At times environmentalism resembles a religion, and just like mainstream religion, it has a habit of closing ranks when one of its members is accused of wrongdoing. It’s a groupthink mentality: “he/she is one of us, so we must stick up for them” and the people doing it, mostly have good intentions. Unfortunately, this means that it can shelter deeply unscrupulous and even dangerous people.
Young travelers have a lot of energy, and many want to use their energy to support good causes like environmentalism and human rights. This unfortunately means that they are very easily manipulated. When you volunteer, ask yourself: “is this project really doing what the people running it say that it is doing?” “Can I learn something from this project?” and “could I be doing any harm in this project?”.
When visiting an organic farm, alternative community, commune or ecovillage, ask yourself if the place is describing itself accurately. Many places describe themselves as what they hope to become in future, rather than what they are now. Some may be deliberately deceiving you. There are very few genuine, functioning sustainable ecovillages in the world, but a lot of places aspiring to become ecovillages. Unfortunately, many people seem to think that “ecovillage” means the same thing as “commune”, “community” or even “country house accepting guests”. If a place describes itself as a community and you are made welcome, this is lovely. If they invite you to join the community on the spot be wary. They are either being extremely naive (they don’t know you. Are other total strangers going to be invited to be part of the community? How would you feel if you had children with you?), or they are not being honest with you, you are in a lower tier of membership and the genuine residents (or more likely resident) who have a stake in the place can and will expel you without a moment’s thought. Most successful genuine communities have a trial period for new members or at least some kind of procedure for joining.
If you find yourself in a crowd of people apparently living in a community, ask them how long have they been living there, what rights they have and if they own a stake in the property, share of a cooperative mortgage etc. If technically, one of the people there is the sole legal owner, and no one else has been there for long, be wary. Also ask HOW they resolve disputes within the community. If they say they never have disputes, they are lying.
Diana Leafe Christian has written a lot of good advice on this. One thing she has observed is that absolute consensus decision making rarely works, in practice it creates ill feeling, many stop attending meetings etc. There are variations such as “consensus minus one”, meaning that a single individual cannot veto a decision, but two people can. There are many other ways to organise a community, such as rotating leadership, elected leaders, majority quorate voting etc. I won’t go too much into this, but feel that I would like to see a bigger variety of systems tried in communities as social experiments, so we can make up our minds. Just because two people both want to leave mainstream society, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are suited to living together in the same kind of “alternative” community.
People who believe that they are joining a community may go so far as to build a house for instance, but if you don’t own a stake in a “community”, any of your time, energy and money is most likely being given for someone else’s benefit. This is fine if this is what you want. Many of us go to these places to help and learn, just don’t be deceived.
Also be wary if the “ecovillage” is actually a single house IN a village. There is a political game often played, in which someone moves to a village and then basically declares that they own or rule it by declaring it an ecovillage, on their terms, without consulting anyone else, and then invite lots of people to come and stay on a casual basis. Casual visitors will easily confuse the “ecovillage” with the village itself. This is a power grab, it marginalises anyone already living there, who may actually be a functioning community already.
If you decide to start a community, get your ideas for the place on paper and agree to them before you start. This is the best way to avoid disputes later on. Make sure you are moving in with people whom you can work with and trust. If money is involved get a lawyer. Building codes etc. cannot be ignored, even in remote areas. Learn from the positive and negative experiences of other similar projects.
In some remote depopulated areas in Europe, the government will actually give abandoned houses away to anyone willing to live in them, repair them and pay the property taxes. In other cases, the real owners of the property may not be as far away as you think, they may love and cherish the property even if they are choosing to live and work elsewhere (perhaps saving up money to renovate it in future). They may even be staying away BECAUSE they do not like the new arrivals. Even if they do not want to sell their grandmother’s ruined cottage, they will appreciate you paying a small sum for it, rather than squatting it. I sympathise with squatters under some circumstances, but not if they are richer than the people whose homes they are occupying.
A ‘community’ comes in all different forms. Visitors, volunteers, and residents must educate themselves on their rights, the rights of the community and use their intellect to determine positive and negative outcomes. Like all volunteering, traveling, visiting or moving, socio-economic privilege gives one the ability to explore these options at minimal risk. The best interest of the community must be of primary consideration. If you are looking for a way to volunteer or take part in a community/commune/ eco-village or project please consider who it benefits, how and why.