Feeling helpless and hopeless about climate disruption? Some of the most powerful solutions are in places most people are not looking.
In 1985, Amory Lovins wrote the ground breaking article, “Saving Gigabucks with Negawatts,” where he argued that utility customers don’t want kilowatt-hours of electricity; they want energy services such as hot showers, cold beer, lit rooms, and spinning shafts, which can come more cheaply if electricity is used more efficiently. Intentional communities and especially income sharing communes can use a similar approach to reducing their carbon footprint.
You can think of communities and climate in a way similar to negawatts. People living in community don’t really care if they own a car or bicycle or set of clothing. What they want are transportation services and clothing services. If these can be provided more efficiently than through personal ownership then their needs are met. This is where radical sharing comes in and changes the entire climate discussion.
If you are in the Boston/Cambridge area this Thursday, please come to the MIT campus and come to our workshop (Facebook RSVP) on the techniques and philosophies which help these communities reduce their carbon footprint by 80%
MIT Campus 70 Memorial Dr Room E51-145, , Cambridge, MA 02142 – 7 to 9 PM
If you are not on Facebook, but wish to attend please let us know at paxus @ twinoaks.org
I co-moderate a large diverse facebook group on intentional communities. Recently someone posted:
Gossip gets embellished as it travels. Things heard second hand should be verified with the speaker. Beware words taken out of context, even if the context is the room next door. Good communities practice all that.
While this is true as far as it goes, it misses the tremendous complexity around the issue of gossip and how important it is to both the culture and success of a community venture.
What is gossip? It is certainly more than an opinion expressed about someone who is not in the room. “Trump is a misogynist racist,” isn’t gossip, unless you are close to him. It is just an opinion. “Cindy is gifted at fixing cars,” almost certainly does not qualify either, as most people think gossip is a negative opinion.
“Paxus is a poor driver.” What if this is something I have said myself and you are simply repeating it? Is it gossip if the target is the source?
Let me propose a harsher definition: Gossip is a critical judgment shared about a person or group, often in conspiratorial or secretive tones, while not directly communicating with the subject of the gossip.
Using this definition one might reasonably be concerned that gossip would have an acidic effect on the fabric of the community. One of the common anti-gossip norms that exist in the communes is if you hear something critical about someone you could ask, “Have you told this to them?” This is the antidote to gossip; being transparent with the subject of the rumor.
Back in the 80s, as I was just becoming aware of community living, when I was making a critical comment about gossip, my dear friend and mentor Crystal replied “Gossip is the fabric of the community,” and it took me a couple of decades to understand what he was talking about.
Even when using the negative it turns out gossip is important for a community to be healthy. Members need to confide in confidants about their frustration with others in the community. Ideally, this is less about spreading rumors and more about seeking advice. “How do I deal with this headachy circumstance?” or “Do you understand their motivations for this strange behavior?” or “I was so upset and they were clueless, what is really happening here?”
In the best light, gossip is the flow of self-critical and self-correcting messages which members share in the lead up to actually addressing the problems. [Where the “self” here is the larger collective one, rather than the individual personal one.] You talk about things which are on your mind with the people who you live with and they help you reflect back on what you should do about it. Recognizing that if you are being critical of another member of your community, you are obligated to get back to them with your concern.
In this way, gossip within a community is different from what happens in the mainstream. If I am being critical or concerned about another member, I have a larger obligation to do something about it than I do if it is a co-worker or random stranger. If you have a substance abuse problem and we live collectively, not only can it blow back on me in a problematic way, but I have made some level of commitment to take care of you. If we are part of the same intentional community and I am worried about your mental health, I can’t casually gripe about it to another member, we have to be considering what our course of action is regarding this problem. Even less dramatic problems other members are experiencing like a poor choice of romantic partners or headache with a boss are much more shared in a community setting than when living independently. Gossip in community has more obligation to it.
It is worth pointing out that Twin Oaks does not embrace this culture. In my large commune, if you don’t want to deal with someone you can completely shut down communication with them. This is terrible for clearing gossip but might make it possible for some people who really do not see eye to eye to be able to live together. And because the community is so large these estranged members (including me) just try to avoid each other.
It is worth pointing out that when ex-Oakers founded Acorn with financial assistance from Twin Oaks, this was one of the most important things they wanted to do differently. Acorn (and many other communes) have a communication covenant which makes it the community’s business when members are failing to communicate. When you are designing communities one of the thorniest issues is when do you give power to the collective over the individual members. And gossip is one of the few places you should seriously consider it.
The morning after the super bowl more than half of Twin Oaks woke up without knowing who won the big game. You might correctly assume that since these people live in this egalitarian, rural, income sharing ecovillage commune they might not prioritize this national event. But this is not the whole story. Quite a number of these members who don’t know the result are actually very excited about the game and are looking forward to watching it. Let me explain further.
Twin Oaks has a long-standing “no live television” norm. There is no place in the community that you can just flick a switch and suddenly view broadcast television (or even live cable television). There is, however, a whole subculture of television and cable watching members, who draw from our huge archive instead of watching things live.
But sports are somehow different. People mostly want to watch sporting events as they are actually happening. I’ve never completely understood this. I will leave it to some sports enthusiast to enlighten me as to why this is important. And Oakers want to watch the Super Bowl; they want to watch it in their home, they want to watch it with a bunch of other Oakers. So to get all of these things a few years back we stumbled onto a solution. Watch the Super Bowl a day later.
This clever fix has its own problems and at the top of the list is that there are a couple of dozen Oakers who do not want to wait. They visit outside friends or nearby communes which don’t have such restrictive norms around the television. And basically, the whole rest of the community agrees that they have to keep the game a secret for one day and especially not say who wins.
Back in 2004, we were less into sports. I remember walking into the Morningstar kitchen and asking the dozen assembled people “If I were to say ‘Janet Jackson’s left breast‘ how many of you would know what I was talking about?” No one did. Perhaps I got lucky that morning, perhaps the commune has become more accepting of major sports events.
Architecture shapes culture, so a guiding principle of Cambia is, if we can make it beautiful, we do. Architecture is unique as an art form because it integrates function with form. This includes landscaping and outdoor play spaces.
Stepping stones are interesting because they have multiple functions; for example. they can protect clover, especially in the winter. The form also affects our local culture: when you walk on stepping stones, you are called to a child-like stance.
You can walk with your hands hanging down by your sides, and what tends to happen is that your arms raise up to maintain your balance. The stepping stones can draw you into being playful and childlike. As your hands go up, you are more likely to skip and as you start to skip, you are more likely to smile.
Cambia also boasts a trampoline. The trampoline draws kids from the surrounding communes. We recently replaced our broken one, in an assembly effort which was guided by a gaggle of giggly kids.
The German modern architect Mies van der Rohe is famous for two sayings, both of which are applicable. “Less is more” is the argument for minimalist architecture to achieve simplicity, using white elements, cold lighting, large space with minimum objects and furniture.
The second aphorism is “God is in the details“, expressing the idea that whatever one does should be done thoroughly because details are important.
Cambia is a handcrafted commune, in sharp contrast to the grandmother commune, Twin Oaks, just down the road. Twin Oaks is a large place which includes industrial spaces, warehouses, tofu production facilities, rope machines, gang drills, and sawmills. All the spaces are closer and on a more human scale at Cambia. Some of the art is tiny and temporary.
Handcrafted means focusing on details: doorknobs from twisted branches, floors of pebbles and clay, tiny signposts, salvaged redwood around the hot tub and hyacinth pool. It is these and dozens of other tiny aspects that makes this stepping stone commune so precious.
Other Blog Posts about Cambia:
I’m lucky. My upbringing was affluent and comfortable and basically trauma free. I come from an advantaged class background. I am white and male in a world which has been designed to privilege these attributes. I have a low maintenance body and fairly good genes. I went to fancy schools and learned how to play some of the games which support the existing power structures and inequitable distribution of wealth.
So if one cares about fairness, how do you justify this unfair advantage? Some of my peers, like Sara, do anti-oppression work. Decoding their class privilege, calling out racism, classism and sexism where they see it. I’ve done a small amount of this work, but it is hardly my focus. And sadly, I am aware because of regular mistakes, I am still not getting this stuff.
Instead what I try to do is to look at this set of gifts as set of obligations. If I have been lucky, much of my work should be focused on giving back to others. Early on this drew me to activism. I selected anti-nuclear activism because it requires a certain unlikely combination of attributes. You need to be able to argue with people who come from these advantaged class backgrounds about technical and financial things. You need to be able to pour energy into long campaigns, which you are almost certain to lose and then you need to not get discouraged and keep on doing it, and even encourage others to join you.
One of my gifts is optimism. It is easy to have it, given my background. And the obligation (in my thinking) around this gift is taking on nearly hopeless causes. Not because you want to waste your time, but because there is social and cultural value to fighting the good fight in a world where the bad guys often win.
Some of the Point A folks went to NYC recently. It was quite an educational trip for me. And at first on it I was quite discouraged. If seemed like the idea of starting urban income sharing communities was nearly impossible.
On one hand you had the real estate developers. Especially in New York City, real estate prices are so out of control this often unsavory profession takes on especially monstrous dimensions. They have money to invest, tremendous motivation and their eyes everywhere for a bargain or opportunity.
On the other side you have the ugly force of gentrification. This is where often well meaning folks looking for inexpensive space inside the urban environment set up their artist’s lofts in economically disadvantaged areas, only to make these areas desirable and trendy. This in turn raises property values and ultimately they get themselves and, more importantly, their poor neighbors kicked out by the real estate developers described above.
I did not see a way around these vexing forces when we started talking with folks about the Point A project. And while I am nothing like confident we can figure this out, I am now feeling more optimistic about doing something we can be excited by and proud of.
[This was written over 3 years ago, since then the Point A project has made quite some progress in finding real anti-gentrification allies. More on this in my next post.]