Monday, May 3, 2010

The Cooperative Life

The final article in the excellent series on the "sharing economy", in B.C.'s must-read online newsmagazine The Tyee, focuses on the social, economic and environmental promise of co-housing. The conclusion: living together is not just for hippies anymore. 

As kibbutzniks know, sharing accommodation and other resources in a so-called "intentional community" (an odd phrase, as it implies the rest of us live in an "un-intentional community", which I suppose is often true) makes a lot of sense, both for personal savings and ecological impact. North Americans' hunger for bigger houses in car-centric suburban locales has turned us into environmental dinosaurs, gobbling up the planet's resources even as we stumble blindly toward the extinction of this lifestyle in the coming age of peak oil. (To say nothing of the oil on our collective hands from the current eco-catastrophe along the coast of Louisiana thanks to our "drill, baby drill!" appetite for a high-carbon diet.)

Learning to live together might mean learning to live more lightly on the earth. Much of the current recession, set in motion by bankers' greedy schemes of subprime mortgages, can be linked to the collective "house lust" of North Americans, in which realty began to bear little resemblance to reality, as the Tyee article makes clear:
When the U.S. housing bubble burst in 2006, entire planned neighborhoods went bankrupt, rows of McMansions were unoccupied, sidewalks ended in the middle of fields, blue-collar investors left owing millions to banks that had no business loaning them the money in the first place.
What these investors, developers, and banks lacked was a sense of community, a view of the home's primacy as a social space rather than a commodity. It's a bit obvious to say that the real estate bust was fostered by those who cared only for the value of a house rather than the value of a home, but it wasn't obvious enough to the hordes who bought into the pyramid and then were surprised to find themselves crushed by the weight of the bricks.
Living in a co-housing situation, like living in a kibbutz, takes some adjustment and isn't for every personality. But the potential good of this "sharing economy" (a hopeful phrase I've come to like) is powerful:
Accountability lies at the heart of shared living systems, just as it lies at the heart of our environmental issues, the need for each of us to recognize we are citizens of a larger community. Intentional communities stress the responsibilities and benefits of shared living in the same breath, a seemingly instinctual (and often seemingly forgotten) recognition that working for the community pays off double for the individual, both in short-term gains (such as being able to leave your sick child in trusted hands when you go to work) and long-term solutions (such as the dramatic environmental benefits of shared living).
For some, though, the opportunity to connect with others may be reason enough. As [one resident] admits, "I just like having people to say hi to when I come home."


  1. This blog is really interesting, David. I remember how the kibbutz experience was, for some, part of the 60s and 70s (last century!)wandering in Europe and the Middle East. I recall meeting people in Greece who were on their way to Israel and how adventurous it seemed.
    That Tyee series was good. And your comment about intentional and unintentional communities has me thinking about where I live. It's a small community. The population used to be mostly fishing and logging-based with aging hippies and a few others, like us, who came with the idea of raising a family on a piece of land we couldn't have afforded closer to Vancouver. We loved our land but didn't think too much about the community until our children were of play-school age and we got involved in the various things parents find themselves volunteering for -- health boards, building committees for the schools, etc. So in many ways, I suppose we thought of it as "unintentional" in some respects. During elections, there'd be the debates and full arguments that seemed as bitter as any. Yet after the election, I'd find myself on a committee with someone I couldn't believe I'd have anything in common with and would realize (often grudgingly) that there were things about that person I sort of respected. The community itself wasn't built on shared values necessarily but perhaps it's maintained that way. I like that I'm known in most of the businesses, the little monthly book column I write for a local rag is read by people who wouldn't read the Times Literary Supplement but maybe they'll buy the book I recommend, and I like that my children have a place to come home to where they've been known all their lives. I still hate elections, though.
    Theresa Kishkan

  2. Thanks! Yes, I think of the street on which I live in Victoria (with the lovely name of "Meadow Place") as "semi-intentional".... or at least the sense of community we sought and found there is semi-intentional. We knew where we preferred to live (and where we didn't) in the city based mainly on a few criteria: walkability, access to public transit, proximity to parks etc. Because of that choice, we have a close and cooperative relationship with our neighbours (now of six years), with whom we share what barely constitutes a fence (a low bamboo pole to keep our dog from running off). My 4-year-old son has learned to garden from our neighbour who has a much greener thumb than mine. We drop off the Globe & Mail when we're done with it. She lets us borrow her car if we need it, so we don't have to own one. We both look after each other's houses when we travel. We decided to renovate rather than move when our family grew and we needed more space—the community we had found was too hard to give up. We aren't shaking the foundations of our political system perhaps. But it feels like we've found a small, good thing that we are all learning from.