‘Compassion for yourself also leads to compassion for nature’

“My name has been joked about ever since Apple started working on its virtual assistant. But not very often. The name is Scandinavian. My parents are not particularly fond of Scandinavia, but they heard the name once and thought it was beautiful. My brother and sister also have Scandinavian names,” says Siri Pisters via video link, coughing from her living room. She lives in Bussum and has corona, she says. She was supposed to take her PhD at Wageningen University & Research on October 31 online , like this interview.

For her research, she interviewed people who have moved to an eco-village. What were their considerations and motives? Was it a big transition and how did they handle it? Could it teach the wider population about the transition they need to make towards a more sustainable society? “We often talk about technology. About wind farms, green hydrogen, well-insulated houses. You hear very little about behavior change. But that’s the gist. You can all have plans with technology, but if the population works against you, you will get nowhere. The municipalities are also starting to realize this more and more.”

“I came to my research because I went through a difficult period myself. At the end of my master’s degree in rural sociology, in 2013, I developed anxiety symptoms. I worked hard, wanted to do everything the best I could. And the end of the study was in sight, which meant change. It gave me a lot of stress. I had back pain and panic attacks. I started working on it and discovered through yoga and meditation to look at myself with more compassion. It gave me peace and comfort. Kristin Neff’s literature has also helped a lot. People who view themselves with more compassion also do the same for others, according to her research. I noticed that about myself. I became softer and less demanding of others.”

More intense relationship with nature

“I also noticed that I began to experience nature differently. I used to run on my runs through the woods with music in my ears. Then I started walking more, and deliberately very slowly. I got a different, more intense relationship with nature. There is also literature on this. Instead of being hard on yourself and constantly competing, self-compassion leads to the realization that you are not isolated in the world, but that you feel more connected to the people and non-people around you.

“According to some researchers, such a transformation is also necessary to achieve a truly sustainable world. It takes one change of mind. But how? That’s how I came across eco-villages. Could they perhaps teach us more about that change process? For my research I selected three eco-villages. Two in Finland, where I was living at the time, and one in Portugal. I have been in each village for weeks and I have talked to all kinds of people about the course of their lives. All mentioned a feeling of dissatisfaction with their old life of consumption, competition, hard work. They felt uncomfortable with it, out of place. Most people felt more at home in an eco-village. The houses are much more sustainable, they grow their own food. People also have more contact with each other and feel more connected to others. But that doesn’t mean it’s always smooth sailing. Many ecovillage initiatives fail, partly because there is no structure to resolve conflicts. I saw that in one of the Finnish eco-villages. It hadn’t even existed for ten years. There were different ideas about which direction it should go. Should the focus remain on the hard work of keeping organic farming going, or was more attention needed for social activities? The village still exists, but the people have left.”

Holland, Bussum. Young scholar. Siri Pisters. Photo: Dieuwertje Bravenboer
Pictures Dieuwertje Bravenboer

All sorts of little things

“Change is a fragile process. Conflict is inevitable. You have to make room for that. The other two eco-villages had been there for more than forty years and could have done better. There are often all kinds of problems, big and small. People must be able to express themselves about it. But they must also be able to listen, with respect for the other. Compassion is very important here.

“I recently started working at the HZ Kenniscentrum Zeeuwse Samenleving. There I work together with municipalities and the province on the social aspect of the energy transition and climate adaptation. Hopefully I can help with the knowledge I have gained. I would like it if certain aspects of an ecovillage could be much more embedded in today’s society. For example, that children already learn about compassion at school. Or that you work with local farmers with people from your neighborhood.

“An obvious question I often get is whether I myself would like to live in an eco-village. There are definitely aspects that attract me: a community that takes care of a piece of land and helps each other. A place where children can easily find each other’s company. But I am also a person who needs a lot of rest and a place for myself.”

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