Sunday, October 07, 2007

52 Weeks Down - Week 24 - Form a Neighborhood Cooperative

There's a lot one can do to get one's energy use and budget down on your own, but when you start hitting the wall, it is time to start looking for other people to work with. There's an enormous amount that an organized neighborhood group can do to help you get along with minimal energy usage. It isn't an accident that most people in low-energy societies spend a lot of time interacting with their neighbors - low input living means we *need* each other. One of the best ways to get started is to form a neighborhood group.

What do your neighbors have to do with your energy usage? What can you do to get your energy down? Well, let's say you've been driving out to the local farmer's market to buy fruits and vegetables every week? All you need are two other families who also want fresh, local produce, and you've cut your drive time down to once a week - one family does pick up one week, the next family the next. A coop, set up with the specific goal of finding ways to meet energy reduction and money saving needs can help you connect your seperate goals.

Or perhaps you've been driving your daughter to music lessons once a week. Perhaps a neighbor's child is going the same way, or perhaps a neighbor could teach basic piano to your daughter in walking distance, or neighborhood teenager could be paid to bicycle with your child safely to music lessons. You'll never know unless you try.

What about a swap meet? Once a month you have swap, with a different theme every time - this month it is duplicate tools, next month, toys or maternity clothes or books? What about a neighborhood "Free" box, where anyone can put anything they are getting rid of? How about bartering babysitting or garden produce or help painting your garage for something you've got that they need?

You need a new vacuum cleaner...or do you? What if you simply borrowed a neighbor's vacuum cleaner once a week, and in return, she borrowed your hedge trimmers? You may already do a little of this, but a coop formalizes the relationship, sets up rules and makes it easy.

How about a neighborhood dinner trade-off. Two families get together. Every Thursday, one family cooks, and drops off enough food for the other family. Ta Da! Free time, a meal you didn't have to cook or clean up from, and not much additional work for the person dropping off the extra lasagna.

How long before you trust each other enough to loan cars while one is in the shop, or to share a car entirely? How long before an elderly neighbor who really shouldn't be driving can trust that you'll help her out on errand day if she'll do your mending for you?

A neighborhood coop could offer classes, taught by the members. The lady down the street teaches sewing and knitting, you teach cabinet making, the guy up the hill teaches beer brewing. Or you could get a guest speaker in once in a while - hire someone to teach soap making or how to clean with ecological products, or edible landscaping.

A neighborhood coop has power with your local zoning board - you don't just represent yourself, you represent a neighborhood full of people who want to allow chickens, or hanging up laundry or bring a bus route your way. A neighborhood coop represents a way of resolving disputes, and focusing on common ground - you may not vote for the same people or share the same culture, but you both care about good food for your kids and living within your means.

A neighborhood coop has buying power - you can order your food in bulk and divide it up. Bringing in enough organic free range chickens for a whole neighborhood might make it worth a trip for a farmer to deliver, while one family's needs wouldn't be sufficient. A neighborhood coop can search out new sources for things, even ask local farmers to consider growing a new crop, and be sure that there'll be a good market for it. Perhaps together you can even afford to buy that woodlot and save it from developers, or hire one of you to provide a car service so that people could give up their vehicles and someone could have a job closer to home.

You can throw parties together, and let everyone have fun closer to home. Instead of driving into the city for live music, the best harmonica and guitar player in your neighborhood can get together and play. Instead of everyone at home watching their own tv, consider neighborhood movie nights for the kids and adults. Everyone gets to throw popcorn, make fun of the subtitles or sing along with the theme song.

There are countless ways that we could reduce energy - if only we could just share the burden a little. Get together. Form a group. Set up a plan. Let everyone tell you what they need and want. Change your lives. Change the world, just a little. Have a party. Start a coop.



homebrewlibrarian said...

A co-op sounds wonderful. But I'm being the one reluctant to make the first step. One reason is because I expect to move out of this neighborhood early next year but most of why I'm reluctant is a very deep rooted cultural belief that my neighbors would prefer to be left alone. I have no actual proof of this except when Elders from the Latter Day Saints come around and nobody will speak with them (I do, but then I'm not put out by folks who talk about God, even if it is different from what I believe). Since no one has come to interact with me, I'm finding it very difficult to overcome a serious hesitation to interact with them.

Instead, I'm developing contacts with people not in my immediate area with whom I can develop relationships of sharing. My chicken wrangler is a good example. I found out that she sold pastured chicken eggs and made contact. I'm also totally a geek about chickens so we had lots to talk about. Over the last few months, we've gotten closer and now I bring my vegetable bits and egg shells for the chickens when I come to get more eggs. We talk about all sorts of things and I got some currant jelly, still warm from canning, last time.

There's no way I can claim she's in my neighborhood, heck, it takes me nearly an hour to get to where she lives (I buy 5 dozen eggs at a time to reduce the driving back and forth). But we enjoy talking and she's a wealth of knowledge about poultry. If ever I get to the point where I can have my own chickens, I'll buy some of her grown up chicks hatched at her place. So for now I bring food for her girls and any egg cartons I can round up from other people.

I have other contacts but they aren't as good yet (the raw milk group I'm in, the guy I bought muskox meat from, the guy I bought raw honey from, etc.) and may never get very close. But when I move next year, I'll be sharing a building with a long time friend and his daughter, son-in-law and baby. We all interact somewhat now but we'll interact more often once I move there. We're already talking about reducing the number of cars and learning new skills together (my friend, his daughter and I are all signed up for beginning knitting classes). A good beginning but I'll still have to get over my reluctance to talk with the neighbors no matter where I live. And no matter how much I tell myself I'll never know if there's a relationship just waiting to happen unless I do it, it's the doing it part that will be the biggest hurdle.


Anonymous said...

There are times when I feel you are really out of touch with urban neighborhoods, Sharon. There may be some neighborhoods in my city where this would be a possibility, but most definitely not in mine. It's all we can do now to hope some of our neighbors don't steal what we have. Just dealing with their drunken parties, loose dogs, and illegal fireworks keeps us on our toes enough.

Shane said...

I also think this post is a bit out of touch with reality. I live on the Sunshine Coast in Australia and we have by comparative standards a very active permaculture/relocalisation segment in the community. But I wasnt ready to be drawn into any "community" that required driving long distances to be physically involved in, just to chat and buy some seeds that I could have sourced more economically through the mail.

My local village is starting up a relocalisation group within the town, so that will be within biking/walking range and I plan to actively support it. But I have low expectations with the hope that starting with such an attitude is more emotionally sustainable than imagining we can rapidly transform our community. I think the key is going to be in just plain old getting together and talking more than trying to be too structured or ambitious about specific goals. Coordinating services for bulk discounts is probably what people want to see the most. Perhaps a community supported dairy would be a good initiative. A bulk order of nut trees from a wholesale supplier could be useful also, perhaps for additional planting as street trees. But I am concious that if we push the general community too fast we will sour the relationship and miss later positive opportunities.

The most important people in my community at the moment other than my immediate household and family are my next door neighbors. We are very lucky that they are an agreeable mix. Only one openly shares our impressions of the future (the others are elderly), but unfortunately he is only renting (though this hasnt stopped him putting in a massive veggie garden). With the others it is enough to talk regularly, help each other out with small jobs, and send a few excess turnips or eggs over the fence when we have more than enough for ourselves. But beyond that I don't try to make more than occasional conversation starters such as "have you seen the price of oil lately?- food will be up again next! Oh by the way have some sweet potatoes". I share the perception with the other commentor that I hesitate to intrude on other peoples lives.

I think critical mass for these kinds of initiatives (ala Cuba) is still off in the future. The economic slump may well be engineered as a long slow squeeze, and people have already demonstrated their inability to figure out when you cross the line from "good deal" to "rip off" with a way of life rushing faster between work and housework.

Anonymous said...

May I suggest that the best way to start this is to have a pot-luck. Invite others over for a casual pot-luck event- a Sunday morning brunch or something works well- kids included. And take it from there. We do pot-lucks all the time in my community-it really helps bring people together and then we take it from there. It's not perfect believe me- I wish we were doing much more than we are, but I know from others that we are far ahead of most other communities in tems of knowing each other and supporting each other in times of need.

Rosa said...

I live in an urban neighborhood with grafitti problems, casual theft, all that stuff - someone got shot two doors down the first summer we lived here, and people routinely leave beer bottles sitting under our corner shade tree. Still, there are amazing church garage sales (not that different from a swap meet), tool borrowing with our immediate neighbors, a mom's group that stores shared toys in a park building, and neighbor kids who taught my kid to ride a bike (they also fed him Pepsi and Cheetos, but nobody's perfect.) Plus an amazing array of flower and vegetable gardeners willing to share seeds and tips.

I have to admit I let down the local "hours" program by committing to helping a neighbor with her garden and then getting overwhelmed and quitting after a few months (I could write a list of neighborhood-building opportunities I've squandered that way, actually - but that's me, not the neighborhood).

Not everybody wants to be your friend, and not everybody has the same vision you do. But you can find simpatico people almost anywhere, especially if you're willing to be flexible and join not-quite-perfect groups that already exist. I happen to think our neighborhood is a perfect place to try to build the community I want, but that's why I live here. If you decided to live somewhere, there must be good things there that you can build on.

Mulligan Stew said...

This, and McKibbon's promotion of Farmer's Markets, brought to my mind "what is THE most efficient way to distribute food in a community?" My mom used to talk about the Swiss pie maker who came around their neighborhood in Sacramento once a week in a horse-drawn wagon full of pies, and they would be greeted with: "I got tree kinds o'pie... apri, pineapri, and apricot!"

Is not this the THE most efficient? If we are indeed working in home in the future (see Wendell Berry's "Home Economics" book), farmers bringing their produce - farmstand on wheels - to the neighborhood, rather than replicating the "drive car to Mall" mentality, seems the way it will eventually be. ~Dave Smith

Anonymous said...

"Action breeds optimism."

Some suggestions to help get people past the "buts" in the above comments:

*neighborhood watch meetings: I'll bet if there's a lot of crime in your neighborhood, you're not the only one concerned about it. Use this as a step-stone.

*food drive to support the local pantry

*block parties - in many places in the US, the local gov't will cooperate with you in closing off your street for a few hours, so neighbors can meet.

*get CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training: This is something I'm presently doing and there are programs all over the US. Put up flyers and invite others to join. You'll meet some neighbors and increase your community's resilience in the face of an emergency.

*many bakeries dispose of loads of their perfectly wonderful bread. Some folks I know arrange to pick it up and then share it with neighbors.

*Just do it! Sounds simplistic, but my experience is that fears can vanish when you step past them. We're all counting on *your* voice, too!

I've got a lot more ideas for the broader community involvement that's deeply relevant to our times.

I think there's a powerful illusion that we support when we say that we don't want to intrude on other people's lives. The fact is, it seems to me, that we intrude all the time, but don't acknowledge it. All of the extra consumption (and pollution, etc.) that we participate in very clearly "intrudes" on much more than "other people's lives. "

Be gentle, be kind, but speak up, I say! And say more, as you can. My experience is that many people are relieved to have a chance to talk about the major issues we're facing.

Deepen the conversation. It matters to me, and I'd be grateful if you would.


jewishfarmer said...

I guess all I can say for those who think this is out of touch with reality is that I'm not describing anything I haven't done. I've done it in poor urban neighborhoods and in my very diverse rural one. Every place I've ever gone, I've found people who wanted to share - maybe not for exactly the same reasons or in the ways that I would have proposed, but for different reasons and in different ways that were useful to me. There's simply no way I could do what I do without neighbors to barter and share with, and I find it hard to imagine anyone else could - but perhaps I'm wrong.

The thing is, by our societal standards, extending yourself to other people is seen as really, really hard. Much harder in many ways than simply gathering into yourself. But I think if we don't learn to extend, not just to the perfectly compatible people who are like us but to the imperfect people we live near, we're going to have difficulties - it isn't self-evident to me that a crisis will lead us to pull together a la Cuba. Instead, it might divide us further - unless we've created the psychological infrastructure to bring ourselves together.


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