Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My Summer of Sustainability, Part III

Sometimes all roads seem to point in one direction. This summer I've been having that experience with the concept of sustainability: assessing where we are now, what will be possible in 30 years, and how do we get from here to there.

The basic premise I'm working with is that humans are rapidly exhausting our supply of accessible resources, such that something has to give. That is, it is not even remotely possible that we can continue for another generation the materialistic lifestyle we're become accustomed to in the US—unless we're willing to forcibly deny the
equitable distribution of what's left and to tolerate massive suffering elsewhere in service to the status quo. Rather than continuing the charade that underlies the bumper sticker "How did our oil get under their sand?", I've started looking at two questions: a) How to create a vibrant, satisfying lifestyle that uses only 10% of the resources that the average American is currently consuming; and b) How to peacefully navigate the social challenges that such a massive shift will require.

These questions affect me both on the personal level (how will I live, and what am I called to do to help society to a softer landing in the decades ahead) and on the professional level (what role should FIC play in education and preparation; what is my role as a process consultant to better prepare groups to handle what's coming).

When thinking about sustainability, I like the metaphor of a three-legged stool: there's a ecological leg, a social leg, and an economic leg—and you won't have a very stable piece of furniture unless you have three stout legs. I am interested in what it takes to develop strong legs, and also the integration of the whole, so that the stool will be a tool.

As this is a big, all-encompassing topic, I'm going to tackle it in a six-part series, roughly in the order in which I've been bumping into this conversation over the past two months. Here's the outline:

Proposal to build a working model of sustainability
II. The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World by Ted Trainer
III. Sustainability and Cohousing
IV. EDE Course at Dancing Rabbit in 2012
V. Increasing sustainability offerings on campus
VI. Transition Towns

• • •

Sustainability and Cohousing

Cohousing is a kind of intentional community—one ring among many under the Big Top that is the Intentional Communities Movement, that the FIC strives to represent in an even-handed way. It is a particular design model that features clustered housing, a small footprint, parking on the periphery, housing that faces each other, a central common house that all members have access to, and slightly undersized units (with the idea that the occasional need for larger facilities can be more economically handled by relying on what's held in common).

Like most kinds of intentional community, cohousing groups are resident controlled, and have a strong commitment to both the environment and the quality of life for residents. There are perhaps 140 built cohousing groups in the US today with an additional hundred or so in various stages of development. It's a growing segment of the movement.

Going back to its inception in the late 1990s, the Cohousing Association of the US (Coho/US) has been holding national conferences. Since 2008 these have been annual events, held the weekend nearest the summer solstice (last June it was in DC; next June it will be in San Francisco). For years now their custom has been to offer pre-conference intensives in addition to the regular Friday-Sunday cornucopia of workshops, panels, and keynote addresses.

In 2010 Laura Fitch (from Pioneer Valley in Amherst MA) and Bryan Bowen (from Wild Sage in Boulder CO) put together a pre-conference offering on Sustainability. They proposed to offer this again in 2011, as a two-day workshop, and Ma'ikwe and I explored the possibility of collaborating with them on the delivery.

While the offering was ultimately cancelled (not enough registrations) the four of us sat down together for half a day on the Thursday morning before the conference opened to discuss in depth how we saw the topic of sustainability and its relationship to cohousing. Ross Chapin from Langley WA and Greg Sherwin from Boulder Creek Cohousing joined us as well. We had a stimulating conversation on the roof deck of Eastern Village, a cohousing development straddling the Silver Spring/DC border.

Laura & Bryan are both architects and the previous offering they put together understandably emphasized Green design and construction. While these are deservedly legitimate elements of sustainability, Ma'ikwe and I were advocating that more attention be given to the social and economic aspects, as sustainability is a broad topic.

Happily, Laura & Bryan were fine with this expansion of what could be covered. Even more impressive was that all six of us were willing to accept the analysis that the US population needed to aim for something like a 90% reduction in current resource use over the next generation in order to not exceed the limits of accessible resources (or condemn wide swaths of humanity to a life of misery because we were taking more than our share).

This was a watershed conversation in the context of cohousing, which is the portion of the Communities Movement that is most accessible to the mainstream—because it looks the least different from what people already know and typically asks residents to make the fewest lifestyle changes. While intentional communities as a whole are overwhelmingly progressive and Green in their politics and values, within the Movement cohousing presents as the materialistic end of the intentional communities spectrum.

Thus, when a cohousing project is built such that operational energy costs have been slashed in half (which is not uncommon), it's a good news, bad news situation. The good news is that that represents a terrific savings and an important step in the right direction. The bad news is that isn't nearly enough and we shouldn't be spending too much time patting each other on the back.

To be sure, some cohousing projects are achieving greater savings in resource use than some non-cohousing communities. However, in broad strokes, Ma'ikwe and I believe that there is an important role for intentional communities to lead the way in modeling how to manifest a high-quality life based on only 10% of current US resource consumption and we are not expecting dynamism of this magnitude to come from cohousing—unless that segment is willing to risk its carefully cultivated reputation as a reasonable choice for mainstream Americans.

Happily, there is no need (or benefit) to getting into a pissing contest about who's the most sustainable. We need a multiplicity of approaches, and everyone doing what they can to build a better world. It is important and valuable if cohousing only continues doing what it has already demonstrated great skill at: enticing dissatisfied mainstream folks into trying community living for the first time—it's my sense that the vast majority of people who get their first taste of community living in cohousing would not consider any other option at the outset.

This is a huge benefit. Perhaps it will be the ecovillages that pioneer what it means on a practical level to live on 90% less resources, and somewhere ahead we can establish a viable bridge between the new construction condo associations of cohousing and the strawbale, mud-plastered, and earthen floor adobe abodes of our future.

[Note: I'm not predicting that all future housing will be adobe; I'm only trying to graphically illustrate the distance that remains to be bridged. The lifestyle changes required of us will not be small.]

It does no good to ask anyone to take a larger step than they are ready for. Our job is to build a road from where we are to where we need to be, such that no one is afraid to step forward. The point is not how few the steps are; it's whether all the steps are visible and accessible.

Laura, Bryan, Ma'ikwe and I plan to cook up a robust and comprehensive pre-conference offering on Sustainability at the 2012 conference, based largely on the EDE curriculum created by the Global Ecovillage Network. Amplifying what I mean by that will be the focus of my next blog.

Or you can contact Coho/US now and see if you can register early for the Sustainability course—for all I know, operators may be standing by...

No comments: