Greenspin and eco-village madness
- Published: 09 April 2011
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10 April 2011
In July 2010 I had a chance to tour the highly acclaimed ‘eco-village’ known as The Village. Ireland’s first official eco-village, it’s nestled within the town of Cloughjordan, in County Tipperary.
Excitement about this development had been mounting and I had read idyllic descriptions in various magazines, with alluring glossy photos. After my visit I realized that this was just advertising material, designed to suck buyers into a megalomaniac scheme. It was worse for being mostly greenspin.
Our tour group, coming from the Transition Town 2010 All Ireland gathering held nearby, were well versed in all things green. I, for example, am a permaculture writer, farmer and teacher who has experienced natural living and building in both Ireland and Australia. It wasn’t just me surprised by what we encountered there.
The approach was rather gulag like. We entered by a big pair of locked gates that led into this village-within-a-village. Our first destination was the projected boulevard of shops, in reality an expanse of bare concrete.
A depressing sight with more in common with a modern unsustainable city environment than a friendly eco-village. Would people really want to come to live in the country to be in such a soul free environment, I wondered?
“Right here, one day, is the site where a bakery will be built,” our tour leader Davey Philip pointed out, trying to stimulate our imaginations and conjur smells of hot coffee. In reality the site indicated was nothing more than an empty space devoid of promise.
Ten years in the planning, fighting the council much of the time, this wanna-be eco-village still hadn’t attracted enough home makers to justify the construction of a bakery there. Now the Tiger economy is over I guess the imaginary bakery will have to suffice.
Bad building biology
Ahead of us loomed a three story concrete accommodation block, designed to house students that were expected to flock here to study sustainability. Its exterior was entirely wrapped in a thick layer of Styrofoam plastic, to insulate and improve energy efficiency. Davey and the group talked disparagingly about this unwholesome building material.
There were other unexpected sights too, such as pallets stacked with ‘green’ concrete blocks, all plastic wrapped and imported from the U.K. From a building biology analysis, many of the buildings I saw there could easily be unhealthy to live in.
Human sustainability hadn’t been put into the picture. It was typical of the artificial modern environments and products being created in the name of energy efficiency these days.
I was talking about this disconnect to someone who had worked for a couple of years in a newly purpose-built office for the Department of Sustainability, in Victoria, Australia. He dreaded going into that building each morning as it felt so dead inside and it felt awful to work in. Nobody in the ‘sustainability industry’ seems to know about building biology – to their peril!
Too big, too much concrete
The big concrete homes we saw in The Village (mostly still being built) were definitely Celtic Tiger Era, we were told. (This was 1995 – 2007, when rampant economic growth reigned.) Too big and too concrete, makes for non-eco-friendly homes. Concrete production is highly unsustainable and it’s not easy to recycle.
Concrete use was rife in the Tiger years, thanks to a concrete industry mafia wielding great power and influence. Yet, as we saw at The Village, it can also be seen in homes that are purported to be ‘eco-friendly’. Outside Ireland another good example would be the American ‘Earth Ships’, homes that combine rubbish with lots of concrete. (Very un-eco!)
Thank heavens for the Global Financial Crisis that stopped the plague of ‘’Mcmansions’ that trashed the environment. Ireland is left with a legacy of over 600 empty ‘ghost estates’ littering the countryside, in various states of completion and decay. There are countless thousands of empty, unwanted homes. Most of them were built before energy-efficiency became law and they would now be very hard to retrofit.
After the tiger
Some people at The Village were building with natural, organic materials. These were post-tiger homes, being built on a more modest scale, Davey said.
Strangely, the main housing cluster looked to be in a bad location. The gigantic concrete drains were a clue to the low-lying, flood prone nature of the site. There have been flooded, I’ve heard. So much for appropriate siting, as per good permaculture design.
Permaculture design courses are being taught at The Village and I imagine it must confuse the hell out of those students, who might realise that things are not as great as they seem…
I pitied the residents of the few finished homes, having to live in a gated community surrounded by building activity amongst a soggy hotch potch of partly built homes, all crammed close together on small sites, some of which had been priced around 100,000 euros. (Prices have inevitably come down now.)
Away from the Village centre our group was relieved to traverse green fields to come to gardens of yummy vegetables. We were also delighted by a half built cob cottage, beside some gracious Sycamore trees in a fairy-tale like setting. Finally us tourists didn’t look tense and confused by what we saw. “I could live here!” enthused one woman.
Later on Davey pointed out the septic waste system leach fields. Every household here has their waste water pumped out to the back field and the aspiration of the community, so we were told, was to be ultimately connected to the sewer, as “they knew how to properly treat waste.”
Hmmmmn, this guy is a real salesman I thought. Everyone else on the planet must know by now that centralised waste systems are inherently flawed and usually operate at a high cost to the environment.
Residents had originally wanted eco-friendlier waste systems, but the local council had proved ignorant and stubborn. The battle-scared would-be villagers were now discovering the ugly art of compromise.
A much touted centralised heating system wasn’t working, I’d heard on the grapevine. The comparison with a gulag continued. Didn’t people look at history and see that grand centralised energy or waste systems ultimately fail, are inherently problematic and unsustainable? A green Big Brother is still Big Brother.
Why organisers had persisted in this development and didn’t move it to a friendlier region beggars belief. Energy spent battling council planners could have been much better spent doing most other things. Even the local Cloughjordan villagers were hostile we discovered, when my husband Peter, on an earlier visit, was told by a neighbour that they could easily and happily put a match to The Village… No wonder those gates were locked!
With no experience behind them, the developers and everyone else were obviously suckered in by the Celtic Tiger, lured by prospects of ‘good investment’ value. This most expensive eco-village in the world has little to show for 6 million euros spent. So where has all the money gone? From what I’m told by ex-members, a long line of expensive consultants took their toll financially, pushing up prices to ridiculous heights.
It seems that, through the course of gaining approval for this over 100 lot housing development, everything that could have gone, had gone wrong. Land in a floodway and hostility and stuff ups were rife. A sensitive permaculturist would have sensed the pointlessness of continuing and sought greener pastures elsewhere, or just given up. But no, the developers muddled on and focused on luring others to invest in the mess.
As for The Village being celebrated as a shining example of a green development, admired by visiting delegations from other EU countries, as Davey proudly informed us.
Lucky then, I thought, that the GFC was doing us a favour in cooling things down and bringing Ireland back towards more true sustainability. The Village is perpetuating what is wrong with The System. It’s an embarisment! And people have been too damn polite in not calling this emperor naked….
Are massive scale eco-communities really worth the bother of creating at all, I ask myself? I have lived on various sized communities in Australia. The very small ones always work the best. Besides, we can find community wherever we are. A community starts in our hearts and radiates out from there.
To help revitalise one’s existing community is far better, in my mind, than to separate oneself off in an ivory green tower, in a dodgy eco-development, on an imagined higher moral ground. If I am wrong, then separate eco-villages would have been built everywhere by now. But they haven’t been.
Experience of living in bush communities over several years in Australia was enough to turn me off intentional community living. But at least those communities fulfilled what they were intended for –providing cheap living for people. Not, as The Village must probably become, as a quirky home for wealthy retirees.
I went to a protest in Hyde Park, Sydney a couple of years ago. From all corners of the state of New South Wales people had come to protest about changes in planning laws and the threats that developers were now posing to their communities.
At one point the crowd was asked: “And how many of you are threatened by so-called eco-developments?” Quite a few hands went up.
You have been forewarned!
Alanna Moore is author of Sensitive Permaculture – cultivating the way of the sacred Earth.
Images of The Village by Alanna Moore.