Mélissa Godin is a Paris-based journalist covering climate, cultural identity and human rights.
Emmy and Loïc Leruste had a happy life in Tokyo, Japan. The French couple, who moved to the city in 2013, had a vibrant community, good-paying jobs and a four and seven-year-old daughter with whom they explored the city.
But something felt off.
“I felt so disconnected from nature and people,” Loïc, 38, said. “I wanted to live in alignment with my values.”
In Tokyo, the couple tried to make their lives more eco-friendly. Loic quit his job in the automobile industry to work in renewables; Emmy, 36, tried incorporating teachings on the environment into her classroom at the Lycée Français International de Tokyo. Yet every time the couple bought plastic-wrapped food at the grocery store or found themselves stuck in a sea of people, they felt like their efforts to reconnect with nature were in vain.
In 2019, the couple decided they needed a break. One evening, Emmy searched for nature holidays online and stumbled upon a week-long sustainability event organized by an ashram in northern France, where participants share their knowledge about everything from how to build an energy-efficient home to how to cook wild plants. “I booked it without expectation,” she said. “I just knew that we needed something different.”
That summer, the family traveled to the ashram, located in a medieval fortified farmhouse in northern, rural France. Over the course of the week, the couple sat in circles with other visitors who wanted to learn about permaculture and sustainable architecture; their daughters climbed trees and visited the apiary. When Emmy overheard that followers of the ashram were building an ecovillage next door, she knew immediately that she wanted to be a part of it.
“We were seduced by this place, by the people and the values,” said Loïc. “We wanted to live in connection to nature.”
Less than a year later, the Leruste family packed up their Tokyo life, leaving their skyscraper apartment to build a small house on a wheat field in Eure-et-Loir county, northern France. Their home is made of wood and insulated with straw. It is the ultimate ecologically friendly house, running on renewable energy, dry toilets and phytodepuration, and a natural water treatment system.
Outside the house, the Lerustes are surrounded by 25 other families who have also upended their lives to build the eco-hamlet known as Plessis. The families hope it will be an oasis for others also wishing to take their climate commitments to the next level.
Those commitments mean trying to live off the land, building sustainable homes and incorporating eco-friendly behavior into every facet of daily life, from consumption to children’s education. But the community’s goal is not simply to be energy efficient: They want to reimagine community life entirely, building new democratic models, childcare systems and a spiritual orientation that aligns people with each other and nature.
“I love being surrounded by people who have an awareness that this Earth is so much bigger than us,” said Emmy. “It is so much easier to live sustainably when you are part of a community.”
The Rise Of Ecovillages
An increasing number of people around the world are joining or creating ecovillages, spurred by concerns about climate change to reconsider their way of life.
Today, there are more than 10,000 ecovillages globally, mainly in rural areas, where people are building societies that are socially, economically and ecologically sustainable. These ecovillages are extremely diverse: they can be secular or spiritual, traditional or intentional, on or off the grid. While some ecovillages are quite radical in their politics, sharing everything from financial resources to bedrooms, others are rather mainstream, with people still living in separate homes, working day jobs but also sharing garden spaces and utilities. Despite these differences, ecovillages typically share the worldview that capitalism and industrialization have disconnected us from ourselves, each other and, especially, nature. Ecovillages are an attempt to restore these links.
“Most people leave mainstream society for ecovillages to escape neoliberalism and capitalism that dominate their daily lives,” said Nadine Brühwiler, a doctoral student studying the rise of ecovillages at the University of Basel in Switzerland. “Although they are all vastly different, most ecovillages ask themselves: What do we want to sustain?”
Ecovillages have existed for decades. Some of the biggest and most famous ecovillages in the world today, such as Findhorn in Scotland and Auroville in India, were founded in the 1960s when rural hippie communes were on the rise. At the time, ecovillages were emerging independently of one another with little conversation or coordination occurring among them.
This changed in 1995 when the Findhorn ecovillage organized a conference that brought together ecovillages worldwide for the first time. The conference was an unexpected success. Over 400 people from 40 countries attended, with many more turned away due to lack of space. It became clear to the organizers that there was an appetite for alternative, ecological ways of living but that the movement needed more structure.
Following the conference, 20 people from different ecovillages around the world met to create the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN), an association of communities dedicated to finding ways to live more communally and sustainably. GEN’s primary focus is connecting existing ecovillages with one another and providing training and resources for those wanting to join or sustain an ecovillage.
Since its founding nearly 30 years ago, GEN has blossomed from a small, niche network of grassroots projects to an established international organization. Today, the network is home to intentional communities where people opt to live together, as well as existing, traditional villages looking to transition toward solely using renewables. While GEN used to be brushed aside as a hippie project, today the network is taken much more seriously: GEN has consultative status at the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council, and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change mentions ecovillages in their report and features one of GEN’s founding members on its cover.
“When we used to go to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in the early 2000s, politicians would walk by and laugh at us,” said Martina Grosse Burlage, a UN representative for GEN who goes by the name “Macaco.” “Now, when the ministers walk by, they stop at our booth.”
The number of people wanting to join ecovillages has also grown in recent years, according to Francesca Whitlock, GEN’s communications director. In France alone, the number has grown considerably: Since the country’s national ecovillage network Cooperative Oasis began in 2014, over 1,000 ecovillages have registered with the organization.
Mathieu Labonne, the network’s director and founder of the Plessis ecovillage, estimates that roughly 100 new villages are created in France annually. There is even a quarterly magazine for French ecovillages called Passerelle Eco, which over the course of its 81 editions, has featured the latest news about ecovillages around France. “We are seeing an emergence of these villages,” said Christophe Monnot, an expert on eco-spirituality and an assistant professor on the sociology of religion at the University of Strasbourg. “It’s not a tsunami but it’s a movement.”
Brühwiler believes that climate change is the main reason ecovillages have experienced a sudden wave of interest and are becoming more mainstream. “The values in our society at large are changing, and everyone is looking for solutions,” she said.
The demographic of people interested in joining ecovillages today looks different from the hippies who created intentional communities in the 1960s. At the ecovillage of the Plessis, residents include engineers wearing golf shirts and Parisians looking to gain practical gardening skills.
“Ecovillages have always attracted young idealists and older people with money and new-age sensibilities,” Whitlock said. “But now you have a lot of families living mainstream lives who are looking for something different.”
Loïc and Emmy see themselves as part of this new wave. While environmentalism has always been important to the couple, they were never dogmatic about their values.
“It was climate change that made me want to move faster,” said Loïc. “It made me feel that this life isn’t so radical. I started asking myself, if someone like me who claims to have convictions about the environment doesn’t make this change, who will?”
Sustainability Becomes Spirituality
When Loïc and Emmy arrived in the ecovillage of the Plessis, their lives changed dramatically. The couple, who had spent years anonymously roaming the streets of Tokyo, suddenly knew everyone they passed on these country roads. Loïc went from being an engineer working a desk job in a sterile high-rise building to a man who spent his days in the dirt planting vegetables. At their front door, leather shoes were now replaced by rubber boots.
But one of the biggest changes was the sudden presence of eco-spirituality — a modern belief system that brings together humans and the environment — in their everyday lives. Taking inspiration from cultures worldwide, including Buddhism and Indigenous traditions, eco-spirituality aims to reconnect people with nature.
While the exact value system changes depending on the community or individual, eco-spiritualists typically reject the human/nature divide and disavow the capitalist system, believing that the only way to change our world is to change our spiritual and emotional mindset.
Early iterations of eco-spirituality emerged in 17th century and later in the 19th century, with the rise of environmentalism but boomed during the counterculture movements of the 1960s, in the aftermath of Hiroshima. Julia Itel, an expert on eco-spirituality, says this was a time when people began expressing disenchantment with modernity, believing that not all of capitalism’s promises would be kept and that not all forms of progress should be celebrated.
“Eco-spirituality is a demythologization of modernity whereby people are falling out of love with the utopias promised by neoliberalism,” said Itel, who authored a book on “Spirituality and Sustainable Society.” “They are turning toward more ancient traditions, such as pagan beliefs, to restore links with our planet”.
Around the world, eco-spirituality is on the rise, which experts attribute to a growing consciousness about our ecological crisis. Eco-spirituality can take many different forms: some create forest rituals; others revive neo-pagan practices. People’s level of engagement can also vary, from casual participation in eco-spiritual rituals to making the radical move of living full-time in an ecovillage.
“Though not all ecovillages are spiritual, many of the people drawn to these places want to reconsider every aspect of their life, from their lifestyle to their spirituality,” Brühwiler said.
In the Plessis ecovillage, various forms of eco-spirituality are at play. The village was created by a group of people who wanted to live next to the local ashram, a center dedicated to the spiritual Hindu leader Amma, revered as the “hugging saint” by her following of globetrotting devotees. Amma is neither prescriptive nor dogmatic in what she preaches. She speaks in broad terms about the need for greater selflessness, interreligious harmony and critically, environmental protection in our society.
While the ashram was created for Amma in 2002, today it serves as a kind of eco-spirituality laboratory where people can come to reimagine their belief systems. Though some members of the Plessis ecovillage are followers of Amma — participating in morning meditations and evening chants — others like Loïc and Emmy are not, but want to reimagine their spirituality within the context of the climate crisis.
“I personally don’t connect with Hinduism or Amma,” Loïc said. “I’m here because I want to be surrounded by people who want to be connected to the environment.”
Loïc and Emily were both raised Catholic but they have experimented with how they live out their spirituality in their adult lives. For example, the couple had a Catholic marriage ceremony in a Japanese temple. “What I like here is the spiritual openness and willingness to question the values that govern mainstream society,” Emmy said. “It’s a chance to reimagine a new belief system.”
Commune Or Cult?
When Loïc and Emmy told their parents they were leaving city life for an ecovillage, their parents were concerned: “They thought we had joined a cult,” Emmy said.
Ecovillages are often accused of being cults and improperly linked to the new-age communes of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s; those famously included Jonestown, an American cult in Guyana where 918 people engaged in mass suicide/murder and Rajneeshpuram, a religious intentional community in Oregon that deliberately contaminated food at local restaurants and plotted to assassinate Charles Turner, the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon. In France today, ecovillages are regularly characterized as sects in the press.
“There is a tendency to immediately dismiss ecological communities as being cults,” said Frédéric Rognon, a professor of religion at the University of Strasbourg. “Sure, some people who are interested in these villages may have sectarian characteristics but that isn’t the norm. The real issue is that environmentalism still seems radical to many people.”
As the Plessis ecovillage project gained momentum in 2017, many people from the nearby village of Pontgouin protested. Locals were concerned that it would impose on their way of life — from their spiritual practices to their sustainability habits — forcing residents to change their cultural practices
“The [ecovillage] has a different way of living,” said Jean-Claude Friesse, mayor of Pontgouin. “People thought it was a cult.”
But as the ecovillage has established itself in the greater community, locals have started to embrace it.
Like many ecovillages worldwide, the Plessis ecovillage is a diverse community where individuals and families make different choices about their lifestyles, spirituality and environmental engagement. While some people like Loïc have given up city jobs to work the land, others work remotely, traveling to Paris a few times a month for meetings.
Unlike cults, the ecovillage is home to a diversity of belief systems, where people constantly negotiate what it means to live sustainably and collectively. “I think people saw that this wasn’t a group of fanatics,” Friesse said. “They realized that much like their community, it was simply a group of people trying to learn to live together.”
Since the project began, the ecovillage has brought in young families to the neighboring aging village of less than 2,000 people. Today, a host of locally grown vegetables are available to locals. New shops and services have popped up in the town square: Emmy has started her own Montessori school committed to teaching children how to protect nature.
“This project has rejuvenated the village,” Friesse said. “It has been a really positive thing for everyone.” While not all locals share the ecovillagers’ ecological or spiritual convictions, they do value the intangible thing these villagers are trying to build: community.
As France has become more urbanized, the country’s rural areas have seen its residents flock to cities. In rural France today, there are abandoned towns and plots of land, where previously central community spaces — from bakeries to local churches — have shut down as an aging population is left to fend for itself.
“People here used to be together, there was a community,” Friesse said. “The ecovillage has brought this back.”
The more time locals spend with their new neighbors, the more they realize that they are re-creating what locals have yearned for — a place thought lost to modernity, where parents can leave their kids with their neighbors; where elders can rely on others for a helping hand.
Aurore Delemotte, 32, who lives in Plessis with her husband, a newborn and toddler, said parenting has been easier since the move. In the ecovillage, she has found “what people are missing in other places,” she said. “It’s a place where people can find meaning in things other than money or jobs.”
Eveline Bertrand, 77, plans to move into the elderly home being built in the Plessis ecovillage. “I like chopping the vegetables with everyone around the picnic table and being around people who are young and vibrant,” she said. “Plus, when I move here, there will be no more solo dinners.”
Researchers who study the motivations of people joining ecovillages say that loneliness is often a driving factor. After Covid forced many people into extended periods of isolation, GEN received a record number of inquiries, according to Whitlock. One ecovillage in Switzerland has seen its population grow by nearly 30% since Covid. “It wasn’t just an ecological consciousness growing but a social one,” said Brühwiler. “Covid got people thinking about how they want to live.”
For many people, Covid highlighted how lonely our society has become. Even before the pandemic, experts were decrying our “loneliness crisis”. Around the world, people are reporting unprecedented levels of loneliness. In Europe, 18% of people—the equivalent of 75 million people — are socially isolated, according to a 2019 European Social Survey. A 2021 report indicated that 61% of young Americans feel “serious loneliness” and lack community. While the pandemic exacerbated this trend, the systematic closing of public spaces due to fiscal cuts, as well as the proliferation of technology, has made people more alone — physically, emotionally and spiritually — than ever before. Ecovillages are helping fill this existential, and growing, gap in our society.
“It isn’t always just the climate-minded people who join,” said Burlage. “These villages can respond to a very human impulse of not wanting to be alone.”
Expectations Meet Reality
Like all utopic dreams, the romantic expectations people have of ecovillages are rarely matched by reality. Conflict can often erupt over small, mundane things: someone’s dog pooping on the shared lawn or a teenager making too much noise in the middle of the night.
In the Plessis ecovillage, two neighbors are already arguing over how to share land situated between their two homes. “We’re not used to living with so many people, or sharing everything,” Itel said. “It’s a form of cultural organization that we were not educated on.”
But arguments are also often ideological. Because each ecovillage defines its own values, there can be friction and disputes over how much personal freedom should be sacrificed for communal well-being.
“There are always bigger conflicts: conflicts about power, about anarchy, about consumerism and materialism,” Yves Michel, an ecovillage scholar who lives in Éourres, an ecovillage in the lower Alps, told me. “People come with amazing dreams but after a while, they realize it’s not paradise and that you need to hustle: you need to build a life.”
For many people in these ecovillages, environmentalism is their shared culture — with many believing that it can supersede other markers of identity bound by geography, ethnicity or political orientation.
Yet most aspiring ecovillages fail. Around 90% of projects never see the light of day, either due to external constraints, like the inability to get building permits, or more often because of internal disagreements over how a community should live.
When ecovillages do succeed, there is often huge turnover among residents. “There is a nomadism of ecovillages,” Rognon, the religion professor, told me. “There are people who will never stop searching for their utopia.”
This reality raises larger questions about ecovillages as chosen communities: Can communities we create be as strong as those we are born into? Can rituals we invent be passed down as easily as those we inherit?
These questions poke holes into the worldview that belies the ecovillage project. “People always ask us how long we will stay here,” Emmy said. “But no one asks this (of) people living in ‘traditional’ communities.”
But, she added in the same breath, “for now we are happy; and if that changes, we can always move.”
Insular To Influencer
As climate change has become a more pressing issue, the ecovillage movement has increasingly taken steps to influence mainstream society.
On nearly every continent, there are ecovillages serving as “living and learning centers,” where people can learn about sustainable and communal living. From the Institute of Permaculture and Ecovillage of the Cerrado in Brazil to the Sarvodaya center in Sri Lanka, ecovillages are opening their doors to the wider public, offering exchange programs to young people.
There are also many examples of ecovillages supporting vulnerable people: In Ukraine, ecovillages have welcomed people fleeing the country’s war-stricken cities; in Germany, ecovillages have invited environmental activists to come rest and recharge.
But despite a growing interest in ecovillages, many in the movement feel that change is not happening quickly enough given the ongoing ecological crisis. Part of the challenge is getting people interested. In the global north, there remains a deep skepticism about these communities, which many regard as cults by a different name. In the global south, the concerns are different; many feel the European ecovillage model is for the privileged, not the poor.
“In the global south, people still have these social bonds that ecovillages in the global north are trying to revive,” said Ousmane Pame, the president of REDES, the ecovillage network of Senegal. “People here are not ‘trying to live in accordance with their ecological values’. They are trying to survive.”
Some communities in the global south already live in an ecologically friendly way, making it hard for them to grasp why it’s necessary to brand village life as “eco-friendly”. For GEN, this is one challenge of creating a global ecovillage movement that speaks to the needs and desires of diverse communities. Labonne believes the key is to decentralize efforts, with each community demonstrating what’s possible through their cultural and economic context.
“In an ideal world, everyone would have an ecovillage in their backyard,” he said. “This would make people realize, the idea isn’t that radical.”
In early July, I traveled to the Plessis ecovillage during their sustainability week, the nature holiday that Loïc and Emmy attended years ago, to better understand the event that inspired them to change their lives.
When I arrived on an early, summer morning, I found groups of people scattered across the grass, talking about everything from spirituality to sustainability. By the apiary, a dozen people were learning how to listen to nature. Next to the garden, children were making toys out of recycled materials. The event, which draws crowds from across France, was understated: there were no flashy signs, no caterers, no stringent rules to follow. At dawn, those who wanted to prayed and chanted. At dusk, people slept alongside each other on thin mattresses on the floor.
“The goal is not to be prescriptive or preachy,” said Labonne. “It’s about generating ideas and showing people what’s possible.”
Although the participants had different motivations for attending, the majority expressed a desire to reconnect: with nature and with a community.
“I’m here to get inspired,” said Severine Lefebvre, 46, a Parisian who wants to start her own ecovillage. “When I see places like this, I think, maybe there is hope.”
It’s been four years since the Leruste family attended this event and decided to change their lives dramatically, leaving behind everything to start anew. The journey has not been straightforward: both Emmy and Loïc say they now work more than they ever have, not only to earn an income but to help build their ecovillage.
“There is always something that needs to be done, always something new we don’t yet know how to do,” said Loïc, who is training to be a vegetable farmer. “There is inevitably a mental charge that comes with trying to reimagine how you want to live and build community.”
Yet despite the work, the couple says they feel less stressed than they did living in Tokyo. Although life there was easier, for years they struggled with feelings of restlessness and the guilt of living a life that failed to align with their values.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m exhausted at the end of every day,” Emmy said. “But I’m also energized by the feeling that I’m living out what I believe in.”
Halfway through our conversation, Emmy looked up and waved at a group of local women from nearby Pontgouin as they walked in equipped in hairnets and gloves: They had come to help the ecovillage make lunch for everyone. To her right, a few picnic benches over, her two daughters playing with a group of other kids, searching for bugs in the grass.
“Living sustainably and communally isn’t a radical idea,” Emmy said, pausing to survey the scene. “Just look around you.”