Community and Sustainability: A Powerful Combination
Elizabeth Sawin May 1, 2003
Some years ago, I was part of a group that set out to create a community where we could experiment with sustainable living. One of our first steps was to write down a list of guiding principles. At the top of our list were Community and Sustainability. (The others, if you are curious, were Unity, Beauty, and Equity.)
As I was one of the chief drafters of these principles I took them very seriously, always explaining them one-by-one to newcomers who wanted to know what we were doing. Community, I used to say, has to do with how we treat each other. Sustainability has to do with how we treat the Earth.
Now, seven years later, we have moved beyond words on a page to a real place that we call Cobb Hill. Twenty-two families share a farm, common meals, childcare, music, a wood-burning heating system, cheesemaking, syrup making, hay making, and, now and then, quiet cups of tea. And, now that I’m living in this messy, wonderful reality rather than that orderly statement of principles, I don’t see the distinctions between sustainability and community quite as clearly as I once did.
Here’s one example. We live about twenty minute’s drive from the nearest big town, a drive my family once made weekly for groceries. Knowing plenty about greenhouse emissions and climate change, we weren’t happy with the situation, but we had no other practical options.
Then our community began to form itself. Dana moved in with her chickens, and fresh eggs were always available. Steven and Kerry began milking their cows, and there was fresh milk once a week. We formed a buying co-op, so that once a month we could order boxes of toilet paper, sacks of flour, and jars of spices, all of which were delivered by truck and divvied up among us. Then a group began making cheese and selling it out of the same refrigerator as the eggs and the milk. We started sharing meals, three nights a week. A few times a month, each family cooks for twenty to thirty people, the other nights we do no shopping, no cooking, and no dishes.
The other day we realized that our family rarely drives off to buy groceries anymore. A shopping list slowly accumulates on our refrigerator door, and occasionally, when we are out for some other reason, we stop in at the grocery store.
We probably spend as much time as we did before on procuring our food. But now we are carrying water to the chickens or cooking a big stew for the neighborhood instead of strapping the kids in the car and heading off on a shopping expedition. And we burn less fossil fuel in the bargain.
Maybe this idea of a shared farm appeals to you, and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you love cities and are not excited by the idea of reaching under a chicken for your breakfast eggs. My point is not that our little experiment is the only way to live more sustainably or that my shopping-trip problem is the most important sustainability problem. What I am saying is this: joining together in community has a way of opening up unexpected options for sustainability. My family could never manage cows, chickens, and cheese on our own, and the owners of each of these small-scale enterprises would be struggling without the community members who share in the ownership and upkeep of the farm.
Of course, creating community doesn’t happen effortlessly. And it cannot happen without relinquishing some autonomy.
A lot of decisions most families make on their own require the agreement of others in my community. What time should the common meal be served? Families with small children prefer 5:30, but the people milking cows are not finished until 6:30. Should we replace the barn roof? Maybe but that means money not spent on other projects. Can cats roam free? They are miserable inside, but they kill songbirds. You get the picture – community living requires a lot of give and take and a lot of conversation.
I won’t claim that it’s always easy or that I’ve never fantasized about moving to my own little farmette at the end of a long, empty road. Still the give-and-take is more of a minor inconvenience than a deep sacrifice. It is a price I pay gratefully for the chance to share in this beautiful farm and participate in more sustainability experiments than I could in ten lifetimes of solitary living.
And there is one more bonus. Working together toward sustainability builds community even as community makes sustainability easier. I learned about one of my neighbor’s childhood adventures while weeding the raspberries with her. I noticed another’s face open and soften as a newborn lamb staggered to its wobbly feet in front of us. In the day-to-day, side-by-side work, I have come to see the people of this community more clearly. I have come to understand more of their dreams and fears, and that has helped with the discussions of roofs and cats and dinner schedules.
Community and sustainability have the potential to strengthen each other in a powerful, reinforcing cycle. Some days, amongst the raspberry canes and the spring lambs and my earnest, inspiring neighbors, I believe that this cycle might be powerful enough to carry us – my little community and maybe even our whole society – forward into a beautiful, sustainable future.