushed by their focus and drive, everyone loses, Robert said — both the entrepreneurs and the community itself.

“If the people with ‘get up and go’ are stifled too often,” Robert warned, “they’ll get up and leave.”

It’s my hope that intentional community-style ecovillages worldwide using one-body-governance in their startup phase, and which may be on the “cusp” of allowing multiple centers of initiative, will go ahead and take the plunge, and we’ll see fabulous “true village” ecovillage projects everywhere. Thank you, Findhorn. And thank you, Robert Gilman.

About Robert Gilman

Robert Gilman was an astrophysicist who, in the early 1980s, stopped focusing on stellar bodies light years away in order to focus on this planet here and now. He and his late wife Diane Gilman founded the nonprofit Context Institute and published In Context magazine.

In 1990 Robert and Diane went to Denmark to meet with Ross and Hildur Jackson. Ross, a Canadian-born businessman and financial software inventor, and Hildur, a Danish social justice activist and lawyer, had just founded Gaia Trust, a fund to help ecological sustainability projects worldwide. (Gaia Trust later funded the start of the Global Ecovillage Network.)

Robert and Diane received a Gaia Trust grant to study ecologically sustainable communities worldwide, which resulted in a seminal book published by Context Institute in 1991: Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities. In it, Robert and Diane defined ecovillages as: “Human-scale, full-featured settlements in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world, supporting healthy human development, and which can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.” This became the widely quoted definition used by ecovillages worldwide.

Robert added the phrase, “with multiple centers of initiative” in 1999, after living at Findhorn for three months as a consultant to help them resolve conflict between those who advocated one center of initiative, the Findhorn Foundation itself, and those who wanted the entity, “Findhorn,” to encompass many social enterprises founded by members, former members, and neighbors. Now the Findhorn Foundation is one member of the whole constellation of entities that make up the larger Findhorn Association.

Related Articles:

Is The Farm an Ecovillage? – In this issue
The Ecovillage Movement Today – May 2008 issue

Also in this issue — Oct. '08

Coming in Future Issues:
  • Anastasia Ecovillages in Russia (Andrew Jones)
  • Konohana Family Farm in Japan (Hildur Jackson)
  • First Philippines Ecovillage Design Education Course (Diana Leafe Christian)
  • Pintig Ecovillage Partners with a Local Green Business (Diana Leafe Christian)
  • Our Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part II (Russell Austerberry)
  • Svanholm in Denmark Becomes Carbon Neutral (Christina Adler Jensen)
  • Ecovillage Conference Tokyo 2009 (Hildur Jackson)
  • ‘Glue’ or ‘Shrapnel’ in Your Ecovillage (Diana Leafe Christian)
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Newsletter Staff

  • Diana Leafe Christian,
  • Jan Steinman,
    Website Designer, Mailing List Administrator
  • Marie Marcella,

Mission & Purpose

To encourage and inspire new and existing ecovillage projects with news about ecovillages and related projects worldwide.

Advisory Board

  • Lois Arkin,
    CRSP; ENA; Urban Ecovillage Network; Los Angeles Eco-Village, US
  • Peter Bane,
    Permaculture designer; publisher, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Albert Bates,
    Co-founder, GEN; Post-Petroleum Survival Guide; Director, Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm, US
  • Tree Bressen,
    Consensus & Facilitation Trainer; Cofounder, Walnut St. Co-op, US
  • Ernest Callenbach,
    Ecotopia, Ecotopia Emerging; US
  • Giovanni Ciarlo,
    GEN; ENA; Huehyecoyotl Ecovillage, Mexico
  • Raines Cohen,
    Cohousing Association of the US; Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC); Berkeley Cohousing, US
  • Leila Dregger,
    Peace journalist & writer, Peace Research Center & Ecovillage, Tamera, Portugal
  • Chuck Durrett,
    Cohousing; Senior Cohousing; Architect, The Cohousing Company; Nevada City Cohousing, US
  • Jonathan Dawson,
    Ecovillages; Findhorn Foundation, Scotland
  • Robert Gilman,
    Co-founder, GEN; Ecovillages & Sustainable Communities; City Council Member, Langley, Washington, US
  • Michael Hale,
    Yarrow Ecovillage, Canada
  • Jeff Grossberg,
    Guidestone Consulting Group, US
  • Martha Harris,
    Earthaven Ecovillage, US
  • Scott Horton,
    Editor, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Hildur Jackson,
    Co-founder, Gaia Trust; cofounder, GEN; Ecovillage Living, Denmark
  • Kosha Joubert,
    Editor, Beyond You and Me, GEN's EDE Program; Ecovillage Sieben Linden, Germany
  • Elana Kann & Bill Flemming,
    Co-developers, Westwood Cohousing, US
  • Joseph F. Kennedy,
    Designer/educator; The Art of Natural Building, US
  • Fred & Nancy Lanphear,
    Northwest Intentional Communities Association (NICA); Songaia Cohousing, US
  • Mark Lakeman,
    Founder, Portland City Repair & Village Building Convergence, US
  • Max Lindegger,
    Cofounder, GEN; Director, GEN-Oceania/Asia; Crystal Waters Ecovillage, Australia
  • Chris Mare,
    GEN's EDE Program; Village Design Institute, US
  • Ronaye Matthew,
    Canadian Cohousing Network; Cranberry Commons Cohousing, Canada
  • Kathryn McCamant,
    Architect/Developer, Cohousing Partners, Inc.; Co-author, Cohousing; Nevada City Cohousing, US
  • Dr. Bill Metcalf,
    Findhorn Book of Community Living; Professor, Environmental Sociology, Griffith University, Australia
  • Ina Meyer-Stoll,
    Co-director, GEN-Europe; ZEGG, Germany
  • Tim Miller,
    The 60s Communes; Professor of Religion, University of Kansas, US
  • Hank Obermayer,
    Mariposa Grove Cohousing, US
  • Toshio Ogata,
    Professor of Economics, Chuo University; GEPA (Global Environment Project in Asia), Japan
  • Craig Ragland,
    Executive Director, Cohousing Association of the US; Songaia Cohousing; New Earth Song Cohousing, US
  • Penelope Reyes,
    President, GEN-Oceania/Asia; Tuwâ - The Laughing Fish, Cabiao, Philippines
  • Michael Rios,
    Network for a New Culture Summer Camp East; Chrysalis, Washington DC, US
  • Jim Shenck,
    Enright Ridge Ecovillage, US
  • Nicola Shirley,
    The Source Farm Ecovillage, Jamaica
  • Tony Sirna,
    Communities Directory; Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, US
  • Jan Steinman,
    EcoReality Co-op, Canada
  • Liz Walker,
    GEN's EDE Program; Ecovillage at Ithaca; EcoVillage at Ithaca, US