Geographies of Connectivity: a Relational Perspective on ‘Autonomous’ Eco-villages in Romania

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:00 PM
56 Barrows (Barrows Hall)
Flora Sonkin, Wageningen University, Wageningen, Netherlands
Debates in contemporary social theory and political geography on the use of relational theory as a conceptual framework (found in the works of Escobar, Harvey, Massey and others), have generated a fertile ground to the deconstruction of the concept of place as bounded space. Through the use of a relational approach, space is seen as a social construction (Harvey, 1994). Consequently, it becomes a result of interactions, which are neither static nor limited to boundaries. In other words, thinking space relationally means that place is not defined as a locality or mere geographic position, but as a complex network of relations, a product of multiple trajectories and practices (Massey, 2004). 

The aim of this paper is to contribute to the academic and activist discussion on the creation of different realities or "other worlds" in the present, using the case of eco-villages and the Global Ecovillage Network to illustrate the possibility to live within alternative forms of socio-economic organization without withdrawing from mainstream connections and social relations. Here eco-villages and the global network are first characterized as a social movement which aims for self-sufficient living, being also put into the category of an 'autonomous geography'.1

Opposite to an essentialist or absolute vision of place and space, in Geographies of Responsibility, Doreen Massey characterizes place/space as an intersection of social relations and interactions, which “means that any nation, region, city, as well as being internally multiple, is also a product of relations which spread out way beyond it.” (Massey, 2004, p. 6). It is important to stress Massey’s rejection to a conceptual dichotomy between space and place. In this paper I will use this definition of place, as a space of negotiation of multiple identities and constantly connected with the so-called local and the so-called global (Massey, 2004, p.6) to develop the internal multiplicity and external relations from which the Eco-village movement benefits and is made of.

Furthermore, being able to recognize and take into account politico-economic, socio-cultural and ecological processes in places, we may give attention to people’s agency within such interactions. A relational approach to place focuses into those connections, emphasizing the existence of multiple realities within a socio-political context.2 Places are then shaped by people and their relations with other people and places, generating infinite combinations and the creation of “other worlds”, as presented by Pickerill and Chatterton in Notes towards autonomous geographies: creation, resistance and self-management as survival tactics (2006). In their article, the authors build up an academic and activist debate on workable alternatives to life beyond capitalism3, presenting multiple forms autonomyand discussing them through examples of alter-globalization movements.

In Culture sits in places: reflections on globalism and subaltern strategies of localization, Arturo Escobar (2001) also makes use of a relational perspective to present his vision of place-based imaginaries, which are constantly influenced by the struggle against a dominant capitalist order. He questions the possibility to reinvent both thought and the world according to a multiplicity of place-based cultures, and how to elevate local models of being to the language of social theory, enabling those to become alternative ways of organizing social life (Escobar, 2001, p. 142). According to the author, place is connected to local culture and to an idea of a territory of resistance, defense of power and hegemony through its place-based practices.4 Here the concept of territories of resistance may also be applied to the configuration of an eco-village, as a space of reproduction of local/place-based practices in a political project that opposes itself to the hegemonic capitalist institutions.

In a first moment I intended to define eco-villages and present the resistant face of the movement, as a radical shift from the space and time notions put forward by a neoliberal capitalist society based on market institutions and representative democracy. In a second part I looked back into personal experiences in eco-villages in Romania, highlighting an inner multiplicity within the movement and constant interactions with the 'outside' space (the so-called local and so-called global), focusing on the interactions with other movements and people visiting from elsewhere. In the last part I zoomed into those interactions through a relational approach, focusing on how this constant connectivity of people and places related to the eco-villages are shaping their realities and giving more strength to the movement.

Throughout this essay you will find how the autonomous character of communities working towards self-sufficiency is counterbalanced by their connectivity with flows of ideas, activities and people coming from different places and other social movements. Looking those connections through the lens of relational theory has provided insights on how such interactions are a constitutive part of ecovillages’ identities and political projects. What might have appeared to be a movement bounded to be ‘self-excluding’ or disconnected from mainstream relations, has actually shown to be formed by a thick network of social, ecological and economic practices.

 1. See Pickerill & Chatterton (2006).

 2. See Massey, D. (2004).

 3. See Pickerill & Chatterton (2006) for examples of alter-globalization movements such as the Zapatistas or the eco-villages movement.

 4. See Escobar, A. (2001).