Cohousing and the Climate Emergency

The facilitated discussion on the last night of the conference focussed on climate change and the restoration of a safe climate. It was a little hard in the noisy circumstances of the restaurant to have a proper discussion. Yelling across the table had to suffice. The sore throat the next morning was a reminder).

Buda NoodaGlass2015-05-19 12.09.22 Tree
2015-05-03 17.10.16 Liveability2015-05-10 19.29.53 Tall shipsIMG_7218 Soltarra Garden

The first part of the discussion was about the mournful politics of the United States and fear and frustration were palpable. However, we did explore the idea of climate restoration and I promised to send some more information and some links including David Spratt’s paper: Recount – Time to Do the Math Again which compellingly and succinctly makes it abundantly clear that there is NO carbon budget left to burn if we want to avoid reaching two degrees of warming or beyond.

[Who would have thought that document would make its way into the office of the Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. It happened as a result of a spontaneous trip –and some good networking– to New York with Chris Jordan who was speaking at a launch in the General Assembly of the United Nations with Parley for the Oceans. The whole three days were extraordinary …… . But that’s another story a bit further down the road in the journey]

Earlier in the conference there were a few other opportunities to raise the topic. It was interesting to ask various community members, and some of the tour guides at the communities visited, about how much awareness there was of climate change and the effects they were already experiencing. Maggie at Solterra was clear that the excessive rains they had a couple of years ago and the havoc they caused were understood as climate change exacerbated. Her community understands the future holds more such events continuing to intensify and increase in frequency over time and so spent a lot of time (and money) reworking and raising their paths, building substantial drainage systems, increasing the capacity of their guttering, etcetera.

Tom and Kathy from Houston (staying at the same AirBnB in Durham) talked about the incredible flooding their home city was experiencing after the relentless rain that had fallen just recently; pictures of freeways completely underwater and vehicles floating away. When asked if they were attributing any of that to climate change, Tom coyly said ‘it depends who’s asking’. When I said I thought it was definitely influenced by climate change the tall Texan, Tom King, said, “Hell Yeah!” and we all laughed. Strange how humour still penetrates this darkest of subjects.

Flying into Dallas Texas a few days later revealed the extent of the heavy rains and flooding even here with large flooded patches of brown water spilling over river banks and spreading into the countryside and sometimes right into the built up areas.

Asking a number of people in the conference and on the tour if they saw any link between cohousing and climate change, of course, the answer was a resounding ‘Yes’. The focus in communities was generally on the great inroads that could be made, and are being made, in reduction of pollution especially greenhouse gas emissions. So many things are easier to achieve in community than as individuals in an individualistic society. Community lends itself to bigger, more ambitious visions and timelines for action.

Findhorn Co-housing2015-05-19 12.56.092015-04-24 17.09.24 Bike shed
Traveler DC 1402015-05-02 12.39.01 Mussel shells2015-04-30 20.10.24 Lange Eng

As often as possible I opened up the discussion of the role Cohousing communities have (can have) as agencies of social change. Not only in the context of the moral responsibility we have in such communities to give back to the society that has enabled us to live in such privileged circumstances (notwithstanding the hard work involved) (and for some the considerable costs and expenses). Most people recognise their luck in even being aware in the first place that such options for “living together, doing it better” exist, much less actually finding themselves having the good fortune to be a member in a community. So the concept of ‘giving back’ was easily accepted.

But social change activism is also more likely because communities are usually populated with many well-educated, reasonably aware, competent, principled and motivated people. The demographic analysis of people in cohousing discussed at the conference showed that cohousing members in the United States have a ninety-nine per cent likelihood of being progressive.

Whilst being a startling figure indicating the lopsided nature of the cohort recognising the social and individual benefits of community, that one per cent of conservatives in cohousing presents a really good opportunity for valuable communication. Useful, factual communication about the climate emergency and ways to deflect it will be better received in the conservative domain if it goes via trusted conservative channels. First find those concerned and climate-savvy conservatives who are willing to engage and encourage, even support, them to do their duty to safeguard the landscape they too love.

As a country that has a plethora of churches, the concept of ‘service’ sits easily in the American context too. Durham had quite a number with wide-ranging, perhaps individualistic, angles on which way to go about salvation. Whichever ways work for people, the end result appears to be a more overt expression of caring for others less well off. This seems to be more noticeable in America than Australia and hopefully helps to offset the up-til-now mean and stingy health system and almost complete absence of a realistic government safety net for the many disadvantaged and poor people that also live in America. The idea that people can make things happen for themselves and so, therefore big government is bad, seems to be oblivious to the reality that not all people have such capacity. Australia by contrast has a far better social safety net and, conversely, a very limited philanthropic sector. There’s more to it of course but it goes into some tricky territory too controversial and political (and even religious) for this particular post.

As citizens in rich and wasteful societies like America and Australia, it’s hard to fathom how the failure to provide affordable housing to the growing numbers of citizens who need it, can be tolerated. It was frequently acknowledged in the conference that cohousing has to figure out a way of making affordable rental accommodation in cohousing communities much more available and accessible whilst ensuring it also works for the community and not against it.

Active participation is the critical key. There was a lot of interest in the Common Equity Rental Cooperative Model – including its formal requirement for active participation of co-op members – that has been so well established in Victoria in Australia. How can this be exported from Australia? How can this be replicated? Where’s the ‘will’?

The role of Government in all this and in all countries is another big topic.

2015-05-16 14.38.00 Walking in to car park cafeThe pellet heater
Traveler DC 140IMG_7361 The 'back' of their buildingTraveler DC 140

The bike bridge across to Steigereiland

The bike bridge across to Steigereiland

Additional to the responsibility to step up and give back, is the recognition that communities can achieve great things and make a real difference. This is why it is built into the general vision of cohousing that communities be outward looking and strive to make every effort to promote and enable this practical, transferrable and scale-able model to proliferate.

Cohousing has rapidly growing relevance to the spectrum of social and environmental issues and to a growing awareness of the extraordinary opportunity living in a conscious way in community gives.

With ‘stepping up’, ‘continual improvement’ and the recognition of the plethora of resources we each bring to the community table we can move forward together, further and faster in community given the opportunity. We start by learning how to learn and we equip ourselves to tap inspirational learning as well as experiential learning.

One session at the conference re-examined the definition of cohousing. Chuck Durrett, one of the early inspirers of cohousing in America in the 1990s, spoke first about the key aspects of the definition of Co-housing, including that it involves participation in the process and resident input into the design.

Everywhere humans gather they create the potential to make a difference through collective efforts. Cohousing communities can ensure they stay current and energised, avoiding complacency and entropy, by asking themselves the questions of “What next?” Continual improvement for as long as it takes while our world, the one we depend on, needs all the help it can get.

In the context of the climate emergency, cohousing communities can certainly (i) make a less bad contribution to the problem. (ii) They can also work harder and as described in one session at the conference, work to achieve Net Zero Energy … ?

2015-05-25 08.16.43 Memorial Day public holiday2015-05-16 13.41.20 community garden2015-04-24 17.10.40 Bicycle shed

We talked about the recognition that, regardless of our success to rapidly transform our economy and turn things around to restore safe climate conditions, as the consequences of the warming that has already been unleashed begin to bite harder and harder, cohousing communities will be identified as beacons of hope for many.

Cohousing communities can begin to prepare now for the many people beating a path to our doors full of questions to do with surviving better in tougher times. How do we grow, preserve, mend and make things? How do we look after each other and build our collective resilience?

To do this job well the communities need to have their internal workings running as smoothly as possible (iv). The decision making, the reliable follow through, the equitable distribution of the workload, the grievance processes and conflict resolution have to be shared and honoured. The many and frequent ways of celebrating and affirming one another and the overall strength and capacity that is the underpinning of a healthy community need constant reinforcement and nurturing.

Love in Action
Traveler DC 140Other separation, landfill2015-05-07 12.22.00 Veggie box gardens2015-05-16 13.28.31 The airfield2015-05-16 14.02.10 wind skate boarding 3

Having worthy goals, being relevant, keeping climate change in our frontal lobes and restorative living on our website front pages will also speak to many young people. This will help put community on their radar screens and encourage them to consider cohousing. The conference was titled ‘The Next Generation’ but by and large, they were conspicuously absent. Unless affordable buy-in models and affordable rental models are available that will be the case. Most young families can’t afford to live in cohousing. spoke to one young seventeen year-old who has been to the last four conferences – admitted to be a conference junkie – who said most young adults he knew that were interested in cohousing had parents involved. To get young people to consider this option and commit to something that would seem at odds with their busy-busy, very full lives, probably trying to amass some assets with which to build a future, it needs to be relevant to the future they face.

For all these reasons there is a strong link between climate change and cohousing and if fully realised, honoured and steadfastly held, cohousing can become a more powerful agent of social change.

Community can help to create abundance. If the expectations we have of each other and ourselves in cohousing is to put ‘what is in the best interest of the community ahead of personal self interest’ in order to protect and strengthen our community and build its abundance then how much more effective can we be if we put what is in the best interests of the biosphere ahead of our community and society self interest? And when everything is at stake – as it now is – that makes abundant good sense.

(i) We cannot allow ourselves to be complacent … link to Antarctic ice melt reality.
(ii) We are already part of the big Groundswell to fix the mess. We can make a seriously valuable contribution if we put our hearts and minds to it, our shoulders to the wheel of change and our best foot forward – together.

Sustainable Living Foundation’s Eco‐ID

Cyclic – creating
waste – reuse,
Solar – using
energy – harness
Efficient – running
less – use
Safe – ensuring
harmless – protect
Social – caring
people – foster
Smart – adapting
change – use

SLF Festival
- this

Sand filter systemDiagram explaining separatin process
Climate Change Art  installation 1
2Straw bale walls in Youth community
2015-05-26 10.00.10 Business Card

About Giselle Wilkinson - 4allsentientbeings

Environmental conservation, community and cooperatives have been enduring threads in my life. Promoting sustainable lifestyles and more lately, focussing on restoring a Safe Climate, is work expressed predominantly through organisations such as The Sustainable Living Foundation (which I co-founded in 1999 - current President) and the others listed as links below. I am some way into a professional doctorate with MIECAT on "Mobilising Whole Communities to Restore a Sustainable Environment" and have in recent years moved into MURUNDAKA – a (more) sustainable, (more) affordable co-housing community / housing cooperative in Heidelberg, Melbourne (for which I gave up my co-op house of 19 years including veggie garden and small orchard) and it's great. I'm also a mum of two grown up daughters and have five step children.
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