Tomorrow’s Myths - Yunjeong Han - Ecological Communities

Ecological Communities

Yunjeong Han

Frank Lloyd Wright, “Broadacre City Project” (Model in four sections), 1934–1935. Photo by Skot Weidemann. Source: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

Tomorrow’s Myths
May 2023

Ecological Civilization

If there is any civilization remaining on earth in the year 2086, it will be an ecological civilization. An anti-ecological industrial civilization that exceeds the earth’s capacity will likely still exist on a much smaller scale than today, but we will no longer call it “civilization.” People in regions that fail to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions on earth or fail to build an ecological civilization will live lives like scenes from disaster movies, constantly pressed for survival.

Civilization is a paradigm found in human history, and refers to the foundations of cosmology and nature, the production and use of energy and matter, forms of power that enable governance and integration, and values, ethics, and educational systems that reproduce all of the above. However, there has never been a perfect civilization, and each and every civilization has embarked on a path of extinction, as the strengths on which each civilization was built eventually became weaknesses, leading to its decline. Modern material and mechanical thinking promoted science and technology and the development of productive forces, but also brought about a troubling situation in which industrial civilization stands in opposition to nature.

An ecological civilization is one that is built according to the principles of the ecosystem in which it is situated. According to Jeremy Lent, “insights into how ecologies self-organize offer a model for how we could organize human society in ways that could permit sustainable abundance. Organisms prosper when they develop multiple symbiotic relationships, wherein each party to a relationship both takes and gives reciprocally.” Up until now, civilization has been thought of as antagonistic to nature, and has meant conquering the latter to satisfying human needs. However, we now know that the highest form of civilization is one that is in harmony with nature.1

The “Gaia 2.0” declaration insists on changing the structure of society according to the three scientifically proven operating principles of Gaia.2 1) A materially closed earth ecosystem: instead of using fossil fuels, which are unsustainable inventions that block material circulation, we need to use solar energy and transition to a circular economy. 2) A microbial network that gives rise to the earth’s biogeochemical cycles: for a successful circular economy, it is necessary to support a network of human actors capable of the horizontal transfer of information, rich functional diversity, and dispersed control. 3) The self-regulation of Gaia: as it is currently difficult to maintain equilibrium in a natural state, human self-awareness is important, and can be obtained through the establishment of sensory (scientific) institutions and infrastructures that shows the gap between reality and illusion in addition to the politics of transition.

While thinking about the global, we must reorganize the local. In the midst of pursuing a common idea of ecological civilization, numerous forms of ecological civilizations must be built to enable self-reliance and coexistence at the local level. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead left us a lesson about the required civilizational transition. “[Humans] can persuade or be persuaded by the disclosure of alternatives, the better and the worse. Civilization is the maintenance of social order, by its own inherent persuasiveness as embodying the nobler alternative… Thus in a live civilization there is always an element of unrest. For sensitiveness to ideas means curiosity, adventure, change.”3 Civilization should refuse to decline by settling for the present. Instead, it should insist on continued development, anxiously but hopefully pursuing ideas that challenge systemic inertia. What we need now is an adventure towards ecological civilization.

Ecotopia Emerging

Ernest Callenbach’s futuristic novel Ecotopia (1975) depicts the civilization that humankind must build in order to survive.4 The northern part of California, Oregon, and Washington has become independent from the federal union of the United States and established as an independent “stable-state” called Ecotopia. Rumors abound about Ecotopia, which has closed its borders for an orderly transition. Twenty years after independence, Will Weston, a newspaper reporter from New York receives permission to cover it for the first time and makes a visit. Life in Ecotopia, which appears strange to the eyes of the average American, is an exemplary roadmap towards sustainability.

Energy comes from the sun and wind. Bicycles and public transportation such as trains have replaced cars. Residents worship trees and use them to build houses and most household items. No chemicals are used except for plastic that decomposes. With a completely circular economy, a stable state without waste is maintained. They have even transformed the concepts of wealth and work. Content with a frugal life, they do not overwork to earn unnecessary money. Enterprises are owned and operated by cooperatives. Living in diverse communities beyond the family, they advocate free love that is faithful to sexual desire. Political discussions using interactive cable television are frequent. All this may have initially appeared unrealistic, but today, fifty years after the book was first published, some aspects are becoming a reality in many parts of the world seeking transition.

Politics was key to building Ecotopia. The ecological transition required the rearrangement of the means of production, dismantling corporate giants dependent on fossil fuels and nuclear power, and reallocating government subsidies. It had to also break away from global trade and the global division of labor. Change was impossible within the established forms of politics, which was so deeply in collusion with interest groups. Separation, therefore, became the main driving force. Following separation from the Union, the Survivalist Party that built Ecotopia and their leader, the female president Vera Allwen, adopted a long-term isolation policy. This is reminiscent of the American Revolutionary War, which fought against British colonial rule, as well as the “Socialism in one country” policy adopted in the former Soviet Union.

However, unlike the former Soviet Union, which promoted rapid economic growth in the same way as capitalism to justify distribution, Ecotopia’s values and means of production remained distinct from the outside world. The prequel to Ecotopia, Ecotopia Emerging (1981) depicts the situation at the time of independence.5 Despite approaching ecological catastrophes such as rising energy prices, economic crises, and the advent of cancer caused by chemicals, resistance to change by the government and industry, who sought to protect their interests, remained strong. The Survivalist Party, which had been gaining power in the three progressive western states after an accident and leak at a nuclear power plant, pushes for secession from Washington DC through a referendum.

There are two key elements that contributed to the emergence of this new civilization. First was the development of a new energy source. Lou Swift, a young female scientist, broke through the obstruction of corporations and universities and their pursuit of a technological monopoly, and invented a solar cell that anyone can easily make. Today, in the real world, the unit cost of renewable energy is rapidly declining to the point that it can replace fossil fuels or nuclear power.6 The second key element that brought about Ecotopia was the emergence of a political community and mobilization of people who support the sustainability revolution.7 The Survivalist Party played this role in the novel, but major countries around the world today, including South Korea, are experiencing democratic crises. National representative democracy is unable to cope with climate and ecological crises. Thus, it has become the most important task of the twenty-first century to gather citizens who will create a wave of revolutionary change and transform politics.

A Community of Communities

Openness and cooperation is more important than separation and isolation because the world today is fatally interconnected. Ecological catastrophes that used to occur in certain regions have turned into a global climate crisis. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in 1986 was caused by a mistake of power plant engineers and decimated people and nature within a 500-kilometer radius. However, the cataclysmic flood that struck Pakistan in 2022 was affected by climate change as a result of carbon dioxide emitted by developed countries and caused devastating destruction over an area of 75,000 square kilometers. Ecotopia in the age of climate crisis cannot be established by constructing liberated zones in isolated areas or exporting specific models to other areas after experimentation. The organizing principle of civilization itself must change to an ecological model, and the small community will become its building block.

Local economy activist Helena Norberg-Hodge has called the community an “ancient future.”8 If past communities were based on kinship, regionalism, and traditional culture, the community of the future is based on shared beliefs and mutual trust. A local community is ideal, but an electronic community that connects distant members would also work. In a reality where centrally controlled social movements do not work as in the past, communities are advantageous for bringing people together and keeping people engaged. According to Carlo Petrini, a community has two values.9 First, community presents the need to transition from a competitive society to a cooperative society. Leaving behind the competitive discourse of professional success, personal achievement, and social recognition, it recognizes the value of everyone. Second, community becomes the ground on which “emotional intelligence” and “austere anarchy” are applied and practiced. This oxymoron points to the condition in which individual freedom and group order coexist.

By belonging to a community, individuals can live by enjoying relational goods that exist and circulate outside a monetary economy. Relational goods are transacted based on need, and can be enjoyed by all community members. They are common, and not owned by individuals. But they also cannot be monopolized because they only exist within an active relationship and when participating in a community. They cannot be bought or sold, only cultivated and protected. In the same way that families often share necessary goods free of charge, extended communities share relational goods. To borrow the words of the former president of Uruguay José Mujica, who was born a farmer: “Being poor doesn’t mean you don’t have anything, it means being outside of your community.”10 An ecological civilization takes the concrete form of communities. While a community is autonomous and independent as an individual unit, it pursues symbiosis by exchanging and cooperating with other communities.

An ecological civilization community of the twenty-first century must meet at least five conditions. 1) A community from below: it is not organized from above according to an imposed ideology, but democratically constituted according to the local situation and the needs of its members. 2) A global community: it must connect with groups that pursue similar ideas around the world beyond regions and nations. A series of global social movements, such as the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo, have had an impact beyond borders. This is also the case with universal basic income, the economics of happiness, degrowth, and the ecological civilization movement. 3) A community of objects: ecological democracy must be realized with the acceptance of non-human animals and nature as citizens alongside human beings inclusive of nationality, race, class, and gender. 4) A community that includes science and technology: the use of science and technology necessary for the ecological transition is important to prevent retreating to a pseudo-archaic community. We need to dismantle the science and technology monopoly of the state and expert groups and create a governance structure that combines science and technology with politics. 5) A community that pursues degrowth: the most important goal is the transition to degrowth, which changes the purpose of life from growth to happiness while living within the limits of the earth’s capacity. For this to happen, a community must become a commons.

The politics of such a community can be called “plant democracy.” This means that we should suspend animalistic (centralized) operations that rigidly coordinate all activities of the organism, and instead mimic the autonomous and decentralized model of the plant, in which all parts of the organism generate, regenerate, and contribute to the welfare of the whole while not being dependent on a center. When individuals have a sense of belonging to a community and attempt to develop thought through dialogue—the most useful political tool, able to break through deadlocks—a genuine politics of participation and dedication to the common good is possible. Pointing to this form of politics, eco-theologian John Boswell Cobb Jr. has stated: “Every community should be part of a community of communities.”11

Lessons from Evolutionary Biology

Décroissance (“degrowth”) is a concept first used by French philosopher André Gorz in 1972. In that year, the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, and Limits to Growth was published by the Club of Rome. At the time, Gorz posed the following question: “Is the earth’s balance, for which no-growth—or even degrowth—of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?” A few years later, in 1980, he also claimed that “Today a lack of realism no longer consists in advocating greater well-being through degrowth and the subversion of the prevailing way of life. Lack of realism consists in imagining that economic growth can still bring about increased human welfare, and indeed that it is still physically possible.”12 Even today, fifty years later, this “unrealistic” view still remains mainstream. However, the concept of degrowth has also grown steadily to become a keyword that brings together progressives around the world in the face of climate and ecological crises and inequality.13 Degrowth is not a matter of forcing painful austerity or asceticism onto the world, as pro-growth advocates claim, but to pursue care and symbiosis by changing life’s values and orientation.

For degrowth, it is important to expand the commons, both tangible and intangible resources owned neither by the state nor by individuals but by the public. The history of the commons dates back to the Charter of the Forest, which was originally signed by King John of England in 1215 as part of the Magna Carta. This charter guaranteed the economic rights of freemen to common land (the forests) that had been customarily used without legal right.14 This shows that the political and juridical rights of citizens were only possible when rights to the common land—the foundation of economic self-sufficiency—were guaranteed. The spirit of the enclosure movement, which began with the start of the industrial revolution and established private property rights over public lands, prevailed for over two hundred and fifty years. But today, it is now coming to an end, and the commons are coming back.

The commons is not simply a matter of sharing resources and goods among its members. We need to change our ownership-oriented thinking, pursue use value rather than exchange value, and restore our relationships with nature, non-human animals, and fellow humans. The commons asks us to see all living beings not as independent entities but as potentialities created within relationships. Moving beyond modern thought, which looked upon the state of nature from the perspective of competition and conflict, the struggle of all against all, and the survival of the fittest, we need to think complexly about the duality of competition and cooperation in an ecosystem. We must learn from evolutionary biology, which has moved beyond the principle of the “survival of the fittest,” and proven instead the fact of the “survival of the friendliest.”15

The fact that altruistic behavior or cooperation is advantageous to survival for humans as well as animals is becoming more established. The difference between chimpanzees and bonobos is affection. It is because of kindness that the small and clever Homo sapiens survived, and not the Neanderthal with its good physique. The skill of kindness, matching one’s heart with other members of society, is advantageous for cooperative work and makes a larger-scale society and the cultivation of more intricate skills possible. The recognition that the principle of life is cooperation, not competition, has already been widely influential across various fields of research, such as in social epidemiology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, relational capital, and happiness research.

However, there has also been no shortage of critique linking evolutionary biology with the social sciences. For example, on the question of natural selection, mainstream evolutionary theory emphasizes genetic and individual selection, but a small number of evolutionary biologists have begun considering that group selection played an important role in the process of evolving sociality, such as altruism and empathy, which are the foundations of human cooperation. Namely, group selection makes people altruistic despite personal harm. The debate between Edward Osborne Wilson, who supports this view, and Richard Dawkins, who is an advocate of individual selection, is well known.

The evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson also supports the theory of group selection. According to him, because altruistic behavior in general is easily exploited by those who only take help from others and do not give back, it is difficult to explain human altruism with the theory of individual selection alone. However, it can be explained by the theory of group selection: if our ancestors belonged to one of several small groups, and each group had a different ratio of altruistic people to exploiters, the group with more altruistic people would survive more successfully. Wilson argues that these differences in success rates between groups have made humans more cooperative today. Wilson also brings in Elinor Ostrom’s theory of the commons to demonstrate the validity of group selection. In opposition to Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons,” which puts forth the claim that human selfishness led to the destruction of common resources, Ostrom identifies eight principles from historical case studies for effectively maintaining the commons.16 These principles provide evidence that altruism at the group level can be exercised, given the right conditions, and can be applied to human activities in various fields and at different scales to transform the deep structure of civilization.

Human selfishness and altruism cannot be approached as a dichotomy and differ depending on the conditions. The tragedy of the commons did in fact occur, but there are ways to avoid it. If the community of the future is to be based on the commons, we must learn from the successes of past commons in bringing about collective altruism. As a result of globalization, the scope of the commons has gradually expanded from land, forests, and rivers for collective production to the atmosphere and oceans. The smaller the size of the community, the more easily the rules of the commons can be maintained. However, climate and ecological crises, pandemics, inequality, and other global issues require more thought and wisdom as to how these principles of cooperation can be applied on a greater scale.


Jeremy Lent, “We Need an Ecological Civilization Before It’s Too Late,” Open Democracy, October 21, 2018, accessed January 31, 2023,


Timothy M. Lenton and Bruno Latour, “Gaia 2.0 Could Humans Add Some Level of Self-Awareness to Earth’s Self-Regulation?” Science 361, no. 6407, September 2018, 1066-1068.


Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 83.


Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (New York: Bantam, Reissue edition, 1990).


Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia Emerging (Berkeley: Banyan Tree Books, 1981).


Oh Se-young, “{Fact check} The unit price of renewable E in the case of Denmark…’It is lower than fossil fuels, but it is questionable whether it will be’,” Energy Economy Newspaper, August 12, 2021. See .


Jeong Han-kyo, “Global renewable energy LCOE decline in 2020… Solar power, 7% compared to the previous year,” Industry News, July 17, 2021. See .


Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1992).


Carlo Petrini, Terrafutura: Dialoghi con Papa Francesco sull’ecologia integrale (in Italian), (Giunti, 2020).




John B. Cobb, Jr., “Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet,” Open Horizons. See .


André Gorz quoted in Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis, eds., Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era (Routledge, 2014), 1.


Beginning in Paris in 2008, conferences by international research communities on the subject of degrowth have been held in Barcelona (2010), Montreal (2011), Venice (2012), Leipzig (2014), and Budapest (2016), and in the last one to two years, and even in South Korea major academic journals have been taking up degrowth in the last one to two years.


“Charter of the Forest, 1225,” The National Archives. See .


Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity (Random House, 2020).


Elinor Ostrom’s 8 rules for managing the commons are: 1. Define clear group boundaries. 2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions. 3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules. 4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities. 5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior. 6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators. 7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution. 8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system. See Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Tomorrow’s Myths is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and “2086: Together How?,” the Korean Pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia curated by Soik Jung and Kyong Park.

Architecture, Urbanism, Nature & Ecology, Utopia
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Translated from Korean by Alice S. Kim.

Yunjeong Han is journalist, scholar, and organizer.


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