TEDxMaikweHere’s the last draft of the script of Ma’ikwe Schaub Ludwig’s TEDx Carleton talk, presented on Oct 12, 2013. This is not an exact transcript, but rather the last version she was working from. Enjoy!

The message I want you to take away from today is this: Living a sustainable life doesn’t suck.

From the time our eyes can focus on a screen, we are inundated with images of a profoundly unsustainable culture, and are told: this is cool, this is sexy, you want this. And most of us do want it.

In contrast, the images we have of a sustainable life tend to fall into two categories. The first is the foolish, ungrounded dreamers, out of touch with the “real world”. And the other is of poverty, deprivation, and limited choices… of folks who really aren’t using their fair share of the world’s resources.

Taken together, this adds up to a serious PR problem for sustainable living. In short, we think it sucks.

Try this: picture your life: your work and play, your gadgets, your routines, the spaces you occupy. Now imagine using only 10% of the resources you currently consume. (PAUSE)  That number is important:10% of current average American is the number I believe we probably need to reach in order to truly be sustainable. What does 10% look like in your mind? Do you even believe that sustainable is possible?

I think we need new images of people living sustainably. Because I’m guessing that what you just pictured unlikely to inspire you to change your life.

But first, I want to take a quick detour and talk about optimism, because I don’t think we can reach 10% without it.

I have a box taped on the floor up here, and I want you to imagine with me that this box contains the current state of the world. Exactly as it is. Everything: the ecological crisis, poverty, suffering; the activism, small acts of kindness, the wonders of the modern world, all the beauty. This box contains it all.

I believe that pessimism is having both of your feet inside this box. This is the world as it is, nothing else exists, nothing else is possible. People who have both feet in tend to see themselves as being realists. And they are absolutely right. This is what is real in present time.  But, there’s not much room for creativity.

Having both feet outside the box is Pollyanna world. This is the “everything’s fine” perspective. It’s a tempting place to live, because some of what is happening in the world is deeply painful to look at. But it doesn’t actually help.

Optimism means having one foot in the box, looking unflinchingly at the world just as it is; and one foot outside the box, in hope. In a belief that we can create something better.

I live here, in this place. More specifically, I live in a place called Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage—a sustainable living demonstration project and intentional community in Rutledge Missouri. Dancing Rabbit imports optimists and exports hope, because we are 75 people actually hitting the 10% mark in some of the most important ecological measurements.

I’d like to show you what a 10% life can look like.

Let’s start with utilities: by working on a community scale, we’ve been able to start our own solar power cooperative, with a commitment that for every kilowatt hour of regular grid power the community uses, we’ll export 2 kilowatt hours of our green power.  And we only use 7.5% of the electricity of the American average, mostly thru conservation and efficient building design.  We also come in at 8% of US average for propane consumption, and 9% of water usage, with half of that water coming from rain caught off our roofs.

I want to highlight 3 lifestyles choices we’ve made that make a big difference in our water consumption. First, we use composting toilets.  So instead of pooping in potable water—which is a little nutty when you think about it, given how many people in the world don’t have access to potable water. We recycle those nutrients through composting and save the water.

Second, most of us grow gardens around our houses, rather lawns. And the couple lawns we do have don’t get watered.

Third, we have a culture where daily showers are not necessary to be socially acceptable or respected for our work. I know. I just walked right smack dab into the dirty hippie stereotype. But I want you to walk there with me for a minute, because I think this was one of the places where the hippies were right.

Our mainstream culture places a higher value on how someone looks and smells than on their contributions, and health of our local watersheds.

Women in particular are expected to spend hours every week primping and preening and making ourselves into something we’re not—repressing our bodies—just to be acceptable.

I primp and preen… about twice a year. And it is really fun… about twice a year. But I remember doing it every day, and it wasn’t fun.  And I wasted a lot of time, money and, water. So at Dancing Rabbit, we don’t have the daily shower expectation.

What we do have is a great swimming pond, which is way more fun.

Now you know I’m going to pick on cars, right? Americans own 83 cars for every 100 people, so this ratio of about 4:5 is probably what you are used to. The statistic people are often most impressed with from Dancing Rabbit is that we are 75 people sharing 4 cars.which looks more like this. We have 6% of the average number of vehicles. And we use 7% of the US average amount of fuel in our coop. Now people do sometimes us non-coop cars, but I’m willing to say that we are in the ballpark of 10% with our cars.

I’m going to talk about two more categories (food and buildings) but these are a lot more complicated to measure. We’ve started a long term project this year of doing an ecological audit on ourselves,  and I’m hopeful that in a couple years, I’ll be able to give more concrete numbers. But for now, here’s a sense of what we do to shrink our ecological footprint.

First, please note that no one is suggesting you try to live on 10% of the calories.  None of this is about living 10% of a life—it is about reducing our negative ecological impact.

Our basic approach to food is local, organic, and low on the food chain. And about half our members are vegetarian (as opposed to the 13% of Americans in general) and most of our meat eaters are low meat consumers. All agriculture at dancing Rabbit is organic, we grow more of our own every year, and most of us buy organic when we buy it, including from three local farms.

We know these are the right strategies, but don’t know yet how well we are achieving sustainability. Our neighbors at Sandhill Farm, another intentional community 3 miles away, grow around 85% of their own food, plus more for us. So they are my inspiration for sustainable food.

With building, there are also multiple factors to consider: the materials and where they come from, square footage and energy efficiency all matter. I’ve already talked about energy, so let’s talk materials for a minute.

This is how far materials in my own home traveled to get to my bulding site:
the straw bales: about 20 miles;
the posts: 3 miles;
the rest of the wood: reclaimed from an old building about 70 miles away;
the pretty bottles in the walls: 1,670 ft walking fro our community recycling center;
the clay for my wall plaster: 3-20 feet straight up. It came from digging out the foundation.

There are also some are built more of reclaimed materials, like this house that started its life as a school bus. And our homes are typically smaller as well: an average of 230 sq feet per person, as opposed to 750 sq feet per person which is the US norm.  Many of the buildings at Dancing Rabbit are lovely.

We are also pushing the envelope. Next year, we break ground on our new community center, which will combine the best of natural building, passive house principles and our own ecological covenants. We expect when it is done to have the most sustainable municipal building in the US.

OK, so this sustainable thing is cool. But does it, actually, not suck?

The reality is, we have a lot of fun. We laugh a lot and give a lot of hugs. We have our own bar, dance hall and playing field. We do weekly community potlucks with our two neighboring intentional communities.

We’ve even become something of a destination for contra and blues dance weekends, and this has spawned our own Blues Band.  And yes, we have the internet.

I mean, really: Does this look like it sucks? I think I am actually living the good life here, without all the stress of trying to make enough money to support the material life that is at the heart of unsustainable culture.

So how do we pull this off?  I’m going to share with you the 4 C’s that I think make sustainable possible: Creativity, Courage, Compassion and Cooperation.

Having that one foot out of the box means that we need to get creative—we are literally inventing a new world and making it up as we go. I want to tell you a small creativity story from Dancing Rabbit. When I first arrived, a young man named Ziggy was building a house with a reciprocal roof.  It is called a reciprocal roof because each beam is supported by all the other beams. (It’s actually a great metaphor for community… but not my point).

Ziggy wanted to put a domed window at the top, and in order to do that, he needed something to secure it. Like most Rabbits, he wasn’t excited about having something expensive manufactured for that purpose, which is the usual answer. So we were sitting around at dinner one night, and in a fit of creative inspiration, a complete novice, who’d never built anything in her life said, “What about using a tractor tire?” And that was it—one of those moments where everyone goes, “Yeah… cool… that could work!) Thus, new technology is born.

My point is this: you don’t need credentials to be creative.  We get confused about that, thinking creativity is for some people. But you don’t need credentials, you need Courage.

That foot outside of the box: it is in an exciting and scary place called the unknown. Out here, in the unknown, there are no well worn paths. And that’s actually a good thing, because the well worn paths are leading us places I don’t think we really want to end up. So our particular moment in time is calling on us to be courageous: make it up. Be bold.

Which brings me to compassion; the balm on our boldness. Our choices impact those around us, even people on the other side of the planet you’re never gonna meet. Compassion means that we stop pretending that nothing is happening, or that our choices are ethically neutral, because they are not ethically neutral. Compassion means staying connected to that reality.

I should talk, I’m one of those people who has an unfortunate “out of sight, out of mind” thing with people in my life. Drives my husband nuts; he’s on a trip and I’m like, “Husband…? Right! The husband!” So I get how we can disconnect, even from people and things we really care about. But the thing is, the planet really can’t afford us to be disconnected anymore.

One of the real blessings of living in community is living with people you don’t like.  Weird thing to say, right? I often say that living in community would be very easy, if it wasn’t for all the damn people. Having compassion for the faceless millions is one thing: try sustaining it with people who bug you. A lot. Believe me, it’s uphill some days.

But! One of the things I’ve learned is that compassion, courage and creativity are skills. And we need places to practice those skills. Living in community is one of the best places to practice because it is so real. When it comes down to it, intentional community living is world peace work, because here we can learn to resolve conflicts peaceably. And that’s huge if we want a sustainable world.

The last C is the key, actually. Dancing Rabbit could not do what we do without a huge commitment to cooperation. We share tools, cars, and a common house that meets a lot of our needs, and allows us to keep our individual homes small without it feeling like deprivation.  And sharing means coordination, which means getting very good at social relationships.

And also, being practical. We use online tools for our car sharing. We have meetings and we’ve learned to facilitate really well. We organize work parties. We take turns. That “everything I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten thing” it’s got some truth in it, folks.

Living from creativity, courage, compassion and cooperation has one more big plus: at Dancing Rabbit, we are doing this life on an average income of less than $10,000 per year.  One of the other images I could have put up in my opening is the one that says sustainability is for wealthy people only.

The truth, though, is that we don’t need more money or more stuff to be sustainable. What we do need, is each other. Thank you.