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At the beginning of 2016 I made a trip around the North of Spain. I visited friends of mine in four different locations in the North of Spain. Besides this being a fun and cheap way of being on a holiday, the trip itself turned out to be an unexpectedly inspiring encounter with young people all doing community living and organic agriculture. What struck me in particular was that on three different occasions I encountered young people embarking on entrepreneurship endeavors in a country that is still suffering from an economic crisis.

In this article I would like to share with you the inspiration I found in Spain. I would like to share with you how ecovillage communities and start up organic farms are beautiful expressions of ‘Degrowth’. A concept used to by a social movement that wants to move away from the tyranny of economic growth. Doing so, I raise the question if the ecovillage movement can perhaps be a way forward to get out of the trauma that is raised by austerity policies into a more sustainable future. Besides that I believe that the Ecovillage movement and the Degrowth movement have much in common and I believe that they have much potential for making the vision of a sustainable society much more tangible.

The Trip

The initial spark to go to Spain in the first place was that there was going to be a New Years Eve celebration in Valmayor de Cuestra Urria. This place is near to a city called Medina de Pomar in the province of Burgos. The more this idea reached the ears of our little network of friends the more people decided to join. I was one of them and it was amazing!

Already before I left to Spain, I decided that it would be a good idea to visit not only Santiago and Eva in Valmayor, but that it would be the right time to visit some more friends of which I knew they were somewhere in Spain. So I planned to visit four different places in three weeks. In each placed I wished I could stay longer than I actually did.

I stayed in Valmayor de Cuestra Urria for nine days and I worked outside whenever the weather was good enough to do so. I helped with setting out electric wire on the hills for the cattle, chopping down trees for construction purposes, I butchered and cleaned a rooster and so on. The circumstances were a bit rough since they were off grid, though they had a steady watersupply we had to be careful not to overuse our resources. The heating was arranged with a firewood stove that only heated the kitchen-living room part of the house so we slept in cold conditions with extra blankets. I absolutely loved it.  I definitely enjoyed being able to observe the scenery with all its thorny shrubs, including the areas full of black thorn bushes with blue berries that are really nice for making patxaran. This is a liquor with these blueberries and anise and the people in Valmayor were already experimenting with making it. I say it again, Valmayor was a very very nice place to be!

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Valmayor de Cuestra Urria

My second visit brought me to an ecovillage in a place called Artieda. The friends I had there are a couple that, just like the couple running Valmayor de Cuestra Urria, had met in Droevendaal. They had also been at the New Years Eve celebration in Valmayor. During my visit at their place I got to carry around lots and lots of wood, to learn a bit about how to make beer  (by doing it) and to more than a play a few games of dice while drinking surprisingly good cheap beer since they had run out of their own. The vibe of this place was decidedly different from Valmayor, not least of all, since it was situated in a rehabilitated monastery and it was much less isolated. Another striking difference was that there many more people and the community really was more established and structured, also in terms of the rules by which everyday life was organized.  Most of the people there were in their thirties or forties and as a consequence of that there were many young children around. They had quite a few facilities and running projects, but more about that later.

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Artieda

I stayed in Artieda for four days, after which I took a BlaBla car ride to Huesca to visit an old housemate of mine. I only visited her for a single night. She was busy studying for exams, so I could only stay for one night, but we agreed that should come over some time again because I for sure didn’t catch all of what is there to see. After hanging out for a night at the local ‘cervezeria artesenal’ , which is the Spanish name for ‘special-and-local-beers-pub’ we went on a little tour during which she showed me where she and her friends were working of the restoration of the old farm house and the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project run by her friends where she got her food.

After this I went on to Barcelona by bus, a trip during which I saw a huge and beautiful awe inspiring flock of birds filling the sky, like the biggest I have ever seen. I couldn’t get my eyes off of it, but I could also not help but to notice that everybody else on the bus was extremely engaged with their smartphones, which is sometimes I normally don’t really mind, but at that moment I found it a real waste of time.

Background –economic crisis of the South of Europe

Ever since the close-complete-meltdown of the banking sector in 2008 the South of Europe is experiencing a crisis. Whether this crisis, or at least the depths of its impact, was unavoidable remains a highly politicized subject of debate. It is no secret however that the impact of the economic crisis is extremely severe. While youth unemployment remains high throughout the south of Europe (up to 46% in Spain December 2015)[1], the European Union has enforced controversial and far reaching austerity regulations for the sake of financial stability and for the sake of the budgetary agreements as recorded in the Maastricht Treaty. These dictated the need for sound fiscal policies, with debt limited to 60% of GDP and annual deficits no greater than 3% of GDP[2].

While entrenched interests in the EU and beyond leave the burden of the blame with the irresponsible economic management from the national governments, the voices from the South of Europe point towards the deadlock situation brought on by the austerity policies. One thing is clear though, as austerity politics are ravaging the foundations of the social democracies in the South of Europe, social security webs are vanishing and people are left on their own devises to get by.

While the depths of the suffering brought upon the South of Europe as a result of the austerity driven economic restructuring should not be underestimated, many people have observed that people in Spain and elsewhere are still making the best out of the opportunities they are presented with. The way they deal with the crisis is becomes very interesting when we take into account that the chosen strategies can basically be conceived of as do-it-yourself resilience strategies. I would not go as far as to claim that the projects that I visited were very consciously countering the impacts of the economic crisis. Rather I think that it is very interesting and potentially important that people are actually building up projects in a society that is suffering from economic crisis and stringent austerity policies.

The Need for Alternatives and Where to Find them

What makes the economic crisis is extra severe is the crisis of imagination. The peculiarity of the current situation is that the inherent injustice of the current state of capitalism is becoming increasingly uncontested, yet real and substantial critique is heavily sought after. We have yet to find viable alternatives around which we can organize for change. Viable alternatives need to respond to those needs that capitalism fails to address. This means viable alternatives need to address at least social justice and environmental justice.

I came across a quote at the hand of the former Shell house-philosopher that I found particularly interesting, since it is inspired by the experience of trying to change a multinational from the inside out and it sums up well the current order of things, the relationship of the powers that be to the need for radical change included (translated from Dutch)[3]( Akkerman, 2016):

But there certainly is something happening to the climate and you cannot hold that the oil companies are truly pushing for change. They speak of sustainability and that is a fine principle, but in our business model sustainability often means to make sure we can continue on the path take for just a little longer. We try to scruff off the bad parts but we don’t really want to change the recipe, but the alienation of ourselves and of nature is integrated into the recipe and there you see: Shell is not the problem, it is society. We need new ways living together and we need a new vision of the future.

We need to imagine new paradigms of social organization and it appears that real alternatives need  to be imagined and materialized at the grassroots before they can grow. More importantly, we need to realize new paradigms do exist, but they are still small. They are however present in the lived experiences of people who have found ways to start up entrepreneurial initiatives while staying true to their ideals and values.

In the following part of this article I want to share some of my experiences with three of such initiatives.

Ecovillages and Organic Entrepreneurship in Spain

In all three cases I was dealing with young people with an interest in organic agriculture in the south of Europe. They are all inspired by agro-ecological ideas and they are living in community arrangements.

They all happen to be academically educated, but equally important is how they all used to live in the same student community in the Netherlands prior to their current living conditions. This is how we all know each other. Academia, activism to certain degrees, community living and a shared interest in sustainability are already present in Droevendaal.

They all live in relatively young community arrangements. You can sense how the community ties are of tangible importance to their own wellbeing and to the success of their enterprise. Often there is a strong connection between the communities where they live and the ways in which they are marketing their produce.

Funnily enough everywhere I went I ran into a holy trinity of beer brewing, community living and organic agriculture. It surely seems to be a winning combination for experimenting with the economic viability, ecological sustainability and the social stability of their lives life.

Valmayor, Artieda and Huesca

So during my trip I have visited three different places that can be considered ecovillage communities.  I went to a place close to Medina de Pomar in Burgos, another place in a village called Artieda close Pamplona in Aragon and to the city of Huesca.

Valmayor

Valmayor de Cuestra Uria is an ecovillage under construction that has been going for one year now. You would be hard pressed to find a place that is more typical of the abandoned villages in Spain to be reoccupied by young idealistic people from the North. The village itself consists of six ruins, a church in ruins, two houses, a camper and a house used for storage of construction materials but that wouldn’t be fit for much more.

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A ruin in Valmayor

They have access to some 270 hectares of rugged mountainous grassland full of bushes and herbs (lots of lavender!) and forests for their cows to graze on. They have some 26 heads of cattle now and they wish to expand to some 40 heads of cattle. Other people in the village are brewing beer which is traded with the ecovillage Artieda, which I visited right after Valmayor de Cuestra Uria. They have friends that want to establish a vegetable garden focused on breeding ‘forgotten’ vegetables to contribute to agrodiversity in Europe and who want to perhaps start growing algea. There are plans to construct a biodigester, which can be used to produce liquid fertilizer and natural gas out of manure. When I was there, there were attempts to start with the construction of an ecotoilet and the construction of a bread oven was already well underway.

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The Cows of Valmayor

You could really sense that this is an ecovillage still under construction. They have many projects to be started up and many projects that are still under construction. They have many friends coming over who help them out with work on the farm. It’s like WWOOFing with the WWOOF!

Artieda

Artieda, only two years old, already felt much more like an established community when I was there. With 62 people in the community it is a rather large community in its kind. They inhabit an old monastery that before they took residence has also been a spa-resort and was squatted by drug-users before it became the ecovillage community it is today. Here you can clearly see how the ecovillage initiative is capable of rehabilitating a space that was affected by a rough past.

There are many things established in Artieda and some projects are still on their way. The community run according to a sociocracy inspired decisionmaking model. They already have a working  biodigester of which the gas is used for cooking The fact that someone from Valmayor de Cuestra Urria went down to Artieda to learn about how to make and how to use a biodigester shows how the ecovillage network can sustain and improve itself.

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The Gardener in the Garden

They also have a permaculture run community vegetable garden for their own consumption. They host the European office of the Global Ecovillage Network. My friend Adri is brewing beer. The community deals with their food waste in a chicked coop. They have an art gallery in the old church.  Finally they have a project where they keep 40 heads of cattle under a cooperative ownership construction in a Living Commons Association. The Living Commons Association wants to recover land for common use of land for agroecology purposes.

Some of the projects that are still under way, like my friend Adri who is currently brewing beer, will start up a 0.4 hectare organic vegetable garden with the intention to start a CSA. Other projects in the pipeline are the strawbale soundstudio and a magazine on bioconstruction and eco construction.

It was not only for the many things that are already up and running that made Artieda feel like a more established community. The community is on average simply much older as most people have passed the age of 30 by quite a bit already. They have many kids for whom they organize homeschooling in a style that reminds of the Montessori concept. Also the organization of everyday life is much more rigid, with for example strict schemes for who should look after the heating system, set lunch times and set prices for the food and so on. Such rules are sometimes necessary to make living together with so many people practically possible, but it does miss a little bit of charm of the free vibe that was hanging around Valmayor de Cuestra Urria.

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Brewing Beer in Artieda

When I had a conversation with the leading professor, Susana Narotzky, of the GRECO research project on the social impact of austerity in the South of Europe about my holiday, she was especially interested in the question of whether kids were born in the communities I visisted and she was happily surprised to hear that in Artieda kids were running around in abundance, reminding me that indeed ‘social reproduction’ is used as a key indicator in anthropology to observe how successful communities, peoples and countries are at maintaining themselves intergenerationally and that Artieda is quite successful at doing exactly this.

Huesca

Besides the fact that Huesca seems to be a town full of dogs there is also a small network of young idealists around that is involved in the following things: restoring an old farmhouse, participating in a CSA in organic vegetable production and not least of all in brewing their own beer. And with this it seems like I stumbled upon another version of this holy trinity that has characterized my holiday trip for those three weeks. I was told there were more projects up and running, but I didn’t get to see or hear about them yet.

The network in Huesca is one that really is made up of people that come from or have moved to the city and so it candidate to become the most embedded community of all three communities I have visited. Also it is not really a community yet and by that I mean that they are still working on their place to stay before they can live there. In that sense they are also the youngest community of all the ones that I visited.

Ecovillages as a testing ground for a new Horizon, a degrowth perspective

To round up this article I would like to dedicate some space to a discussion of my encounter with these ecovillages in Spain from a slightly more theoretical angle, doing so I also want to make visible some of the more promising ideological alternatives to the current disaster of austerity driven neoliberal capitalism. Like this I can add some sort of a horizon to these experiences. Also, by doing so I hope to show the combination of at the ecovillage and organic agriculture is a strong one that is becoming a viable alternative for more and more people that wish to create change from below.

The horizon of alternatives is already burgeoning for those who know where to look. Though they by far are not the only spaces in which alternatives I want to draw this part of the article on the use of degrowth perspectives. This is a fields that have been growing and which dynamism show they are still in development and hence are promising fields to take notice of. Besides that, degrowth thinking carry traits that hint at the potential to answer this need for a response to the crises caused by current capitalism.

Defining Degrowth

In my opinion the position of the Degrowth movement is best voiced by Vincent Liegey in the following quote taken from an online interview and it is not far off from the position with which I started this article:

We are facing a convergence of crisis. I would call it a crisis of civilization, an anthropological crisis. An economic financial crisis on the one hand and environmental on the other hand and in the middle you have all cultural, social and political crisis in the middle. We need really to decolonize our imagination as I said yesterday. It seems that we need to go deeper in questioning a lot of believes, like the believe in economy, the religion of economy; the believe in progress; the believe in development; the believe in growth, that growth would always provide more wellbeing and to start to redefine the lines of a new model of society, a new paradigm and to question how we can make a transition from this growth society, from this development society which accumulates all these crises.

So Degrowth is a concept used by a movement focused tackling the growth paradigm by which our economic systems are run and which they see as the core of the problem.  Besides the development of a critique of growth, which to my mind can be read as a critique on capitalism, the movement is concerned with developing a vision on viable alternatives. Answers are found in concepts such as conviviality, meaning to say that we built our lives on interdependencies with the people around us in a society that is much more community driven and autonomy. Autonomy to construct the institutions we think we need for ourselves to further our own conceptions of what we think is good for ourselves as a collective.

Furthermore, arguments are made for work that is centered around the production of goods to be used and consumed by the producers, rather than to be sold. Not that there should be no trade, it should not be the core goal of work. Rather, if we want to move to a society that is organized according to a principle of voluntary simplicity we want to be less dependent on money, we want to work less time to earn money, so we have more time to earn ourselves a decent and fulfilling life.

Thus by choosing to depend on ourselves and the communities we are part of, by choosing voluntary simplicity we open up the door to a new kind of living, a new kind society.

Connecting Theory to Experience

In the efforts of all the people that I have come across in Spain I see direct manifestations of the kind of thinking developed around the concepts of Degrowth. I think that it is important to notice that autonomy, valued highly by Degrowth thinkers, is such an important value for people that live in locations where the overarching structures of social welfare and functioning markets are no longer to be taken for granted. Under the circumstances people may want to choose to rely on the most basic of resources for living which are their land, their houses, their skills and their community instead.

It is of great importance to have living examples of communities like these spreading out over the landscape to become small pockets of change and inspiration, but also as a resilience mechanism and a place where outsiders can learn what it practically means to live a life of voluntary simplicity in conviviality with others and how you grow food for the sake of your autonomy.

It is from these examples that we can develop the theories around which we can voice alternatives to capitalism and neoliberal austerity politics. It is from these experiences we can organize conferences around, that we can think about what we could do to improve the conditions and the possibilities for people to live better and sustainable lives and to be able to tell each other stories of inspiration in times of crisis.

We need these kind of developments in Degrowth thinking,  (though not only Degrowth thinking, I would be the last to claim that there is only one way up the mountain, movements and ideologies of change come in many different forms, from Slow Food to Occupy Wall Street), supporting networks of many different movements that intersect with the eco village movement or the Degrowth movement, such as the Transition Towns movement, because no matter how inspirational it was to see what I saw in Spain I did notice that the people involved in these kinds of projects were not the poorest, not in talents, not in access to networks, not in education and even if they weren’t filthy rich, they were also not the poorest in terms of money. If we would want this to be a solution to tackle poverty where it hurts most we would need to find ways in which more people have access to land and to ecovillages.

A critical note: Ecovillages and privilege

If new modes of changes are to be taken seriously, we should consider to what extend a particular mode of change is accessible to those who are most in need.

Hopeful as the ecovillage movement in Spain might be, it remains striking that those who I have encountered within the Ecovillages so far were all people that had enjoyed high levels of education and had access to empowering networks and sometimes even had a lot of luck. If it shows anything, it would be that perhaps not everyone that should be offered the opportunity to be part of an ecovillage is able to grab hold of an opportunity. What I am saying is that perhaps the ecovillage movement is quite embedded in the remainings of the middle class and sometimes ecovillages have a distinct upper class taste to them.

When I was in Artieda, I heard of ecovillages in the neighboring valley that were completely squatted and did not want to have anything to do with the ecovillage in Artieda. I am quite curious to find out who those people are and if there is a class distinction to be observed there.

If the ecovillage movement wants to be an inclusive movement, it should be critical of the terms and conditions at which people can enter, not that I am claiming that any ecovillage should be open for anyone if that might mean that social problems like drug abuse and criminality might enter a community. The same goes for the Degrowth movement. Those active within these movements should be keep a critical stance towards processes through which people might be wrongfully excluded.

I hope that as grassroots movements for alternatives grow stronger and become solidified, they will find ways to formulate ways in which policies could be altered or investment programs could be formulated to the benefit of the goals of the movements. Questions of inclusivity and exclusivity for people from different backgrounds, such as from impoverished communities, should be part of this.

CONCLUSION

I hope I have been successful at communicating how inspiration my trip across these three ecovillage initiatives in Spain. I could advise anyone to make a trip towards an ecovillage or to an organic farm and to stay there for a while, to relax, to be outside, but also to spur the imagination for what a transition from ‘welfare’ to ‘wellbeing’ might be.

The practical ways in which people make something out of their lives by going back to manageable projects for which one needs practical skills and concrete social relations as it appears with the ecovillage living, the beer brewing and the organic farming that I saw everywhere definitely hints at a way to live a wholly different 21st century kind of lifestyle. One that disconnects somewhat from the increasingly connected, but increasingly volatile word out there and replaces it with newly discovered practices that might simply prove to be more trustworthy in the long run.

If we really want a broad ecovillage movement to be part of that, we want to do something that has never been done before. Which is to alter a system moving away from more complexity to less complexity and this is one of the many ways in which we are at the start of a revolution of which we are only starting to scratch the surface of what it exactly entails. One thing is sure though, the transition will lead to a beautiful new way of living, since we move from prosperity to welfare.

 

[1] http://www.statista.com/statistics/266228/youth-unemployment-rate-in-eu-countries/

[2] Hubbard, Glenn and Tim Kane. (2013). Balance: The Economics of Great Powers From Ancient Rome to Modern America . Simon & Schuster. P. 204. ISBN 978-1-4767-0025-0

[3] Stevo Akkerman, Trouw, (02/02/16) Bij Shell werd ik de Marxit die ik nu ben http://www.trouw.nl/tr/nl/5116/Filosofie/article/detail/4236732/2016/02/02/Bij-Shell-werd-ik-de-marxist-die-ik-nu-ben.dhtml

 

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