Thursday, September 30, 2010

Real Models 1:Twin Oaks

The Transition Initiative and all the Green Wizardry stuff I talked about in my last post (Dissensus in Action, 9/27/10), are directions and responses to things like peak oil, climate change, rampant consumerism, and various social ills. Most of the ideas for social change that I've written about fit into this category: we could or should do this or that.

A another way of looking at things is to create models of what a different world would look like. Some examples of this are the various utopian visions that are out there. (For more on fictional utopias see my posts on Why read Utopian Fiction?, 7/12/08, and An Annotated Utopia, 7/14/08. For a bit on some historical utopias, see Utopian Communities and New Religious Groups, 1/25/09.) There are lots of visions of how things could be but real life examples are harder to come by.

As far as I'm concerned, one example of how things might function in a very different way can be drawn from the various communities in the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. (For more on the FEC, see my post on Egalitarian Communities, 10/22/08.) For this post I want to focus on Twin Oaks, a community in Virginia and FEC member that was founded in 1967.

For those who make fun of the ephemeral nature of most of the hippie communes of the sixties, Twin Oaks has been around for 43 years now and is going strong. Kat Kinkade, one of the founders of Twin Oaks, chronicles the beginning of the community in her book, A Walden Two Experiment. (Yes, the inspiration for Twin Oaks was BF Skinner's fictional utopia.) In a chapter on 'The First Two Years...', she gives a month by month recitation of the events involved in establishing Twin Oaks. By her account there were several points where they almost didn't make it.

Kat Kinkade's second book on Twin Oaks, Is It Utopia Yet?, is a good overview of how Twin Oaks operates (although it's a bit dated now, since it was published in 1994). I've been to Twin Oaks a couple of times, and know other people who have as well, and it's a fascinating place. I strongly suggest that anyone interested in creating alternatives to this society read these books, not because I think we should duplicate Twin Oaks (it has become so idiosyncratic that it would be hard to duplicate) but because the process and community evolution is laid out so clearly, warts and all. Creating this type of situation isn't easy, and Kat Kinkade made that clear in the books. But reading these books inspires me because if they could do it, others could do it. And, as I said, Twin Oaks is still growing and evolving. (Unfortunately, Kat Kinkade, who was in on the founding, not only of Twin Oaks, but of the FEC, and FEC member communities, East Wind and Acorn, died in 2008.) Twin Oaks and the various other FEC member communities provide real models of how we could be doing things. None of them are utopia, but all of them are real.

Quote of the Day: "Obviously Twin Oaks isn't Paradise. ... Ordinary mortals can't create Paradise. We can, however, strive for Utopia. Never mind that we haven't quite got there yet. We're working on it." - Kat Kinkade

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dissensus in Action

Last month I wrote a post about John Michael Greer's new project, Green Wizardry (8/26/10). I was very excited about what I saw as an attempt to spread skills and pull new people into the alternative energy/organic farming/re-skilling/post oil movement. One group that's been doing a lot of work around this in the Transition Initiative. (See my post on Transition Towns, 8/16/08.)

Therefore, I was quite surprised to find one of the founders of the Transition Initiative, Rob Hopkins, wrote a post that was quite critical of the idea of green wizardry. I found out about it because John Michael Greer (JMG from here) wrote a post in response.

The back and forth between these two is fascinating and actually underlines (as several people have noted) a concept that I have picked up from JMG: dissensus. I wrote a bit about dissensus in my post on What Gives Me Hope (12/30/08).

Briefly, dissensus (the opposite of consensus) is about having a variety of opinions, methods, and/or practices and not trying to reconcile them. I related it to the old statement of 'agreeing to disagree'. Dissensus is important when things are unclear (like what life might be like in a post oil future) because who knows what will work. (Rob Hopkins is the first to admit that he's not sure that the Transition Initiative will work.) Dissensus, in a nutshell, is diversity in action.

The Transition movement and the Green Wizards project are very different approaches to the idea we need to move beyond fossil fuels--and certainly not the only ones. Reading the posts of these two men who have thought so much about possible futures is an education unto itself, including their critiques of each others ideas. Even better is reading the comments of their readers, many of whom pointed out the importance of valuing both approaches.

If you want to expand your ideas about possibilities for the future, I can't imagine a better way than reading these two posts and all the comments. Here is a variety of ways to go--true dissensus in action.

Quote of the Day: "Clearly Transition, Green Wizardry, Low Carbon Communities, engagement in local politics, green social enterprises, etc. etc, are all approaches that might, hopefully, combine into a viable response. I agree entirely that putting 'all our eggs in one basket' would be fatal, and have always argued for Transition as one response, not THE response, not ‘the only show in town’. Heaven forbid. My sense is that this exchange has highlighted the areas where Transition and green wizardry overlap, which has been very useful." - Rob Hopkins

Monday, September 20, 2010

From the Ground Up

For the last thirty years of my life I have thought of myself as a radical. Liberals and reformers assume that the system has problems but can be repaired. Radicals (from Radix, root) believe that the system is beyond repair and we need to return to the roots, to start all over from the ground up.

This isn't to say that there isn't a lot of useful stuff in various reform movements--as Joanna Macy points out, one of the three intertwined strategies of the Great Turning (see my post on The Great Turning, 11/15/09) is "Actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings". But she also talks about "A Shift in Consciousness" and "...the creation of structural alternatives". As I've pointed out here on several occasions, I see a need to build something quite different from what we have now (see Creating Social Change, 7/2/08), and to build it from the bottom up (see Social Change: My View, 6/29/10).

My vision is of intentional communities of people creating alternatives, living simply, equally, and sustainably, (see Interconnections, 10/20/08) growing food, using fewer resources, composting and creating no waste, helping each other, and healing each other. As part of this we need to find new ways of relating to each other and new ways of relating to the earth, the world, and becoming part of the world, the whole ecosystem. Just one integrated part of the whole.

These thoughts were inspired by my recent time of being sick and lying in bed reading. I have been re-reading My Name is Chellis & I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization (see One with Nature 1: Recovery, 12/26/08). I'm also continuing to read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (see my posts on Deciding, 2/19/10, Goals, 5/4/10, Priorities, 6/26/10, and Win/Win, 7/30/10) and The Rodale Book of Composting. An odd combination, you might think. And it seems that way, especially if you try to find a link between The 7 Habits and composting. But Chellis's book is that link. She talks about our need to find better relations with each other and better relations with the earth. Composting is a natural process. So is reaching out to each other and trying to communicate with each other. (I will write a post soon on the Habit I have been working on, "Seeking First to Understand" which Covey also refers to as Empathic Communication. It's probably not an accident that at the same time I am doing some growth work with a couple of other people and we are currently focusing on Marshall Rosenberg's book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Nor that as I am working my way slowly through Pema Chodron's book, When Things Fall Apart, the section that I come to as I'm doing all this is on 'Widening the Circle of Compassion'. Her claim: "There's nothing more advanced than communication--compassionate communication." Incidently, 'compassionate communication' was an alternate name used for Marshall Rosenberg's techniques.)

I've said over and over again that everything is connected. I see all the social movements from civil rights (see USH18: Starting the Sixties, 3/10/09 and USH19: It All Breaks Loose, 3/14/09) to the transition initiatives (see Transition Towns, 10/16/08) as pointing us toward something, just as I see the work of Covey and Rosenberg and others, and ideals of the Buddhists and Sufis and Quakers and Pagans and Witches and Renewal Jews and Liberation Christians as pointing us toward something. Something new and radical, something that guides us in an alternative direction, toward a different kind of world. A blueprint, if you will, for building a new way of living. From the ground up.

Quote of the Day: "This urge to wholeness is with us still; in the face of runaway psychological dysfunctions and ecological disasters it is emerging now with perhaps more urgency and effervescence than ever. Many of the social and cultural movements of the twentieth century are expressions of it: Gandhian nonviolence, the worker's movement of the 1930's, the kibbutz, Martin Luther King, Jr., the anti-war efforts, the hippies and yippies, the women's movement, the human potential movement, back-to-the-land, natural foods, Earth Day, permaculture, bioregionalism, the men's movement, voluntary simplicity. So too is the vast arising of passion for spiritual pursuits: Tibetan Buddhism, drumming circles, wilderness quests. And then there are today's social and psychological uprisings: the call for democracy and environmental justice, ... the rising of indigenous identity and self-empowerment.
"...let us be clear, at heart these effort express an irrepressibly human desire for a return to a state that can be known to us by the documentation of history, but that most especially resides in our memory, intuition, and dreams. ... The psychological qualities we so painstakingly aim for with our therapy sessions and spiritual practices are the very qualities indigenous people have always assumed. The social attributes we struggle to attain with our social-justice movements are the very ones that defined nature-based cultures for 99 percent of our existence as human beings.
"By all accounts, we want to recover from western civilization." - Chellis Glendinning

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Yes, it's been a while since I posted anything here. I've been sick for a bit, but since I'm feeling better, and have thought of a bunch more things to write about, here we go again.

This is another topic I can't believe I haven't written on long ago. Well, I did write bit about it in my post on Transportation (8/17/09, part of my series on our real needs), but I think it deserves its own post. I will try not to duplicate much of what I wrote in my Transportation post.

How is riding a bicycle part of social change? To start with, if you believe in peak oil, human powered vehicles (such as bikes) make a lot of sense. Bike riding doesn't contribute to climate change. Better yet, bicycle riding is simple as well as sustainable.

I ride very frequently: to work (in the nicer weather), to Boston to be involved in activities, to the co-op and farmer's market for shopping (in the Transportation post I mentioned my delight in living in a house where we have a bike trailer that can carry six bags of groceries), and even to my relatives, who live many miles away, but I can take a commuter train to stations relatively near their houses, and then bike the rest of the way (since bicycles are allowed on the commuter rail). I don't own a car and while I do have to pay for occasional bike repairs, I don't have to pay for: gas, insurance, parking, parking tickets, traffic citations, car repairs, maintenance, etc. I think that using a bike rather than a car probably saves me hundreds of dollars a year. Not to mention what it saves the environment.

It may save me money on doctor's bills as well. At the least, it's great exercise. And at one point I needed to go to see a specialist in a distant part of town about a question about my lungs. When she found out how far I had biked to see her, she said that she didn't think that I needed extensive tests, considering how 'athletic' I was. (Which is the first and only time I've heard that word applied to me!)

Imagine how different things would be if most people biked instead of riding in cars.

And if you think that you are too old to learn to ride a bicycle, my friend Susan McLucas runs a Bicycle Riding School which specializes in teaching adults how to ride. (She's had students as old as in their 80s and from all across the US.)

Yes, I think that bicycle riding is part of social change, if only because the automobile is so much a part of the society that we're trying to change.

Quote of the Day: "McLucas is an activist who has protested more than one war and who 11 years ago started the nonprofit Healthy Tomorrow to end the mutilation of women's genitals in Mali. Teaching people to cycle is a sort of activism, too: 'It's part of getting rid of cars,' she said, 'and making bikes rule the world.'" - Emma Brown

Friday, September 3, 2010

Going Organic

With all I've written about food and growing things, it's a bit strange that I haven't written specifically about organic agriculture until now.

For some reason, growing food organically is generally perceived as a bit exotic. It's often differentiated from 'conventionally grown' produce, a name that makes it sound like using tons of pesticides and chemical fertilizer was the way things had always been grown. In fact, organic gardening is really the most basic way of growing anything, and the way that food was always grown until recently. It's probably the way that you would grow vegetables in your yard if you were just starting out. It's generally about planting seeds, watering, and occasion weeding or other simple plant care.

There are lots of problems with 'conventional agriculture'. First of all, pesticides and chemical fertilizers are made from oil. And with a future where oil might be harder to come by (see my posts on Peak Oil, 7/18/08, Peak Everything, 7/20/08, and Collapse, 7/5/10), I think organic gardening is more than just a tradition from the past; it's likely to be the wave of the future as well.

Also, pesticides are dangerous. A recent study linked pesticide exposure in mothers to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in their children. There have also been studies about the harmful effects of pesticides on children and farmworkers. In addition there is an enormous impact on the environment.

And chemical fertilizers don't help the environment either. They have been been implicated in eutrophication and can actually damage the plants if too much fertilizer is added.

While apparently there hasn't been a lot of difference found between conventional and organic produce in term of nutritional quality, there is a lot of difference in terms of its effect on the environment and farmworkers.

Occasionally there's a choice that needs to be made between buying organic food trucked in from far away and buying locally, grown non-organic food. If I really have to make a choice, I'd probably go with the local but not organic. But buying food that's local and organic is so much better. And if oil supplies get tight, we may not have much choice anyway. We might as well eat local and organic as much as we can now and prepare for how we'll be eating tomorrow.

Quote of the Day: "The foundation of the chemical agriculture and chemical fertilizer industry rests on the assumption that what a plant removes from the soil can be analyzed and replaced in chemical form. Though this would seem to be a logical assumption, it fails to take into account the complex biological processes and mechanisms through which the chemical transactions are performed, processes and mechanisms aided by finely tuned and highly specialized living organisms whose operations cannot be duplicated or even completely understood. In general, the use of synthetic fertilizers short-term rapid growth for long-term gain in structure and soundness." - Deborah Martin and Grace Gershuny