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Community and Individualism

The Problem

How can we live sustainably in the midst of a society which, as a whole, isnít sustainable? That is the problem; and we want to know whether intentional communities form the solution, or at least part of the solution.  

Does living in a community conserve resources better than living in standard private housing?  For anyone seeking simple living, housing is a critical and puzzling problem. Housing is responsible for a large proportion of the resources that Americans consume, and housing is getting bigger. In the 1950's, the U. S. A. had one of the highest standards of living in the world, and a standard still beyond most of the world. Yet the square feet of housing available per capita is much greater now than in the 1950's. "Square feet" is not the only measure of how resource-intensive a particular house is, but still it appears clear that it is just not possible, with known resources, for six billion people to live in their own American suburban ranch house with a lawn and two-car garage. Itís not a question of economics, but ecology; the resources just arenít there.

Housing is important not only in the resources which it consumes directly (concrete, space heat, wood, yard space, water for lawns), but also in the resources needed to sustain the lifestyle implied by the housing. Almost all American housing implies access to a car, because it is fairly distant from necessary resources such as stores and friends. The car is an accessory to the house; it is less expensive, so if you can afford a house you can presumably afford a car. There are people who live in American housing without cars, and there are exceptional areas such as New York City in which relying on a car is actually a handicap. But in general the gap between having both a car and a house, and having neither and being homeless, is much narrower than we think; the option of having a house, but not a car, is not explored, and very little housing is designed specifically for non-car-owners. Therefore, it is difficult to tackle the question of housing or transportation in isolation. And to change both of these, simultaneously, to sustainable forms would require a major cultural shift. This probably will not happen until a major crisis is visible to all.

Do we have to wait for society as a whole to change before we can find our own ethical housing? Must we aspire to sainthood and live in a small apartment or slum without a car? Even for those willing to do this, it is difficult to see how this could set an example which all Americans, or even all environmentally-conscious Americans, could and would follow. For those impatient for society to change, but wanting to live in comfortable but ethical housing, intentional communities are a significant alternative.

"Intentional communities," or what I sometimes loosely refer to as "communal living," does not necessarily imply sharing of all resources, only housing resources. It encompasses a wide variety of social experiments. The most widely discussed is co-housing, but by far the largest and most enduring intentional communities in North America are those of the Hutterites, a collection of Christian pacifist communal groups in rural Canada and the United States. Few of these various groups are designed specifically as a way to live sustainably, though that is often a significant interest. But perhaps some form of intentional community might create the possibility of living sustainably and enjoyably ó a lifestyle which, in principle at least, could be enjoyed by everyone on the planet without depleting the earthís resources.

Are Intentional Communities the Answer?

Could intentional communities further the goal of simple living in ways that living in standard housing cannot?

This would be a totally innovative use for communal groups. Historically, communal living experiments in America such as the Shakers, the Hutterites, the Harmonists, and the Oneida community have been vehicles for people who have separated themselves from the rest of society based on a new vision of how life should be. However, the way I have phrased the question implies a different role: intentional communities as a way not of escaping from the world, but of being a spark to change the world, moving it toward a simpler, less materialistic way of existing. Indeed, if communities are "simpler" in some tangible way, we might foresee a world in which some sort of communal housing is the norm rather than a minuscule deviation from the housing norm.

To answer this, we have to ask two additional questions. The first and most important question is, does living in intentional community make resource conservation possible in a way that living in standard private housing does not? Does (or could) an environmentally-conscious co-housing community consume fewer resources than the same number of equally environmentally conscious people living in standard housing?

Intentional communities might be able to conserve resources in ways in which standard housing cannot through the sharing of resources, but this needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed. A quick glance at contemporary communal housing experiments would suggest exactly the opposite. Most co-housing communities are more expensive than comparable private housing. Many of the techniques practiced by co-housing and the "eco-village" advocates ó straw-bale houses, composting, permaculture, gardening, and so forth ó can be and are practiced by those outside of a community. Perhaps the real solution is not living in community per se, but being environmentally conscious, regardless of what kind of housing one chooses; and perhaps the only real way to get environmentally sustainable housing is for people to live in smaller houses, constructed in a more environmentally sustainable way.

There is also a second question: even granting that living in an intentional community does create a unique possibility for resource conservation, is doing so now an appropriate tactic for communicating our ideas? James MacKinnon, who writes for Adbusters, puts this objection well: " . . . dropping out and joining a commune is volunteering to put your ideas in quarantine. And besides, communes tend to be a bit heavy on the rules. A tad monolithic. We do not live in communes because we refuse to cede the culture. We prefer to be within the culture, a disturbance."

Of course, if living in community does conserve substantially more resources than living in private housing, then even if itís not the appropriate tactic now, at some point communities are going to enter into the solution. But there is still the charge that entering into a communal life is to spend oneís life-energy in communal affairs when it should be spent on changing the world. This needs to be balanced against the other tactical consideration, that we should "practice what we preach." How can we urge others to live in sustainable housing if we are not living in sustainable housing ourselves?

There are a variety of models of communal living, some easier to get started than others. Students on a limited budget may simply decide to move in together. Housing cooperatives sometimes are simply larger versions of this sort of thing, but generally as people move up on the social and economic ladder, they quickly discard "communal living" and move into private housing. The best known model is the co-housing community, which is built from the ground up. Co-housing has an architecture specifically designed for communal living.

It would be worth mentioning two other experiments I know of in Denver which do not require a fundamentally new architecture. One was a community started by a spiritual group following an Eastern philosophy. It was fully incorporated as a religious organization, which meant that it also received tax benefits. They would buy standard private houses near their temple, and then their adherents would move into them. Meals would be shared at the temple, as well as cars, tools, and some household chores. A second community was started by a local vegetarian activist who bought an apartment building in a high-density neighborhood. As the apartments became vacant, she would invite some of her friends to move in. The apartments were rather small but one apartment was reserved for communal activities such as sharing of meals. These experiments are interesting because they show what can be done without building community buildings specifically designed for communal living; thus, if the experiment was ended, the houses or the apartment building could be sold as standard private housing.

Living sustainably can be propelled forward if it also has the consequence of being less expensive. While it is not necessarily the case that what is less expensive consumes fewer resources (organic food comes to mind), as a general rule this is true. What is less expensive also appeals to our pocketbooks. There are two aspects in which an intentional community might save both resources and money: the actual physical construction of the buildings (resources saved through architecture), and the internal economy of such an intentional community (resources saved through cooperation).

Specifics ó Architecture

How can communities be more efficient with respect to natural resources, in ways in which normal housing cannot be?

(1) By reducing the requirement for total square feet of living space. This is because each community member (or family unit) will, in addition to its strictly private space, share some common living areas such as meeting rooms, living areas, and kitchen and dining areas. Not everyone is going to use or need these areas at the same time, so the "virtual" living space available for each person is greater than the actual space divided by the number of people. For example, suppose you have ten couples each desiring 1000 square feet of space. Instead of putting them into a ten 1000-square foot houses, you might put them in one 7000 square foot house, with 500 square feet each of private area for each couple and 3000 square feet of common areas such as living rooms, kitchens, and dining area. Itís hard to assign a number, but perhaps by sharing space the same "living effect" could be achieved with reductions of 30% of the total square footage. In addition, having more people in fewer square feet will save heating bills through extra body heat, and space heat is one of the most important ways in which Americans use energy.

(2) By reducing the ratio of the area of outside walls per square foot of area. Communal housing would typically be larger than private housing; but as size of the house increases, the square feet of living space increases faster than the area exposed to the outside, thus resulting in lower heating bills. If you have a 50' x 20' house with a flat roof (1000 square feet) and increase the size to 50' x 40', the square footage has increased by 100% but the surface area exposed to the outside has increased only about 80%. If you instead double the height of the building and add a second story, you have increased the square footage by 100% but the total area of the walls exposed to the outside has increased by 67%.

(3) By creating high-density housing. The same parcel of real estate can accommodate more people if it is a multi-story rather than a single-story house. Single-family units are rarely more than one or two stories high; but a three or four story house could provide three or four times the square footage of living area as a single-story dwelling, on exactly the same parcel of land. High-density housing brings no benefit to the inhabitants, except possibly a small tax benefit because the tax on the underlying land will be less per person, but makes mass transit much more possible. The higher density a city is, the more people will be at each bus stop, thus making transit more convenient, frequent, and affordable.

Of these three advantages, only the first is intrinsic to communal living. A high-rise apartment building would provide the second and third advantages; heating bills would be reduced, and housing density would be increased. Only sharing living space is intrinsic to communal living. Communal living might serve to make high-density living more appealing, but so far this has not happened; communal living is fairly limited, yet apartment complexes are widespread.

So why hasnít this communal architecture spread far and wide? The basic reason is that there is no financial incentive to form or join such a community. In the first place, few if any groups appeal to potential members on the basis of lessened expenses. They appeal to their members through a shared religious practice (e. g., the Hutterites) or through vague appeals to the ideal of community living (e. g., co-housing), not on the basis of financial incentives.

In the second place, though, even if communities exemplifying these strategies existed, the financial advantages are too marginal to be significant at this time. Such communal living might have substantial environmental effects, but these do not translate into substantially lower prices. Sharing living space might decrease construction costs by about 1/3. Heating costs are not a significant factor in housing choices because energy is relatively cheap right now. High-density housing has an increased social value, and would bring significant advantages if everyone would do it, but again brings only very slight savings (in the form of lower taxes) to the owner. All of this is probably not enough to outweigh the serious loss of privacy. In other words, to cite the above hypothetical example, a couple would prefer a 700-square-foot apartment to an identically priced unit in a 7000-square-foot house shared with 10 other couples, even though the latter arrangement would give them more "virtual space."

We can imagine a situation in which the economics have changed so that a high-density housing community would be at a more substantial advantage: the city could tax land, rather than buildings, and could tax land more steeply than it does. Were heating costs to rise substantially, through a permanent energy crisis, the decreased heating costs might be a significant advantage. In the meantime, those wishing to live simply in cities by consuming less resources in their housing choices, therefore, have a fairly straightforward alternative which does not require community living: move into a smaller space in a well-run condominium or apartment building.

Specifics ó Internal Economy

There is a second reason communal living might be financially attractive, and that is because of the internal economy of the house. The internal economy of the house can result in significant savings for both domestic tasks and transportation costs. Yet very few communities are utilizing these savings. The most interesting feature of many modern intentional community experiments is the failure to utilize, or often even be interested in, savings due to internal economy. Most likely, this is because of an even greater loss of privacy: not only do we have to live with these people, but we have to interact with them on getting household tasks done as well.

Domestic Tasks. The savings on domestic tasks would be realized even in quite small communities. Fixing dinner for 20 people is more work than fixing dinner for 2 people; but it is not 10 times more work. It is perhaps 3 or 4 times as much work. Washing dishes for 20 people, also, does not take 10 times as long as washing dishes for 2 people. Even for a community of as small as 10 or 20, there is a potential for saving up to 2/3 of the total housework. This would be partially offset by the need to attend house meetings to deal with issues surrounding the house, what to eat, and so forth, but even so, this would seem to be perhaps a very significant reason for joining a communal living situation.

Transportation. There is no basic human need for transportation per se, but rather for access to whatever transportation takes you to. You need transportation to go shopping; but if the community can shop as a group, fewer people and less gasoline is involved, and you get volume discounts as a bonus. There are three very common needs which are addressed by possession of an automobile: (1) social interaction with friends, (2) getting basic household items like food, clothing, and medical or other services, (3) getting to an from a job.

An intentional community could provide one with many of the casual friends one needs, especially if the community shares some basic values such as acceptance of a common spiritual path. A community could also provide bulk purchasing of food, cleaning supplies, and other commonly used items. This would not only save on the cost of trips to the store, but would save on time devoted to shopping and, through buying in volume, receive discounts on food and other household items. There is also the potential to share cars ó most cars sit around all day most of the time, though there are certain times (rush hour) when a lot of people need a car at the same time. This would not necessarily save on gasoline, but it would save on the steel and the financial costs of buying and insuring the car in the first place (similar to the idea of "car-sharing" which does not require communal housing at all). Itís even possible, though infrequent, that the community could provide jobs for at least some people; this would probably be more applicable in a rural community than an in urban community.

If you figure in the cost of labor on domestic tasks and transportation as part of the basic housing "package," it is possible that communal or cooperative living could reduce the cost of housing perhaps around 50%. This would be somewhat offset by the additional time required to "administer" the community, but even after allowing this, the savings could be significant. This in turn would reduce the amount of money which people would have to earn to sustain themselves.

The Privacy Issue

Most people do not move into intentional communities because they offer no particular economic advantages. On the other hand, they offer a significant disadvantage: the necessity to share living space with neighbors who may be somewhat obnoxious and about which you can do little. On the other hand, a few people ó once introduced to a communal situation ó find it delightful and canít get enough of it. They find the new social situations they find themselves in, which lie somewhere in between conventional friendship and familial relations, to be fulfilling. Most people currently in co-housing communities fall in this category. It is precisely the feature which most people view as a disadvantage, which these people view as an advantage. We all enjoy being in communal situations at certain times and to a certain extent; that is why there are social clubs, churches, and other such organizations. But the people who like communal living, just happen to like it more and more of the time. The primary "glue" which holds many co-housing communities together is precisely this desire to live in community.

How can we address the privacy issue? First of all, for many co-housing communities, many of these issues do not even arise. Very few co-housing communities utilize common meals. They do not have this privacy problem ó but they also lack the economic benefit of common meals. Why donít they try common meals? One problem, of course, is agreeing on what food to prepare, but there is an even more significant reason this isnít done: by assigning household tasks such as cooking and washing dishes, there is yet further loss of privacy, and the community becomes involved to a certain extent in family politics.

Is work divided up by individual, or by household? Most likely, it would be divided up by household. Household chores are traditionally determined within a family. A family constitutes a social unit within the community ó a community within a community. If one person is contributing more to the household income due to a lot of overtime, and wishes to have fewer domestic tasks, will he plead his case to his spouse or to the community? In a completely communal society, where the personís income goes into the community treasury, they would probably plead their case to the community; but in a more normal co-housing situation where the household controls its own income, this person would plead his or her case to their spouse, with the household responsible for the domestic tasks.

In itself, this would not seem to be an insurmountable obstacle. Surely a formula could be devised that could assign each household a given amount of work based on the size, number of children, and so forth. However, historically, dealing with differences between families has been a fundamental stumbling block in intentional communities. If there are families living communally, this creates a complex situation in which you have families within the larger communal "family," within the still larger economic unit of society as a whole.

It cannot be an accident that the most successful communities have been the monastic communities, where there are no family ties at all. Buddhist monastics are taught that the other members of their community are their new family ó their brother and sister. The best known exception would be the Hutterites; but they are characterized with a fairly uniform family structure. They have a traditional patriarchal family unit, with birth control proscribed, insuring large families. This is not to say that there are no solutions to the problem of the internal economics of the community. But this is a significant problem which needs to be addressed. Again, most people will prefer a private family arrangement, even when it means more work, to entering into a risky and novel social arrangement which perhaps involves less work.

A friend of ours (in standard private housing) has had problems with her odd neighbors. She had a neighbor who played loud music at all times of the day and the night and who also, it turned out, was dealing drugs. Appeals to the police did not yield quick results. Since the neighbors actually owned the house, they were immune to pressure from any landlord. Finally, they left, but were replaced by someone surreptitiously running a day-care center (illegal in the zoning they were in). This was less obnoxious than dealing with drugs, but still problematic.

Everyone knows of neighbor "horror stories" like this, some mild and amusing, some more serious. And so weíre supposed to live communally with these people? This thought makes people cringe. Itís no wonder that the idea of communal living hasnít taken off. The societal trend is to want to get away, to get into oneís cocoon, into a private space away from all of this nonsense.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that a communal living arrangement would be voluntary and could impose agreements on its members far in excess of the legal minimum. If someone were playing music loudly in a community at 3:00 a. m., action would be swifter and not burdened with the need for meeting legal niceties than in private housing in an apartment building; one could quickly bring oneís case to the whole community. Still, this is a novel social arrangement which no one has really tested. What about all the more subtle ways in which neighbors can be obnoxious? Suppose itís still annoying but not as blatant as playing loud music at 3:00 a. m.? What if the "obnoxious neighbors" turn out to be a majority of your community? Given all this, wouldnít private housing be a simpler solution? Thatís what most people have concluded.

The modern co-housing communities usually deal with this dilemma by preserving the integrity of the privacy of the family. Each household has its rights fully respected, with its own kitchen, living space, bedrooms, and so forth. But this makes it much more difficult to realize the potential gains of architecture or internal economics. There are rarely shared meals, and the communal areas are in addition to, rather than instead of, the basic "common areas" of the household such as private living room, kitchen, and dining area. This does not give co-housing any intrinsic economic or environmental advantage beyond what could be achieved by a committed environmentalist in their conventional private house. People have a variety of interests and concerns, and meeting their individual needs becomes a higher priority than preserving an environmental architecture ó and if communities donít deal with individual needs, they wonít be able to attract members. The impact of individualism on the communities movement is very important and will be discussed below.

The Lack of Financial Incentives

Why have communities not taken off and spread in a society where so many of us are motivated to live simply? There are several interlocking reasons, but the underlying reason is that there is no particular financial incentive to do so. The lack of privacy then becomes a fatal disadvantage for almost everyone, and as a consequence only a small minority ever enter any sort of cooperative housing arrangement.

The reason there is no financial incentive to form or join communities, in turn, is due to a variety of interlocking factors. First of all, there are no designs for such economically advantageous communities. This could be remedied when someone makes the first step. Existing communities have not made economy of price a priority; it is within the realm of possibility that this could change.

A second factor is that we need a critical mass of people involved in communities for communities to work. If co-housing is just a small percentage of the total housing, then moving into a community could be a dangerous experiment. The marketability of the space you own in a community is small. It is like investing in a single stock rather than a mutual fund which owns many different stocks, or building the only California-style house in your entire city; you could easily find your investment much lower than you anticipated. "Leading the way" in housing could leave you "high and dry" if you make a wrong decision. If there was a larger (and stable, or growing) percentage of people in co-housing or some other form of community living, it would be easier for people to experiment with less risk, and society would benefit from the knowledge gained. Again, it is within the realm of possibility that this could change, and that in fact there might be a "snow-ball effect." A critical mass of potential communards would lead to experimentation, which would lead to improvements, which would lead to a fall in the price of co-housing, which in turn would increase the number of potential communards, and so forth.

A third factor is that society is individualistic and is becoming more individualistic as time passes. It must recruit people from an individualistic society, and it is hard to screen members for traits such as "unnecessary individualism." Someone who is merely different, may be just the person you want to recruit to your community. As a consequence, communities have to adjust to individualism in one of two ways: accommodating it, or controlling it in accordance with a prescription. This third factor is actually the most decisive factor and is what is the most important limiting factor in the formation of intentional communities. Unfortunately ó unlike the first two factors ó this problem is really beyond the reach of the individual community.

Communities in Our Individualistic Society

We have a paradox. Our society is individualistic; communities exist as islands of cooperation in a sea of individualism and inventiveness. Most people do not join communities simply because communities offer no particular financial incentives. The small minority that does join a community, does not do so because of economics. There is a vicious circle here: the individualism of the larger society also tends to reinforce the non-financial incentives in existing communities. Because privacy is such an overriding concern, communities take careful measures to offer their members privacy ó but these measures in turn result in a higher cost to enter the community, which in turn tends to filter out anyone joining a community to save money.

As a student in the 1970's, I had lived in a cooperative house, and one significant advantage of the co-op was that it was inexpensive. The cost was $101.25 per month for room and board, which was quite reasonable even in those days. Many years later, at middle age, my wife and I looked into co-housing. We were floored when we discovered that co-housing was substantially more expensive than other comparable private housing in the Denver area! This was not just a marginal issue; we eventually bought a house which was less than half the price of the co-housing opportunity. How could this be? Arenít there any economies of scale or other economic benefits to cooperation? Are we supposed to abandon our individualistic housing and, at the same time, pay a higher price? So we bought a conventional house.

Later, during a visit to a co-housing community, we mentioned this to one of the residents who was a strong co-housing activist. We said in effect, "weíd love to join a community but itís too expensive for us!" His response was that, in principle, co-housing was cheaper, but that in the design of co-housing communities, everyone wanted to design variations into their own housing unit. In the process of individualizing each unit, the cost was increased. Also, insufficient use was made of common facilities. At the co-housing community we visited, for example, there was a large and impressive kitchen facility ó yet each unit also had their own kitchen, and common meals were only served about once a week. In addition, each unit had a fairly large living room, yet the common rooms served most social purposes that residents had, except perhaps for private conversations. If the residents had realized they would not need such large living rooms and kitchens, the units could have been smaller, cheaper, and more affordable.

That society is not only individualistic, but is becoming increasingly individualistic, is a generalization which is difficult to define or prove. We thought of the Vietnam War era in America as being an "individualistic" era, with drugs and rebellious hippies, but this era also had a draft and tens of thousands of Americans were killed fighting in Vietnam. Today, after September 11, there is no draft and except for the events of September 11 themselves, American casualties in the "war on terror" are comparable to that of a single day in Vietnam. In short (regardless of what one thinks of these "causes"), there is less willingness to sacrifice the good of the individual to the good of society. The individual has become more important than the group: today there is even more individualism than there was during the "excesses" of the 1960's.

Itís not my intention to debate this thesis, but just to show how individualism impacts the question of communal living. Letís assume that society is individualistic; this means that most community members will be recruited from this culture. Itís important to understand that when we say that community members, like the members of the larger society, are "individualistic," we do not mean that they are insincere or have somehow betrayed their conscious ideology. Individualism is not a character trait, but more of a cultural reflex action. People are simply looking out for their own interests because thatís just the way things are done. They live in a society where everyone looks out for their own interest; anyone who doesnít, finds themselves taken advantage of.

Therefore, one of two things will happen: you will have a community which generally tries to accommodate individual differences, or one that will try to enforce some sort of standard. The first type of community will be very much like many co-housing communities: friendly places to live, but they will be so accommodating that you will not see any particular gains in economy or ecology. The second will have a charismatic leader or concept and will attempt to channel the communityís energy into a single plan.

In the first case, we see the effects of individualism on the co-housing community. Because the community seeks to accommodate the need for privacy, the ability of everyone to cook their own meals, the ability to host fairly large private gatherings, etc., the units became more expensive. The community provides the opportunity for a community experience, but at the same time it also provides the option to be very private as well. In designing for both options, the co-housing becomes more expensive.

So what about the second model, the charismatic leader or charismatic ideal? This is exactly the model that most people fear to get involved in. It evokes images of Jim Jones, suicide cults, Indian gurus preaching simplicity but driving Rolls Royces, and so forth. But in an odd way, the intentional community with a charismatic leader or charismatic ideal is also a rational response to the challenge of living communally in an individualistic society. If we are to establish any sort of coherent leadership or plan in a community, there must be an overall plan which rejects the frittering away of communal energy in an effort to accommodate all the individual differences.

How do we get around this problem? Could communities screen prospective members? There is some precedent for this; historically, the most successful communal living experiments have been those in which potential members were screened, while those who failed to do this collapsed quickly. This is why spiritual communities are often successful; the model of communal living (e. g., the Shakers or the Hutterites) already exists, and people who want to join it are in effect "pre-screened" for conformity to this model. So one alternative is to come up with a plausible and workable social model, and then promote it and stick to it.

Suppose you wanted to form a community from a group of willing individuals, but not according to a predetermined social model? You just wanted to find some generally cooperative people, sit down at the table, and discuss the concept with them, and form a community on that basis? Perhaps the way to screen members would be to administer some sort of psychological test that would measure the ability to work together as a team. However, the idea of a psychological test as a prerequisite for joining a community would be obviously repugnant to most people, and moreover itís very uncertain that ó even were all parties willing to undertake this regimen ó any psychological test could successfully identify the "community traits" necessary to make a different model work. And how else would one screen oneís potential members?

In practice, therefore, newly forming communal groups simply have to accept the social framework of individualism of the larger society. They must accept as a given that the people they are going to attract will be individualistic ó not because of a character trait, but as a cultural reflex. Even those predisposed due to ideology and inclination to work together for the common good have been trained to defend their own turf against the constant intrusions of others by constant social interaction with others in an individualistic society.

Communities are thus on the horns of a dilemma. They can either accommodation individualism of the larger society, which results in the syndrome of the middle-class, somewhat pricey, co-housing community in which its revolutionary ideas are "in quarantine." Or one can develop a more revolutionary social model and invest either the model or the leadership with the charisma of the group, which results in a collectivist group which will appear to outsiders as autocratic and monolithic.

A future for communalism?

At the present time, there does not seem to be much of a future for intentional communities seeking to live more simply than the American norm. We do not even have to raise the question of whether it is an appropriate tactic, because it does not appear to be possible in the first place.

What does this imply for the future of communal groups? We are not necessarily stuck forever with a choice of suffering under a semi-autocratic community leadership, or coping with the higher financial price of freedom within a community. This dilemma applies to a specific problem, namely groups which are forming, in a situation in which there is no real model for environmental urban community living.

We could use the example of social security, something implemented during the Great Depression years. Social security is a collectivist solution to a social problem. As our society has become more individualistic, social security has come under attack, and some even proposed "privatizing" social security, but no one has suggested that social security be eliminated. But suppose that social security had never been proposed or implemented, and somehow the history of the U. S. had otherwise been pretty much the same. Had President Clinton then proposed a system of social security in 1995, it is highly doubtful that it would have ever passed in the current cult of the individual. "Massive government spending!" would have been the cry, and that would likely have been the end of it. In short, individualism is more of an obstacle to the establishment of a cooperative vision than it is to the maintenance of a cooperative vision. Individualism generally works within the existing cooperative framework established by previous generations.

Similar logic applies to communal living. If a viable environmental model of communal living existed and was being practiced, it might suffer somewhat under the reign of the cult of individualism ó just as compact cars have suffered in relationship to sport utility vehicles (SUVs) ó but it would not cease to exist. In fact, it might even spread, albeit slowly, throughout the culture. For anyone interested in a Christian, pacifist, patriarchal model of community, the Hutterites continue to flourish and increase, in spite of the individualism of society, for example.

But socially, it is very difficult to see the conditions in which an environmental model could even be established. What we really need is an experiment which would not only become established and benefit the members, but would also spread rapidly. This doesnít mean that intentional communities are useless or have failed; generally, co-housing community members are more environmentally aware than their neighbors in private housing. The current co-housing communities may form a base upon which future experiments will come forth. But in practical terms, for most people the need for privacy overrides the need to be an "eco-saint," and it is hard for an environmental model of co-housing to become established or spread rapidly under these circumstances.

We foresee the likelihood of an environmental crisis which will force people to look at more collectivist solutions. There are various dire occurrences which could stimulate this to happen. We could imagine a new Arab oil boycott, or more prosaically, a peak and then a decline in world oil availability, which would drive the price of oil to $10 - $15 a gallon, with corresponding increases in home heating oil. We might see the specter of mass starvation in poorer regions of the world, coupled with more news of global warming and environmental destruction. The nation would then realize that it is in the middle of a global environmental crisis, and that an effort comparable to that in World War II is required. Suddenly, the culture of individualism would cease and be replaced with energy which will be seeking and proposing new solutions. One of these new solutions may be cooperative housing.

None of the existing communalistic or co-housing groups really offers us a model by which intentional communities could become a significant force, much less the dominant force in society. For those who have the resources, and are truly dedicated, inventive, and perceptive, a new simple living community might be just the project to undertake despite these obstacles. But for most of us, who are a bit more cautious, have fewer resources, and are not quite as adept, we should work instead to nurture the emerging consciousness that a radically different way of living is necessary, and be prepared to act when and if the opportunity offers itself.

ó Keith Akers