Study Abroad in Eco-Villages

by Tim Patterson Nov 19, 2008

Living Routes students in Israel. Photo courtesy

Daniel Greenberg explains why eco-villages are the best campuses we have for people to learn about sustainable living.

THESE DAYS, LEARNING firsthand about practical solutions to the challenges of the post-carbon age looks more and more like a vital part of a college education.

I recently enjoyed a conversation with Matador member Daniel Greenberg, founder of Living Routes, a remarkable study abroad organization that runs programs in eco-villages on six continents.

Living Routes programs are highly regarded for both quality of life and academic integrity, and students earn college credit through the University of Massachusetts.

Tim: Sustainability is a mainstream buzzword, but I feel eco-villages still suffer from a certain stigma among much of mainstream society. I lived for a time at an eco-village in Thailand where people are remarkably serious and diligent about building a better world, but my dad dismissively refers to it as “the hippie commune.”

How do you counter the perception among parents and teachers who see study abroad in eco-villages as a frivolous, radical or ‘hippy-dippy’ concept?

Daniel: Eco-villages are not your parents’ communes. While some can trace their roots back to the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s, few today identify with the “hippie” stereotype. Members are generally hard working, environmentally and health conscious, and family oriented.

Anyone who believes eco-villages are marginal or irrelevant is not aware of current global trends.

Essentially, eco-villages represent humanity’s best research and development laboratories for how we can learn to live well and lightly.

Just look around. Given today’s realities of climate change and peak oil, what do you think life will be like in a coming “carbon-constrained” world?

How will we get around? Where will our food come from? What kind of work will we be doing?

Essentially, eco-villages represent humanity’s best research and development laboratories for how we can learn to live well and lightly; for how we can think globally and act locally; and for how we can recreate fulfilling, sustainable communities.

We need eco-villages more than we can imagine. They are not utopias, but they are trying, and that makes them the best “campuses” we have for people to learn about living sustainably by actually doing it!

Tim: What are some of the practical skills Living Routes students learn in eco-villages that they can apply to their lives and careers back home?

Photo courtesy

Daniel: I like to think of our programs as journeys into community, ecology, and spirit. On the community level, students learn about such topics as conflict facilitation, non-violent communication, consensus, fair trade, and local economies.

On the ecological level, students learn about ecological design, permaculture, reforestation, organic farming, appropriate technologies, [and] renewable energies.

On the spiritual dimension, while our programs are not religious, they do encourage students to ask big questions such as “What do I believe?”, “How did I come to believe this?”, and, perhaps most importantly, “What are my options?”

Whether they are engaging with shamans in Peru or radical sustainability folks in India, students are challenged to step out of their own comfort zones and engage with holistic, integrated solutions to today’s biggest issues.

Alumni of Living Routes programs can never again say “It can’t be done.” because they have witnessed people fully dedicated to Doing It!

What’s left is for students to ask themselves, “How can I best make a difference?” “What is my ‘purpose” or ‘vocation’?”, which Frederick Buechner has wonderfully defined as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

The world is hungry for change and I am grateful every day for the opportunity to be living in this time where our actions are so vital and needed.

Tim: Living Routes has programs on 6 continents. What does each program have in common, and if you could only recommend one program, which would it be?

Daniel: All Living Routes’ programs are about sustainable community development and leadership for a post-carbon world.

Our primary vision is to immerse future leaders into communities that are creating new cultures that are living more sustainable “stories” about who we are in relation to each other and the planet.

You can only really hear and absorb these stories through being a part of them and that’s what makes these programs such transformational experiences.

And you can’t ask me to recommend only one. That’s like asking which is my favorite child!

Tim: One thing I struggle with as a world traveler is the fact that foreign travel, and air travel in particular, is an extremely high-impact activity. I often feel like a hypocrite, writing about sustainability and promoting low-impact lifestyles while flying from continent to continent.

Photo courtesy

Is foreign travel compatible with the basic philosophy of eco-villages? How does Living Routes reconcile the environmental impact of travel with the values it attempts to instill?

Daniel: This is perhaps Living Routes’ biggest dilemma. How can we truly be advocates for sustainability when our programs produce over 200 metric tons of CO2/year, mostly from air travel?

The general answer is that we believe the transformation that happens on our programs and the change that ripples out from our students more than compensates for these impacts. And we’re not just taking that on faith.

In mid-2007, we started surveying students about their environmental beliefs and practices – just before, in the last few days, six-months after and two-years after each program – to examine what kinds of impacts our programs really make over time.

If, in a year or two, it becomes clear that our programs do not really change people, we are going to be hard pressed to continue running them.

More specifically, Living Routes started instituting a comprehensive carbon strategy in 2005, which to my knowledge, made us the first study abroad organization to do so. This involves measuring, reducing, and offsetting all of our office and program-related greenhouse gas emissions.

This has also been a great way to educate students about their impacts and support eco-village-based renewable energy projects.

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We’re now developing a Carbon Commitment Calculator, which will allow our students (and others!) to commit to lifestyle changes that result in a reduction in CO2 in order to offset the impact of particular events (such as our programs).

While we believe major changes in governments and corporations are a necessary part of any “great turning” towards a more ecological age, they are not sufficient.

As an organization, we are now moving beyond being “carbon neutral” towards being “carbon conscious” because it is becoming increasingly obvious that individuals and communities will need to be at the core of any lasting change. And this is where eco-villages and Living Routes are leading the way.

Community Connection

For more information on Living Routes, check To find out the location of Daniel’s favorite spot to watch the sunrise, check out his Matador profile.

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