A Recipe for Saving the World, One Bagel at a Time

David Wann, Harmony Village, Golden, Colorado

Start with a group of ten culturally creative cohousers interested in social change and sustainable lifestyles. Throw in a hunger for spirited discussion. Toss lightly in a neighbor’s living room and dice up bright, unsettling ideas from books such as State of the World, When Corporations Rule the World, The Cultural Creatives, Believing Cassandra, Affluenza, and Natural Capitalism. Combine with ingredients of day-to-day life: the relentless loss of local open space; the construction of a golf course on adjoining property; the election of politically incompetent candidates to state government; the desire to incorporate nature-compatible technologies into our community; and federal policies in which sustainability is not even on the radar screen. Stir-fry with a sense of mission.

What do you get? A spicy, colorful, healthy dish called the Sunday Morning Sustainability Group at Harmony Village. We’ve been meeting on the fourth Sunday of the month at Macon and Ginny Cowles’ house for four years now. Over bagels, juice, fresh fruit, and tea and coffee, we discuss both global and local issues and learn from each other—always with a spirit of creating environmentally friendly, socially sustainable alternatives. The meal is simple, maybe in keeping with our shared conviction that our lives need to be simpler.

No need to ring the bell on these mornings, just walk in, greet your neighbors, and grab a cup of your favorite beverage. Ginny has the coffee ready and the juice glasses out, and someone will show up with a dozen or so freshly baked bagels. The atmosphere is comfortable and familiar. The place and faces remain much the same—it’s the issues that are constantly changing.

You could call us a support group. At the end of each gathering, the intellectual and social support we’ve given each other lifts the weight just a bit from challenges that often seem to blanket us like a dense fog. But we’re also an action group. If Worldwatch literature reminds us that carbon dioxide levels have quadrupled in recent years, we assign a delegate to become a compact fluorescent bulb guru, promoting their installation in all outdoor community fixtures. If we learn from David Korten’s books that national corporation’s mission statements specify shareholder profits as their sole responsibility, we look for ways to support local businesses, such as the hardware store, or to support local organic farmers. This summer, we got excited about a succinct twenty-five-word “do-no-harm” clause we found on the Internet that can be added to corporate charters to broaden their missions, and we explored ways to publicize it.

Sunday Morning Sustainability Group members come from varying backgrounds, if similar concerns. For example, Virginia is a consultant on socially/environmentally conscious investing. John’s a retired psychotherapist and volunteers his time with homeless people. Wendy works with outdoor education at the Division of Wildlife. I’m a writer and video producer on sustainability. Harmony Village cofounders and our group’s hosts, Macon and Ginny, have brought a century of social activism to our discussions. Macon marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and Ginny won the American Friends Service’s Peace Award for her work at Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons plant.

Last spring, Macon passed away (at the exact moment the community was gathering for a candlelight vigil in front of his house), but his energy and his resolve continue to resonate with us on Sunday mornings. We find ourselves referring to articles he wrote for the community newsletter in which he championed active participation in composting, political activism, and energy efficiency.

He had a tenacious, curmudgeonly skepticism for easy answers. We once caught him on his front porch measuring the speed of his electrical meter after installing dimmers on some of his lights. Though he’d been told that dimmers didn’t save energy, he wasn’t convinced. He sought out second and third opinions, discovered that they do save energy, installed the dimmers, and advised us in the newsletter to “Dim it, dammit.” He would also routinely remind vacationers and business travelers that their flights were burning fuel at the rate of twelve gallons a minute just to give us a healthy dose of guilt. (When he and Ginny went on annual vacations to California, they drove.)

Our small Sunday group has affected Harmony Village as well as the city of Golden in various ways. Most meetings, we bring letters we’ve written to politicians and editors and have spearheaded evenings with local politicians in our common house. When developers had their eyes on prime open space, we helped defend it. Knowing that Colorado is an ideal location for solar energy, we’ve explored ideas for financing solar panels out of long-term maintenance reserves, paying ourselves back with energy savings. (We’re excited about Muir Commons’ recent solar installation!)

We’ve already got a community pickup truck, thanks to the generosity of one of our group members, Bob, but we’re always open to the idea of a car-sharing cooperative that might include noncohousing neighbors. Maybe some would progress to being one-car households.

Someone said that the fork may be the greatest weapon of mass destruction, given the environmental destruction and nutritional deprivation that conventional agriculture causes. We hope to help reduce that impact with a highly productive organic garden, now eight years in the making. A few years ago, with our sustainability group as a catalyst, Harmony formed a private corporation of shareholders in an agricultural ditch that flows right past our garden. We own a share of Clear Creek in perpetuity and have installed a solar-powered pump to access the water.

A few meetings ago, we accepted responsibility for saving the world, since
somebody has to do it. We each showed up with platforms of five short-term and
five long-range suggestions for improving the world. This month’s meeting will
continue a discussion in which we began to apply first-aid to the most pressing problems, such as military aggression, child abuse and neglect, and other forms of violence. We concurred that only when our world is out of the crisis mode can we gain the flexibility and sense of empowerment to support the inevitable transition to a more equitable, secure, and permanently renewable economy.

What specific rehabilitating actions will be proposed for the long term?

We’ll find out this Sunday, and maybe we’ll follow through on an idea I once brought to the discussion, which I called the power of ten. What if our group of ten sustainability nuts comes up with ten priority actions that are fairly easy to understand and very endorsable? What if we then e-mail these priorities to our sixty-odd cohousing peer groups and they e-mail them to family and friends throughout the world? Our group of ten feisty change agents would have launched an exponentially influential document, read and endorsed by millions. Will we save the world? Probably just in the nick of time.

Related pages:
Sustainability