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The Twin Oaks Communities Conference has been happening for decades at Twin Oaks in Central Virginia and every year bring together communitarians and communards, experts and students, founders and seekers from all over the communities movement. It is, without fail, an incredible and, for many people, transformative experience. There is a catch, though: it’s on the East Coast and it’s always on the East Coast (because it’s always at Twin Oaks). The further west you live the harder it is to get to and so it is hardest for the folks on the West Coast.
Three years ago, a solution was born: the West Coast Communities Conference! Hosted for the first two years at the Groundswell Institute in Northern California this year a new organizing team stepped up and moved the conference to Southern California just outside of Escondido. This year I had the good fortune to get to attend both communities conferences. In contrast to Twin Oaks, where it rained steadily for half the conference, at Terra Madre, the proto-community, organic farm, and event venue that hosted the West Coast Communities Conference, was sunny and dry as a bone. Instead of dense deciduous forest we were surrounded by bare scrubby hills built of sun bleached boulders.
But those are superficial differences. In many ways, the conferences were a lot alike. Both attracted a mix of community seekers and community veterans with a sprinkling of students, researchers, and people from outside the movement curious to look in. Both had lots of valuable workshops and panels and drew some big names in the communities movement. Both were great networking events, connecting existing communities with community seekers and sparking all manner of other valuable relationships and connections. Both mixed structured content with unstructured networking time and serious work with relaxed recreation.
There were differences, however. Twin Oaks is the oldest largest secular income sharing egalitarian commune in the US. Twin Oaks provides the basic infrastructure and support and does a lot of prep work and clean up but all the attendees of the conference pitch in to cook and clean and play with the kids and keep the whole event running smoothly. This keeps costs down and recreates the cooperative and collective effort that is the basis of communal culture. Terra Madre is a private farm and event venue. The staff there did all the food prep and serving and volunteer opportunities, though present, were more limited. It was interesting to watch the conference participants repeatedly ask the staff if they could help and get repeatedly rebuffed. One unfortunate effect of this was that the necessary ticket price for the WCCC was noticeably higher than the TOCC and a lot of people who would have liked to come ended up discouraged by or unable to pay the ticket price. How many were discouraged, of course, is impossible to tell and the price could likely never get low enough to not draw any complaints.
Another difference was in what sections of the communities movement were represented. The Twin Oaks Conference, which is co-sponsored by the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, is free to attend for any member of an FEC commune and most FEC communes send a small delegation most years. Additionally, being hosted at Twin Oaks means that a good share of Twin Oaks members will wander up to the conference at some point during the weekend. The end result is that the conference is crawling with communards and egalitarian income sharing communes are an inescapable presence, bordering on the conversational default, most years. The West Coast Conference this year was, of course, hosted at a venue that is not an intentional community (but might be one day) but was also primarily organized by volunteers from within the co-housing portion of the movement. The networks they reached out to were mostly co-housing networks, a couple co-housing networks were event sponsors, and many of the workshops were geared towards a co-housing audience. As such, the majority of attendees and the conversational default at this year’s WCCC was co-housing, not communes. In fact, out of about 60 speakers and attendees only Sky Blue and myself were currently living in an egalitarian commune (and we were both there as speakers and organizers for the event). That being said, there were a handful of egalitarian community oriented attendees and my workshop on the hows and whys of income sharing was both well attended and so popular that several people insisted I lead a follow up session during the open space portion of the conference. A few people left inspired and some hopeful connections were made.
I think that the general lesson here, and the lesson for the egalitarian communities movement specifically, is an unsurprising one. An event, like a community, is shaped by the people who organize it. No matter the stated goals or self-conception, the people who show up to make it happen will quite naturally bring their own perspectives and interests to bear on their work. If we want the West Coast Communities Conference to be more effective as an organizing nexus for egalitarian community we need to step up and devote our time and resources to making it happen. The promising news is that, both at the conference and on the travels around the West Coast before and after it, I saw copious evidence that people are hungry for solutions to the problems that egalitarian community addresses. There is interest in the ideas and experience that we have to offer and there are individuals and groups circling around and looking for an opportunity to get together and transform their lives. The soil is rich. If we attend to it, beautiful things can blossom forth.
As someone who is interested in starting communities (and has started communities), I’m well aware of the precariousness of new communities. What can folks who are trying to start new communities learn from the communities of the past as well as those around now that have lasted?
First of all, as the author of the online article (Alexa Clay) points out, 90 percent or so of new communities fail—but that’s also true of business start-ups. Starting a new venture is always risky. However, as the author also points out, many of these communities weren’t very well put together to start with. She goes on to say that “intentional communities and utopias can serve as short-lived petri dishes for emergent culture.” This is very similar to my personal view of communities as laboratories for social change. In communities, we see what works and doesn’t work. So looking at other communities can help us decide to whether it makes sense to try something or not.
In looking at past communities, Ms. Clay talks about Fruitlands, which is my favorite example of how not to start a community. The founders (Amos Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane) mandated a very strict and rigid routine. The Wikipedia article on Fruitlands claims, “Diet was usually fruit and water; many vegetables—including carrots, beets, and potatoes—were forbidden because they showed a lower nature by growing downward.” There were no formal admission requirements or procedures to join the community and they attracted quite a few men (apparently Alcott’s and Lane’s wives were the only women) who do not seem to have been the most stable characters. I think that one of the biggest problems was (quoting Wikipedia again): “many of the men of the commune spent their days teaching or philosophizing instead of working in the field.” Fruitlands lasted only seven months. Given how it was structured, I’m surprised it lasted that long. But we now know that you can’t run a farm by discussing philosophy.
The author also talks about New Harmony and she points out that (not that different from Fruitlands), “Of its population of 800, only 140 were adept at working in local industry, and just 36 were skilled farmers. The community was far too open and indiscriminate in its invitation, allowing anyone to join, and attracting a lot of free-riders without the necessary skills or appetite for hard work.” New Harmony lasted two years.
When Alexa Clay looks at success stories, she points to spiritual communities such as the Shakers, Quakers, and Amish. One thing that I notice about all of them is a willingness to work hard.
One community that I’m surprised she doesn’t mention is Oneida, which lasted a
good 30 years, and embraced a very communal structure and complex sexual structure in the 19th century, and, from something I read, was missed by many of its members after it was gone. Unsurprisingly, they had a good work ethic. (From Wikipedia: “All Community members were expected to work, each according to his or her abilities…. Community members rotated through the more unskilled jobs, working in the house, the fields, or the various industries.”)
A spiritual community that has lasted much longer is the Amana Colony, which was founded in 1859, and continued communally until 1932, when the community split into a spiritual “Church Society” and a for-profit company which continues to own much of the land. Again (from Wikipedia): “For eighty years, the Amana Colony maintained an almost completely self-sufficient local economy, importing very little from the industrializing American economy. The Amanians were able to achieve this independence and lifestyle by adhering to the specialized crafting and farming occupations that they had brought with them from Europe. Craftsmen passed their skills and techniques on from one generation to the next. They used hand, horse, wind, and water power, and made their own furniture, clothes, and other goods.” Amana refrigerators were a legacy of this community.
These communities come from what I think of the first wave of communes, that occurred during the 19th century, mostly between the 1840s and 1890s. The next major wave of community building occurred during the 1960s and early 1970s. Most of these communities are gone.
Ms. Clay does mention Findhorn, which began evolving in 1962 but was established as an official foundation in 1972. She quotes social entrepreneur Kate Sutherland who said: “It’s not utopia. It’s microcosm. Everything that’s in the outer world is there—marginalisation, addiction, poverty, sexual issues, power. Communities are just fractals of society.” However for Sutherland the difference between Findhorn and the rest of the planet boiled down to “good will and a clear commitment to waking up” or as she said, “People are willing to look at their stuff.”
However there are some other communities from the ’60s and ’70s that are still around. One of them is Twin Oaks, which is turning 50 this year, has almost 100 members who live very communally, and appears to be going strong. And, yes, they have a strong work ethic.
Twin Oaks hammocks and tofu, Oneida silverware, Amana refrigerators, Shaker furniture, Amish farming. Alexa Clay notes: “Perhaps the irony is that many of the administrative and managerial forces that individuals are running away from within mainstream society are exactly the organisational tools that would make intentional communities more resilient: that regardless of how much intentional communities with utopian aims seek to step to one side of worldly affairs, they succeed or fail for the very same pragmatic reasons that other human enterprises—notably businesses and start-ups—succeed or fail.”
But it’s not just about the willingness to work hard. It’s about building relationships, looking at your stuff (as Kate Sutherland said), and willingness to listen to each other. What amazes me, as someone trying to start community, is how many people still think just having a good idea is enough to build a community.
Unless we are willing to learn from other communities, both past and present, the failure rate of new communities isn’t going to decline. Raven MoonRaven lives at the Ganas community in New York City and works with the Point A project to start new egalitarian, income-sharing communities in the city. He also co-manages the Commune Life blog which focuses on the diversity of egalitarian, income-sharing communities.
Twin Oakers have been known to make some very “creative-tasting” desserts. We also dumpster-dive a certain amount of food. Between those both, you never know what might make an appearance at dinner, or if you might find it to your taste….
The “O&I” Board (Opinions and Ideas) is where people can post a proposal to change something in the community. Proposals are written on clipboards on a big board, and any member who wants to can add their comments, expressing their enthusiasm or concerns about the proposed change. If you’ve written a comment, and someone else agrees with your perspective, instead of writing their own repetitive comment, they can just “ditto” what you wrote.
We have a system where any member can leave any other member a note for business or personal reasons. The system is getting somewhat less use now, since most (but not all) members are online and can message each other, but it still does get some use.
We have our own in-house (“in-commune”) All Request Dance Band (ARDB). A few months before every big holiday, the band asks people to suggest which songs they’d like the band to perform. People make requests, the band chooses some, they rehearse them, and at the next holiday, we dance the night away to those songs. New Year’s Eve (NYE) is one of our bigger dance parties.
Every month we have a new group of visitors, and inevitably, some members and visitors are interested in each other. We discourage intimate connections between members and visitors, since members have a power imbalance in that dynamic and we want to avoid that impacting any potential membership process (hence the “un-PC”).
The sign of a healthy community is not whether or not there is conflict–since conflict is an inherent part of living together–but rather how the conflict is handled. Ideally the two parties will talk about what happened and find resolution, but sometimes it’s just a relief to be able to let something go if someone leaves.
We have members whose job it is to go shopping in town for the group. To order an item, you fill out a “Twin Oaks Requisition”–T.O.R. for short. Ideally people put their TOR in a day or so before the town trip happens, but sometimes you have a very last-minute craving for your favourite junk food or you just have forgotten, and you can try to catch the town trip before they drive away.
Closing all of our building related permits gives us a moment to reflect and consider where we are going next. For the most part, we have done what we set out to do. We have built a small village that is extremely efficient, fairly cheap, and mostly operates without fossil fuel. The integrated solar systems we have connected to our main house and kitchen are working fantastically well. The farm has been developed to a point where it is economically viable, and we are doing good work growing open pollinated seeds. Our work is far from complete. The farm is not fully weaned off of gasoline machines just yet. Our cooking is still too reliant on firewood. But we are making progress on those fronts as well.
We are doing what we said we would do. We have created a model that we think is viable around the world, and we are looking for ways to spread that model. For us, the project has been both rewarding and, at times, fatiguing. Our “to do” list looks rather impossible at times. The reality is that, no matter how talented or dedicated a group of people may be, doing too many things means some projects are well executed and some are not.We are feeling the need to clarify and focus our project better.
Rosa and Pebbles the Duck. Nobody else can catch them!
Given that most of our major construction is done (we may still want to build a greenhouse or other outbuildings), our need for cash flow is reduced. Our thinking currently is that we will, in the future, focus our project more around education, outreach, and technology development. We will be bringing back our weekend intensives, and making them into an in-depth sustainability training program. (Dates to be announced.) We will likely put less of our energy into growing seeds or developing businesses to support the on-site community. We feel like this course is the wisest in terms of maximizing our impact (and our own personal sustainability and happiness in the project). The financial numbers look like they are at least minimally adequate for this new strategy. With the completion of our main house, we are again putting some more work into looking for partnership opportunities with other organizations that might be able to take the LEF model to other locations. We would love to have help with spreading our sustainable model.
LEF’s Nickel-Iron Battery Project
There’s a lot of buzz about batteries these days. Given the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy, effective batteries are critical to providing power if we are going to live without coal and nuclear power. Industrial scale lithium-ion batteries are now coming online. These batteries could, potentially, have a big impact on the round-the-clock viability of renewable energy.
We regularly get people sending us advice about a newer, better battery. The recent article in International Permaculture has prompted some communications about something called LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate) batteries. The field of battery research and development is technical, complex, and expensive far beyond LEF’s meager resources. As far as we can tell, all of the lithium variant batteries degrade with each charge cycle (meaning they have a limited productive life) including the aforementioned industrial scale batteries. The LiFePO4 batteries are destroyed if the voltage drops too low, which presents a problem in climates where solar or wind resources are inconsistent. NiFe batteries, by comparison, have low energy density (the batteries are large for the amount of power they can store). But they do not degrade on the charge cycle, nor are they damaged by full discharge. We have a 100 year old operational NiFe battery. The (now ancient) NiFe batteries made by Edison’s company are regularly cleaned out and used by modern NiFe enthusiasts. The bottom line is that none of the current lithium variant batteries have any hope of making it 100 years.
Even if they did, the rush to make better batteries risks becoming yet another attempt to address environmental problems from a supply-side approach. It is expensive, and ignores the root of the issue. The root of the issue is our lifestyle, and how it is woven together with the industrial, political, and military layers of our society. Even if industrial scale renewable energy systems succeed, they are so expensive and complex that the best we could hope for in decades to come is ever increasing class polarization: an elite class that lives supported by this complex infrastructure while the masses huddle around their smoky fires.
Approaching sustainability with social equity foremost in mind leads to other solutions. We stand by the low-density, homemade or village-made, NiFe batteries as the best option we have seen for providing cheap, durable, stationary, electricity storage for village use. Eddie has been continuing with his mason-jar NiFe project. He has increased the voltage and storage capacity of his units. Sometime this fall we will probably set some of these homemade batteries up at LEF and begin service testing them. Wish us luck.
First stage of batch water heater construction, stripping and cleaning a water heater tank.
This video comes out of an ongoing conversation we are having at Cambia about minimalism and functionalism. The two ideas are not necessarily opposites, although sometimes a minimalist ethos can prevent things from being as functional as they could otherwise be. But is function always necessary? How much skill, and sophistication, and access to resources do we really need to live a good life? Perhaps, if we focus too much on function, we miss opportunities to connect with each other.
But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we build our community according to minimalist or functionalist principles. Either would be fine. What matters is that we take the time to really listen to each other, and develop robust empathy for each other’s values. That’s what community is all about.