What we Learned About the Commons through the Covid-19 Pandemic

Giselle Wilkinson, Colin Hocking, Jose Ramos, Gilbert Rochecouste, Maya Ward

How Our Questions Came About

The ideas in this article first surfaced when a few of us asked the question, ‘What would a Commons response to the pandemic look like?’ The group discussing this question rapidly expanded out through our network of contacts in March and April of 2020. Our investigations resulted in organizing a structured collaborative investigation using Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) (Inayatullah, 1998).

We were each encouraged to follow the steps of the CLA analysis, beginning with a look at the litany of surface responses to the pandemic that related to the Commons theme. We then progressively looked more deeply to identify what dominant social narratives or myths exist that are being challenged by the societal and political contradictions arising from the pandemic. Following this, we looked at the tension points revealed during the early stages of the pandemic. Finally we explored what alternative narratives might replace the existing narratives in these potentially transformative times, and what the implementation of these new ways of thinking might look like in practice.

A large group of fifteen participants used Miro Board technology to post ideas in this ‘digging down, building up’ CLA process. Themes were identified in the postings we placed on the Miro Board. Then a smaller group took on the work of crystallising these into themes, focusing on our Australian experiences, and weaving these themes together. Once we came up with a workable version, we sent this out to the wider group of fifteen, and incorporated their suggestions into this final version. What we have come up with from this process is not intended as a comprehensive analysis of how the pandemic is likely to affect our notions and practices in relation to the Commons. We believe that, in these untested times, we need to be careful not to be too definitive about any conclusions. Instead we aim to provide some developed ideas for you to reflect on and respond to, as we build shared views of the impacts and opportunities of the pandemic on our society. We welcome any comments.

“There is a field out there beyond right and wrong, I will meet you there.

– Rumi

We are looking at times of complexity when right and wrong are not clear. We will need some sort of deeper approach, incorporating dimensions of psychology and complex systems, to understand the effects that the pandemic is having on our society. Can we evolve to a level of psychological and cultural complexity not yet seen? Our context is both global and local; the challenges are immense.

What do we mean by ‘Commons’?

This essay explores responding to the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic from the perspective of the commons. Elinor Ostrom (1990) won a Nobel prize for her work on how communities govern and protect localized commons for their own use. Commons are that which we mutually depend on for our collective survival and wellbeing. They include the shared resources which are co-produced and managed by a community according to their own rules and norms. Commons can exist in a variety of contexts (Bollier and Helfrich 2015). Open source communities, for example, produce digital commons. Residents of a city may work together to manage and tend to physical commons such as parks, or water systems, or less embodied systems such as common energy production (Gorenflo 2017).

The idea of ‘common concern’ is important here. A domain of common concern invokes a community who are focused on stewarding into the future something the group mutually cares about. Because it is valued by a particular group of people, the group tends to its future — creating it, protecting it, extending it. This notion of ‘common concern’ serves to expand the scope of what a commons is, and who is a commoner. In the case of planetary life support systems, the value of this as a commons has been historically implicit, in that it did not appear valuable to a community until it was threatened. Likewise, when the ozone layer became threatened by industrial pollutants, which in turn fundamentally threatened human well-being, the ozone layer became recognised as a commons for collective governance, an ‘object of commoning’ (Buck 1998).

For an issue as fundamental as climate change, this contextualising of an implicit commons lies in multiple personal awakenings that we all share an atmosphere and safe climate with seven billion other humans (and countless species) as a commons of concern. Through the accident of circumstance, each of us has been ‘plied into’ this shared concern of the twenty-first century. In this way, the planet’s atmosphere has shifted from an implicit commons to an explicit commons. Our atmosphere has become a matter of survival for all, and suddenly people have become commoners to the extent that they see the ways in which they are entangled into this shared concern, with a concomitant responsibility for action. This in turn implies a radical democratization of planetary governance. As a human community we have a shared responsibility and right to engage in the governance of this commons (Bauwens & Ramos, 2018).

In this article, we explore a Commons Response to the pandemic through this lens. We experience ourselves embedded in a variety of different Commons, both implicit and explicit. There is a diversity of commoning activity, and we need to appreciate the broad variety of commoning strategies arising around the world. Synergies are possible between people working in a variety of contexts where commoning work is happening. However, we need to construct a language and body of concepts that can be understood by a diversity of people, projects and organizations, so that we are able to recognise the shared nature of the work we are involved in, and can “talk to each other” in the language of commoning, which enable processes of meta-systemic co-design — the development of new commons-based synergies.

In our extended reflection on a commons response to the pandemic, we are engaged with multiple commons and commoning activity — from a public health system attempting to prevent deaths from Covid-19, to the need for economic security, and to the mutualised self help systems that have popped up across Australia and the world.

Covid-19 as the Context

This moment, living through the Covid19 pandemic, is unlike anything most of those of us alive today we have ever known. It is unknown and uncertain, frightening and exciting, challenging and strangely hopeful. When the world turns upside down, when so much is at stake, new viewpoints are suddenly available, and change is inevitable.

This moment reveals what can happen when all levels of government focus on solving a huge problem — immense resources can be redirected with the stroke of a pen. Exponential change is required to meet the exponential growth of this deadly virus, and reduce the risk of future pandemics.

The challenge and potential of this time is that interventions aimed at addressing the pandemic could also reset the current destructive trajectory of humankind. Can we leverage the dramatic economic and social changes to create a more just, beautiful, life-affirming future? What can we learn from the various whole-of-society responses to Covid-19, that can help us respond to the far more impactful and long-term climate emergency and ecological collapse?

The dominant narrative at play right now is directing resources and attention in ways that do not serve life. The ecologically naive myth of infinite growth that underlies our economic paradigm means that the crisis brought on by the pandemic is not yet the opportunity it could be.

Our attempts to avert the pandemic altogether mostly came too little, too late. While the inevitability of a pandemic was understood by government agencies, precautionary measures that could have supported a rapid response with early detection at its origin, early lockdown measures, and deployment of infrastructure, medicines, equipment, training and health system preparedness were not prioritised. As a result, the Covid-19 outbreak quickly reached pandemic proportions. Measures to contain it have created a cascade of consequences globally, including predictions of huge death-tolls in poorer regions due to starvation caused by disrupted supply chains. These same regions also have greater vulnerability to climate change effects such as heatwaves and flooding. In our own country, we are already seeing an increase in suicide and mental illness due to the loneliness brought on by social distancing or family pressures, in combination with economic stress arising from enforced lockdowns.

There has been an enormous increase in wealth inequality in recent times, as global corporations massively expand their online turnover, in contrast to the many millions of small local businesses that are on the brink of economic failure. There has been a roll-back of environmental protections, along with economic stimulus towards carbon-based energy production.

As lockdowns in Australia continue, fears among sections of our population of the surveillance state grows, along with an increase in distrust of experts and governments, and accompanied by an unhealthy increase in conspiracy theories. The intensified feelings of hopelessness and being overwhelmed lead more and more people into despair.

Yet, while there are immense and unfathomable complexities at play, it is important to look at how, as a society, we have sought to address this crisis. The restrictions imposed by state and federal governments have emphasised caring for the whole of society, and particularly those most vulnerable to the virus. It has sought to communicate that individual actions can have a profound effect on the whole population, encouraging a culture of communal responsibility and support.

Those focussed on recognising and protecting the extent of what fits within the concept of Commons, as well as those working specifically on protecting our society’s common interest in countering the pandemic and supporting recovery, are responding with courage and creativity. New skills are being learnt and imagination harnessed. Opportunities are emerging and some are being seized. Local communities have stepped up in numerous ways and people are saying “I can do this”, sharing food and provisions, checking in on neighbours, and creating a momentum around relocalisation — for example around growing food, and supporting local businesses to remain viable.

There is the possibility that our best-case scenario in dealing with the Covid-19 crisis may indeed be ‘our finest hour’.

Anxiety and Control

Fear and anxiety can lead to a desire for control, or to the belief that someone or something “out there” is in control.

In complex societies, there are many aspects of individuals’ lives that they have limited or no control over. When there are significant disruptions to the systems that support a society, the anxiety that this confusion provokes can lead to a range of choices, especially when the actions that government or other agencies take to address the disruption leads to even further loss of control. An example of this is the social isolation regulations introduced in Australia to address the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some choose to soothe their anxiety by blaming agents of power or suspected power. This creates a culture of victimhood and powerlessness. Others regain some sense of control (and also some actual control) by engaging in activities that fulfil certain needs, such as food growing within the family or community, localised energy supply, or lending their time and resources to localised decision-making bodies.

The psychological stressor of fear tends to lead to a desire for control in order to manage the anxiety that arises. There can be a strong need to believe that someone or something is in control. This can be positive where societal leaders take decisive actions in the interests of the communities they lead, and with the agreement of their constituents, to address the disruption. However, it can also lead some societies, out of fear or anxiety, to embrace strong, emphatic leaders, even if the evidence is that the pathways these leaders are taking is seriously flawed. Belief systems can arise that promote the idea that a nefarious agent is in control (hence the rise in conspiracy theories) rather than to accept that no one is in control, or as a way of regaining some sense of control, for example by inventing unconventional ideas based on simple explanations that don’t require examination of the complexity or inter-connectivity that underlies society. This inability to be with the true complexity of life systems has been fostered by the shifts towards a passive, consumer- oriented culture that the conservative forces in our society have driven. In Australia at least, the consumer-oriented, libertarian elements of our culture have not held sway as the pandemic has taken hold, and the collaborative elements of our culture have at least worked so far to keep the spread of the virus in check, although the ‘me-first’ tendencies of some people have recently been revealed in the spread of Covid-19 in Victoria.

Levels of pay, casualisation of work, dependence on schools and pre-schools for childcare, type of work and distances travelled, are all examples of the complexity in Australian society that individuals currently have little control over, and that lead to heightened anxiety during disruptive events such as the current pandemic. Some people soothe their anxiety by blaming agents of power or suspected power. This creates a culture of victimhood and powerlessness. An alternative path is available to those who are willing and able to learn, and who have the resources to act on these. This requires people to take a compassionate, self-aware, and psychologically sophisticated approach. Such an approach is more likely when people have skills they can rely on, and when they are enabled by governments and those around them to foster and participate in a practical, hands-on culture.

Policies and plans that would enable a creative, empowered and self or community sufficient populace would include psychological education, somatic education, cross-cultural education as well as practical education — for example, the ecological and place-based learning provided through permaculture. Many of these learning situations help to identify and draw on the range of connections that people have in their communities or beyond.

Measures that would foster a sense of appropriate and ecologically-grounded control, with a locus closer to the individual and local community, could include activities that fulfil basic needs, such as food growing within the family or community, local energy production supply, and by enabling localised decision-making bodies and processes. Underlying each of these approaches is a recognition that we are participating in, and responsible for, some type of commons — whether this is physical, social, psychological, ecological, spiritual, or a combination of these. In essence this means that, beyond the need for increased localized agency, we are talking about wide social change or reorientation. A “commons response” includes taking greater responsibility for the care of the whole of society, and that means engaging in systemic issues and structures.

The Covid-19 Paradox

We seem to be more separated and yet we are more connected than ever.

“Last night I talked by phone to my family — on speakerphone, while I cooked dinner. They are in Melbourne. I am in Tasmania. My partner is loath to return to Tasmania where we have accommodation, because it would mean remaining in a room in a hotel for two weeks in quarantine. I am not inclined to return to Melbourne, because flying into a rising tide of virus doesn’t seem like the right thing to do right now.” Colin Hocking

Just about everyone has stories like this, stories of disconnection, dislocation, distance. And yet the cause of this whole dilemma lies in the underlying connections we all have with one another. We are all biological beings, subject to the biological machinery of the Covid-19 virus. We are all social beings too, wanting to connect emotionally and physically, and now finding out how much we need this, when it is taken away or reduced. And it is this essential desire for social and physical connection that the virus exploits in its capacity to spread. On the flip side, one key way (maybe the best, possibly the only) of driving infections down while recovering some of our physical, social and economic health, is to re-imagine and realise our social connectivity. For the foreseeable future, this means finding new ways to maintain our emotional connectivity and support, while at the same time working together to keep ourselves physically apart. In the past we have built, or allowed others to build, our connectivity with the world, into narrow streamlined pathways, ones that deliver mobile phones, least cost goods of all types, and much more, to our doorstep. Or for the less privileged among us, streamlined connectivity delivers the less expensive food and service items we buy, or the component parts our workplaces rely on to function. But this has been done in ways that allow us to ignore the working and living conditions of those at the other end of the global super-highways. These are some of the same pathways that the virus has exploited to expand exponentially out into the world, so that we now understand more about the nature of these connections, the hugely varied living conditions along these pathways, the differential battles that communities face in withstanding the pandemic, with differing resources, and the reliance we have had in the past on these global connections for our standard of living.

We Are Extensively Interconnected

We are more interconnected and more vulnerable, and our lives more precarious, than we would like to admit.

The Covid-19 Pandemic has reminded us of what a major global-level emergency looks like. It has reminded us, in great detail, of how interconnected we all are, especially now. People in ancient times, suffering other plagues, were also connected across continents, but the speed and extent of Covid-19 reminds us that we have built forms of connectivity that affect just about everyone, at global scales and with lightning speed, that run right down into individual lives and through communities. We are beginning to see the extent of our interconnectedness, across our social, economic, health/wellbeing and ecological systems — each of which is now recognisable as operating at a global scale, as well as more locally. The belief that we can dissociate ourselves, even to some extent, from the social, economic, health/wellbeing and ecological systems that surround us, or that we can dominate or control them, is being challenged.

There are forms of global connectivity that we have been struggling to properly imagine and come to terms with. These include climate change and biodiversity loss. At every level these are failures in our capacity to fully understand, or perhaps actively deny, how interconnected we are, through the atmospheric commons we all share, for example, and through the complex, interacting ecosystems of which we are a part, and on which we depend. In the broadest terms, our failure to fully know or understand our connectivity, with each other and with nature, is reflected in our cultural tendency towards individualism and dissociation from others and the systems that support us, which is sometimes expressed as the notion of having to dominate nature, or else succumb to it. And this is reflected also in our political tendency to believe that, if Someone is in charge, they will rescue us from our vulnerability and precarity.

A Regenerative Response

Regeneration is a word now commonly used. Regeneration moves beyond the notion of Sustainability. Sustainability is often used as a way of describing how we need to stop further damaging our environment and atmosphere, to find a ‘balance’ with nature and leave the world in a better state than we found it. Regeneration, by comparison, refers to the possibility and need to generate positive socio-ecological outcomes rather than just repair damage. It requires us to re-trace and re-connect the environmental and social threads that hold us together biologically, and to find new, fulfilling ways of living with nature, and with each other. At its essence it means putting back more than we take out, and making the whole stronger and more resilient.

A permablitz in a Melbourne suburb

Many people are now suggesting that, even as we go through the current pandemic and eventually emerge from our experiences of Covid-19, there will be opportunities to take a more regenerative approach to recovering from its social and economic impacts. We need to go beyond narrow narratives that talk about jobs, growth and productivity. As we craft and construct systems that aid in the recovery, we need to acknowledge and address some of the critical underlying issues that reveal both the positive and negative dimensions of our social, economic and ecological interconnections. These include re-tracing and re-weaving the interconnecting threads between us at the local, national and international levels, including through our global pathways of trade and influence, in ways that repair, care and do no harm — and in ways that generate positive outcomes. We will do this both for our own sake (now that we realise this), and for those humans and other beings with whom we share our planet, and come to know that we are connected to, now and in the future. Regeneration will be needed in social, economic, cultural, political and ecological dimensions, as we make anew our world, and address the looming climate emergency and biodiversity crisis.

To do this, we will need a clear acknowledgement that all of our activities and the systems we construct around them — including jobs, growth, productivity, commerce, travel, our public health system and indeed our local and global economy — sit and operate within the interconnected, ecological and social systems of our one planet. Failure to acknowledge and address these integral connections will prevent us from making the comprehensive, long-sighted and integrated responses that are needed to prevent the next pandemic, or climate crisis, or biodiversity crisis, each of which could have a far worse death rate and global impact than we are currently experiencing.

Government and Beyond

A new understanding is emerging, in Australia at least, that we may need strong State and Federal coordination to address the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, but with coordination that is based on solid evidence, and with the agreement of the majority of those affected.

At our national level in Australia, our current conservative government has a history of supporting an individualistic culture, and has traditionally governed through divisive politics. So it seems somewhat paradoxical that this same government has now re-oriented to provide widespread social programs of public health and economic support, actions that would have been unthinkable from this same government, just a few months ago. We should remember however that, at best, this government has traditionally been a climate change laggard, and at worst a denier. It has also not traditionally supported social welfare programs. The government understands, as do many, that without these temporary supports, the economy would likely collapse. The national level conservative government has a history of expressing a dominant individualistic mindset that keep people disconnected from social, economic, health/wellbeing and ecological systems, and continues to skew our understanding of the interconnectedness of these.

Another dominant assumption in our society is that someone (usually a strong, directive government) is in charge and will be able to ‘fix’ the problems that beset us. It has become more clear that public health is a shared commons and that, while governments should play a critical role in supporting this, stewarding the commons of public health goes far beyond just government action.

Our personal experiences of Covid-19 remind us of the reality that there are forces far bigger than each of us, that can affect our safety and prosperity for better and for worse. Our societal beliefs in the state’s ability to fully control events have also been shaken. At the same time, the pandemic has had the effect of reinvigorating and empowering many at the local level, as we watch the mixed reactions of our previously ‘in control’ conservative federal government now agreeing with the health experts.

We’ve seen a shift away from the Federal Government’s conservative ‘lifters and leaners’ rhetoric, to instead allow people in diverse situations to survive, physically/health wise and economically, and to downplay judgemental attitudes about who deserves to survive and who doesn’t — with some notable exceptions such as childcare workers, academics and artists.

The simple logic of the Covid-19 virus makes this clear. Regardless of government action, all it takes is one person with the infection to shirk responsibility and the disease can spread exponentially. This virus enfolds everyone within a logic of common concern — commoning public health.

The idea that a ‘strong government in control that will look after you’ has been further shaken by the failure of some overseas governments based on ‘strong personality leaders with directive, self-interested approaches’ to keep their citizens safe from Covid-19 (for example, Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro). Now these approaches are beginning to appear naïve, simplistic, bombastic and downright dangerous. By comparison, some other centralised governments with directive approaches, such as China, New Zealand, Vietnam and Taiwan, have been able to take advice from health experts, and act in the broad interests of their citizens.

Public health includes government but goes beyond it. If public health is to be understood as a commons, then this includes all those that have a stake, and implies shared governance.

An Eco-Family of Beings

Our globally shared experiences of Covid-19 might lead to a shared story about us being much more connected than we have been previously aware, at a range of scales: local, national, global. Metaphors and stories that describe this include the notion that we are all ‘Global Citizens’, that we all exist together, intimately interconnected, often in ways we have not been conscious of, on one blue planet. This idea is epitomized by the Earthrise image from space, captured by the astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, as their spaceship emerged from the dark side of the moon, to reveal the entire ‘blue marble’ of earth, on which have existed all people, for all of human history. Other metaphors and stories that describe the extent of our interconnections, drawn from biology and ecology, are ‘that we are linked like the Mycelia underground in a forest connecting the trees together, through which they communicate’, that we are ‘all part of One Nurturing & Connected Eco- Family of Beings’ and that whatever happens to some of us affects all of us, even though we exist in political and economic systems that try to dissociate and ‘externalise’ many of our interconnections.

A Collaborative, Contributive, Inventive and Informed Culture

Recognising that we are an inter-related part of a great weaving of interconnections requires us to honour our vulnerability and lack of control and be more humble. We now face large long-term societal changes that will affect us in ways that we have less control over than what we had previously thought, even a few months ago. Developing resilience in the face of these changes and challenges requires us to widen our notion of interdependence, and to act in ways that recognise and strengthen our inter-connectivity with one another, and with the wider systems that we are a part of. That is, we need to become more collaborative, contributive and informed, beyond our immediate horizon of concerns. We need to be careful not to come up with, or fall for, quick solutions. We are in circumstances that we have not been in before, and the ways forward may be quite different to how we have addressed problems in the past. This means being open to new ways of imagining, thinking and acting. Instead of asking ‘what can I get out of this’ we might ask ‘how can I be of service’ to each other and the systems that support us. This includes becoming collaboratively more innovative, inventive and creative — ways of behaving that require us to act with honesty and integrity. Some of these ideas, cultures and ways of behaving, this knowledge, already exist in indigenous cultures. Previously largely ignored, these perspectives may now become more valuable to us all.

Generating a New Sense of Place

In Australia and around the world our indigenous elders understood and affirmed our connection with place, which we are now relearning. We need to find and generate a new sense of place and community through initiatives that are socially, economically and environmentally interconnected, and that recognise the multiple types of commons that we share and are part of. This requires us to have policies for equity, that value culture and creativity, that protect us from corruption, that makes governance more collaborative, and that bring decision-making closer to the daily experiences of those that are affected by these decisions. These new policies need to be based in evidence, they need to appropriately and comprehensively address the climate and biodiversity emergencies we face, in ways that optimises the essence of local places, and bring together the social, environmental and economic dimensions of each place.

A photo of Uluru — a sacred place for Australian Aboriginal peoples

How we will know if we are being successful?

The extent of our success in creating a more interconnected world, one in which we acknowledge our vulnerability, as well as our creativity and inventiveness, will become evident when:

  • the natural systems we depend on are being repaired, and becoming more healthy
  • our social and health systems are improving, to provide greater well-being for all — this includes improvements in equity and justice
  • more people are actively involved in democratic processes, from local to national and global levels
  • innovation, invention and creativity are recognised and valued, both via increased collaboration and by financial and social support, including at the local level — enabling improvements in ways that have been conventionally difficult to measure

From Precarity to Universal Care

Many people in Australian society now feel that their lives are becoming more precarious and uncertain — this is what we mean by ‘precarity’. The casualisation of whole sectors of our workforce, along with sub-contracting through hire companies that erode pay and conditions of work, and outsourcing through the gig economy, are examples of government policies that have contributed to this sense of precarity for many. The extended droughts and extreme bushfires resulting from shifts in climate are adding to a sense of precarity for many. While economic, social and environmental precarity had been a trend for decades, the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated this. Unemployment is about to reach unprecedented levels. Many business owners in retail, tourism and services have lost their life savings and many are likely to lose their businesses entirely.

We are also experiencing new socioeconomic tiers. There is an increasing divide between the wealthy, privileged and those with secure institutional jobs, and the large group of people who have been thrown out of work altogether or who are part of the perpetually unemployed or chronically under-employed, including those who work in the gig economy.

In Australia, the social and economic framework that underpins this has been very mixed. Australia has a universal health care system, that while underfunded, is responsive to citizen needs on an equal basis. Economically however, Australia tends more towards being a neoliberal economy, which is tilted toward the interests of large business owners rather than workers. Unemployment support through Centrelink exists, however it is widely understood that it is punitive — those trying to access the support have been essentially punished through Labyrinthian bureaucracy. In normal times, this approach has been acceptable to the majority, as it’s effects have been hidden from the experience of the majority. However the pandemic has fundamentally ruptured this normality, and the viability of such a system is in question. For example, it is clear that the recent outbreak of Covid-19 in Victoria has been exacerbated, perhaps even led, by the spread of infection through the casualised workforce and their families and friends, in the aged care sector, in meat works, and in the security services that have been guarding people from overseas in hotel quarantine. These are people who have multiple places of work, have not had adequate training, and who are in fear of losing the most basic income if they do not turn up to work.

Underpinning this tiered and punitive system is a worldview that sees economic precarity as an individual failure, that he or she was lazy, or didn’t save properly, or didn’t invest. Wealth is often subtly seen as a demonstration of someone’s worth. In this narrative, there is little acknowledgement of the different circumstances that people may experience through no fault of their own. For example, consider a single mum trying to raise four kids, with little capacity for extra work. Or a person who has come from a family with serious drug problems. Or someone who has suffered from a mental illness. Or simply someone who has decided to live with different values.

Time for a Change

We could choose to see society as an extended family. We depend on each other in intricate and extensive ways. In a family everyone should be taken care of. We need equity and respect for all. In a world of structural forces and shocks, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, many beyond our control, we need to make sure no one / no group is left behind. Everyone is equally deserving, because we could have been born into any circumstance. This is a “cosmic principle” in our existence. We need to nurture a culture and understanding that any one of us could have been born into some difficult situation. The people that we engage with day in and day out could be us in any other circumstance, or another life.

We also need social policies and strategies that reflect this ethos. Universal basic income and assets could be a way to reduce precarity. We could also focus on eliminating corporate “tax bludgers” rather than “dole bludgers” (for example, the mineral and fossil fuel companies that get tax subsidies and special treatment). We also need to remove or reduce lobby interests from Canberra that produce the perverse outcomes of one group’s interests being favoured over another, which generates our inequality. We need to bring homelessness and physical precarity to as low to zero as possible. And we need to build a fully sharing economy, as a way for citizens to provide goods, services and mutual aid systems for each other, in ways that drive social resilience.

This crisis is teaching us that we need to actively reduce precarity across multiple groups and communities. We need a multiplicity of safety and resilience systems, that not only “catch” people in multiple ways, but support them to live meaningful lives with others — even as we deal with multiple crises, a pandemic, a climate emergency, etc.

The Shift Toward Cosmo-localism

The Covid-19 Lockdown has shown how vulnerable we are to external shocks. An extended lockdown has birthed a new pattern of hyper-local behaviours around shopping, eating, entertaining; but we have also been pushed into the interwebs of zoom and other internet communications technologies, locally, regionally and globally. It could be said we have birthed a world where the local becomes imperative to human sustenance and survival, but also where our context is planetary.

When we consider our new sense of place, it is clear that we are neither from “here nor there”. The virus is a Global virus. It started in China but has spread everywhere. It must be managed via our deep interconnections, nation between nation, state between state, community between community.

Interconnection takes on new meaning when the local and planetary are weaved together in a new tapestry. For years there has been growing awareness of where we get our food, how we grow our food, with a new emphasis on buying locally made products, eating locally, as well as supporting local tourism. During the lockdown the hyperlocal has taken on new meaning. Indeed in some regions (Melbourne) people have been legally restricted to 5 km from home. Whether we like it or not, we are getting to know our local places and regions like never before. As more people work from home, and are restricted in their movements in ways that keep them closer to home for extended periods, it is possible that we will see a boom in the return of local businesses, main-streets and economies.

At the same time this new localism stands in contrast to a new planetary context. A virus in Wuhan China jumped from a bat or other creature to an intermediary species and human, which then quickly spread around the world in our era of globalised travel and trade. At the same time, we have become a global learning laboratory. The lessons from one country pass to others quickly, whether as folly or wisdom.

The idea of Cosmolocalism describes the intimate twinning of the local and planetary. At the most fundamental level it asserts that we are all planetary beings, brothers and sisters, and by sharing our local knowledge and experiences, we empower and support each other. This is called the planetary mutualization of knowledge. The idea here is that, in an era of climate change, and a myriad or other challenges, we cannot afford to keep knowledge in siloes. By accelerating societal learning and cultural evolution, we can address our challenges faster than the challenges can overwhelm us. At a more functional level, it is said that “what is light is global, what is heavy is local”. This means that, even while we reduce travel and transport (thereby reducing carbon emissions), a global sharing of knowledge can be done that supports localised resilience, regeneration and sustainability.

Placemaking and the Commons

How can we reconnect with and reclaim our Commons?

At a physical level, fear of going out into public spaces during the time of Covid-19 creates significant challenges and opportunities for the commons. Public space is political, as we have seen with the Climate and Black Lives Matter rallies in this Covid-19 period. The reclaiming of our streets for people and not cars will be a significant revolution, closing down parts of streets for our local businesses to use to meet, sit down and eat, celebrate, and breathe. We can transform our towns and cities, as well as our local streets and neighbourhoods, in ways that grow food, create playgrounds, establish parks, civic labs, co-productions centres, sharing libraries, the possibilities are endless. Can Covid-19 see a New Local emerge, with a deeper care and understanding of our local places and environments, people, and fellow species. Covid-19 has brought us back to the primordial experience of Place. It is both fundamental to human experience, as we are creatures of the Earth, as well as returning us to Ostrom’s primary commons. Place is at once how we belong to our local community and how we belong to Planet Earth in the 21st century. We affirm the importance of understanding the places we live and work, our places, and how they need to be cared for by all citizens. Citizen-led placemaking, at many scales, has the potential to revolutionise our world.

Enlightened developers can help lead the way in partnering with citizens to create more regenerative developments, in which there is a gifting of public space back to the community. Activating and making the whole stronger may well be seen as a future direction for development, as a way of getting more community buy-in and approval, and a way of creating places that are walkable and liveable, and with an authentic sense of place that people love.

The Commons are in Our Hands

The image of Earthrise from the Apollo missions

When we realise that we are implicated in commons that we mutually depend on for our survival and wellbeing, we are moved to actively identify, generate and protect these commons. Therefore, the very idea of the commons signifies a radical democratisation of our world. We can no longer be bystanders in the play of life. Much of what constitutes our power and governance systems has tended to be top down and disempowering, and substantial aspects of this have failed us. Our sense of power is often substituted by being a consumer, without participating in real local democratic life. We come ALIVE when we have ownership and a say in something that matters to us, especially if it affects our everyday life. There is now a strong yearning for a new story of reconnection and participation in something that has deep meaning and a larger purpose that connects the local to a greater planetary good. New governance models are now emerging from deliberative democracy, citizen juries, open democracy, asset-based community development, participatory budgeting, Town Teams and many more places. When these powerful processes are used they give active hope to community members that positive actions will happen, because they themselves own the actions and, most of the time, they have a say in the delivery.

How we facilitate and hold space for the birthing of this new story will be critical.

The power of enlightened leadership, including working within and as part of groups, is vital to facilitating the best possible outcomes. Community leaders and facilitators will need to learn or enhance the use of these soft skills to create more inclusive, open and transparent processes that everyone has ownership of, and responsibility for. We may think that the more vulnerable groups in our communities need to be given agency and power, to empower themselves in this journey, but these capabilities are often already there in our communities. The task for us is to find the creative breakthrough gems that can spark individual and collective healing and transformation.


Bauwens, M., & Ramos, J. (2018). Re-imagining the left through an ecology of the commons: towards a post-capitalist commons transition. Global Discourse, 8(2), 325–342.

Bollier, D., and Helfrich, S. (Ed.) (2012). The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State. Amherst, MA: Levellers Press.

Bollier, D., & Helfrich, S. (Eds.). (2015). Patterns of commoning. Commons Strategy Group and Off the Common Press.

Buck, S. (1998). The Global Commons: An Introduction. Washington D.C. : Island Press.

Foster, S. R., & Iaione, C. (2015). The city as a commons. Yale L. & Pol’y Rev., 34, 281.

Gorenflo, N. (2017). Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons. Shareable.

Iaione, C. (2016). The CO‐City: Sharing, Collaborating, Cooperating, and Commoning in the City. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 75(2), 415–455.

Inayatullah, S. (1998). Causal Layered Analysis: Post-Structuralism as Method. Futures, 30(8), 815–829.

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the Commons. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Adventures on the global climate trail: The Quest – Safe Climate Conversation

It was 2015. The quest was to track down people working on rapid emission reductions, a full renewable-energy transition & social transformation. Scientists, activists, mobilisers and artists with evidence, messages and commitment geared to avoiding dangerous climate change. Geared, in fact, to restoring safe climate conditions. The journey took 15 weeks through Northern England, Scotland, Denmark, Holland, Germany and the US – New York & North Carolina, through Colorado to the Pacific North West & California. This is some of that story.https://vimeo.com/144580055

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Exploring contrasts – Brazil

Brazil: the Free University in Curita; Itaupo Dam, the Binacional Hydro Plant and nearby Foz do Iguacu. Australia: trying to hold the memory of our devastating Climate Change Bushfires (Feb 09) while experiencing these truly phenomenal Water Falls.

Exploring contrasts – Brazil

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The Firestorm of 2009

This is Daryl Taylor’s  personal account of the terrible fires that engulfed his family and community. Over ten years later it is still riveting, sobering and heart-breaking to read.

What became known as Black Saturday on February 7th provides a fore-warning of what is to come if global warming is not reversed. It showed those with the courage to see the horrifying face of the future on an overheated planet; a future worth pulling out all stops to avoid. For a glimpse of those climate change exacerbated fires go to Black Saturday bushfires – Google Search


We first moved up to Kinglake from St. Andrews, on September 8 nearly 8 years ago, 3 days before 9/11. It is etched in my memory. We were still shifting in, and I’d just hooked up the T.V. I’d had a broken nights sleep and in a stupor flicked on the box at 4:00am. I watched, incredulous, as CNN replayed the vision of the first tower being hit.

20 years ago I traveled around the states with my mate Mick and spent time in New York City. Mick, an actor, later moved there to work off Broadway and make movies.

I’ve come to realise there are interesting parallels between the Feb 7 Firestorms and the Sept 11 Terrorist attacks.

New York is a tough town; at least it was in 1990. No one ever looked you in the eye. Everyone was intent on getting where they were going in the shortest time and with a minimum of hassles. One did not feel a whole lotta love in the city. The incredible outpouring of emotion after their disaster, and the wonderful displays of courage, caring and conspicuous humanity were at odds with New Yorkers pre-9/11 experiences.

When people ask me what it was like in the fires, the thing that recurs is the profound experience of community in the aftermath. Out of the charred rubble arose raw human emotion and an unprecedented willingness to help each other out. The fire melted away entrenched differences and old rivalries. We embraced each other as one community. I have never had so many hugs.

Our area has a history of among the highest rainfall in the state (though there was no evidence of this in the weeks and months leading up to Feb 7).

We bought a small mud brick cottage about 500 metres from the centre of town on the south side of the ridge. Our home was surrounded by tall Mountain Ash, Stringy Bark, Manna and Peppermint Gums. Under the canopy, grew luscious temperate rainforest tree ferns.

We regularly traversed the short distance to the Kinglake National Park. Every day we encountered possums, wombats, wallabies, kangaroos and lyrebirds. Occasionally we’d see a phascogale or an echidna or hear the bellow of a koala far below. The treetops and early mornings resounded with bird song.

Three years ago we had our initial experience of fire. Bushfires were raging in the state forests and national parks to the north. The Bureau of Meteorology had forecast a hot dry day with wind gusts expected to exceed 120km/hr. We battened the hatches.

The state government and the CFA acted quickly. There were 67 fire trucks parked in the open space between the Kinglake Bakery and the CFA Fire Station. Elvis and his companion fire dousing helicopter hovered overhead.

My father, Ian, brought us a back-up mobile water tank and pump from the Strathmerton Lions Club. My partner Lucy took our daughter Maggie to the house of a close friend in Hurstbridge. Ian and I waited, well-hydrated and well-prepared, but still anxious, while the fires lapped at the northern edge of town.

Circumstances conspired to save us and our town in 2006. A strong southerly change blew in after three long days and nights of hyper-vigilance. The predicted hot northerly didn’t eventuate.

Instead a strong southerly brought rain … relief … and some long overdue sleep.

We’d all heard the unprecedented dire warnings early in the preceding week … first from the Bureau of Meteorology … on Thursday from the CFA … and then on Friday from the Premier … 46 degrees and very strong hot northerly winds. After nearly two weeks of 40 plus temperatures, and ten years of extended El Nino drought, the stage was set for the worst fire conditions in living memory.

We learned subsequently that Victoria’s Fire Risk Warning System kicks in with Total Fire Bans at 50 points. The conditions we endured on Black Saturday, were nudging 250 on the same scale. Until now, no thought had been given to a warning system for Catastrophic Fire Risk.

The same late southerly that brought rain and spared Kinglake in 2006, was to obliterate our community in 2009.

We were fairly well organised. We spent Saturday making final preparations. Raking leaves away from our house, watering the garden, plugging up and filling all the gutters, filling buckets, wetting towels and mop-heads, sealing doorways and windows, checking the pumps, listening intently to the 774 ABC Radio updates. Our concrete water tank was two-thirds full. We agreed we had enough water. Earlier in the week, my wise father had traveled up from Strathmerton to check and fix our main fire pump.

About 2:30 Les, a close neighbour and fellow community fire-guard member, dropped over to ensure we knew it was time to activate our fire plan.

We’d all heard there were fires around Kilmore. All our CFA trucks and volunteer fire fighters had left the mountain to help protect Wallan, 55 km below us to the south-west on flatland. A hot northerly was blowing. We hadn’t fathomed we might be at risk. Not once had the radio mentioned Kinglake. Any fire would have to cross the Hume Highway. Below us to the south-west was a lot of open space and grazing farmland and many sparse cleared new urban-fringe residential estates.

Around 5:00pm the southern skyline began to fill with great plumes of smoke.

We looked at each other. Was the wind changing?

We paused and listened … there were more cars than usual out on Main Road. People were evacuating!

At fireguard meetings, we’d all agreed that the prospect of a fire from the south was frightening beyond imagination. But we were told there had never been a major fire from the south. We are only about 20 miles from the edge of the city. Beyond our forest lie the suburbs. Given enough warning we all agreed we would evacuate.

The Kinglake Ranges escarpment sits above Strathewen and St Andrews. The 15km former goat track up from St. Andrews has 187 bends and is a favourite among mountain cyclists and hell for leather motor bike riders. It was the training route of choice among Commonwealth Games cycling teams in the lead up to the Melbourne Games in 2006. We are at the beginning … or the end … of the Great Dividing Range. Our ridge, we call it “the mountain” rises up 70 degrees in places, and some 1600 feet, from the verdant river valleys below. The highest point on the mountain is 2000 feet above sea level and snow is a frequent, if not annual, winter visitor.

The sky was orange. Lucy’s car was still at Jodie and Duncan’s place after dinner and a few too many drinks the night before. We picked up Lucy’s car. She started loading it with precious possessions and clothing. I got up on the roof to get a better view of what was unfolding. There was no fire below, but the sky looked ominous. We argued about what we should do. Tempers flared as fears arose. We looked at on another, then paused, before arguing some more. We were ready to protect the house and each other, but a fire roaring up from the mountain from the south was an unprecedented risk. Our fire plan was predicated on warnings from emergency services control centres. None were forthcoming. We were in unprecedented territory.

Lucy wanted to leave, appropriately concerned about the safety of our 8 year old daughter. I wanted to stay. I was concerned that every route out was through National Park or State Forest. If a fire was coming we might not make it off the mountain in time. I’d seen the photos of burnt out and crashed cars strewn all over the main road out of Lara.

A good friend, Anna, phoned Lucy. She lived about a kilometre away. She was pregnant and at home with her partner Will and two year old son Ollie. She asked us what we were going to do. Lucy wanted to go over to Anna and Will’s place, rationalising that with four able-bodied adults, there was safety in numbers. She had Maggie and our other most prized possessions in her car. She looked at me angrily, imploringly. I had never imagined a scenario this stressful where potentially life and death decisions were being made on the fly. I had wanted to stay, but instead chose to follow Lucy and Maggie in my car. I didn’t have much petrol so I went via the service station to fill up, just in case. I was fourth in line when the power went out. Smoke had descended on Kinglake.

Headlights on high beam, I drove my car home and then joined Lucy and Maggie at Will and Anna’s to quickly nut out a revised plan of action. I stepped inside their front door. It took three of us to close it such was the force of the wind. I was handed a wet towel. “Seal all the doorways” Anna ordered, “We’ve still got a hell of a lot of work to do.”

And then it started, embers began pummeling the roof and the south-facing house front.

The firestorm had begun.

Lucy and I looked at each other. In that glance we both knew we weren’t going to get back to our place. I looked at my mate Will. He was anxious, distracted and obviously scared. We all were!

“Get the kids and Anna into the back room.” “Grab the carpet rugs and make a shelter.” “Wet yourselves down.” “Put on long pants and jumpers … now!” “‘Maggie, please look after Ollie” “Keep him down low … just like they told you at school.” “Is there water in the bath?” “Where’s your pump?” ‘Where are the hoses?” “Have you got any mops or hessian bags?” “Seal all the windows quickly doors!” There was a hail of anxious questions and instructions, matched only by the mounting embers.

The sky had turned black. It was midnight in the middle of the afternoon. I looked out the front window to the south and was momentarily transfixed by the beauty of the circling bright red glowing embers, ubiquitous and incessantly searching for a vulnerable place to infiltrate the house’s defenses and satisfy their increasing desire for fuel. It was as if we were inside the nucleus of an atom looking out at electrons dancing, circling around us.

I shut the heavy curtains and ran to help Will with the pump stationed outside the bathroom door. The noise was intense, much louder than standing on the tarmac in front of a jet engine. The little shack next door was ablaze and fire had entered the east side of the house through the laundry window. The rafters were alight. There was a wall of fire between us and the pump. Try as might we couldn’t get out to the pump to pull the cord to set it in motion. Not that it would have made any difference. Anna and Will’s three plastic water tanks, which I’d helped install six months earlier, had all melted, and their contents evapourated.

There was now no water other than the six inches or so left in the bottom of the bath. We re-soaked every available towel and filled every vessel at hand as the fire engulfed the laundry and then the bathroom before entering the roof cavity. Lucy saw a wall of flames outside Ollie’s bedroom and hastily escorted Maggie and Ollie from Ollie’s back bedroom through the hallway into the open lounge area, where they re-constructed their makeshift protective structure – a couch on its side acting as a barrier, covered by saturated heavy woven floor rugs.

None of us have any conception of how much time passed while we were defending the house. After our initial anxiety passed, we acted in concert, in flow. There was no time for thoughts or conversation. Yet so intense was our focus there seemed to be all the time in the world. The most urgent tasks just got done. Cooperation and responsiveness to simple non-verbal cues and constantly changing conditions was profound. With the hall door shut between us and the fire, we were now in the last remaining refuge.

Flames lapped the clerestory windows to the north. Then the kitchen window. Will and I battled to keep them at bay. To put this fire out we would have to venture outside. The laser-light verandah was on fire too. We looked at each other in our ill-fitting wet tea towel masks and headed for the back door. The melting laser-light dripped on top of us as we hacked at the fire with the bathroom towels. It was far too hot and far too dangerous to keep this up for very long. We retreated into the house.

Then it dawned on us that we had survived outside. We weren’t going to be able to shelter in what was left of Anna and Will’s house for much longer. I looked out to the south through the front window. Lucy’s 1983 Ford Laser ‘Tink’ was miraculously still intact. Deciduous trees on the left of the driveway had buffered her from the worst of the fire. The next door neighbour’s much loved collection of vintage Saabs had all perished. It was obvious it was much safer on the south side of the house, or in the car, than out the back or inside. I looked to Anna and Will. For the first time they both realised they were going to lose their house. When I suggested it was time to evacuate, they looked at each other for a moment, then down to Ollie and Maggie under the couch. Will lifted Ollie to his chest. I grabbed Mag. We were off.

Lucy’s car started first go. Will and Anna’s car although badly damaged had been sheltered by their carport to the west of the loungeroom. Miraculously it started too. I reversed out so fast I nearly drove backwards over the embankment six feet above the road below. I heard my father’s voice reciting his oft repeated mantra ‘Less haste, more pace.”

A poorly executed 5 point turn saw us out of the access road and on to the main road. There were burnout cars and burning buildings everywhere. “Let’s head for the open space beside the pub in front of the CFA,” Lucy suggested. We did! Will, Anna and Ollie followed. We rounded the corner into Main Street. The General store and Service Station were already gone. Cappa Rossi’s Italian Restaurant was gutted. We were all running on adrenaline and in shock as we watched our home town burning down all around us.

We looked to the end of the street. It is a rare occasion indeed when I can’t get a park in front of the Pub. The street was strewn with burnt out and crashed cars. Beyond the chaos, people were assembling in front of the CFA. The Sharps land, a large open allotment next door to the Mountain Monthly publishing offices was already filled with cars. A curious mix of those who had tried to ride out the firestorm in their cars and those, who like us, had escaped their burning houses just in the nick of time.

The air was full of smoke, so it was only in their cars where people could draw some fresh air. A man in a mask and a fluoro vest was directing traffic. There had been more than enough accidents, understandable given that panic had been the predominant emotion. We were escorted to one of the few remaining spaces. We quickly jumped out and our eyes darted around to see if other close friends had survived. “Have you seen Sue?” “What about Simon and Tracy?” “Has anyone heard anything about Duncan?”

Never had we been so glad to see people who we hardly knew. We embraced mere acquaintances, sinking deep into their arms and feeling the life and love reverberating from much relieved hearts. Our bonds were now life-long, having survived what was to later to become known as the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history.

I kissed Lucy and hugged Maggie, saying “I’ll be back in a few minutes.’ Lucy knew where I was going. I had to see how our house had fared. I didn’t realise when I left her that it would take another 20 hours before the last of the flames that had entered our ceiling, after a smouldering ember sat too long on the mud brick window ledge above our shower and adjacent to a red gum weight bearing post, would finally be extinguished.

Yesterday I had lunch with Christine Nixon and members of the Victorian Bushfire Recovery and Reconstruction Authority she chairs. I was elected last week, at an Australian Electoral Commission-endorsed Community Ballot, to be part of the Kinglake Ranges Representative Group that has been tasked with facilitating community engagement and communications and consultation with the various local, state, federal, corporate and non-government bodies involved in rebuilding our community.

I hope when our work is finally complete, we are able to state with confidence that we have made the best of a terrible situation. I hope the spirit of cooperation engendered in the immediate aftermath of the fires will carry on into our communities’ important negotiations with Council, Government, Business and ‘Not for Profit’ peak agencies.

Today we head down to Diamond Creek for the last of the Kinglake Memorial Services. This one is for Macca and Neve Buchanan. Neve was a friend of my 8 year old daughter Maggie. Unbeknown to us on Black Saturday, Neve, 9, and Macca, 15, had perished while sheltering with their grandparents, in a brick house, just two doors from where we had fought the fires.

(Many thanks to Daryl for sharing and allowing me to publish this account on my blog.)

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Transformative Change in Action

first published in July, 2014 as an article in New Community magazine

The future must enter you before it happens
It’s lonely to get to the future first
The Muses … in the dreaming … we are participating
I am participating in something greater than myself
                                                                                                 Meg Wheatley

Where it all started.

This is the extraordinary story of a small, dynamic rental housing cooperative called Earth that grew up to become a ‘community’. From its humble beginnings in 1986 Earth Co-op took a philosophical journey to create social change through affordable housing and security of tenure. The co-op started small and grew to have eleven properties mainly around Heidelberg. Along the way it housed sixteen households over twenty-five years, seventeen if you also count the nurturing of the Sustainable Living Foundation (SLF) in its early years.

I lived in my co-op home for twenty years and loved it. This was the home in which I’d raised my two daughters and over the years provided space and celebrations for my five stepchildren. I must’ve cooked about a hundred birthday cakes in that time. It was where we enjoyed our two dogs, our ducks, chooks, the bountiful veggie garden, the little orchard and especially the abundant cherry tree. It was where so many active and inspiring people stimulated conversation around the dinner table. I had ‘a room of (my) own’[1] where I studied, where SLF began and where my sustainable living and eating book[2] was created. Our colourful home was vibrant and generative and full of memories and paintings and books and all the things we loved.

But the Co-op was considering creating a co-housing community and for that to happen, my house would have to get out of the way. No small thing, it required the demolishment of my own home.

I was faced with a choice. Through my work with SLF I knew we were staring climate change in the face. I had forced myself to metaphorically look the tiger in the eye and I understood I had to act. I held the conviction that if indeed everything is at stake, if the very future for all species and all civilisation is at risk, and if we have even a slim chance of changing track to avert disaster, of transformative change, we must challenge ourselves. “Name one good reason” I asked myself, “for not giving it your very best shot in every corner of your life?”  Failing to find one I knew I must take action – decisively. Did I jump or was I pushed? It was a distressing yet exhilarating prospect. It also felt like the decision was inexorable if I was to be true to myself.

So, catalysed by climate change and the need for rapid transformative change, the decision was made and Earth took the risk to initiate a cohousing community with eighteen new member households. In itself this was an allegory for transformative change: some things have to get out of the way.

In December 2009 the house in Bamfield Road that we’d lived in for two decades was vacated by my daughters, myself, our two old dogs and the whole mènage, including the superdooper-wormfarm. We made way for the bulldozers, the house was demolished and the die was cast.

Formation Stage.

Intentional communities are different by virtue of that very intention to be a community in the truest sense of the word. They are predicated upon the belief that living together equates to ‘doing it better’. There are many variations on this theme from communes to shared households. All the benefits are talked about often, of living more affordably, eating better food – much of it home grown, sharing lots of things and having a smaller environmental footprint, being secure and supported through all the ups and downs of life, creating enjoyment, cooking, dancing, making music together, sharing the experience of life, making sense of it and of having a home in a community for the long-term.

Our community is made up of people of all ages, a co-operative legal entity and a property comprising both independent living for twenty households and facilities shared in common that are more than ample for our community life. The Formation Group of new residents began getting organised from early 2011. With our two other participating Earth co-op properties near-by we had altogether twenty households. Forty-four men, women and children were making decisions about the buildings we were moving into and the tasks we foresaw and lots of hands were going up indicating who would do what.

We were very interested to get to know each other and enjoyed meeting as a whole group socially for picnics and pot luck dinners at one another’s houses. It was a lot fun. We had three-weekly meetings in church halls, community halls, Borderlands and the local scout hall. The coordination group met almost daily. We celebrated birthdays and met the children, several of whom coincidentally went to the same school.

There was a lot to get on with though. Meeting the other Earth co-op members, setting up a website, determining our energy options, sorting out bike storage, planning the Visioning Day and setting up a communal kitty to get some money in before moving in together. Selecting and getting permission for a name for our new home was a big deal. We chose MURUNDAKA which is Wurundjeri for “a place to stay; a place to live”.

By mid year a number of Working Groups were well underway. The Garden Group was already having Working Bees in the other two offsite properties. The ESD Group banned treated pine from the veggie garden, formaldehyde from the kitchen cupboards and ensured low VOC paint throughout our homes. The Finance Group set up the new accounts and books. The Food Group explored food co-op possibilities. The Communications Group focused on internal website and internet options. The Common House Working Group undertook a ‘Things Audit’ so we could see what was being gifted or loaned to the community. The Waste group audited our current waste management in our suburban homes and negotiated to reduce landfill bin volume by half, recycle bin volume by a third and to eliminate green waste bins altogether meaning a lot less bins to the kerb each week. We visited some established communities and were thrilled to see a lyrebird at Moora Moora. Everyone’s birthdates were noted as these are threads which knit together a community. The Kids Group wanted to know what the policy was on parties. We all completed a pet audit and found we now had between us one old dog not two, six cats, a rabbit and some cherished chickens – we agreed no new pets until we had a policy in place. Food allergies and health issues would be prioritised for action as we had around forty people who didn’t know each other and we had to establish ways of operating together which would safely accommodate everyone. Amongst us we had nut allergies, celiac, meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Many things were high on the list.

All this was happening and we hadn’t even moved in yet. The level of enthusiasm was high – extremely high – and there was a lot of energy to match it. Nearly everyone was involved with several Working Groups. We did what we had to do – we were stepping up to the challenge. It was extraordinary – it really felt like a breakthrough. The sense of team, the sense of shared purpose, of ‘one in, all in’ was high. It was showing all the signs of delivering what the intention had always been: Transformative Change.

As the building neared completion we headed for a weekend in a rural intentional community near Seymour – Common Ground. This was the first of what became our Annual Community Retreat: in itself a strong, wise and resilience-building thing to do and great to have established right from the word go. Ideas flowing, creativity high, energy buzzing, imagination unleashed. Some apprehension to be sure; expectations were discussed; participation was emphasised. However hopes were high, commitment was strong and we had our Vision to guide us.

Honey Moon Phase

It was December 2011 and we arrived. With the help of a well-considered plan scheduling everything from removal trucks in the driveway to what had to go where, we brought eighteen households, with all the animals except sadly no old dog, into the ‘site’ and formed our ‘sudden’ community: Earth Co-op’s co-housing community at Murundaka on Wurundjeri land.

In those first early days, now officially the Honey Moon Phase, the energy and enthusiasm was unbridled. Hanging out in our brand new “common house”, making meals together, sharing the bubbling of ideas, the outpouring of hopes and dreams, and the generative surge of creativity, the sheer excitement of what was happening was intoxicating. Settling into our smart, new apartments for our independent living with their passive solar outlooks and big, sliding glass doors outside was delightful. Even the dry, empty moonscape of the barren bare-earth backyard was pictured as a lush and productive garden yet to be created. We looked at our new home through the lens of our optimism. Our eyes saw potential everywhere.

We were now living co-located in close proximity. Buzzing with the amazement of where we found ourselves. Having friends and family visit. Running tours. Throwing parties. Having a lot of fun. Loving the spontaneity. Enjoying the outlet for self-expression as we set up and decorated our shared spaces, exploring the potentials of the buildings. Lots of laughing, cooking, a bit of drinking, dancing, some fancy dress, celebrating birthdays, showcasing our place and acknowledging our great good fortune.

To commence our practice of reciprocity we immediately reached out to our wider network inviting others to make use of our good fortune and hard work. [PHOTO – convergence of seventy people involved in food co-ops.] We regularly host SLF’s Council Review Day; Urban Coup’s mid-year Feast; Common Equity Housing’s Information Sessions; as well as CoHousing Australia, Banyule Co-housing, Transition 3081 and many other groups. Our one shared Guestroom gets considerable use as interstate and international visitors frequently come to stay at Murundaka. It really feels like the world comes to us.

Establishment Phase

Establishment Phase continued but, at the same time, the sweet Honey Moon that had fired us up was beginning to wane. Challenges and enthusiasms had arrived almost on top of each other and in equal measure. So many creative ideas and long-treasured possibilities; we were chafing at the bit to get our teeth into our “projects” but now we had to hold ourselves back. We first had to move in properly, bed ourselves down and iron-out some immediate ‘wrinkles’. We had lots of building defects to deal with, a car-park that turned into thick, sticky mud every time it rained, EXIT doors that didn’t open and 19 different doors in the Common House to check and lock up every night.

From the outset there were several people who were not able or willing to leap into the activity. There was a lot to do and some urgency and plenty of enthusiasm and willingness however it was of course, not uniformly shared. It was only a few out of the many but the impact was felt. By January 2012 many of us were tired and stressed. The original Earth members who had already been working on the Murundaka project for years were more than ready to hand over but this proved impossible. Mostly the people who had the skills and capacity were experiencing their own overwhelm and exhaustion. The community focus was stuck on housework, garden and practical issues of living together. The administration of the Co-op was still not on the collective radar screen.

Almost immediately upon arrival many people leapt at the very thing the Common Equity Rental Co-op (CERC) program was there to facilitate – committing more time to getting on with life thanks to security of tenure. People went from part-time to full-time work, took on university double degrees, started businesses, formed new relationships. A pregnancy commenced. Health issues emerged. Relationships fell apart. An affair d’amour caused an unexpected departure. It was all happening.

After interminable delays and all the packing, moving, relocating and letting-go, the adjustments, stress and the hugeness of it all intersected. As we got to know each other better in the reality of so much to do, there were irritations, frustrations and exasperations. The community was high on aspirations and low on experience and it became evident that we weren’t all a ‘good fit’ for co-housing.  Fatigue showed in frayed nerves; emotional volatility made meetings unpredictable. Some people remained hands-off, others pulled right back and a couple of the strongest contributors pulled out leaving an almighty chasm behind them.

And then in June we threw an amazing Housewarming Party and we lived off the uplifting happiness for many days afterwards!  It was so palpable we immediately planned more celebrations. Winter Solstice to be the first of many.

The demands on our time were huge and we were all struggling to various degrees. The move had taken its toll. Fitting in to our smaller abodes meant stuff and storage were a problem. Trying to keep work and commitments going, managing children, relocating kids to new schools, learning new bike trails, new public transport routes, finding the new acceptable shops, all these things were requiring effort. Then there were the meetings – community meetings every three weeks, co-op meetings from time to time too, working group meetings and work and projects and housework, the bins, the gardens, events and on and on it went. The concept of “busy” had to be ventilated. It is one of those things that comes up time and again – busy-ness as a reason and busy-ness as an excuse and one person’s busy-ness being of greater value than another’s – at least in their mind.

How narrow is the vision that exalts the busyness of the ant above the singing of the grasshopper’,[3]
Or that exalts paid work above unpaid work,
Or my work above your work,
Or vice versa.

Tied in with wanting to pull back was the fear of being judged. This is a big one in community and particularly in the early days, when we were getting to know each other and be known, it was paramount. People deal with it in different ways and go through stages; nervousness, reticence, wanting to ‘be nice’. But throughout all the highs and lows there was an acknowledged sense that the spirit of sharing needed to be cherished and protected. Acknowledging sharing became important. We talked about the status of money and paid time and of time valued but not with money.

Quite early in the piece the concept of the Goodwill Bank emerged. A virtual bank for intangibles; random acts of kindness, gifts and positivity; willing and receptive attitudes, forgiving and allowing and trusting – all those things. The Goodwill Bank established the awareness of reciprocity and the rule of common sense that says friends are more likely to give a favour if the person asking has established a relationship of mutuality. Then there’s anonymous generosity such as the washing fairy who pops up from time to time taking someone’s washing off the line before it rains and picking up things that have blown off. All part of the Gifting Economy.

“They were nothing more than people, by themselves. . . . . But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great. Therefore, all together, they are the instruments of change”. (Hulme). By ourselves we are nothing more than people living in proximity . . . . but the way we step up, come together, communicate, relate, share, co-operate, compromise, pull our own weight and make community decisions, the way we express our hearts and share our muscles and exercise our minds makes us a community. A community is the sum of the parts and how we are in ourselves as individuals and how our behaviour reflects that. As a community we are an instrument of change.

Spring arrived and we took ourselves off on Retreat. Just making the effort to get away to Common Ground for a weekend together to focus on ‘Gratitude, Challenges and the Year Ahead’ did us the world of good. We looked at how we could make more time for our community. We were figuring things out between our lofty aspirations and our challenging reality.

That reality was about to change profoundly. Much anticipated by everyone, Heidi and Chris brought their baby into the world, born in their home with all the happy, expectant aunties and uncles sipping champagne in the common house nearby. We can’t help but call her our ‘community baby’ and feel grateful for a truly uplifting experience. Elle is delightful on a daily basis as she grows and thrives kept safe, loved and looked after by mum and dad and her extended family. She is cherished in the hearts of us all. She understands English, French, a bit of Japanese and ‘Chook’. Children and babies are great to have in community.

Meanwhile, finally in November, after months of development including a three-month consultation phase, the Participation Policy was presented to the community meeting where it was adopted by consensus minus one. It reinforced the group consciousness and reconfirmed with clarity and detail the understanding that all new members had committed to when they signed their Tenancy Agreements – that Participation was a requirement.  Founder and very experienced long-term member of Common Ground, Phil Bourne says that the experience of Common Ground is that once agreements have been hammered out, written down and enshrined in policies and rules, the issues that catalysed them generally subside to be less problematic. Rules rarely need to be enforced once agreement has been reached.

Establishment Phase proved to be longer, harder, deeper, more dangerous, more challenging and more complicated than any of us anticipated. Yet human capacity to get on with things and make happy times happen, even when major difficulties are being experienced elsewhere in one’s life, is quite staggering at times. The weaving of the many threads of community life went on even as the unravelling was happening elsewhere.

The New Year arrived and in spite of some destructive behaviour and non-compliance by a few TCMs (ie Troublesome Community Members is a term used in the international intentional community movement), life went on very nicely. Organic food boxes kept arriving direct from the farmer, decisions were made about chickens and compost, and whether we could have Wwoofers stay with us or not, and how to stop polystyrene coming onto the site and into our home. A successful grant application meant workshops to run, and there were things to celebrate and fun things to do – Bastille Day, our own ‘Tour De Yarra’ bike ride and picnic and a housewarming party that squeezed twenty-five people into the loungeroom of a one-bed apartment. We opened our place up and ran sessions for the Sustainable Living Festival. We had design charettes for the garden and our common house and a French Playgroup was set up. All the while the children kept their parents busy, contributed their voices and energies and sometimes helped with things and often made us laugh. Baby Elle brought joy to the Common House and made her presence felt even from her basinet. Some amazing visitors passed through giving us their seal of approval and congratulations and encouragement on their way.

And amazing things came from within as well. The challenges had brought out capacities, insights, good practices and somehow forged a greater bond. We got to see who had what to give and where the preparedness to step up lay and where the maturity and strengths and reliabilities were held. We got to experience group wisdom which was good because what we didn’t realise was we were then in ‘the calm’ and were about to experience ‘the storm’.

The Troubles

When problems arise a common first responses is to take them on face value assuming everyone holds best intentions. Conflict between needs and wants and conflict between different values is part and parcel of the human experience. Finding empowering ways to deal with these things is a challenge yet, notwithstanding the lack of experience in the community, best efforts were made to do so. However the Troubles had set in and the Honeymoon was over. Peter Cock, founder of Moora Moora, explained that “some people buck any system, some want to be the gurus, and some just want it their way”. Whatever was going on, we had to deal with it.

Discussion about non-violent communication led to community mediation. The effect was profound. Most of the community participated, most stuck with it over a series of sometimes deeply painful sessions. The level of self-disclosing was heart-warming and the effect of that opening up and the skilling up with the tools of Mindful Communication created a much-needed shift.

But it was also the events and activities that were initiated around that time which, with closer examination, show a certain determination to provide an antidote to the negativity and conflict and to rebuild and heal even as the strife and trauma had to continue to play out. Efforts to directly remedy the problems included communication mind-mapping and workshops and eventually an agreement. A review of the fee for the Shared Common Areas, Community Facilities and Amenities was initiated. A week-long camping holiday at Raymond Island in the Gippsland Lakes was organised and a flurry of Common Meals – “5 Nights a Week” – helped. A special Thankfulness and Gratitude event acknowledging all the many people who had inspired and supported Murundaka into existence over many years, in fact decades, also helped maintain the positivity. There was an amazing Wake for my own mother’s funeral celebrating her life brilliantly. A Culture Day transmitted a deeply important awareness about indigenous life, history, experience, past, present and future. When we stopped to do a review of the previous twelve months the overarching feedback was one of gratitude for being here.

Getting Through

Getting through involved learning to recognise and name what was happening, to know when to take action and to take it, to acknowledge pain and damage and yet still ‘stay the course’; learning to trust, let go and “swim in an unknown current” (Moustakas). It involved looking inwards to reflect and interrogate the shadow side, acquiring new skills and learning to trust the community wisdom. It meant reaching out for, receiving and giving support. Having stepped down after twenty-eight years as a Director I was relieved to move back from the front line. I found that intuitive perceptions of the energy in the community flickered across my awareness like little blips on a radar screen showing the array of ups and downs, the buds of concern that needed nipping, and the currents of happiness wafting through. I realised at a certain point that everything would work out and I didn’t have to do anything. (It is as it is). As a founder I believe ‘holding of the flame’ is probably my most important ongoing role.

Phil Bourne, explained that “Conflict can actually be seen as a gift”. It has within it untold riches for those willing to dig deep. It’s in the digging and unwrapping that self-awareness grows and with it, capacity to handle life’s crunch times. As Byron Katie sweetly says, “Our job is unconditional love. The job of everyone else in our life is to push our buttons.” Getting through was full-on.

But get through we did. Several people have since left and surely the understanding of the need for a ‘good fit’ would be one thing upon which all would agree. But as with selecting marriage partners, or employees, or even travelling companions, it is the behaviour and approach to stressful times that flush out the ability to pull together or not. Learning from conflict and problem-solving helps better manage the challenges of the future. If learning doesn’t take place the problems will simply reappear somewhere else. Have we learnt some stuff? Have we learnt what we need to learn? What else do we need to learn? What is the higher purpose of all this? This community is applying new learning and no doubt has many more lessons in front of it yet. While none of what has happened is unusual in community living, the intensity in these first two and half years has been a challenge especially when combined with the nature of a “sudden” community and in the context of the layering of the many other challenges we faced.


An achievement like this requires great determination, tenacity and passion. Solid, unwavering commitment is needed; high enthusiasm for the possibility; and truly giving it its best shot. I think as a young community, we are moving quite fast. We are bootstrapping ourselves with an amazing strength of character and willingness to ‘step up’ and to ‘dig deep’ and to go into unknown territory together. Maslow emphasised that “there is no substitute for experience, none at all” and the community has certainly been on a vertical learning curve through the lived experience. We were panning for gold dust and found nuggets.

There is no doubt that – with the issues of global warming, climate change, and all the associated social and environmental stressors, the interwoven crises and disruptions that are unfolding where even the best-case scenario is challenging – we are being forged as individuals and as a community on the anvil of transformative change. This is part of the journey and living this way is transformative. It is said ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ and learning the hard way … is there ever an easy way? Those who step into the roles to keep things on track have to do the job as well as they can in what is in the best interests of the co-operative and the community even if sometimes the actions needed are confronting and unpleasant to execute or unpopular with some people. These roles do not include a popularity award and sometimes tough decisions have to be made albeit with the support of as many people as possible along the way.

Living in close-knit communities or in villages or extended families is the closest approximation for community life we can find and many people hanker for it but it’s hard to achieve. Most people live in suburbs creating their own trans-local communities with family and friends here and there, workplace somewhere else, service providers all over the place. In these situations it is entirely possible to be deeply isolated and living a highly unsustainable life.

We need to foster community for so many reasons. To enrich our own lives, become more self-reliant and able to live with fewer compromises with ‘the system’. To live healthier, happier lives more connected to one another and more affordable lives sharing lots of the things we need amongst the group, and importantly, far more sustainable lives treading much more lightly on the planet.

Yet with all this going for it intentional community living in Australia has always been an alternative option – radical in the best sense of the word: i.e. getting to the root of the problem. These fraught times we are living in make an increasingly compelling case for building stronger, more autonomous, more self-reliant, thriving communities and yet there are many barriers to this. The biggest of all being the misconceptions that people hold in their heads.

Meg Wheatley, in her work “Leading through Crises”, developed a Framework for Changing Beliefs, describing two worlds: one of entrenched institutions and failed systems; the other “People who are pioneering new worlds for people who take the primary unit being community itself”. She enjoins us to “pay close attention to the phenomenon of being lost and confused”. It can be tough and confusing as a group, as a community. It can be challenging to an extreme. “The dawning of awareness may be refreshing and peaceful or it may be disturbing and even jarring.” (Moustakas) Yet even while that difficult work is going on, the flip side is also happening. The clarity which can come through different people at different times is wonderful. Unexpected gems of wisdom. Insights which make everything appear crystal-clear. Ideas about what is actually going on can arrive out of left field with incredible force. Understanding things in different terms, thinking outside the square, – these things, these moments can bring jolts of awareness, glimpses into one’s own dark side, different ethical appreciations, admissions and awarenesses that can enable other breakthroughs to occur – letting go, courage to try, recognition of one’s own part in it all, confirmation and compassion.

To live in community is to live in relationship with others. It’s potential is as an enriching experience of connection and inclusiveness, of heart-warming surprises, of being understood, valued, loved and respected. When our experiences are of feeling supported and enjoying a sense of security, trust and stability we can relax and “be ourselves”, dropping the fears, being more self-disclosing and expressing individuality in the group. At times like these we are learning and growing and perhaps even becoming better people. As humans we are drawn to others, we enjoy feeling close, having rapport, identifying, relating spiritually, feeling togetherness and empathising. We need to feel belonging and in this setting we can thrive.

“The capacity to respond to change while maintaining identity has been called resilience” (Cook). When thinking through the phases we have been through and about the future and the way forward, the thing that leaps out is the overarching need to build resilience. So many attitudes, issues, problems and responses that have made an already-challenging exercise that much more difficult, stem from overwhelm and lack of “spare” capacity; probably the most important ingredient within resilience. Being in a perpetual state of having only just enough capacity to cope means getting off the back foot and onto the front foot is seldom achieved and never more than fleetingly. Sensitivities are amplified. Inadequate participation, undermining, withdrawal, unreliability, self-interest, preciousness, disregard, disrespect, complaining, blaming and excuses get in the way of thriving. To keep things in proportion and to steadily work through the ‘have-tos’ and ‘want-tos’ of community life and to thrive, spare capacity is needed. Therein lies resilience. How to achieve that is the continuing challenge.

Is it an enjoyable challenge? Yes. Do I appreciate living here? Definitely. Am I more socially connected? Yes. Am I living more affordably? Am I living more sustainably? Yes. Is it possible to live more simply in a modern neighbourhood and bring back the positive aspects of village life? Yes, it is, but at the same time you have to be prepared for the journey. Mine started with the demolishment of my home which my daughters and I still deeply miss. Yet would I make the same decision again? Absolutely.


Wheatley M. (2002) Leading Through Crises
Woolf, V. (1929) A Room of One’s Own
Hulme K. (2005) The Bone People
Moustakas C. (1990) Heuristic Research – Design, Methodology, and Applications.
Byron Katie : a quote
Maslow A. (1966). The psychology of science: A reconnaissance. New York: Harper & Row
Cook C. (2009) Editor Australia 21 Brighter Prospects Report – Enhancing the Resilience of Australia




[1] A Room of One’s Own – an extended essay by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1929.

[2] The Conscious Cook – Sustainable Living and Eating, published by Brolga Publishing in 2008

[3] Anon

Posted in Cohousing | 1 Comment

Power in Community

The sequel to Founders and Founderhood, this article asks where does power reside in a community organisation? Where does it reside in a cooperative intentional cohousing community? Especially in a community which, by intention, is seeking to be an opportunity for empowerment of all?

Former Premier of Victoria, Joan Kirner, wrote about Power – how to get it, keep it and use it. She said, “Having power is about setting your own agenda.” [i]

Bringing the individual agenda and the collective agenda into a workable operation, CO-operation, i.e. Setting your own collective agenda, is a challenge. Challenges can be wonderful or terrible and anywhere in between. Challenges help us work through things. They help us grow. We learn some of the most important things when out of our comfort zone. It helps if all community members are open to and wanting to ‘grow’. If there is resistance at this level there will be problems.

These days we face a big moral challenge. Arguably the biggest humanity has ever had to face. We are already beginning to experience a transformative change of our own making but not one we consciously chose or desire. We are experiencing a climate emergency representing an existential threat. Global warming. The changes that are being unleashed are currently taking us in exactly the wrong direction – away from the climate stability of the Holocene period (back to 10,000 BC), away from safe climate conditions. The transformative change we now need reverses this trend, reverses global warming and restores safe climate conditions. Either way change is upon is and no one will be left off the hook. Regardless of our best efforts to minimise the unfolding catastrophe, disruption and tragedy is now inevitable. Not that long ago it could have been averted. Yet we can still steer a course away from the worst calamity and we know what needs to be done. Fully understanding the threat, solutions and plan of action helps us hold the threat and not shy away. Some governments at the local level have started applying themselves to the task. Obviously many more are needed and highly prioritised serious efforts across the board at every level are crucial to curtail emissions. We have lost valuable time to vested interests and the cultivated and manipulated cognitive dissonance of our privileged societies.  [ii]

The planet is rapidly getting hotter at a rate far faster than anyone predicted. (See the published reports of Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration.)

We now have access to the knowledge of what is surely to come and we are all being challenged. Having resources to build resilience, to draw out from our selves and each other the best we have to give, is critically important. We need to find ways to navigate these times with as much grace, love, humour and cooperation as we can. It is about the survival of the finest spirit of humanity. All organisations from family to corporate, business to church, NGO to network, have the capability to recommit to shared values, to grow and become better positioned for these times and the times to come. Power and empowerment are essential to this pathway and the more conscious we are, and the more consciousness we can bring to the task, the better. We need to co-operate, we need to place our hands on the rudder together and steer our path forward. We need to hold hands and take a deep breath.

Housing that is secure and affordable supports the self-actualisation journey of its residents.

Co-operatives set up specifically to provide tenant-member controlled housing build in another even more robust level of support and resilience. This is the founding principle of Common Equity Rental Cooperative (CERC) housing program supported by the CERC members via their not-for-profit company, Common Equity Housing – www.cehl.com.au. “More than just housing.”

High functioning cohousing communities bring in another model providing further key ingredients to foster empowerment.

Most intentional communities have goals and processes that reflect this and enough good people with skills and the willingness to create the learning and supportive environment for this great work. It is after all, for reasons of necessity that a community devotes precious time and energy to this area. Having a skilled up community helps in times of trouble, times of conflict, times when an individual needs support, times when the community is striving to achieve, when it is stretched. Empowered people can build things, can make change happen, can inspire others. They can look after themselves and each other and they can reach out. They have capabilities. A good co-operator is automatically a good tenant. The reverse does not necessarily hold true.

Empowerment comes from good communication, greater self-knowledge, an understanding of rights and responsibilities, clearer values, a sense of purpose and the confidence in self and in the group to achieve worthy goals. “Self confidence is an essential pre-requisite.” [iii]

In cooperative communities we can learn how to take greater control of our lives within this crazy, mixed up world. Secure, affordable, co-operative housing is a self-governing mechanism enabling reciprocity, trust, skill sharing and personal and community development for the benefit of one and all. To foster positive change we individually (and collectively) need to be “able to negotiate from a position of strength”. Kirner and Rayner explain that this is about “getting done what you want to get done, what you want to achieve for yourself and others … in a democratic way: empowering others.” [iv]

When more community members are empowered, the power of the community is more evenly dispersed. Since power in this context usually equates with responsibility and responsibility with a work commitment, this is a desirable thing. In that vein, those with the power, responsibility and workload are going to want to share it. Conversely those wanting more power have to accept more responsibility and, by default, more of the work. This is a good thing. It is part of the glue.

Unless, that is, they interpret it as a way to dominate or get others to do the work for them; being a boss. Bosses aren’t appreciated in cooperative communities. “Dead Wood”, “Free Riders”, “Power Trippers” and “Troublesome Community Members” [v] – and other expressions of self-interest – are corrosive in a community. “With power comes the responsibility to use it for proper purposes and in an ethical way. Power is not a licence to abuse others.” [vi]

When a community first forms the people with the power are those first movers and shakers who have demonstrated their power to make things happen. They have done the research and have intimate knowledge with the fine details of the many aspects of the project – the finance, the legal aspects, the organisational details, the buildings, the costs and trade-offs, the constraints and the ways and means. They have the relationships, the allies and the connections. They can speak to big wigs and little wigs, audiences and media. They have fought and won some battles and they have confidence in the concept, the vision and their capacity to pull it off.

“One of the best ways to achieve confidence is preparation: knowing the facts, thinking and talking about strategies, and planning. Most victories are won not by geniuses, but by those who work meticulously and single-mindedly on their objectives. If you prepare well, including getting support from others, you will have confidence to engage in the debate on your own terms and have the confidence to insist on shaping the future.” [vii]

The group starts to form and others with their own power start to arrive. Many ‘interviews’ occur. People with skills and willingness are attracted. Perhaps they can build websites, set up intranets, make gardens happen, build things, repair things, develop systems, help with the ‘heavy lifting’: the mind-bending complexities. Some have talents for anticipating and understanding ‘Process’. Some skills are less visible than others. Some less valued. Some under-estimated. People may gravitate to the areas they can contribute in best or where they ‘want’ to be. There is a lot to do – especially in the early months and years. Depending on the size of the community, sub-groups form in different ways. Jobs have to be done and sometimes rosters are needed. More people arrive over time. Some leave. Others come. People move through different focus groups, sub-committees and task teams developing more familiarity, understanding, appreciation, sensitivity and skills along the way.

The personal baggage of life’s experiences, the limitations, lack of confidence, immaturity, emotional or psychological fragility – whatever lies within each individual – will be tested in community. Empowerment takes a natural course through opportunity and challenge and happens over time. Challenges and disruptions have a way of happening. Some can be unwelcome and feel like interruptions yet they may also be valuable opportunities. “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans”.[viii] It’s a very organic and dynamic process; never static, always moving.

Power moves too. It involves stepping up or stepping back or aside. The human dynamics of it all can get complicated. In that complexity – and remembering some of us are complexity averse – understanding and misunderstanding are going on. In amongst it all is the element of power.

Understanding power as a group is not easy. A spotlight helps. With the components of the group inevitably changing over time it becomes even more essential to regularly revisit and rebuild this understanding, this knowledge base. I so wish I’d been better able to see what was happening right at the commencement of ourselves as a ‘community’ and to clearly confront and articulate this important aspect of group dynamics. When there’s a lot going on it can be hard to see the forest for the trees.

In the genesis of cohousing communities, it is the founders that make things happen. They bring together the necessary elements – the vision, people, resources and tools – from which the purpose – a community with a purpose – can emerge. Founders find within themselves the power to do this work. This ‘power to’ make things happen is the spark. Purpose is important.

“Having a purpose turns your engine on. Then you need energy to keep it turning over. Success creates that energy – just a spark ignites the fuel. A leadership trajectory is powered by confidence. We all have potential, yet only some realise it. You have to believe you have the ability and the right and are worthy of power …” [ix]

The ‘power-to’ make things happen continues to be needed in the bedding down of the new community at the same time as breathing life into the vision, broadening the awareness and skill base and sharing the responsibilities – all of which are required for viability. “Effective and lasting change requires taking people with you.” [x]

As a serial founder I know that being a founder can bring out the best in me. Whilst a high level of motivation is always at the core, the qualities that I’ve identified as more or less essential in fledgling organisations include intuition, sensitivity, capacities for complexity, willingness to confer before acting, willingness to do very labour intensive work at times, stickability, introspection and resilience. And there’s a particular type of imagination, perspicacity and capacity for risk-taking too that is necessary for generative work. These attributes need to be harnessed and nurtured and modelled. This is further explored in A Co-housing Backstory.

Kirner and Rayner say there are six rules about power. These are about being centred, (what you want and why, who you are and what you value); having self-confidence (an essential pre-requisite); understanding the three levels of power *; working your way up (claiming your personal power); not being afraid of power; & getting beyond wanting approval.

*The three levels of power, they say, are: power over yourself (self-discipline, self-possession, steadiness under fire); power to influence others (persuasion, example, encouragement); and power to communicate and act as part of a group (political power). “Power is political, whether or not it is associated with a political party. Every human transaction – family relationship, work, partnership, contract – is political.” [xi]

Doing the work also means occupying that space, filling that vacuum and holding the intimate details. It is the ‘heavy lifting’, it’s often tedious, it requires discipline and tenacity and it’s necessary. It gets jobs done. It is also an aspect of power. It establishes authenticity and it populates the space. It should be constructive and for the common good. Having said that, it’s great if it can be shared – it can be team-building, community building – and it’s usually more fulfilling working with others.

There is typically a very long period of gestation – often many years – where founders are up to their armpits in tedious, labour-intensive, time-consuming work combining conceptualiser, networker, researcher, administrator, communications, PR and publicity, recruiting, event management, political manoeuvring, fund raising, brief writing, record keeping, meeting organising, bringing the people together – and so on – before the thing being founded arrives.

Then, in my experience (which my observations of others reinforce), in the very early days of the ‘organisation’ the founder – no matter how exhausted – continues to be very busy recruiting, inspiring, guiding and holding the organisation steady, holding the flame, while steering a course towards the Vision – and the values therein – that drew the first wave of people to the possibility of such a group in the first place. “The use of power – personal or political – must be based on a system of values.” [xii]

Multi-tasking and generally working on all fronts at once on ‘whatever’ is the priority can go on for much longer than anticipated or desired. The arrival of the thing is the beginning. “The coming to power of a progressive … (organisation) is just the beginning of change.” [xiii]

The daily reality of being a founder in the early days is that you will often be operating on a number of levels all at once. You can find yourself “talking to a politician or a bank one minute, in communication with a new member the next, and doing some design work, crafting a strategy, dealing with someone’s melt-down and looking after your own work and family all in the same day. Perhaps this IS a certain type of person because then you have to get up and draw on your courage and dig deep again the next day, and on it goes, bouncing from one thing to the next, making things happen. Are people born with this capacity and these skills? I don’t think so. I think they are more likely attributes and potentials most people share but they have to be honed, worked, developed and practiced to become effective at this level.” [xiv]

And not everything attempted works and not every goal set is achieved and not every consequence is anticipated. Not every offer is well received and not every thing is understood. As well as looking after the minutiae the founder also has to work on the big picture and create the conditions necessary for strong, consistent understanding and engagement and long-term survival. Ongoing change is really the only thing we can prepare for. “.. you have to create the conditions for change”.[xv]

So there is a high level of personal resilience required to pick up the pieces, tackle bigger hurdles and keep going. Actually I think some of it is on such an intuitive level that not everything is consciously thought through … which can be a mixed blessing but is part of the deal. “The most important point is this: if you have power and use it to make change, you have to be prepared to accept responsibility for the consequences of that change, then build again on what you’ve changed. You can’t just walk away from something you’ve started.” [xvi]

There is a fragile moment there to be traversed and if ‘power-to’ is accidentally or deliberately construed as ‘power-over’ the seeds of resentment will have fertile ground in which to grow.

“All change will be met with resistance” say Kirner and Rayner. They advise, “face the resistance and it often disappears.” [xvii]

Being shy of the word ‘power’ doesn’t help. It needs to be brought out into the light so that the whole community can distinguish between ‘power-over’ and ‘power-to’.

“Many of us don’t like to admit we have power. And because most of us don’t recognise our power, we tend to exercise it badly. Both the tendency to refuse to recognise leadership on one hand or ‘eating the leader’ on the other were problem’s in the women’s movement, reactions that stemmed from the idea that we shouldn’t have leaders at all.

Some people have personal power. They are natural leaders. Wherever they work, whatever they do, people listen to them, and look to them for solutions. Natural leaders exist in both genders, in all classes, and in all cultures, but the predominant culture tends to recognise only leaders that fit the model of the patriarchal leader. This recognition reinforces tendencies to lead through domination, rather than through the many other ways of leading, such as inspiring, mentoring, nurturing, serving, supporting, etc.” [xviii]

Digging into the matter of power in community led me to my long-standing mentor in this field, Margi O’Connell who, having studied and immersed years of her life in the dynamics of cooperatives and community in Queensland, has acquired a wealth of knowledge and experience along the way including through her academic pursuits.

Margi graduated with an Associate Diploma of Community Welfare in Darwin in 1975 the same year I graduated as an Art teacher (Primary Teaching Diploma) in Melbourne. All these years later, with awards, local and international experiences, gigs as Australian delegate to the UN, and a variety of her own enterprises and academic achievements under her belt, she is a woman of great wisdom with skills well-honed and still very much in demand. [xix]

“There is power-over and power-to,” she says. A lack of a clear understanding of the difference often results in people with the power-to being sabotaged because their power is seen to be a power-over those who can not or will not act.”

Margi goes on to explain. Power-Over is cultural. Parents have power over children to varying degrees; employers over workers; rulers over subjects etc. In some cultures, men have power over women. Social struggles at national, social and personal levels are about this type of power.”

This, Margi points out, is highly relevant to a community because, “We bring this cultural baggage to all our relationships and as individuals we need to work at identifying our inherited power framework to free ourselves to ‘be the boss of me’ and to not abuse the rights of others.”

It is also important to understand that Power-To can be either formally delegated or informal.

Formal Power-To is delegated. Eg. “The manager of Maple Street Co-op in Maleny has been delegated the power to make all the commercial decisions needed for the success of the store.”

Margi makes these key points:

This power has constraints based on policies and performance but how it is used within these constraints are within the manager’s power to act.

People effected by the manager’s power to manage need to be educated about this power as well as the constraints on that power.  This way they can respect and support the administration of that power and know how to assess its effectiveness and moderate it as needed.

Situational leadership helps spread this power, and the understanding and respect, because we learn best by doing and this helps those comfortable with exercising power and also those most comfortable with others having it.

Margi is a social activist and describes Informal Power in that context. She says it is based on personality, opportunity, information and experience.

“I have no delegated power but I do have power as a social activist and I do make things happen because I act and that action is supported by my personal capacity to build trust and engage people, my ability to identify the critical next step, my confidence based on experience and my network of information and influence. People respond to this type of power based on their own experiences in the exercise of their informal power. Others with strong informal power are supportive and celebrate my power-to…  

Those who are asleep to their own power-to… can be resentful as my action can be perceived as reflecting badly on their inaction. This is difficult to deal with because they know they are behaving badly and will not want it aired so, unless they are prepared to seek a safe place to explore their own sense of powerlessness, it will sit and ferment.

This all resonates strongly in the community context but where it speaks volumes is in the territory of our natural, everyday, lived experience and expression of our democracy.

Margi says, “Where my power-to… has a real or perceived impact on others, they may see that informal power as a power-over….  and passively or actively sabotage me.  For some of those people, their resistance gives them a real or imagined power over me.  As I am the boss of me this sets up the conditions for a power struggle.”

Margi references Deep Democracy and the understanding about the Terrorist line[xx]. This is where “the real or imagined domination can lead from a personal affront to resistance to a full-on war in which relationships are irreparably broken – factions develop, people quit the group, organisations collapse.”

She recommends that, “Continuous exploration of the nature of informal power as a part of the business of the group can help as can early intervention with a Vibe Watcher[xxi] at meetings and in conflict resolution. Those with informal power can help with mentoring and sharing their resources.”

“However the challenge is the degree to which the group allows the informal power of those saboteurs. The more successful they are, the less they are willing to be responsible for their own informal power and the greater the cost to the group and the person acting in their own power-to.” 

Margi warns she has seen “many good people suffer from this and too many groups destroyed by it.  People with a strong power-to… should be protected from corrosive undermining by the willing weak whose behaviour should be openly challenged.”

Having a good understanding of this power dynamic would help people be better able to distinguish between a good community-building founder with power to achieve things and a founder afflicted by ‘founderitis’ or the syndrome called Founders Syndrome.[xxii]

To mistakenly see a founder’s ‘power-to’ as ‘power-over’ and to inappropriately brandish the ‘founders syndrome’ term can do damage. Of course Founders Syndrome does exist but it turns out this is more likely to be found in circumstances where there is a board or paid staff that a founder can boss around, block, or meddle with. It’s a bit different when the people involved are there voluntarily. Their participation must be enlisted through a commitment to the shared vision and the positive democratic and co-operative elements of community.

The timing of when the term Founders Syndrome comes up is interesting and how and why it is used bears some examination. It can be used to try to discredit and mute the voice of a person who is perhaps a founder, or is powerful in some way or perhaps just articulate.

Articulate women in particular might recognise this tactic used against them? In fact when exploring this topic later with another person well resourced in the area of human dynamics, Terry Lewis, I admitted that I have sometimes been criticised and blamed for being too strong, confronting and assertive”. His response was to say, I think, among other things, that your comment is reflective of the differences in power (generally) between men and women, as I can’t imagine a man saying that.” He also said,differences (inequalities) in power are not necessarily undesirable. What’s key … is what is or isn’t done with that power, and the responses of others to the use of that power.”

The job is big. High-functioning cooperatives are able to be supportive of one another in intelligent ways.

When working to convey the deeper elements of the work (what we affectionately call the “Rest of the Iceberg”), and to bring others to the table, it can be enormously frustrating to have to find the patience to wait and, as a direct result, to find the energy to keep going. It can also be worrying to risk the loss of precious momentum. However, “power is meant to be shared, i.e. it is for the individual’s benefit and the common good. Power can’t be bought but it may have to be fought for, and it does have to be claimed.” [xxiii]

Sharing is so much better. Claiming power in order to share it for the common good might be necessary. Sometimes it’s about weighing the risks.

Naming things can undoubtedly be helpful. Labelling can equally be unhelpful. Care must be given. Who wants to land a negative label on someone they love? At the very least it’s bound to make them feel unloved.

Underpinning all this is sub-text some of which is about ‘power’. There is always a lot going on below the surface of we human beings. The ‘grown wounded child’, the hidden baggage of unhealed hurt, unresolved anger and old scars so often complicate the dynamics and distort understanding. What can look like power to one person can be experienced as responsibility by another. What can be offered sincerely by one can be rejected as insincere by another. Things can get lost in translation and sometimes get out of hand. People can end up, as Margi said, on the Deep Democracy ‘Terrorist line’.

Learning the skills to recognise subliminal negative messages and bring submerged, sometimes hostile, feelings and ‘positions’ safely to the surface is so important in community. Getting the tools and the skills to use them, the methodology – such as Deep Democracy and its processes – in place early, will help support constructive, emotionally mature and respectful Mindful Communication[xxiv]. This is incredibly important. The earlier the better of course but usually it will take a crisis to bring the attention to what is needed and build the collective appetite for learning.

Raising awareness of what’s behind the scenes, teaching power dynamics, learning and supporting the learning to understand this better is part of this. Communities benefit from investment into their own training. Equally important is the understanding of sacrifice as a humble gift of thanks, of giving up something of value for a higher purpose and of a gift that rewards the giver. These understandings are invaluable for both the founders themselves and the community involved.

We’re ultimately all in it together. Community power has huge potential. It can make the world of difference and make a difference in the world. We might go faster alone but we can go much further together.




For one of the most inspiring examples of this watch The Power of Community set in Cuba’s economic crash and focussed on Peak Oil.[xxv]

Easy oil has already peaked but the fossil fuel industry is still hell-bent on continuing to mine coal, frack for gas and produce oil. With catastrophic climate change already unleashing devastating consequences at just 1º of warming, these days are numbered. The Paris agreement means the fossil fuel industry will either have to adapt – and reinvent itself in renewable energy – or die.

The value of this movie is really in the efforts the community in Cuba had to go to in order just to survive; caring about each other and cooperating. Where they get to with these efforts is instructive as well as inspiring.

Permaculturalists from Australia travelled to Cuba from 1993 to assist them to learn how to feed themselves – survival agriculture. Farmers became amongst the highest paid workers in Cuba. Roberto Perez who features in the movie visited Murundaka in 2014 and one of our residents subsequently went to Cuba. Roberto talks about the Urban Agriculture movement.



[i] Kirner, J and Rayner, M The Women’s Power Handbook Penguin, Australia 1999 p 4

[ii] Taylor, M, Global Warming, Climate Change. What Australia Knew and Buried and Reframed as a new Reality for the Public. 2014 ANU Press

[iii] Kirner, J and Rayner, p 13

[iv] Kirner, J and Rayner, p 5

[v] A United States cohousing term coined and used as an acronym ‘TCM’ to describe members who habitually cause unnecessary work to others, are uncommitted to a frustratingly low denominator or vexatious.

[vi] Kirner, J and Rayner, p 13

[vii] Kirner, J and Rayner, p 57

[viii] John Lennon

[ix] Kirner and Rayner

[x] Kirner, J and Rayner, p 48

[xi] Kirner, J and Rayner, pps. 13 – 15

[xii] Kirner, J and Rayner, p13

[xiii] Rebick, J Transforming Power – from the personal to the political, pub Penguin, Toronto Canada 2009, p 245

[xiv] Wilkinson, G, Founders and Founderhood, pps 7 and 8

[xv] Rebick p 244

[xvi] Kirner and Rainer p13

[xvii] Kirner, J and Rayner, p 57

[xviii] Rebick p158

[xix] Margi O’Connell

[xx] The Terrorist/Resistance Line is a term taken from Deep Democracy (Myrna Lewis Method) pertaining to the entrenched, negative, even hostile position that community members can reach if issues are not resolved early.

[xxi] This is a role developed in non-violent communication (NVC) work. “A vibes-watcher is someone besides the facilitator who watches and comments on individual and group feelings and patterns of participation. Vibes-watchers need to be especially tuned in to the sexism of group dynamics.” They are picking up on body language etc. and noticing who is or isn’t speaking up in the meeting. They may invite someone to speak, for example, perhaps someone who appears reticent.

[xxii] This topic is explored in the first article in this series – Founder & Founderhood

[xxiii] Kirner and Rainer p 6

[xxiv] Also from the work of NVC. A less violent way of saying non-violent communication, Mindful Communication is carefully entered into with awareness and respect ensuring both parties are well heard.

[xxv] The Power of Community – highly recommended inspirational viewing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O3InwwKnXA


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Founders & Founderhood

Great change is needed to address our social and environmental crises in the very challenging times in which we live. People gather in response to take action to help bring positive, solution-oriented change to our world. Change making projects, activities and innovations step in to meet needs in workplaces, schools and businesses forming associations, cooperatives, enterprises and community groups. Those who perceive the need and create the foundation of what is to come are called founders and are needed now more than ever. They take the initial actions and do the start-up work.

This exploration just scratches the surface of a few of the aspects of ‘founderhood’–the bonuses and the slings and arrows; the attributes, wishes and some of the experiences. It comes from the distilling of numerous conversations, my own experience in co-housing and as a ‘serial’ founder.

I have long been interested in human potential, education and positive social change. The M Ed I achieved in ‘98 (RMIT) was in Leadership and Change. My climate emergency work over the last fifteen years, whilst facing the hard facts, has been based on positivity and an optimistic outlook. Negativity and pessimism do not create positive change. The science of climate change tells us that ‘Rapid Transformative Change’ is needed. In this context I am motivated by a wish to understand how change can be fast-tracked, how leaders are made and how emergence can be fostered. Community organisations can tell us a lot. Founders are a key starting point. The objective here is to throw a spotlight on the concept, role and experience of being a founder so that more people can be empowered to think big, unleash their imaginations and create new and better realities not just for themselves, but for whole communities of people.

Founders at the US Conference
I attended the US National Cohousing Conference held in the American South in May 2015. The new cohousing community at Durham, North Carolina, contributed to an exciting community-building program seeking “potent ways to enhance (our) vibrant communities” attracting four hundred members of communities plus groups-in-formation.

This article is catalysed by and in support of the initiative that emerged in the Conference to create a group for Founders to confer in and draw support from. Many conference participants were founders or would-be founders. A few were ‘veteran founders’ of many years experience. Mature communities were represented, along with many just new and some just a twinkle in the eye.

Without founders of one sort or another, cohousing communities and a whole raft of other worthwhile initiatives would not come into being. It struck me that there was a conversation about the ‘founder’ role and experience that needed to be heard yet there was no Founders Group as such.

As a general rule it seems that once the community has arrived the founders who helped make it happen are too busy to worry about the needs of founders. They prefer to become a part of their new community and are hoping to hand over much of the workload and so seek to not set themselves apart from the other members. My research, admittedly scant, suggests most founders are aware of, but quite humble about, their contribution. Is this the case? Certainly in the small sample of the Australian cohousing scene it seems to be, notwithstanding the larger-than-life personalities some founders perhaps have.

The American conference occurred halfway along a fifteen-week tour visiting thirty communities in the UK, Europe and the US. Interesting stories around founders had been consistently trickling out and had started me thinking a support group could be useful. So when the idea of running a Founders session in the conference was received with enthusiasm and a lunchtime ‘Open Space’ spot was found, Marty Maskall and I grabbed it, discussed it with Bill Hartzell (President of Cohousing US) and made it happen. With such short notice and being outside the official program there was every chance only a handful of people would show up. In the end there were thirty. The topic had drawn a crowd.

Some were attending to learn about getting a community going and what it meant to be a founder. Others with experience wanted to look at the founder role, discuss issues like emotional maturity and resilience and share the slings and arrows–not venting so much as naming. In the end, a hastily formed plan establishing a support group linking founders, sharing knowledge, insights and providing support, was made. ‘Something’ would happen.

A personal experience
My own experience as a founder in the early days was of often feeling swamped by misunderstanding; except by other founders. It mattered because it was so much harder to paint a clear picture with waters made muddy by confusion. There was a lot going on, we were all in it together and we were all being challenged.

The community discussion that I needed to have, as founder, about purpose, vision, ethos, structure and some of the complexities, simply didn’t get to happen. Upon reflection I think my own reticence was part of the reason why–the conversation was hard to open up. There were some testing situations and wicked problems to solve and stress levels were extreme and quite debilitating. I had to become better at letting go and working through my disappointment. I had to recalibrate my expectations. We all had a lot to learn. The struggle felt interminable. It took a while to able to speak of it in the past tense. Now, nearly seven years later, there has been enormous functional improvement and enhanced social cohesion.

At the conference I spoke to many people preparing to set up communities yet I found none who had consciously decided to be a ‘founder’ as such. The term ‘founder’ comes in hindsight. They were simply enthused by an idea and a vision emerged that seemed so worthwhile and doable they were just going for it.

Using the title suits me now because it serves the ongoing purpose of The Bigger Goal. This for me is about helping mobilise our communities to accept that we have a climate emergency, that we have to adopt emergency mode for the duration and that we are needed. I have chosen this path because it shows itself so clearly to me and I believe I can do something useful on it. It doesn’t feel like a choice but I do accept that it is.

The future transitioned world I envisage has reversed global warming and had safe climate conditions restored. As intentional communities, many believe, as do I, that we have an incontestable role in helping activate this vital transition. Some see this as service to the wider world. Some see it as giving back; reciprocating all the gifts provided to us by our society.

To help me be successful with this work I have to be able to demonstrate this concept, to encourage and to share the leadership with confidence and with as much emotional maturity as I can muster. So it helps to have founded a few things seen to be worthwhile and contributing. It all helps.

Creating something from ground up, in my experience, involves a hefty investment of life force and a huge time commitment. My life has been impacted in many ways. Setting up the first intentional cohousing community here in Melbourne took years. That cast a very long shadow over our early days as a community and is linked to my high expectations; the same that propelled me into action in the first place. I accepted the costs to my income earning capacity, to my dislocated family, to my leisure time and my work-life balance and even some costs to my health–not a great thing to admit but it’s true–because my Bigger Goal beckoned. I felt propelled. This is common to the founder experience.

When things get bumpy
Anticipating and preparing for contingencies is part of the deal too but founders need to expect the unexpected. It can be painful. I didn’t anticipate a power struggle, community division, derailment and toxic attacks. The severity of the impacts caught me by surprise and when that extended to my family I began to question whether it was all worthwhile. It was tough but I am still here to tell the tale. We came through it and I can report a happy ending. This scenario has to be included in the story of Founders because it is not uncommon and it needs to be acknowledged.

A few take-homes for the prospective founder:
• Stay strong in the face of any minimising of the effort involved either in getting a cohousing development built and then an intentional community up and running.
• Stay strong if bearing the brunt of any ‘wear-down and take-over’ attempt–Nil Bastardi Carborundum. Call out any divisive or abusive tactics taken from the armoury of ‘student politics’. Research bullying, harassment and ‘gas-lighting’ so you know what you’re dealing with and can name it.
• Surround yourself with a reliable friend or two to avoid feeling abandoned. Know that others might–quite understandably–want to stay out of the firing line.
• The desire to keep things simple is common too and those who are complexity-averse leap to easy explanations. It is common to cast the problem as a ‘personality clash’ making you, the target, partly to blame. Blaming is all too easy at times like this. When you see it, name it even if your message is not welcome. The role of founder is not to win popularity awards.

In my case the harassment continued until the focus of attack moved to the next person in line who had stepped up as I stepped back. Then it became starkly clear: It was really a struggle for power-over; not about building power-to.

Today if I ask myself would I do it all again I always say “Yes”. Life in an intentional community can be extraordinary and, as a life-style, it is satisfying in so many ways. It is great to live the life and strive together to walk the talk and is even more rewarding to inspire others to have a go too–it’s about way more than just this community.

Anecdotes from others
The experience of the founder can be a happy one, as many will testify. It can also have times of great
disappointment, stress, frustration and despair as anecdotes collected from the tour confirm.

• In one of the communities visited members expressed distress that their founder was so unhappy he had decided to leave. Someone said it felt like “Dad was leaving home because he was so disappointed in the kids.” He could not face a meeting with us at the time. It seems he was broken hearted. Why? Notwithstanding a few malingerers and the usual frustrations, the community was doing really well. What had gone wrong?

• In another community the founder had a major health crisis, a heart crisis in fact; probably at least partly due to the sheer workload, stress and conflict of life-roles, responsibility and intensity. These things happen too.

• Yet another proudly cherished its founders relishing the opportunity to show their gratitude and looking after them for as long as possible as they slowly aged. Yet concern about the ageing cohort and how to manage the increasing numbers of members with diminishing physical capacity was building. One member, an assiduous contributor contributing decades of highly valued work and consequently forgoing the accumulation of personal monetary assets, explained the conflict: no-one could expect to be supported into old age but, at the same time, she could surely be forgiven for hoping that at a certain time she might be supported to stay.

• There can be generational issues too; even ageism. A member of another community talked about how the founders ‘hang out at home a lot’ doing things ‘they’ think are valuable. It was apparent these contributions weren’t necessarily valued at all and there was disgruntlement that the, now ‘retired’ founders had not made way for new ideas from younger members. When some gaps in the backstory raising awareness of the experience of being a founder were filled in this attitude changed. Sometimes there is real sacrifice involved in achieving extraordinary things. The absence of this understanding could quite feasibly lead to bitterness and regret. Even perhaps to a broken heart.

• Sometimes the dynamics between people can go awry – it’s true. Normally they can be sensibly resolved. However just as there are ‘troublesome board members’ and ‘troublesome members of online communities’ etcetera there are also ‘troublesome community members’. This is term that has currency in the US and to which many community people in different parts of the world relate. I think if it is used in a way that separates the behaviour from the person and for the purpose of naming a problem, in the frame of a bigger picture, it can be said respectfully, unemotionally and can be useful. The problem might need naming in order to be better understood and addressed with less damage all round. One conversation in this vein focussed on how even just one ‘Troublesome Community Member’ (TCM) can drive out some of the best community builders including founders. The case in point was a community in the US where the two founders were completely worn down by a member who wrought pain and havoc in her community and refused to cooperate or take responsibility. The traumatised founders were eventually displaced and sold up out of the community. The up-side to this story is they later bought next door, put a gate through the fence and are apparently still very active, now as non-members.

“Founders Syndrome”
A discussion about founders and support must include an exploration of Founders Syndrome and the uncomfortable implications in the term. Apparently those using it often want founders to move out of the way claiming founders are actually IN the way and that they can’t let go. It’s a term that can be used to accuse founders of stopping new ideas or misusing the gravitas that goes with being a founder.

The term implies symptoms of a sickness; ‘a syndrome’. It could even be self-imposed or delusionary. Whether physical or psychological, Founders Syndrome and Founderitis sound seriously disabling; unattractive. If it is a sickness or disease what are the symptoms and is there a cure? What support is needed?

Looking into it further I found two types of ‘syndrome’ and Founders Syndrome does not fit the first definition–i.e. it is not “an aggregate of symptoms or signs associated with a disease process or genetic disorder”.
It could however be described as a characteristic combination of opinions, emotions, or behaviour e.g. The ‘Not In My Back Yard’ (NIMBY) syndrome or the ‘Appearance Discrimination’ syndromes ( ‘Ugly Duckling’; ‘Handsome Man – Ugly Woman Couple’; ‘Beautiful Woman’) which some now call ‘The New Racism’. A recent discussion on Founders syndrome threw up a couple of other versions too; the ‘Wanna-Be Founders’ syndrome and ATFS–‘Attack the Founders’ syndrome.

For the term to be used to imply sickness has several ramifications that themselves present problems. It is hard to dispel without sounding lame. There was general agreement at the conference that this founders’ problem is more likely in the early days. I.e. not so coincidentally at the same time when the shared skill levels, especially in ‘mindful (non-violent) communication’, are likely to be at their lowest. It’s also when people are generally more jumpy, many are afraid of being judged, or suspicious of being controlled and certainly confused about the structures, legalities, rights, responsibilities and complications. And what exactly do all these new words actually mean? ~ reciprocity, mutuality, stewardship, co-operation, collaboration, consensus.

Of course, while the term ‘Founders Syndrome’ can be used disrespectfully, it can be appropriate in some situations too. No doubt there can be ‘troublesome founders’ too however these are usually in cases where there are paid people; boards and staff.

Important to this discussion is that the accusation can potentially be used to hide agenda as well as an attempt to discredit and deliberately mute the voice of a founder.

After the long haul of getting to ‘Go’, most instigators will be looking forward to handing over. They may have other commitments that need nurturing, financing, actioning. They may just need a rest. Will they hear recognition and offers of help or be left to it and told, ‘Your choices, suck it up’?

Everyone has their idea of their own busy-ness and we are all responsible for what we take on so how do we deal with this? I have yet to come across an easy way? The reality is that strong commitment and significant sacrifice are needed but hard-won achievements have insights: Pearls form around irritation. The living and breathing of it–the commitment–is a double-edged sword. Sharing the grunt-work and the ‘pearls’ is what cooperation is all about.

For those at the pointy, heavy-lifting end of the workload it can, on the one hand, be an unbalanced, myopic focus blotting out other aspects of life. It can also contribute to a deep, perceptive, reflective awareness that may be hard to communicate but of great value to the overarching purpose, e.g. Imagining a future possibility and bringing it into the present as a new reality.

It may also be of value to the founder individual too. Perhaps work-life balance will be attained.

There is an alchemy involved in people coming together discerning a set of values, designing a concept and manifesting these into bricks and mortar and flesh and blood. And then there is further alchemy in distilling from all that and blending resources, potentials, pasts and futures and infusing these together at a moment in time – into a Shared Vision.

The Vision is an inspiringly gorgeous container for all these gems, gifted by the group. It sits in the perpetual present moment, safely and securely holding the space for the individuals collectively as they seek to move forward in cooperation together. This is the sacred work of those who are seeking to grow to be a conscious group, of the intentional community in formation, coalescing with a beautiful purpose at that prescient time when it is all about the Vision.

The responsibility to protect this point of light surely belongs to all – but typically few hold the flame with greater care than the founders. Not surprisingly, founders may feel alarmed at attempts to tinker with this central heartbeat, the reason, purpose and aspirations of the embryonic thing that seems to be always arriving.

The voice upholding the vision needs to be heard. Founders can learn to share this task and overt invitations need to be made in new, enticing and ongoing ways so that, over time, more voices will come to protect the Vision. Talking about this essential context will help protect against the potential to misconstrue ‘agenda’. Without this, misjudgements, manipulations and the spectre of self-interest and ego can be invoked. Accusations of Founders Syndrome can be used as a backlash to silence that very voice that upholds the Vision. Silencing the voice by disabling the messenger, can strike a fatal blow to a ‘founder’, a ‘holder of the flame’; it can also hurt the spirit of a community. The vital essence may be put at real risk; something precious may be undermined.

Holding the flame
Perhaps a cogent case can be made for reviewing the Vision, merging values and vision or changing the name of the community–or for any of these things that go to the heart. Then members, founders and otherwise, will want to pay full attention, be open and consider the case. Full exploration, care and well thought out conclusions can be ensured within the safety of good process.

There may well be room for improvement and maybe there is energy and an appetite to stretch further, to be more ambitious and visionary; to evolve to be more mindful as a community, to strive for a higher collective consciousness. Maybe those promoting tweaks or changes can inspire their community, including the founders and the formation members, to recast the Vision to make it even more powerful. It could be wonderful; a strengthened recommitment that could bring with it a reinvigorated sharing of the Vision. The power and extraordinary potential of a community sharing a similar ethos can achieve extraordinary things that may astonish many beyond themselves.

There is a much broader, more significant and critically important transformative change that our society, our species and our world needs to have happening at this time. This is about doing something now at a time of crisis–within our power–that radically transforms the way people live together and with the planet. As a founder I keenly seek to have that part of the Vision understood and supported.

As is so widely known, the creation of high functioning communities in this way through the intentional community cohousing model also provides so many benefits to the individuals and families involved. This is not a bonus in my eyes but an essential element if this model is to really proliferate and in rapid time. As a founder I seek to have that part of the Vision understood and supported too.

Developing attributes
In the early days of a new community the founder is busy leading and holding the organisation steady, demonstrating a commitment to pro-active participation, while steering a course towards the Vision that drew the people to the group in the first place. The reality is that this is multi tasking on a number of levels responding to whatever the priority. A founder can find themselves talking to a politician or a bank, in communication with a new member, on the receiving end of an attack, doing some design work, crafting a strategy, dealing with someone’s melt-down and looking after their own family, all in the same day.

Perhaps this is a certain type of person because then they have to get up, draw on courage and dig deep again the next day, and on it goes, bouncing from one thing to the next, making things happen? No one is born with this capacity and these skills – perhaps they are natural attributes – but either way they have to be honed and developed to become effective to deliver at this level.

The Founder may have an innate sense of when to pull back based on their perception of the level of effectiveness and resilience the community displays. Getting a community of people onto the ‘front foot’ to be generally proactive requires the education of its members so as to get everyone on the ‘same page’–pulling together not pulling apart. When the Vision is held safely by those taking over, or when those who hold the Vision strongly are ready to step up, the founders will be enabled to pull back. Handing over and staying involved can be incremental.

Expectation setting
In reality there will be lots of little handing-over exercises and some will work and some wont. Mistakes will be made. For handing over to be smooth and gentle requires commitment to preparation, coordination and support for a process. The reality of many people ‘dropping the ball’ and failing to deliver on their commitments and promises has to be recognised and expectations and supports must be set in that realistic context. Some things matter more than others and that can be subjective but at all times the focus on the shared values and mission that underpinned the founding of the community in the first place, will provide helpful guidance. These too can be reviewed carefully to ensure they reflect practice and are expansive enough to stay current with the evolution of the group.

At the start, teaching the vision and mission and some of the experiences that can help in the achieving of them, is the task of the founders and the original members. Helping to skill up individuals in specific tasks and skill sets is part of this. Explaining in detail the thinking behind certain positions is important. Also important is role-modelling the behaviour of someone who is self-reflective, able to learn and to teach, to change and to grow, to listen and to commit to continual improvement. This is coincidentally, the time when expressing the leadership role will mean arrows are pointed and sometimes fired at you.

The Founders meeting touched on the problem of “over-commitment” raising questions. Is an over-committed person someone who takes on too much work, or is too deeply committed or someone who loves too much? Someone who is assiduous is “showing great care and perseverance”. They can be managing their energy for a purpose. They can be ‘diligent, careful, meticulous, thorough, attentive, industrious, laborious, hard-working, conscientious, painstaking, demanding, exacting, persevering, unflagging, searching, elaborate, accurate, studious, rigorous, particular; strict; pedantic, even fussy’ ~ qualities often prized in good employees.

Perhaps here’s a clue? Is the ‘over-committed-ness’ perceived in the founder a problem because they are not being paid? Does the absence of remuneration make it harder to make sense of their willingness to give so much; too much? Maybe it even reflects poorly on others who don’t want their contribution to be evaluated against such high commitment? Or perhaps it comes from concern for the person for fear they might burn out, blaming the overcommitted person as if their over-commitment is the problem rather than the sharing of the workload. Perhaps it is suffice to say that a very high level of commitment is often required to be a successful founder.

Motivation, ‘stickability’ and momentum building and momentum protecting are also qualities that I have found to be very important in fledgling organisations. They are ‘gold’ and need to be harnessed and nurtured wherever they are found. Founders can be role models here too.

New leadership and celebration
Facilitating new leadership to emerge, creating the space for that to happen, is an important part of the fostering of the evolution of the group. The work involved in the lead up to the founding of the group is already huge, and it grows significantly when the numbers of individuals arrive, so the handing over is critical for sharing the burden of the work and relieving some of the stress and responsibility from the shoulders of the founders.

There is a wealth of experience sitting with all the founders in the world of cohousing and intentional communities. Some have fallen by the wayside and I have heard them referred to as the “Walking Dead”. This is a tragedy for all concerned and a loss to the movement. It can be avoided. Staying focussed on the Vision and Mission and valuing and cherishing founders is nearly always going to be in the best interests of the community. It is also good for the founders who actually do deserve their share of support and recognition.

The Founders Discussion in North Carolina showed founders can be individuals, couples or core groups and that configuration can really change the experience a lot. A strong group can weather many storms. A tenacious individual can too as evidenced by the group of thirty that collapsed down to two when the going got tough during the global financial crisis that started in 2008. Still that founder did not give up. She recovered, rebuilt the numbers and her community of Fair Oaks in Sacramento finally broke ground for building in 2017. It can take a while!

Training, of both founders and community members, is needed early to get expectations in place, set up mindful communication processes and encourage emotional maturation. Our community’s seventeen-year-old said in a talk that after four years in our community she had ‘seen the adults mature a lot’. This training will also support founders and others to learn how to stay focussed, to lead, to teach and to manage self-care, self-preservation and recovery if necessary. Training is needed to teach individuals how to prepare to be members of a team, how to co-operate and how to securely take hold of the baton, to maintain the pace and to stay on course.

Conferences are one place this can happen. A Founders groups can help. Perhaps a Mentor Association for budding Founders would be good too.

However, in the meantime there’s great opportunity through celebration. There is a need for celebration of founders by founders and also by those who appreciate founders and wish to validate and encourage them. Many people have founderhood capacity in them and now is the time our world needs it the most. How can we better draw from each other, and ourselves, our own potent contributions.

So, to that whole complement of extraordinary individuals – past, present and especially, future – and all those who work with them, I offer my gratitude and encouragement; in cooperation …

• Nonprofit Hearts: Founders, grace, and syndromes
• Schmidt, Elizabeth, Re-diagnosing “Founder’s Syndrome”: Moving Beyond Stereotypes to Improve Nonprofit Performance Nonprofit Quarterly: 2013
• Quarterly.org/management/22547-rediagnosing-founder-s-syndrome-moving-beyond-stereotypes-to-improve-nonprofit-performance.html
• Wilkinson, Giselle, Transformative Change In Action, New Community – Quarterly Journal for Social Justice, Sustainability, Community Development and Human Rights, Volume 12 Issue 46: Alternative Housing and Community Models 2014

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Talking to my Federal MP about climate change urgency

Screenshot 2016-06-08 16.31.56 Jaga JagaFor the last twenty years Jenny Macklin has been my Federal MP in the safe Labor seat of Jaga Jaga.

During that time she’s held political offices, been Minister or Shadow Minister of numerous portfolios (Aged Care, Social Security, Status of Women, Health, Education, Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation, Families and Community Services,) and currently, Families and Payments and Disability Reform.

Screenshot 2016-06-08 17.03.13She was the first woman to hold a leadership position in either of the major parties and has been Deputy to three ALP Leaders.

I’ve had various contacts with Jenny over those decades most recently on the arrival of Murundaka Cooperative Cohousing Community in her electorate.

I set up this meeting with Jenny to get the ball rolling on a conversation about the Climate Emergency. My original intention was to go with my primary concerns regarding (i) awareness of the climate change, climate justice and the short timeline for effective action; (ii) all the zero waste, zero carbon, zero pollution “by 2020” commitments that I believe are probably falling over; and (iii) Cohousing as a way of creating right-sized neighbourhood solutions for a more sustainable future and to build local resilience in the face of rapid change. As I had only half an hour I dropped (ii) the zero waste item where my focus is more on the Local and State governments anyway.

As part of my prep I conferred with a few politically savvy, experienced campaigners and well-connected people and in the process, was connected to a personal story of an avoidable tragedy related to climate change that happened in the Jaga Jaga patch. Drawing on that preparation, my approach was to initially contextualise the meeting commencing with the CoP21 experience; then to identify what we both actually care about that drives our respective work and, from there, to take Jenny through a short process that would hopefully achieve my desired outcomes for the meeting. These were to open up with Jenny the potential for a real conversation in her electorate about current and imminent climate change impacts (the emergency), about our not being ready and our need to pick up pace and finally, as part of that, to invite her to visit Murundaka to experience it first hand and meet the Cohousing Australia team in order to better understand what we are doing and why we are promoting cohousing as a good way to build resilience.

We had the meeting on Monday. It was relaxed and friendly and I think productive. Lachlan Poulter, Jenny’s Electoral Officer and Media Advisor, sat in with us.

I explained some of my experience with the CoP21 and that I knew two years earlier that that would be the one for me to go to, to be witness at – the twenty-first in the series. Jenny asked me about my drive so I explained my position on climate justice and my exasperation and inability to tolerate the injustice. Vulnerable, innocent and or poor people are being the hardest hit by impacts that they have little control over – even here in Melbourne; and I talked about the strong campaign for climate justice run by the *Coalition of the Ambitious that fed into the CoP led by the Pacific Island Nations and others; how they pushed agreement to improve the ‘target’ from the much too hot 2ºC down to a less but still too hot 1.5ºC and yet these same people are seeing their islands going under the ocean. …. as their neighbours we should be making them welcome here, … I believe that we have a…. (Jenny said) “responsibility” … exactly. And where is the conversation about less than 1.5º; about much less – the actual restoration of safe climate conditions?

Jenny explained that she had gone into politics with a strong commitment to social justice. We discussed the “passion” word – personally I think that’s for sailing and stamp collecting. For me “Commitment” is a better word for this area of focus, it is not something the other person can flick off as an indulgence quite so easily as “passion”. Plus if you have commitment and the other person doesn’t, does that say something about them?

I drew a diagram starting with Jaga Jaga in the centre as something we both have in common and central to our conversation. I put the CoP21 below that as that had triggered my questions ‘what did the CoP21 agreement (that Australia was part of) mean for Jaga Jaga?’ and ‘what do the impacts of climate change and climate justice mean for Jaga Jaga?’ and this meeting.

This led to talk about the climate change impacts. Greg had given me some great leads and material. The links are listed below. I quoted the VCOSS report that said “Heatwaves cause more deaths in Australia each year than any other natural disaster, and have a greater negative impact on population health than any other natural hazard. Over recent years Australia has experienced unprecedented heatwaves, and the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events is likely to increase as our climate changes.” At this point I also brought in the story told by Maggie Baron. Maggie is the sister of a woman and her partner who died together inside their home in Jaga Jaga in the terrible heat wave of 2014.

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 6.20.12 PMI also reminded us all about the horrendous heat of 2009 when Melbourne had a record breaking heatwave for two weeks reaching an all-time record for any major Australian city of 46.5ºC (115ºF). The overnight lows remained in the twenties for days.

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 7.40.06 PM

374 people died (ABS). When the state erupted in fires so fierce they broke all sorts of terrible records and another 173 people died (Royal commission) with 414 officially injured. (I don’t know how many dead and injured were residents of Jaga Jaga but all-told that’s 547 deaths, nearly 1000 people directly impacted. Not many media connected those dots. (The Guardian was one that did.)

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 4.48.41 PM

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 4.44.50 PMWe are not ready for what’s coming and now we have to play Catch Up in quick time to prepare for what we know is going to get worse. Vulnerable people’s lives are already at stake. We have to work hard and fast to get onto the front foot, build resilience. I explained that I fully expect Murundaka will be one of the beacons in this part of the world as things get tougher. People will be (are) beating a path to our door wanting to know how we do things. I said we already run many workshops but there is more we can all do and we need to be working together.

Jenny mentioned Labor’s ‘Community Power Network Hub’ program and Lachlan gave me a copy. Having now read it a few notes have been added at the bottom of this article.

I mentioned The Neighbourhood Renewal scheme and how that model might be a good example enabling things like climate controls to be installed in the homes of vulnerable people and public housing tenants.

I spoke about the doctorate and the work that is being done to ask (and then answer) the question: Can we restore safe climate conditions? Jenny asked me what I meant by ‘safe’ – I clarified safe was for all people and species and generations and elaborated. It didn’t means hurricanes and bushfires and tsunamis and volcanoes wouldn’t happen. Climate conditions minus the anthropogenic influence of carbon energising and over-heating the big natural systems.

Jenny asked me what I was wanting from the meeting.

I said I wanted to see a proper conversation happening in Jaga Jaga talking about climate change impacts, about building resilience and even talking about restoring safe climate conditions.

And I want Jenny to visit Murundaka and see it for herself which is something she does want to do. I said Cohousing Australia is based at Murundaka and it is trying to promote cohousing throughout Australia and that cohousing is an excellent way to build community, build resilience and tackle climate change. I told her I researched 30 communities overseas last year and I gave her a couple of diagrams. One goes into how cohousing can help communities deal with the negative impacts of dangerous climate change and how it can also address the positive changes in the way we live that can create a different story. She asked me how often we meet and I said about monthly but that I have in mind an event a bit bigger than that and something that she would be a key part of. Jenny is happy to be involved and the question is when. A date was not possible due to the proximity of the election. If Labor wins they will be very busy and it will be a bit further down the track before we can firm this up. If the Liberals win then Jenny will be potentially available for something like this within a couple of months.

The follow-up from here will be an email to Jenny firming this up as much as we can and in that I will include the opportunity to introduce her to Maggie, if not at the event that has been mooted, then perhaps at a specific meeting at her office for that purpose. I’ll respond about the power-hub and any opportunities I can see within it and couch it all in terms of building the groundswell of a real conversation in Jaga Jaga talking about climate change impacts, about building resilience and about restoring safe climate conditions.

Jenny and Lachlan both saw me out and we got a photo out on the footpath.

Screenshot 2016-06-06 16.34.15 jenny and me


Further information and links.

* Wed 9th December, 2015 – Day 3 of CoP21 – The Guardian reported that “A coalition representing more than 100 countries, formed in secrecy six months ago, has emerged at key UN talks in Paris to push for a legally binding global and ambitious deal on climate change. The “high ambition coalition” speaks for the majority of the 195 countries at the crunch conference and consists of 79 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, the US and all of EU member states.”

An article by Greg Foyster Heatwaves hurt disadvantaged Australians the hardest written for the ABC March 2014 contains some alarming maps correlating infra-red data identifying hotter areas with social economic data identifying poorer areas.

Hotting Up Greg’s Big Issue article (p.14) about killer heat-waves and extreme weather patterns and Maggie Baron’s story (p.17) about losing her sister in the January 2014 heatwave. Maggie’s sister had a mental illness and lived in public/social housing in Heidelberg West – near Olympic village.

A good VCOSS study on heatwaves and vulnerable people in Victoria: Feeling the Heat – Heatwaves and social vulnerability in Victoria

Community solar for social housing/renters. A good example is the Darebin solar savers program,  [NB Murundaka is now also a case study of community solar.] Pgs 34-35 of Environment Victoria’s ‘Six Steps to Efficiency Leadership’ report explain how to do this, with a case study of Darebin Solar Savers.

Labor Policy

Jenny had also asked Lachlan to give me a copy of the Community Power Network Fact Sheet one of Labor’s 100 Positive Policies, which puts $98.7 million to support the creation of up to ten Community Power Hubs in the areas of most need. Looking specifically at social and community housing, rental properties and apartment-style living this goes some way to recognizing certain barriers and taking relevant action.

NB In my view the Policy shows that Labor still profoundly underestimates the reality of the impacts that the science is indicating and evidence is now supporting, the enormity of the climate change threat and the virtual head-in-the-sand approach, our country’s appalling lack of readiness and the now pronounced urgency for action. This is why we need to open up the conversation in Jaga Jaga and every electorate.

I also picked up Labor’s “Climate Change Action Plan” Fact Sheet. Labor states it accepts the science, endorses the commitment by the world’s nations in Paris in 2015 to keep global warming well below two degrees Celsius as well as a more qualified commitment in the agreement around 1.5 degree threshold and understand “particularly damaging to economies and environment … more extreme weather events …. Heightened instability in our region”. All good.

BUT their ‘best plan ’ – that they describe as ‘the most economically efficient way’ – aims to deliver only 50% renewable energy and that not until 2030. In my view they do not have, as they say they do, a ‘plan to combat climate change’ and the plan the do have is not ensuring workers and business ‘are in the best position to benefit from the huge investment and job opportunities’. Again, this is why this conversation has to be cranked up.


This is not about Labor or any of the Capitol ‘P’ Political parties who are all falling short of what’s needed on the topic of climate change. This is about getting the correct information out there, giving all the parties the opportunity to step up to the actual challenge (and opportunity) we face, realizing the consequences are not just political and there is no carpet under which they can be swept. It’s about recognising that those who are awake to the danger need to be inspired that real action can bring real change, that there is a way through this and that the leadership has to come from us and that there’s not a minute to lose. To snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and to reclaim the chance to create the safe climate world we want to live in I have to agree with the Save The Planet party. There can be “No Compromise on Global Warming”.

First we need the space and time and support for the calm, truthful and fruitful conversation to commence.



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The Roof, The Panels, the Car and the Energy Freedom Plan

The first electric car delivered at Murundaka cohousing community has moved Earth Co-op’s living vision closer to realisation. Although quite momentous it is not the first significant step to be taken. This group is part of a local groundswell addressing significant challenges and helping society transition to a more just and sustainable world.

First came the Roof. Earth Co-op’s vision of an aware, engaged and neighbourly community opened the way for the 2011 arrival of cohousing strategically situated in the suburbs of Banyule. By replacing three co-located houses with apartment buildings for eighteen households, the vision of restorative living was enabled and, sitting within that, is the Energy Freedom plan.

The Solar Lounge Festival fund-raiser had strong local support and, with commitments from friends and residents, made the purchase of the Panels possible. Eventually, after waiting ten months for higher efficiency technology to arrive, a 17.05 kWp Grid Connected Solar system of sixty-two panels was installed, collecting beautiful, clean energy from the sun.

Catalysing the impetus to replace energy-intensive halogen and flouro lights with LEDs in both private homes and the Common House, the goal is not just maximising efficiency and going solar at Murundaka. Steering away from dangerous global warming and treating it like the emergency it is means rapidly detaching from fossil fuel energy. The next part of the Energy Freedom package is exploring the replacement of gas.

Participating in, showcasing and fostering wider change, helping build the groundswell of the Sustainability Renaissance is the opportunity of our era and every step matters. The Car arrived yesterday – a Holden ‘Volt’ hybrid sedan – joining the three electric bikes to help Murundaka close the loop between roof, panels and the sun’s free energy.

Transitioning to Energy Freedom

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A Co-housing backstory

What more is there to learn from a co-housing community?

I was one person involved in creating Murundaka Cohousing Community, the establishment of which of course has its own backstory. I offer a sliver of my story and ask forgiveness for my indulgence in the telling it. I acknowledge the treasure-trove of stories of the countless others who’ve contributed in so many ways over so many decades, indeed centuries. Mine is but one in a library of stories and a small one at that. I hope it is pertinent to the ‘Co-housing is Intentional’ melting pot and interesting to those wanting a glimpse of the personal. In hindsight the personal is truly political in the everyday sense of the word. And in foresight, there are many people coming through right now creating community and fomenting positive change. Bravo! All strength to you!

It is 2016 and I am impatient to see co-housing communities proliferate. Not just for the sake of the people lucky enough to live in one or even for the sake of the society that will benefit in countless ways. We need co-housing to happen fast for the sake of lightening the load on the planet, for the sake of hurrying up the sustainability renaissance and hopefully sidestepping a monumental climate change catastrophe. This last is the over-arching and most important reason because it allows all else to happen. If we don’t stop global warming we are in the deepest of trouble.

To create a community a raft of things have to come together. Just the big three: getting the people, the land and the money to be simultaneously available – is so often a major hurdle. There are many others to be overcome as well.

There is also a back-story – not often told – about the individuals responsible for identifying and often as not creating the opportunity and what they bring together in the very first instance. There is some reticence to tell these stories because in their focusing attention on the individual, they can feel self-indulgent – all the more so because the whole ethos around community is the ‘we’ not the ‘me’.

Yet is it worth looking at?

At the recently held MAV / Village Well “Inclusive Communities” conference, a little time was spent brainstorming the skill-sets and personality traits needed to get a group up and running as a viable and high-functioning co-housing community. Also in the program, as one of the presenters I had been asked to tell my story. So I relayed some of the formative experiences, personality traits and skill-sets that I brought to the genesis of Murundaka Co-housing.

When later these were combined with the attributes thrown into the brainstorm from the conference participants a list resulted. A change agent catalysing a co-housing community into existence would have a healthy selection of the attributes identified in this albeit incomplete list. In reality these attributes are consistent with entrepreneurs in many fields.

Could one person ever do it alone? Almost certainly not – burn out would be inevitable. The fact is co-housing works best when the group forms early and together catalyses it’s own gestation.

This list describes no-one in total and many in part. It goes someway to defining a change agent. A few of these attributes resonate with me. Some were essential for the creation of Murundaka. For instance, not readily taking ‘no’ for an answer 🙂

… highly motivated and persistent, inspirational and altruistic, ambitious and strategic, tactful and diplomatic, brave and courageous, confident, effective and resilient, philosophical, self-reflective and self-aware, creative, empowered, imaginative, curious, questioning and rebellious, passionate and dispassionate, gregarious and generous, well-intentioned and values-based, observant, empathetic and connection fostering, eager for change, solution oriented, “yes we can”, disciplined, flexible and generative … // … champions, independent thinkers, dreamers and adventurers, reformers, organisers, problem solvers, communicators, momentum builders, mediators and facilitators, collaborators, co-operators, coordinators, doers and big thinkers … // … who bring with them specific skills (legal skills, people skills, skills for educating, marketing, project management, monitoring, trouble shooting and damage control, etc.) and relevant lived experience and expertise and are capable of holding the big picture and the minutiae, and are prepared to take on leadership, take risks, play devils advocate, play many roles, speak publicly, enthuse, defend the vision, endure the ‘slings and arrows’ and remain committed to ‘holding the flame’.

I was highly motivated by the vision of community in the urbs and suburbs. It fitted well with my strong lifelong urge to make positive change. So many compelling reasons to do with co-housing itself but on top of all of them – for me in 2006 – sat the growing alarm around climate change. I understood all too clearly the need for ‘rapid change’ positive transformation in the vast sprawling suburbs of Australia where indeed, as with the wider world itself, most human population lives.

The urge to make positive change was a strong motivator. I say urge because it’s a burning thing. It’s not cerebral or academic or hypothetical. It’s more animal like hunger; more irresistible like the urge to laugh.

I remember reading that just because the activists and ‘kayak-tivists’ of the US Pacific North West had successfully stopped Shell drilling for oil in the Arctic didn’t mean that Shell’s urge to pump oil had gone away. Such an urge is not easily shut down. What is that urge about?

I examined my urge to make positive change. Like most people I know, self-interest was not the driver other than that of wishing to live in a healthier and more just world. The work of movement building certainly doesn’t pay that well. It turns out it is shaped by sets of values and principles and this has been clearly borne out by many friends and colleagues, especially in the climate change field, over the years. It applies also to many co-housing protagonists and in fact also to the wider sphere encapsulating justice and sustainable living for all.

But what values, what principles? Can we articulate them?

“Values are people’s most important life priorities, the bases for what they actually do, what they want to accomplish, and how they want to be.” #1

Ten years ago the need to comprehend the perplexing psychology of denial (of climate change) became acute. It required the teasing out of underlying values. Surely we are all in this together? Many of us were striving to understand how to motivate people to step up with greater urgency and commitment to address the perils of human pollution.

But for me the ‘urge’ predates that. Where did my desire to make positive change come from?

I was intensely curious as a young girl. I loved school and asked lots of questions. I still do. I still love to sit in the front row and engage. I laugh at that saying – “Sit in the Front Row of Your Life”. When giving a talk I often call people down to the front and once or twice I’ve even been known to cheekily remove the seats if the front row is empty. (I find it hard enough to speak publicly without a barrier of empty seats between my audience and me). I could also be excruciatingly shy at times as a child and teenager and even as an adult. I work at the extrovert within me flicking the ‘ON’ button when she’s required but my inner introvert has to get looked after too – with plenty of reflection time in the sanctuary and privacy of my own home. I have come to realise I am actually more of an ambivert.

Turning discouragement into ambition is a trait too. I have far too many examples of having my ideas and passion for change mocked or trashed by people who mattered to me. I was a teenager – I didn’t see my aspirations as unrealistic. I had big thoughts of big solutions. I wrote poetry about it. It was always based on love. Love of the planet, love of sentient beings. Instead of trying to snuff out that flame imagine, if those fires had been fanned. ……  What we do to our young people?  😦

I was an independent thinker too – perhaps a strange product of a private school. Yet many in my year –the conservative, conscientious and wags alike – had gone on to be change makers and to make worthy contributions to our world; as educators, artists and activists in civil society.

On reflection I put that down to the influence of the 60s and the visionaries and the activists and musicians and artists before us who inspired a generation. We stand on their shoulders. The sixties and seventies questioned, empowered and reframed our sense of justice, connection and understanding of the meaning of life. And as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “A mind that is stretched by new experience can never go back to its old dimensions”. Many of the movements that sprang forth from that turbulent, exciting time are condensed in the Trans-Modern subculture based on ecological and spiritual-psychological values. The ground-breaking research of Paul H Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, ‘The Cultural Creatives’, now available free online, explains this.

The 60s and 70s was the era of the ‘Search for Meaning’ and many of my contemporaries a few years older than me went to India to find a ‘guru’. Within a year of leaving school aged 18 I had visited a kibbutz in Israel. Within a year of graduating as a teacher I went west at 21 to live on a ‘community’ in WA. I left there with my first experience of a strong sense of belonging to a cohesive group, to a village or tribe. I travelled around Australia searching for what I now call “community”. I sensed then the power and scope of community to make change.

Fast-forward a decade to the transformative experience in a comprehensive, live-in course on Sustainable Living in the Rainbow Region of northern NSW. I immersed myself for most of that year soaking up the knowledge and wisdom and, unbeknownst to me, becoming a resource for the times to come. It was all part of someone’s plan. These people were already veterans of successful change having set themselves up in communities on the land where they developed skills for greater self-sufficiency exploring human nature, dynamics and spirituality as well. They had recently run successful campaigns resulting in the creation of the Nightcap Ranges National Park, the protection of the Franklin River and The Daintree. Much was learnt along the way. They were change-makers determined to create more change-makers.

Somewhere along the way I helped raise two gorgeous daughters and five amazing stepchildren. Our place was also home to two beloved dogs, some bantams and ducks and a small orchard and veggie garden. I had co-created Earth housing co-op in the mid ’80s. The stability and affordability my co-op house provided supported my family for twenty years, enabling me amongst other things to take the kids out of school and on a four-month bus trip up the east coast, achieve a M. Ed in Leadership and Change and, in 1999, co-found the Sustainable Living Foundation. SLF was born. It was based in that home – now the site of Murundaka Cohousing – for its first two years.

That’s when the real work began.


The Big Weekend on Birrarrung Marr

It sounds like I was working to a script and it felt like it too. It was at this point that all the threads of my life seemed to converge into this outstanding organisation. SLF is best known for its Sustainable Living Festival which has grown over 17 years into a three week bonanza of sustainability celebration and showcase. It is all about strategic change-making for a purpose: to help accelerate the uptake of sustainable living. Over recent years this purpose has become far more urgent as we focus our society on resetting the compass away form catastrophic climate change.

SLF has nurtured many other initiatives along the way including one that entailed encouraging a few key community change-makers of the 70s and 80s back to work on what became centrally important within SLF: the focus on where we live, how we live and how we live together.

We formed the Sustainable Living Intentional Communities group – now called Cohousing Australia – focussed on reinvigorating the intentional communities movement. The research pointed to co-housing as the flagship model. With its self-governing core values based on co-operation, its common sense solutions for so many of the escalating social crises of our time plus its comfortable and very private dwellings combined with shared facilities and amenities, it offered the greatest scope for broad mainstream uptake.

Notwithstanding the fact it is really just the ‘village’ deliberately created to bring people together to solve problems, enjoy solutions and share life, co-housing is transformative change. It is extraordinarily effective and has huge potential in cutting consumption and pollution and sharing and cherishing resources. It improves health, happiness and wellbeing and creates a base of skills, knowledge and real support to step up to the opportunities of our time, for engagement in civil society and in life. So many anecdotes to be told!

However co-housing to me is not an end in itself- great though that can be. It’s the start of something that can accelerate change, foster emergence and do many extraordinary things.

Screenshot 30 communities 2016-03-12 21.06.26In 2015 I was fortunate to do a fifteen-week tour to a few communities across the oceans – a mere thirty out of hundreds but how rich that was. There is so much to learn and share. Decision-making, group dynamics, deep democracy, mindful communication, community enterprise, secondary co-ops, the power of co-ops, the sharing economy, co-housing advocacy as a way of giving back, stewardship and sustainable living – the list goes on.

These mind-maps tell a bit of the story. “More Than Just Housing” has links to articles in it – some published / some not yet, but the topics are there and the breadth of field is evident. Let me know if anything piques your curiosity.

Screenshot Cohousing 2016-03-12 21.04.33For the past six years I’ve been studying all of this and more with the goal of producing a doctoral thesis on mobilising communities to restore a safe environment. The dire consequences of climate change have escalated over those years, the time frames have all shrunk disastrously and terrible consequences are now beginning to play out before our eyes.

That makes the need for rapid change in the right direction incontestable and co-housing, its spin-offs and complementary approaches have a big part to play in the solutions and a big job to do to fix the problems.

If we were facing a global threat to our existence – like an alien invasion or something – people would look to high-functioning communities and people to show the way. We ARE facing an existential threat with catastrophic climate change. To avert it we need – urgently –the right kind of transformative change. In this context high-functioning communities have, and will increasingly have, a vitally important role to fill. We are better prepared and protected within one and better equipped to be of service to our wider community (family, friends and neighbours) too – whatever the future brings and may it be good.

Transformation is underway whether we like it or not. It is our job to choose the direction we want our society to take and to set about co-creating the future we actually want. A Sustainability Renaissance sounds good to me!

It was that potential to be an exemplar, to catalyse others to have a go, to prove it could be done and to create a momentum for such transformative change in the suburbs to take off and proliferate, that was behind my decision to give up my home to make way for Murundaka. I could not pass up such a rare and auspicious possibility. My question has always been, “What if we could make it work?”

It took six years of work to break the ground and make it happen but from the very minute we moved in to inhabit the buildings something profound changed. No longer we were talking about what we were going to do. No longer could anyone say “It can’t be done”.  It was there, we were there and, if we could do it, so could others.

001welcomeMurundaka is a Wurundjeri word we are grateful to have permission to use. It means ‘place to live, place to stay’.

I have been living in Murundaka since the beginning – over four years now – and I am as immersed in this community as I am in this work.

The world comes to us at Murundaka and is made welcome.

The slide show tells some of our story :




#1 The Potential for a New, Emerging, Culture in the U.S. A report on the 2008 American Values Survey by Paul H. Ray, Ph.D. Research Director, Institute for the Emerging Wisdom Culture, Wisdom University and of the State of the World Forum.

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