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Why communal living is the 21st century answer to low carbon life

Zoe Foster

30th March, 2012

When Zoe Foster went with her family to live in a intentional cohousing community she didn't know what to expect. Five months in and she has discovered that it's not about what you give up, but what you give that is so enriching

I've never really considered myself selfish, until quite recently. The words I would have used instead may have been independent, strong-willed, driven. Perhaps because I've always felt compassion towards others, I could not see that my actions, my viewpoint, was inherently at odds with this sentiment.

About five months ago our family moved from independent living to life in an intentional cohousing community. When making the decision for this move we were very aware that it may not work out for us, knowing how much we were used to being our own leaders. How would we ensure we weren't stepping on others' toes whilst also managing to move forward with our own plans and dreams? How would we find the balance between family time and community time? Would we feel out of place?

The impact upon our lives was substantial. Having transitioned from a very individualised style of life to one where we were suddenly integral parts of a bigger whole, we immediately felt valued and more purposeful. Instead of struggling along a lonely path, suddenly others were there to help and keep good company with. Soon we emerged from our old habits and eagerly sought ways in which we could be useful parts of this greater entity.

In our previous life, we often prided ourselves on our low impact lifestyle, and felt that we were ‘doing our bit' for the planet in the best way we could. At the same time, though, we worried that our ethical choices often brought us to a place of virtuous isolation - where our very desire to live more lightly upon the earth predetermined our fate as social pariahs. Equally, there seemed to be an inherent competitive streak amongst those who feel strongly about a cause such as low impact living, where ‘blaming and shaming' can unintentionally come to the fore, resulting in dissent and lack of a clear common goal. However, one of the larger community projects we are now involved in is the beginnings of a Low Carbon Community, funded through the Department for Climate Change via the Local Energy Assessment Fund. There is no doubt that this has really opened our eyes to the possibilities for real change within communities, particularly in regard to energy choices.

21st century communities

Humans are a naturally tribal species. We are designed to live together within extended families, to share our resources fairly and to protect each other from harm. Today we tend to live within larger, less coherent, communities. As a result, we feel less secure as individuals and more vulnerable. And so we grow shells, put up barriers and try to protect ourselves in the only way we know how - in a typical fight-or-flight-style response. I believe this is the root cause of much of society's ills, and paradoxically, it also prevents us from developing natural tribal bonds with our neighbours and larger local community. Only when we are threatened as a group by some greater external force - such as war - do we all begin to pull together with little demur. For this reason, it has often been said that war brings as much good as it does harm, but surely there is a better, less destructive way?

Perhaps this is why intentional communities are on the increase, and the demand for places in them higher than ever. Despite the persistent stereotype of ‘happy hippy communes', people are beginning to seek them out as a means of regaining our long-lost social structures.

There is no doubt that community living can also equate to low impact living - naturally we share our resources, skills and time in order to help each other and to achieve common goals. On another level, having a ready-made team used to working together means we are able to easily achieve larger goals that might intimidate less cohesive groups or individuals. Through LEAF funding we have supported St Gennys Low Carbon Community, which acts as a central advice and information point on energy choices for the local residents of our parish. As part of the LCC project, we have designed a website and information booklet, both filled with essential information on local energy resources, options, events and contacts. We've organised local events to advertise our aims and to engage the local population in the possibilities available to them for their homes and businesses. We've also involved locals in an energy survey and carried out infrared home audits in order to determine the approximate carbon footprint of the parish, and to find out how we can help individual home owners meet lower energy targets that will also save them money.

Breaking down social barriers

Additionally, at Trelay, we've created three different examples of solid wall insulation, which can be viewed by appointment. Other work includes a range of feasibility studies for future energy projects - these can be borrowed from our resource library or accessed on our LCC website.

By working together we can achieve great things - for us, for our planet, for our future. Above all, community - given the right circumstances and shared objectives - can be a great equaliser, making every individual as important as the next. This automatically reduces the need for social currency ('I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine') because there is in implied trust that we all do the best we can given our individual circumstances.

In my previous independent life, I believe I would have struggled to be part of a major project such as St Gennys Low Carbon Community. But being part of a cohesive community like Trelay has changed me, and as a group we have risen to the challenges of this important cause.

Through LEAF we have been given a wonderful opportunity to help make a significant change in our local community. As individuals, we can fall into the habit of thinking such issues are the responsibility of others. By integrating more closely with your local community, it's easier to take responsibility for change - and to make it happen.

Futher information:

St Gennys Low Carbon Community - lcc.stgennys.org
Trelay Farm Cohousing - www.trelay.org
Zoë Foster -  www.zoefoster.co.uk

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