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United World Ecovillage

24 July 2019

Veljko Armano Linta (Croatia, UWC Red Cross Nordic 1998-2000) is an architect from Zagreb, Croatia. He is also a trainer at Gaia Education, an international NGO which provides students of all ages and cultural backgrounds with knowledge and skills to design a sustainable, thriving society. Along with being an alum himself, Veljko also helped facilitate a UWC Short Course in 2016: "Re-Thinking Identities" in Finland. 

He wrote to UWC about sustainability education, his own UWC experience and his vision for a "United World Ecovillage":

"Not that long ago, my wife and I met with the other owner-residents of our apartment building in Zagreb to discuss common issues, including replacing the entrance door to the building. The door has been working fine for 40 (!) years, but it looks its age: its style belongs to the modernist, socialist 1960s and over time it’s acquired its share of dents, scratches and different kinds of glazing. My stance on the issue was, “If it works, why change it? And if it’s old and used, why not show its story?” But several neighbours really couldn’t stand to have their home represented by such a door, and they really “wanted to do something that will make all our lives more enjoyable in this place.”

The problem with their view was obvious to me: If we keep replacing things that work instead of adjusting our sense of aesthetics and our need to show off, the 8 billion of us will gobble up Earth’s resources in no time. That’s actually happening. On the other hand, the neighbours sincerely believed that what they were doing was taking care of the place – our place – in a proactive and democratic way. And the whole exercise was indeed one of community-building, which included listening to my point of view and failing to understand how an architect could be so irreverent towards matters of style. So, in my own internal sociocratic deliberations, I decided what I had was a concern, rather than an objection, and I put my signature down (as did my wife) – meaning “I consent, even though I don’t like it very much.'' After all, I don’t live a zero-waste life, either.

I did wish, however, that I could’ve talked to my neighbours while they were children, or high school students at the latest. Maybe there wouldn’t have been so many layers of cultural conditioning, so many layers of experience that seemed to show that looks pave way to success (while actually never quenching one’s thirst for it), so many gaps in awareness of our impact on the world. It’s never too late to change - but it’s never too early to start, either. And considering the strength of the destructive part of human presence on Earth, we need education to help us find saner ways of living.

A Gaia Education session on Ecovillage Design

This is not just an environmental issue! We have designed our monetary system to make exponential economic growth structurally necessary, even though it can’t be decoupled from ever-larger energy and material consumption and CO2 emissions. We have furthermore shaped our notion of success around being good at playing the game in such a system. Are we here to prepare our students to play that game, leaving it to chance whether or not they will one day start to question it? Or are we here to support their quest for purpose and sense from day one, while helping them acquire skills that they need to make that sense manifest in everyday life?

These are very serious questions for an institution such as UWC, that uses various and very big resources to bring together students and teachers of phenomenal diversity, thereby creating an extraordinary field of transformative energy. How is this energy used? Do our alumni get streamlined, or blackmailed, into socioeconomic relations that perpetuate business as usual and stifle one’s ability to act as a change maker (a pattern that is particularly ironic when it engulfs highly educated and well-travelled people)? I’m talking about “small” things here – about myriad everyday life choices like changing the building’s entrance door – at least as much as about heroic endeavours and massive-scale actions.

There are many “crafts” to be learned in an education for a regenerative civilisation – tangible skills that require dedication, commitment, studying, practising, discipline, structure, mentoring, feedback, mastery, transcending mastery. Such crafts range from writing a proper research paper to healthy cooking, facilitating a conversation, programming an app, managing a restless mind, solving differential equations, deeply listening, growing your own food ecologically, performing a bypass surgery, etc. But crafts are not an end to themselves. Their products are not, either. Crafts are tools within a larger process of meaningfully interacting with ourselves and our natural and social environments. Our students – and all of us – need support with this entire process, and this calls for a very pliable pedagogical approach.

Psychological safety must come from building and witnessing true development more than from adhering to protocols. Modern and critical pedagogy both aim in that direction, striving towards the intrinsic, the transformative, free, proactive, responsible, trusting, emergent and collaborative. This kind of pedagogy naturally tends to transcend boundaries, including the boundaries between what is academic, creative, physically active, service-oriented, or related to socialising and fun. It sees the myriad expressions of individual talents and the formation of a regenerative human presence on Earth as two mutually reinforcing processes that question everything and strive to embody constructive answers in everyday life.

Students participate in an activity during "Re-Thinking Indentities"

But thinking about UWC, I’ve come to think that the “magic” ingredient, the quintessence among all these essences, is its community aspect. I base this on my own experience as a Red Cross Nordic alum, on the feedback of various Croatian students in whose selection processes I’ve been involved, and on my experience as a facilitator at the 2016 UWC short course “Re-Thinking Identities.” This course took place in “ugly” repurposed army barracks in a rural municipality of Kontiolahti, Finland. Some of the participants said that the greatest thing was that they felt like they were welcomed into a community established by the facilitators and empowered to create their own community, too. This was intended and worked on. Prior to the arrival of the participants, we (the facilitators) had a week of community-building through team-building exercises, co-housing and final course preparation. Being a group of colleagues wouldn’t have been enough. Being a close-knit team, open to participants and not overbearing, made a huge difference.

I didn’t realise this while at the UWC Red Cross Nordic, though. In my mind, it was first a school, and then a community. It was an academic preparation for university, made more holistic and enjoyable by “other” elements: CAS, socialising, the wonderful natural environment and so on. But this was my mental perception. My actual experience was surprisingly different. I say that because, when I look at what transformed me most and what has stayed with me over the years, it is first and foremost the experience of living in a community, of co-building a community. Not a community of learners, but a community of people, living in a certain way in a certain place. There is immense power in that: our communal way of life shapes what we think is normal, what we think is needed, pleasant, good, or possible.

It’s about the difference between words and deeds. Is the ecological footprint of UWC communities within planetary means? Is the lifestyle of UWC communities that of voluntary simplicity? Do they consume only food coming from organic regenerative agriculture (and mostly plants)? Do they grow any of it? Do they use sufficiently low-tech solutions to be resilient? Are they organised democratically, with power being matched by responsibility, or are they trapped in patterns of hierarchy and voting? Do they empower local communities where they are located, serving as partners, clients, providers of education, incubators of good practices? Do they do it in the Global South? Do they receive students regardless of their financial means, thereby fostering a sense of equal entitlement in a world plagued by inequality? Do UWC communities transparently and safely address the crimes that might happen in them? Do they change cultural patterns that are destructive?

These are the things that shape people the most. They are elements that will inform how they will subsequently build various communities throughout their lives. And these elements can be created, designed, managed and transformed with purpose and clarity, as much as they are emergent. This is something I realised not only as an educator and a practising architect, but also as a student of courses such as Ecovillage Design Education, an immersive course that takes place within various existing ecovillages.This month-long experience included creating a temporary community of participants, learning how to create a sustainable community, and being within such a community (the ecovillage, whether urban or rural).

I can imagine that adapting such an approach for the UWC experience would be extraordinary. Imagine a United World Ecovillage, a place that “walks the talk,” merges learning with everyday life, and serves as a living proof (to students, teachers, sceptical neighbours and the whole world) that it is possible to live a good community life, on top of strong social foundations and below the ecological ceiling. This is the kind of earnest commitment and practical optimism that we need right now. A curriculum is just there to support it."