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Utopia: It’s not happening

CNN did a curious piece partially about Twin Oaks recently. It was odd because it did a fairly good job of representing the commune in the text portion of the story, much better than ABC Nightline did, but it mixed in a video about the San Francisco Co-Living movement.

The article is called: Utopia: It’s Complicated – Inside Vintage and New Age Communities. We are clearly the vintage part.

Vintage looks dapper

Vintage looks dapper

Taking this apart a bit, let’s consider the clever title. Utopia is a slightly charged and especially foolish word to use when describing a real life living situation. We are not perfect, nor appropriate for everyone. We never claim to be, though academics and the media love to throw that label on us. What we do claim is that our living situation is far better than most and some (including myself) claim that on a good day, we can see utopia from here.

Don't be fooled by signs

Don’t be fooled by signs

But this is a detail, really. What is more peculiar is lumping contemporary “co-living” spaces with income sharing communities like Twin Oaks. It is something like grouping tug boats with hover crafts.

tugboats and hover crafts

Both on water, then the similarity stops

In both circumstances there are people living together and sharing things and selecting each other (this is my definition for intentional community.) But if the affluent residents of co-living circumstances are disagreeing about maid service, it is about how often it is necessary. Maid service is inconceivable to most income sharing communes, not just because we don’t think we can afford it, but because we feel responsible for cleaning up our own messes.

As GPaul points out in “We are not selling a product,” the differences only start here. Co-living replicates the landlord/tenant dynamic, FEC communities largely own their own properties which are land trusts. Think corporate hover craft and co-op tug boat. Sharing income means you need to listen to those you live with about what their needs are and the survival of the community depends on trust building. Sharing an expensive group house means you stay until you have a serious fight with someone living there, are bored, or find a better offer and you are constantly on the look out for that offer.

Not the good life without kids and elders

Not the good life without kids and elders

None of the co-living situations I have seen or read about have children. Mostly what we see is twenty-somethings appearing to live the good life. Nothing wrong with that, but for me the good life is multi-generational.

So there is no utopia.  And the differences between different approaches to the better life are significant.  I am glad CNN got so much right about us.  I am sad that they decided our neighbors in building a better world were mostly affluent people who are likely making gentrification worse.

Wrong from word 2: the Media discovers the commune.

It all started with Yahoo Parenting.  A reporter came out with a photographer and talked with a handful of Twin Oaks parents.

Finley takes a fine photo. Photo Credit Yahoo News

Finley takes a fine photo. Photo Credit Yahoo News

Then ABC Nightline called up and asked if they could come and film. ABC and Yahoo News have a partnership agreement. Perhaps we should have said “no.”

There were a number of problems with the final ABC piece, including mistakes which started from the second word of the article. “Inside Off-the-Grid Virginia Commune Where Everything From Housing to Child Care Is Shared.” In fact, we are not off the grid. We have some solar panels, and we are getting some more, but we have a long way to go before we are off the grid.

This powers about 3% of the community. We are not off the grid.

This powers about 3% of the community. We are not off the grid.

The video which I reported on earlier depicted us as negligent for letting kids wander around the property unescorted and not doing background checks on members offering child care. There are lots of reasonable things to criticize the communes about, but there are not on the list. Background checks don’t actually catch much AND we live with these people for three weeks and interview them for hours. Much more rigorous than anyone hiring a babysitter from Craigslist. They bungled the description of our complex pension system (saying adults over 50 drop to a single hour of work per year.)

A number of members were angry at me for not restricting the motion of the press more and not being more sensitive to people the media should stay away from.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to internet. Lots of other media entities mimicked the story in some ways.  Specifically:

So what we see is news driven by trends. If a topic appears to be trending, one cheap way your news entity can get a piece of the action is by finding a hot story, searching the internet for other free content on the topic, piece them together with a thin narrative and bang! you have intern-generated popular “news” stories.

There are some beautiful commune pictures out there. From 40th Anniversary

There are some beautiful commune pictures out there. From 40th Anniversary

Now we have had a handful of additional offers from news entities who want to come film. For a while, i think we will say no.

For more insightful and important analysis of the community, please read:

[Proofread by Gryphon]

ABC Nightline Coverage of Twin Oaks

It was with quite some anticipation and fear that today approached.  Almost a month ago ABC Nightline came and filmed at Twin Oaks and several members were unhappy about the high impact of their visit.  For me, even more worrying was the prospect of them doing a slash piece on us, as the NY Times did some years back (after the NY Times photographer had spent a bunch of time telling us how wonderful and important we were – but it is editors, not photographers who determine what is news).

Link to ABC Nightline Video Coverage of Twin Oaks

Gryphon and i making a hammock - Credit ABC Nightline News

Gryphon and i making a hammock – Credit ABC Nightline News

In the end, I was mostly relieved by the piece.  I don’t need them to depict Twin Oaks as paradise. I certainly don’t see it that way and almost always tell people about the down sides of the commune (including minimal access to resources including money and thus general inability to travel personally, labyrinth decision making process and reduced privacy).  And it is still a better place than almost any other i have visited.

And it seems this time, the mainstream media mostly agreed with me.

no privacy street sign

Well, there is some privacy

I hate it when that happens – Volcano erupts near restarted Sendai reactor

Despite Japanese polling 2:1 against restarting the reactor fleet which has been completely shuttered for the last two years, the Abe government forced through the first restart of a reactor at Sendai complex.  Sendai was chosen for a number of reasons.   Comically, one of the reasons was that it was far from possible natural disaster.  Perhaps the most important (not listed in the excellent BAS article) is that it is the farthest from Tokyo (over 1000 km), where anti-nuclear protests continue.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan at protest of Sendai reactor restart

Former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan at protest of Sendai reactor restart

Former PM Kan spoke at the protest.  He was in office when Fukushima melted down and it destroyed his political career.   Now he is reminding fellow citizens that 1) Many new safety standards (like separate control rooms) have been skipped in restarting this reactor. 2) Tens of thousands of people remain unable to return to their homes because of radioactive fall out in the Fukushima area. 3) Japan does not need nuclear power to have a vibrant economy.

And as if  Mother Nature had a sense of humor, five days after the restart the nearest Volcano to the Sendai complex started erupting.    In all fairness, the active volcano at Sakurajima erupts quite regularly.  This time however it has reached level 4, which is the second highest warning level meaning that the 4,000 local residents should be prepared to immediately evacuate.  Level 5 is immediate evacuation.  The last major eruption of Sakurajima was in August 2013 (see above video), when ash and debris flew 5 km from the volcano.  Sendai is 50 km from the volcano.

sendai reactors

The first reactors to start in over 2 years in Japan.

We are not selling a product

Written by GPaul some links by Paxus originally posted on the Point A Blog.

A few days ago several people sent me this article about co-living in New York City. Co-living came to national attention a year and a half ago when co-living groups in the San Francisco bay area, like the Embassy and Campus networks and Open Door Development, got a flurry of press attention (here, there, and elsewhere).
co-living dinner looks fun and multi cultural

co-living dinner looks fun and multi cultural

I spent some time trying to reach out to the folks mentioned in the story and am still unclear about whether the stories described a genuinely new thing (communal living updated for the networked age) or simply an old thing (group houses) with good branding and fancy websites made by people whose success in life depends on their ability to cast what they’re doing as innovative and disruptive. The label encompassed diverse assortment of houses, networks, and projects that sometimes shared little in common aside from a demographic and not all of whom were aware that they were being labeled as “co-living” spaces.
It was an interesting development of ambiguous meaning that I’ve continued to keep an eye on and occasionally try to research further. At best they could harbor some innovative ideas on how to adapt collective cooperative living to the modern networked age, its technology, its economy, and its culture. At worst, it was group houses for the techie crowd and its aspiring capitalists. Harmless enough.

The recent story in the New York Times highlights a different model, though, and raises different worries.

The article describes several attempts, mostly in New York, to commodify the group living experience, in one case by a single landlord but in others by corporations. The whole thing strikes me as a quixotic recuperative attempt by capitalism.

Much has been written about the ways that capitalism and consumerism, sometimes accidentally and sometimes intentionally, leads to isolation, alienation, the destruction of community, and the impoverishment of meaning. Because of this we have been, for some time but especially recently, in the midst of a realization of the value of what has been lost and a mass attempt to recapture it. The longing for community, authenticity, and meaning has spawned, in whole or in part, the back to the land movement, the local food movement, intentional communities of all stripes, foodies generally, the tiny house movement. Sometimes this quest for meaning and connection has led to radical departures from and alternatives to capitalism. Sometimes it has led down a path of quick recuperation with capital once again creating spectacles and commodities that promise community, connection, and meaning.
co_living cartoon
The problem, of course, is that capitalism is structurally incapable of fulfilling these very human needs. Community is the result of a web of relationships and arises where people have some common context or experience choose to enter into relationship with each other as equals. Hierarchies and inequalities make free and authentic relating nearly impossible. It is a deeply and essentially democratic process and simply cannot be enforced from above or outside and thus cannot be packaged and sold. Meaning, similarly, is something that can only be generated by a person through experiences that are important to them. Objects themselves have no inherent meaning or authenticity. Those qualities are imparted by the relationships that they take part in. You can no more buy meaning than you can buy love.

The New York City Co-Living projects profiled in the article are trying to take something essentially internal and induce it from outside. They promise that through them you can buy satisfying friendships and meaningful experiences. But they can only awkwardly ape the results that cooperative communities achieve spontaneously. Their communities are doomed to be hollow simulacra with all the appearance of a cooperative community of peers but none of the guts that actually make it work. Should a genuine community arise it will be a happy accident and would exist in an awkward tension with the profit driven owners who were not responsible for it but will try always to charge for it (a commonplace strategy of the networked age).
A critical destination

A critical destination

Although in a way I am happy for him, the story of the chef who moved into a Pure House property and describes how satisfying it is that people ask him how his day was when he gets home makes me sad. He has to pay $2400 or more per month to get friends to live with. And even those friends, so dearly bought, do not stay.

The whole idea presented in this article reminds me of a management handbook I once read. It began by explaining how study after study and anecdote after anecdote showed that morale was better, productivity was higher, absenteeism was rarer, and creativity and effort flowed in abundance when workers on a project felt like equal partners, felt like they had real agency and freedom, basically when they felt empowered. It then went on to suggest ways to trick your employees into thinking they were equal empowered partners without actually changing any of the fundamental power dynamics in the corporation.

The idea of a cooperative community of equals is an incomprehensible absurdity to capitalism because it exists outside of the profit-seeking and individualist paradigm. There is no way to understand it within those paradigms. To attempt to privatize, systematize, and commodify such a thing is to destroy it.

They are doomed.

The First Policy – Expulsion

One of the most exciting about working on the Point A project is that we get to work with lots of different communities.  Several of these communities are young, so unlike the places i live (Twin Oaks and Acorn), they don’t have a long history and well established culture of how to handle tricky situations.  Also, a number of these places are anarchist identified, so they often think that they don’t need policies or pre-existing agreements.  They think they will just figure out what they need to do when it comes up. This is naive. Trick_or_Treaty There are a handful of completely predictable community crises in which a relatively small amount of work in advance can save you tremendous heartache and damage.  And, in the case of how to manage the expulsion of a member, if you don’t design the policy/agreements before you need it, your entire community can fail the first time you have to decide if you are going to throw someone out.

Why?  Communities are not like jobs where you can relatively easily fire someone or lay them off (and even this is often not easy). Communities generally start with friends who have come together because they want to live together.  It is hard enough to create community so that these friends have to be fairly heavily invested in each other to be able to get the community off the ground in the first place.  Strong friendships and trust are the thing good communities are made of.  And when these break they don’t break evenly.

It never said

It never said, “Don’t eat the apples.”

Almost always, if something goes terribly wrong in a community and there is a need for some type of expulsion process, there are some people in the community who don’t want to lose their friend by throwing them out.  If the person that could be expelled has no friends or has done something so bad that no one wants them to stay, then that person generally recognizes that they have poisoned their relationship with the collective and no process is needed because often they just up and leave, before a process could start.

Even Acorn, which tries to avoid fixed policies as much as possible, takes on this problem with the ironically named “Peace and Love Accords“.  If you look at this anarchist policy (yes, this is not an oxymoron), you will find a lot of it has to do with protecting the rights of the focus person and making transitions smooth, even if there have been serious problems.  And as with all good anarchist policy, it gives the group the right to bail on the policy and do something different, if everyone agrees. The advantage of having this type of policy is that in the trickiest expulsion cases often not everyone agrees and then, rather than fight about what you should do, the policy creates an agreed upon fall back position which can keep the group from descending into chaos. When you are designing an expulsion process often you will want to figure out what appropriate grounds are for expulsion.

Can't we all just get along? Sometimes no.

Can’t we all just get along? Sometimes no.

Here is what Twin Oaks has decided are valid ground to consider expulsion: [Twin Oaks uses “co” as a gender neutral pronoun to replace “she or he”.]

Expulsion of a full member may, but need not, take place for any of the following reasons:

1. Co openly repudiates the principles of the Community and works against their implementation.

2. Co is found guilty by local, state, or federal authorities of some crime or misdemeanor and the Community therefore feels it is no longer appropriate for co to remain a member.

3. Co consistently does less than cos share of the Community work.

4. Co absents coself from the Community for more than three weeks beyond the point of legitimate vacation according to current Community policy or without having made satisfactory arrangements with the Community with regard to cos absence.

5. Co physically, sexually and/or mentally abuses another member or guest of the Community, or any child, by any aggressive action and/or words which the Community interprets as sufficiently serious and/or likely to be repeated to warrant expulsion. The application of the foregoing provision to abusive words is not intended to inhibit the free expression of information, opinion, belief or emotion. It is intended to apply when oral or written language is presented in a threatening, harassing, or violent manner such that it would be reasonably expected to cause physical, sexual or mental harm. Guidelines for Applying the Mental Abuse Provision of the Bylaws

6. Co repeatedly and/or flagrantly violates the equality principle by appropriating to cos use items (including but not limited to cash) intended for the use of the Community as a whole or property designated for other use; or co repeatedly or flagrantly steals property belonging to someone else;

7. Co is discovered to have made bad faith declarations of the extent or disposition of cos property when entering the Community or subsequently, or co grossly violates the Community Property Code (Article IV below) with regard to the disposition of said property or the disposition of any income co received while a member.

8. Co deliberately and overtly attempts to destroy or disband the Community by any legal, extralegal, or financial means or in any other manner, provided that this shall not be broadly interpreted to refer to the holding of disapproved opinions or to behavior which from time to time might be considered dangerous. It is intended to refer specifically to deliberately making trouble between the Community and civil authorities, involving the Community in a lawsuit, involving the Community in unauthorized financial obligations, and such similar hostile acts or attempted hostile acts. The above provisions shall not be taken as requiring the Community to expel a member, even for these reasons. The Community may, but need not, expel a member for any of the above reasons. The Community also has the option of substituting other remedies or sanctions.

Expulsion Mechanism. The procedure for expulsion shall be as follows: Expulsion may be proposed by any voting member. The Planners and/or such other body of members as the Planner may authorize either ad hoc or as a matter of policy, shall hold a public meeting or meetings on the proposed expulsion — provided, however, that at one meeting or another the member in question shall be given full opportunity to answer any accusations or to explain cos conduct or view and express cos desires concerning cos membership, if possible. If, after the member in question has been heard, the Community desires cos expulsion, if possible co shall be so informed, at which time co will normally be allowed at least three days before co is required to leave the Community premises. Extensions of this period may be made at the discretion of the Community.

So, if you have a new community, and you don’t have time to design your own expulsion policy, you could look at these, hack them up to make them fit your circumstances, and then make them yours until you have time to do it right.

The ass you save may be your own.

Energy Futures – Riyadh, London and Austin

Different countries and cities select different energy solutions for myriad reasons and examining these can help us understand why different options are being selected.  There is news from various capitals around the world which i want to examine briefly.

Austin, Texas:  As reported in SafeEnergy.Org, the city of Austin has just locked in 600 MW of solar power for under $0.04/kwh.  Utilities have not been able to buy power at these prices since the 1960s, even without correcting for inflation (which makes it an even better deal).  They asked electricity suppliers for solar power specifically and got over 8000 MW of bids (this is the equivalent, after reducing for capacity factor, of 2 or 3 full size nuclear reactors).

A compelling combination

A compelling combination

Before you start harping on the intermittency (or as the nuclear boosters like to call it “unreliability”) of solar power, please get your facts straight.  It is no longer 2005.  Inexpensive utility scale battery technology, like those offered by Tesla Energy, is bringing the cost of storage in at around 2 US cents/kwh.  What this means for Austin and other cities with reasonable sunshine is that “base load” solar power is going to be cheaper than almost anything else.

In a reasonable world, this would mean the end of new nuclear power construction, because it is much slower to build, far more expensive and fraught with problems from waste handling, to proliferation issues, to liability nightmares, to decommissioning costs to lack of private investors.  Sadly, we live in nothing like a reasonable world.

London, England:  Austria is challenging the EUs approval of 108 billion British pound (US$166 billion) in subsidies for the UK’s plan to build two new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point.   This legal challenge has been joined by a collection of German and other renewable energy providers.  Austria is objecting to both the price of power from these reactors being set at twice the current wholesale price for power for 35 years and insuring profits for the constructing company even in the event that the reactor is closed early.


While it is unlikely the Austrian challenge alone will stop this ill advised project, it might be one of many factors which scuttles the deal.  The other reactors of this design in France and Finland are over a decade late in construction.  The French reactor had almost tripled in price, before this expensive failure was reported. The pressure vessel for Hinkley had already been forged, by the same plant which forged the pressure vessel for the French reactor which just failed its safety tests.  This one will now be used for destructive tests, adding more hundreds of millions in cost presumably to the French reactor company.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia:  In the last few months Saudi Arabia has inked deals for new nuclear power plants with South Korea, France, China, Argentina and Russia.  The Saudis are hoping to build 16 reactors by 2032.  The French deal (which is really an agreement to investigate possibilities) has a price tag of US$12 billion on it.  Saudi Arabia seems to be living in the dream world in which they think they can build reactors for US$ 2 billion each.  The west is looking at prices 3 to 5 times this high.

It should be recognized as a triumph of money over politics.  And that in fact nuclear power is secondary, what Riyadh really wants is nuclear weapons, and they are unapologetic about it.  Especially in the case of Russia, Saudi Arabia is making a deal with a political opponent (on support for Iran and Syria particularly) so that it can have access to weapons fabrication technology.  Saudi Arabia (unlike Iran) is making no effort to hide it’s nuclear weapons ambitions, in fact it is celebrating them in what they call the “nuclear defense doctrine“.  There is already talk of an accelerated Middle Eastern arms race between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  What could go wrong?

Want to be part of our club?

Want to be part of our club?

And since there is no sun in Iran or Saudi Arabia, there is clearly no alternative to nuclear power.


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