Mind the Gap: Community as sustainability

This spring break, I was incredibly fortunate to visit Twin Oaks Intentional Community as well as other local intentional communities, for the week. Twin Oaks is an income and resource-sharing community in Virginia of 100 people that has existed since 1967. Residents each work 42 hours per week. Unlike capitalist work systems, domestic labor and more count toward this total: cleaning, cooking, shopping, laundry, etc. Labor that you would do yourself in addition to a traditional job is internalized, meaning you can just show up to lunch or dinner and have food waiting for you or just drop your laundry off for the assigned person to wash.

We were then invited to come tour Acorn and Cambia (offshoot communities of Twin Oaks) as well as Living Energy Farm (another small community committed to engineering comfortable living conditions without the use of fossil fuels). Over the course of five days, we were told about the functions of all these communities and learned about the systems they employ to solve problems. A charismatic resident, Paxus, gave us the tour of Twin Oaks. He explained that to know that a system is working, you must look at the troublemakers (he admitted he was one). An example was the car-sharing system: 17 vehicles for 100 residents’ transportation needs. He said that, even when he went to request a vehicle last-minute, in his many years living at Twin Oaks he had only not been able to receive one a few times. This means that the system works for the whole community to provide resources even last-minute. The community shares cars, buildings (everyone gets a personal room in a shared space), clothing and more. As a result, Twin Oaks residents use 65 percent less gasoline, 73 percent less electricity and 76 percent less natural gas than the average American consumer.

Through our trip, we learned a lot about how sharing resources both maximizes energy efficiency and fosters healthy communities. This kind of resource-sharing is hard given our society’s standard ideologies: Having private property and large amounts of private space is valued. Sharing resources in our society is framed as a loss of property. Letting people borrow a valuable item is tinged with stress; we feel as a society that we need access to possessions at all times when we rarely or never use most of our possessions. There is a general sense of wariness and distrust when it comes to letting people borrow things. We treat lending as a huge favor, when most of the time we wouldn’t be using the given item in the first place.

Sharing space and possessions, a tenet of communal living, functions in many ways to create healthy and sustainable communities. It encourages reevaluating what possessions mean to us and why, and in that process, it heavily reduces our carbon footprints by pooling resources. It also deepens our sense of trust with others and our sense of community. When we acclimate ourselves to using physical items as means to an end as opposed to an end within itself, we ensure the practical value of them. When we share responsibilities and possessions, we can create economically and ecologically sustainable communities in which trust is reinforced.