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Why Communities? An Appeal

The holiday season is a time for making charitable requests, so this is mine. I want to ask you to support the Fellowship for Intentional Community, which supports the larger network of intentional communities, mostly in the US. The FIC has all manner of lovely and useful programs (Directory, Magazine, Bookstore, Resources). They are the organization best positioned to accelerate the development of intentional communities, amplify the impact they have on society, and foster collaboration between intentional communities and the larger movement towards cooperation, sustainability, and social justice.

But that is not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about why intentional communities matter and why they matter especially now.

Mental Health: People are going crazy, and not in a good way. The stress on many people since the election has been incredible. Fear and anxiety in people who are part of oppressed groups is understandably incapacitating them in some cases and traumatizing them in many more. Add to this a spike in hate crime and the tremendous uncertainty of the time ahead and you have a recipe for some serious psychosis.  

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One of the things we know from our work with academics is that living in community improves your mental health. In some ways this is completely unsurprising. Whatever services and support a community supplies, the stress on its members is decreased. Whatever support and affection members of communities provide one another, this is more joy and security in our lives. If we are looking at tough times it is wise to look to the people we trust and care for most and build community with them, intentionally.

Climate Effect: The Secretary of State (SoS) select was blocked from perhaps the largest deal in history by the Obama administration’s sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea. This 1/2 trillion dollar plan for Exxon and Rosneft to drill the Arctic will curse our grandchildren to a wasted planet.  

But even if we are able to stop this project, no one actually has a solution to the climate problems that are facing us. No one but us. The key to this climate and environmental fix is sharing.

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The income-sharing intentional communities movement is demonstrating that you can live a middle class, lifestyle on below poverty level income. The radical sharing involved is not easy, but it is completely accessible. Intentional communities are at the front lines of this critical social experimentation.

Trust and Empathy Building: If we are going to depend more on our love ones and friends, if we are going to dare to try to live together, we need to recognize that our communication is flawed and we show up with baggage. We have to be able to name our biases and prejudices and be willing to work on them. We need to be able to clear the air of past hang ups and commit to building trust and empathy among each other. Communities are working on these tools. Clearness process, Transparency Tools, Nonviolent Communication, and more are at the center of the culture of many communities.  

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you have to be willing to look at yourself

Intentional community is the laboratory for the practices and new cultures we need if we are going to weather these coming difficult times. Please support the best organization supporting these initiatives across the county.

 

Upsetting the MBAs

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This is being published simultaneously with Commune Life Blog.

During tours of Twin Oaks I make sure to point out the things which we do that are unconventional.  This makes the tour more memorable and hopefully thought provoking.  At three different points there are business practices which drive MBAs a bit crazy:

Embracing Inefficiency:  The jig that we make hammocks on is quite unconventional.  If you go into any other woven hammock shop in the world, you will see a weaving jig which is operated by a single person.  Sometimes these are upright and the person is weaving at eye level.  Sometimes these are positioned like our jig and people weave at waist level.  From the right angle these look like a capital U.

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Our jigs looked at from above look like a capital H instead.  This makes it possible for two people to weave hammocks across from each other.  What we clearly observe is that when people can talk with other workers their productivity goes … down.

Why would any self respecting business use tools which make worker productivity decrease?  Well, the easy answer would be we are not a self-respecting business in the conventional sense.  As you might know all work (including income work) done at Twin Oaks is done by volunteers.   Hammock shop managers think first of what will get people and keep people in the shop and only secondarily about what makes them go fast.  If you oppress or make uncomfortable your hammocks production staff, they will go out into the garden or cook or make tofu or take care of kids or any of over 100 jobs which are available.

This has most MBAs scratching their heads.

Profit Insensitivity:  As business professionals walk around and understand our economy they start to ask good questions.  “If you make a much higher dollar/hour by having people work in the hammock shop or the tofu hut, why don’t you pull workers from low dollar/hour areas (like Garden) and simply make more money and buy organic food?”

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Garden work is not lucrative – Photo credit: Aaron Cohen

The answer is “we want to grow our own food”.  This is a cultural value for us.  We want to live in a place where we are involved in all cycles of the farm, growing fruits and vegetables, running our own dairy and chickens programs and in good years even our own bee hives.  None of this makes economic sense.  We don’t do it for the money.

This causes MBAs to start pulling their hair.

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Marketing without Money:  Arguably the most unconventional thing we do is pretend that we can do almost all our marketing without spending money on it.  We spent less than a thousand dollars a year on advertising.  We prefer to use labor to do marketing.  The problem is people generally don’t move to communes if what they want to do is marketing.  I have been one of the few marketing managers in hammocks for decades, and I have not done very much with it until recently.

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Our biggest sale ever.  Use “COMMUNELIFE2016” as the discount code

Our unwillingness to go to trade shows, run promotional advertising with our many online vendors, even run ads in our local friendly urban press cause MBAs to look for the door.

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Really, it is not safe in here

Uncharacteristically, an MBA from Richmond is interested in Twin Oaks.  She has a good job and stable circumstance, but was profoundly influenced by the Women’s Gathering and wanted to check out the place which organized it.

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I was excited by someone with business experience possibly living with us, despite the peculiarities listed above, there is much for us to learn.  So as I do with people who really want to live here, I went over the biggest obstacles most outsiders have coming to the community.

  1. We are Filthy.  We can claim we are a farm, or that we have a bunch of kids and messy strangers.  But truth told at our core we are more than a bit unclean.
  2. Limited Privacy.  Your personal space ends at the door to your room.  There are lots of people out there and some of them are quite unusual.
  3. We will push your buttons.  Hard as it might be to believe, what ever they are we will push them.  If you know your hang ups, than this will be a personal growth opportunity.  If you don’t know what plugs you in, the we are guaranteeing a (probably painful) journey of self discovery.  Because we will find these buttons for you and push them.

Alexis did not pause.  She had done her research, she was unworried about the filth.  She was looking forward to living much more collectively and felt like she had a pretty good handle on her buttons.  I just hope she is right.

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Accessible Anarchists: Can Masdeu

It started with the asparagus and a hole.  

For 50 years the lepers hospital had been abandoned, fenced off and losing the struggle against entropy.  Late in the fall of 2002, a handful of liberators cut a hole in the fence, letting themselves and the locals in. These mostly poorer pensioners from the outskirts of Barcelona had for years watched the fenced off asparagus sprout inside and go to seed.  Not this year.

But the story only begins with this “chance harvest”. While locals reclaimed and seeded this newly available agricultural land, the squatters planted roots of their own in this place they renamed Can Masdeu (house of many springs).  And as expected, before the first plants had sprouted, the police had arrived – not worried about the vegetables, but rather a different  “weed” taking root.  In April 2003, several dozen Barcelona riot police arrived to remove the illegal occupants from this long abandoned 3 story “mansion”.

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The gardens of Can Masdeu

What the police found was 11 people suspended on various platforms and perches designed so that to remove any one person, would cause another (or in some cases two other) people to drop from great height, potentially to their deaths.  To this day, there are chairs mounted on the outside of the building – outside the top floors, where protesters sat for 3 days, through a rainstorm and mostly without food – waiting for justice.  And finally it came.  A local judge ordering the police to retreat, declaring human life is more important than property. It did not hurt that the dozens of local and imported supporters at the squat were aided by very visible protests and lobbying going on inside the city of Barcelona and even the Spanish Embassy in Am*dam was under siege by sympathetic anarchists.

But as romantic and exciting as the origin myth of Can Masdeu is, it is the current projects and dreams which makes it such an important and seductive place. Two dozen young people (from 22 to 39) have built gardens and bread ovens, opened a community bike shop, constructed meditation spaces, planted fruit trees, installed solar cookers and reversed entropy. They have inspired a DIY/”we can do it” culture which manifests both cordial relations with the locals and deep connections to the rural squatting movement (which is more secure than urban squats, because Spain, like most places, is suffering from urban flight).  Meals at Can Masdeu are a cross between a noisy family reunion, a conspirators clandestine gathering and a polyglot’s wet dream, with the colorful players switching languages every few moments.

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The internal economics are pretty simple.   Everyone (visitors and members alike) pays 1 Euro (about $1.20) a day for the dry goods – mainly organic and bio regional foods which are collectively cooked by volunteers each day.  On our last night there no one signed up to cook and cheerful, last minute, self selecting recruits finished cooking at 11 PM. (Which is only an hour or two later than dinner normally is.  This is Spain – or more precisely Catalonia – after all.)  The food is good. It is mostly vegan of necessity since cheese is expensive – but there are no culinary restrictions placed on the group.

Though simple, the meals were wonderful.  Culinary success is fostered by a culture of joy and political action.  Stuff from the gardens, food left behind after the farmers market (in a novel twist, farmers don’t feel it necessary to put broken glass into food which they can not sell, to keep others from eating it as we are so fond of doing in the US), bread from their clay ovens, dry goods purchased with the money chipped in – all create a squat cuisine which kept us out of the wonderfully tempting Barcelona restaurants.

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Every Saturday a free coffeehouse with local and intl talent.

We were lucky to get in.  Jana and Frodo recommended the place, but June is one of their closed months.  They have been so popular that they need to control the visiting of folx so as not to get overrun with outsiders. Our boat into Tarragona arrived just as a closed month began – but we were generously granted an exception (which we had arranged by e-mail in advance).  We gave back to the squat with a presentation on Twin Oaks which was attended with great interest. They were trying to figure out many of the sharing systems that more mature communities have already developed.  At 1 AM I was still answering questions, Hawina having fielded the first hour of them, while I chased after Willow (at this writing was age 2), who seemed to get the infectious spirit and thought that he owned the place.

It is not utopia yet either;  one problem and benefit is the clash between the Spanish “manana culture” and the North European (esp. British and German) punctuality.  The squat is perhaps 2/3rds locals and 1/3rd internationals and Gesine (who was our host and is from Germany) was really struggling with the group’s ability to make decisions effectively.

While we were there a couple of Dutch co-counseling instructors were there teaching a class.  But their meeting techniques did not seem to take hold the way some of the squatters had wanted. I found myself wanting to be able to materialize Tree and plant her in this place for some months.

Squats, especially large ones which are likely targets for eviction are generally a mix of disheveled and broken stuff – and that which has been repaired or renovated.   There is dodgy wiring and the same “second world” plumbing style as East Wind (running water inside, but outside composting toilets).    But these folx were fast on their feet.  At one point Willow charged into one of the living rooms, with cushions missing from chaotic couches, piles of papers on the dirty floor.  An hour later we returned and the couches were complete and positioned for a meeting, the floor cleaned and cleared, a meeting agenda on the easel in front of the space.  And in my favorite anarchist tradition, no one was claiming credit for the magical transformation. It just sort of happens, because it needs to.

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It is not hardware or architecture which makes Can Masdeu important, it is the culture creation, the social relations and the politics which does.  “We don’t just wear black,” says Gesine, explaining that part of the perceived threat of the squat to the establishment is that they are media friendly, accessible to (and in fact supporting of) locals from different ages and classes and constantly doing outreach.  Barcelona is one of the most heavily squatted cities in Europe. The combination of poverty, speculation on rising real estate values and a legal system which does not deify property rights has caused an explosion in squatting and the anti-military service campaigns.  The moneyed class does not want popular, accessible squats like this one – it emboldens folx to take matters into their own hands.  Squatters are supposed to be dangerous fringe criminals, not helpful, friendly, folx fixing people’s bikes and respecting each other and the land and local tradition.

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Bike powered washer – like Quercus had

Even during their closed month there are tours and workshops every Sunday.  There was a series of sessions on healing arts when we were there – taught not by folx from the squat, but by Barcelona practitioners using the space with the squat assisting in promotion for the event.  The local school has several student groups who choose (and are encouraged) to meet there, in the café and ample conference spaces.  There is a growing book library, a free shop (a commie clothes look alike), and a tool library as well as all the squatting propaganda you could possibly want.  One of the rooms is for storage and construction of giant protest puppets and is also the flamenco dancers practice space.  These types of multicultural mixed use spaces are common.

My last day, by good fortune, I ended up in a long conversation with Martin from the UK, who spent a year looking for this place before actually squatting it. His was an amazing and tragic tale, complete with getting cut from the rope which was blocking the G8 from arriving at their Swiss retreat.  He dropped over  60 feet into two feet of water, broke his back and was lucky not to be paralyzed, much less alive (see www.aubonnebridge.net website for the amazing and disturbing video of the action). We talked about the culture of Can Masdeu, the meetings and process, the hopes and relations with other projects.  For me it was the perfect arrival to Europe.  People who had a very high level of commitment to radical political work, but were not stuck in old boxes, which would for example, keep them from the media, or distance them from the local population.  We talked about his desire to protect this ecosystem, which he felt was at the edge of its carrying capacity with the gardens which had already been planted.   And how amazed he was at what they had so far created.

And it might all end in October.  After 5 failed criminal cases have been run against them, Can Masdeu now faces a civil suit, which it may be nearly impossible for them to win – because in fact they don’t own the property and someone else does.  The police might not evict – this happens sometimes.  But the most likely future is that in the winter of 2004/05 there will be a call to defend the squat.  They hope hundreds of people will help defend the house and if they resquat there may be a popular action, hopefully with many hundreds of people especially people from the barrio. They have grown deep roots.  My guess is many more than the original 11 people who risked their lives will be in dramatic and dangerous positions, with more than 3 days food and a very enthusiastic and very large group of people all around them supporting them.

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Follow the graffiti which looks like this

I’ve seen the future and it is off the end of the metro green line in Barcelona

Update Nov 2016:  The police did not come.  To this day Can Masdeu continues to host events, political protests and a dynamic scruffy band of anarchists, who are now joining 20 other Catalan communities to build their movement.

Anarchy at Twin Oaks

Chaos has engulfed the commune! Well, not quite, but perhaps technically so.  The by-laws and policy of Twin Oaks are  tremendously elaborate.  Over the near half century of history of the commune we have designed contingencies for many unexpected circumstances.  What do we do if someone disappears?  What do we do if someone wins the lottery? What if 24 members accept a visitor and 6 reject them? What do you do if you are topless in the garden and the UPS person shows up?  What do we do if there is only one planner?

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It is the last of these examples that delivered us to the current non-crisis.  Twin Oaks government was inspired by the book Walden 2, a behaviorist fiction story. Described in Walden 2 book is the planner manager system of governance we use.  Managers control area budgets (both labor and money) and planners operate across multiple areas or full community wide as executives.

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I have long joked that the Twin Oaks plannership is a self perpetuating autocracy with a democratic cap.  At any time there are supposed to be at least three planners (up to five if there are stand in planners, who are in training).  When their is a vacancy the planners look at a membership list and seek out a member who they would like to work with.  They approach this member and ask them if they want the job and if they do, then the community is consulted.  The planners have an interview with anyone who is interested.  A veto box is put up, and a minority of the membership (20%) can block a planner, but this is pretty rare.  [Note: this is actually a streamlined description of the process which is actually more complex.]

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The plannership is a crazy difficult job.  My personal estimate is about half of the planners drop out early.  There is a rule that you can not run for two consecutive planner terms, but no one has wanted to in the nearly 20 years i have been here.  So what happens if there is only one planner?  If there are no acceptable candidates to join or no one is willing to?

We have elections.  This surprises people who know the community well.  We don’t have elections for individual for any position really, it is not part of our culture.  Managers serve until they tire of a position, they are mostly replaced by people who they train to replace them.  Sometimes a council will choose between a couple of candidates, but this is rarely by voting, instead typically it is done in a meeting.

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On October 1st of this year we had no planners.  One term ended and the other resigned.  If there are no planners or just one, then we go to elections.  This has only happened one other time in the last 19 years.

What has the effect been on the community?  Almost nothing.  A decision about a feedback is pending the new planners.  Some managers probably did some things without consulting the planners, but they might have done them anyway.  The internals of the community are both resilient and decentralized.  We don’t need an executive for much of what we do.

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And tomorrow the election results will come out.  And i am running.  There are 8 candidates.  Some of the candidates are unexcited about the job, but are open to doing it.  Others, like myself, are excited about the position (which i have done twice before) but are at least somewhat controversial.  Still others are well liked and respected and at least one of those will certainly get the job.

Anarchy was fun while it lasted.

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Compersia lands on the Atlantic

A collection of intrepid adventurers have launched the newest income sharing commune in Washington DC and it is called Compersia. After failing twice to name this new community using naming parties, they discovered that one of the limitations of naming parties is that they are good at coming up with funny or lighthearted names. But when you are naming your home you might want something a bit more serious.

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Compersia retreat January 2016

Compersia is derived from Compersion, which is roughly defined as the opposite of jealousy.  More precisely compersion is when you feel good about your intimate experiencing intimacy with another person.    Part of the reason why compersion is only roughly defined as the opposite of jealousy is that you can feel both compersion and jealousy at the same time.

The name is barely a month old and the major liberal magazine, the Atlantic, has completed a 6 minute video on them.  Here is the link to the Compersians discussing their community.  The reportage is all in the words of the members and thus it is a pretty upbeat piece of coverage.  Compersia is looking for new members and this might well help.

Curiously, just the day before the Atlantic posting, Realtor.com ran an article called “With Housing Costs Sky-High, the Commune Makes a Comeback” Which quotes a number of our friends at Ganas and Twin Oaks.

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A collection of Old Twin Oaks photos use by Realtor.com

Nice to be seen a bit by the more mainstream press.

 

March is Hinkley Dies

[Update Nov 2016 – I was completely wrong.  Despite the strong case for the cancellation of this terrible project.  Elizabeth May decided to go forward with it.  Threats of Chinese trade retaliation and the British need for new civil nuclear technology to maintain nuclear sub capacity are two often cited reasons for why the UK government made this expensive, stupid and dangerous choice.]

What does it mean when the largest nuclear construction company, backed by the most pro-nuclear state, funded by the world’s largest economy, can’t build a reactor in one of the most pro-nuclear countries in the west?  It means the end of the nuclear age is in sight.

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Oh, how we try.

I make predictions.  I get that on some level this is quite arrogant.  But i really want this to be true, and it has an unusually good chance.  So I am going to call September 2016, “Hinkley dies”.    I’ve made the case why this ill conceived reactor complex in the UK should be scrapped.    So I won’t go over it all again.

The important thing here is that the new British Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will review the project this month, and almost everyone who has done a review thinks the project should be killed.    But with nuclear power, this is frequently not enough.  I have watched thousands to top flight reports pointing out the flaws of nuclear power, in specific and general cases, and typically these reactors get built.

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Cheaper, faster, safer, cleaner.  The choice is clear.

And while Hinkley has its own special problems (including that none of the four attempts to build this design reactor has been successfully completed and some are nearly a decade late now and billions over budget), all of new nuclear power construction is looking down the barrel of low cost solutions using renewables .

This is crazy important.  Even if you don’t care about climate disruption, even if radioactive waste does not bother you, even if you are just a black-hearted capitalist trying to make a buck, unless the market is fixed as it is in Virginia, you would have to be a bit crazy not to shift to renewables over nuclear, because they are just cheaper. Even when you consider the cost of storage of renewable power.

Let’s hope the new British PM takes seriously her own call for reviewing Hinkley Point C.  If she does, she will likely stop this project and, if she does  that, the entire future of new reactors in the west is thrown into question.  And this is a question I have wanted to hear for half my life.

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Let’s take one last look

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greenpeace versus Hinkley C

At this point in time, there is no more important reactor than Hinkley Point C.  This proposed reactor will be the most expensive construction project ever.  It was to be financed by the Chinese and build by the French nuclear giant, Electricity de France (EdF).  In an earlier blog post I listed a handful of things which are wrong with this venture.  These included:

  • It is far more expensive than wind and solar in the UK right now
  • No reactors of this type are running anywhere in the world.
  • All 4 reactors of this type under construction are years late and billions over budget
  • The pressure vessel planned for the reactor was flawed and had to be removed
  • The Chinese funding and design is a national security risk for the UK
  • The project needs huge subsidies, despite the “no subsidy promise” from the government.

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This blog post did not include subsequent developments including:

 

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Nuclear is not a bright investment

You would think with all these problems Hinkley would be dead.  You would be terribly underestimating the political power of nuclear projects.  Hinkley might still be approved and so, in this critical window, Greenpeace called on its members (including me) and we chipped in to buy a full page ad in the London Times.

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i gave 10 pounds for this

It is not much of an exaggeration to say the future of nuclear construction in the western world depends on this project.  If the largest builder of nuclear plants (EdF), with the most generous funder (China), can’t build a reactor in a willing country (UK), then prospects are pretty bleak anywhere else.