Thriving in a Post-Consumerist Society

By Duane Elgin

Posted: 06/12/11 11:38 AM ET Huffington Post:

What does a thriving way of life look like in a post consumerist society? Many aspects of a thriving future can be found by stepping into a contemporary co-housing community or eco-village.

To illustrate, my wife and I lived in a co-housing community in Northern California for nearly two years. Our motivation was to explore an alternative to the alienation and isolation of a single-family dwelling and lifestyle and to see if there was a healthier and happier way of living in community with others. We did not move into a “commune” with shared income, personal lives and possessions. Instead, this was a setting that valued the privacy and integrity of people’s individual lives while offering diverse ways of coming together in meaningful activities ranging from cooking and gardening to sharing common meals. Overall, we discovered a sense of kinship based, not on material status and consumption, but on neighborliness, shared values, and mutual regard. We also found a community that cared for all of its children, as well as for those aging and dying. Not to be left out was a generous sense of celebration for life with music and dance. The three core organizing principles for the community are simplicity, family, and ecology. With 70 people (50 adults and 20 children), this was a scale of living small enough to create a genuine feeling of community and large enough to use our size to advantage. This co-housing community consists of 30 units in two-story flats and townhouses clustered in rows to establish a common green area on the interior and parking on the exterior. The common house is used as a dining area but is regularly transformed into a dance floor, meeting room, playroom and more. The common house also includes two guest rooms, an informal lending library and a playroom for kids on rainy or cold days.

As a community, we would typically eat together three evenings each week and often have a brunch on weekends. Each person participates in a three-person cooking crew roughly once a month, preparing food and cleaning-up for roughly 50 persons. People are also expected to participate in work crews such as landscaping, conflict resolution or kitchen maintenance. Every other week there are meetings to run the workings of the community. Happily, these are run efficiently and expertly, attendance is high and much is accomplished. This eco-village has a half-dozen commercial spaces connected with it, so it combines a residential community with commercial enterprises.

Beyond the formal activities of operating a co-housing community are the informal ones that brought us together in meaningful relationships. We easily and quickly organized diverse activities ranging from fundraisers (such as a brunch for tsunami disaster relief), to arranging classes (such as yoga and Cajun dancing) and creating community celebrations and events. Again and again, we saw diverse gatherings and initiatives emerge from the combined strengths and diverse talents of the community. Envisioning a future of sustainable prosperity, diverse families will live in an “eco-home” that is nested within an “eco-village,” that, in turn, is nested within an “eco-city,” and so on up to the scale of the bio-region, nation, and world. Each eco-village of 100 -200 persons could have a distinct character, architecture, and local economy. Common to many of these new villages could be a child-care facility and play area, an organic garden, a common house for community meetings, celebrations, and regular meals together, a recycling and composting area, an open space, and a crafts and shop area. As well, each could offer a variety of types of work to the local economy such as child care, aging care, organic gardening, green building, conflict resolution and other skills that provide fulfilling employment for many. These micro-communities represent unique expressions of thriving sustainability as they provide meaningful work, raise healthy children, celebrate life in community with others and live in a way that honors the Earth and future generations.

A new village movement could transform urban life around the world. Drawing inspiration from co-housing and eco-villages, a flowering of diverse, neighborhood-scale communities could replace the alienating landscape of today’s massive cities and homogeneous suburbs. Eco-villages could provide a practical scale and foundation for a sustainable future and become important islands of security, camaraderie, learning and innovation in a world of sweeping change. These human-sized living environments encourage diverse experiments in cooperative living that touch the Earth lightly and are uniquely adapted each locale.

Although eco-villages are designed for sustainable living, there is not the time to retrofit and rebuild our existing urban infrastructure around this approach to living before we encounter a world in systems crisis. Climate disruption, energy shortages, financial breakdowns, and other critical trends will overtake us long before we can make a sweeping overhaul in the design and functioning of cities and towns that have been a century or more in the making. We can regard eco-villages and co-housing communities as greenhouses of human invention, learn from their experiments, and adapt their designs and principles for successful living.

Without the time to retrofit cities into well-designed “green villages,” we must make the most of the urban infrastructure that already exists. Creatively adapting ourselves to this new world will produce a wave of innovations for local living — technical, social, architectural and more. An experimental and daring new village movement will emerge as the existing urban architecture is transformed into human-scale designs for sustainable and thriving forms of living. Overall, in creating healthier ways of living, a new village movement based upon the sanity of simplicity, a strong ecological consciousness and respect for children and family, will play a vital role in building a future of sustainable prosperity.

An important resource for exploring this further is the “Global Ecovillage Network” or GEN. For the United States, see the Cohousing Association.