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Peak Moment 206: Awakening the Village Heart and Mind

From their zero-mile bistro to zoning and financing innovations, O.U.R. Ecovillage in BC, Canada has paved the way for many communities worldwide. For Brandy Gallagher, the story on the planet right now could be a shared ethos of caring: “Everyone is fed. Everyone is taken care of.” Asserting that “No is just an uneducated Yes,” Brandy shows how a village mindset can transform individuals, preserve land, reduce resource use, apply permaculture principles, change laws, and even the way money works [www.ourecovillage.org].

Janaia Donaldson: Hi, welcome to Peak Moment. I'm Janaia Donaldson. When I taped a conversation with Brandy Gallagher in 2006 at OUR Ecovillage, Brandy said "We're creating the impossible." And I'm here to tell you they have, and they're not stopping. Brandy, thanks for joining me four years later.

We were astounded at the changes. The sanctuary building was begun. Now, your gardens are bigger. There's an artist's studio, you're in the middle of building a huge classroom. Up here behind us ... well, tell us what's happening.

Brandy: This is a great story. It really is. Before we talked about creating the seeming-impossible, and it's made manifest all over. Not just here. Not within the container of the 25 acre sustainable village, demonstration site and education center. But the ripple goes out further than we can imagine. So what has happened since you were here last? I don't know if we have long enough to go there! Absolutely what has made itself into possibility is the creation of common space that's held within food production principles. So edible landscaping is everywhere now on the demonstration site. Common space for people to gather. We have a zero mile bistro operating now.

Janaia: Yes! I must say we had lunch at the zero mile bistro and it was perfecto!

Brandy: Most people talk about the 100-mile diet. So now we're down to the zero mile diet. And how to really produce in our back yard. And finally, and we're not just talking about food. We're talking about growing amazing people. We're talking about growing amazing space, including buildings. 151 Including energy systems. Everything that's attached to our lifestyle. And that's the seeming impossible task. 200 To make the shift, to change our value system, to redefine what we find of value and importance, is a big leap for a lot of North American folk.

Now what you see is people coming here from all over the world. So behind us we have people with us from Ireland and Italy and Chile. This summer has been very diverse with cultures and ways of seeing the world, but united in the notion that people really want to create a transformational shift.

Janaia: What has brought these people to come be with you this summer?

Brandy: 7700 people came through in the last twelve months, in our taking stock. And it's only growing to be more. We're doing another festival now coming up next weekend. So we have very large events, we have small workshops, we have full-out internships for a couple weeks up to a year. A lot of times now we employ our interns after coming back, doing introductory programs. It's just building the capacity of the work being done more and more and more. And that even can ripple out to other places. But people come for a reason. And you're right. There's something that's being valued in the world that is unlike what we've seen before.

Janaia: People are doing natural building, gardening, permaculture courses. How can you get this to happen? That's a lot of people, a lot to organize, a lot of money. How are you making the impossible happen?

Brandy: This is good timing, because one of the finance companies that we work with here, that carried the mortgage originally, came to us and said when they had just done a grant program, [and] that we had handed in our financials incorrectly.

And I said, "Really? How could that be? Take me back through the part that was correct, or is there something we need to delve into more?"

And she said, "Your financials — it's impossible. There is something wrong. And there was a typo in there as well."

So we walked back through and I said, "Where was the typo?"

And she said, "You suggested in your financials and your projections that you were creating this particular large classroom building for $300,000. Obviously that wasn't correct. I don't know if you meant $4-, 5-, $600,000 probably, per the square footage that we were talking about."

And I said, "No, that's not correct. I said $30,000."

She said, "I know, I read that. But obviously it was a typo.

And I said, "No. We built a building that large for $30,000."

So how does all this happen? That is the magic of our ecovillage. Whether its materials, whether it's the human resource, whether it's grants and donations that come in: this idea that we can create community, by community, for community, through community ... that we are the people to take back and create our commons. That we'll recreate our towns and our neighborhoods — it's us. It's not going to get funded from some large corporate name or some government policy or some big loan that we're going to take. It's us, investing in our future.

Janaia: So the low cost of that building, what you're saying, is you're going to salvage materials, materials will be donated, a lot of the labor is donated and students are doing it. Is that the kind of...?

Brandy: We have service learning, we have educational learning. Those are all things where people show up because they want to be part of the learning process. Or they want to be part of the ethos of community building. And they're actually helping to manifest the structure. At the same time we're using natural or found materials that come from nature. We're using clays and stones and renewable resources like straw that's cut every year locally: it's a waste product. The more systems that we can divert away from the landfill, or the more waste streams that can get directed back into one more life cycle — we're adding value everywhere.

Janaia: I need to tell one quick story about this - we were taking a look at this building and you need to tell us more about what it is — the timbers, the metal roof. And inside on the floor there are these rectangular things with little holes in them, look like possibly styrofoam plastic. All over the floor while they're constructing. And I said, "What are those?" And he said, "That's insulation. What they started out was from a nursery, where they start the seedlings. And it was to be thrown away." It was like fabulous insulation! Brilliant! You must have a network that's huge.

Brandy: People phone us now. We used to go out looking. But those are styrofoam blocks. They are one of the scourges of the planet for toxicity. If they're put in any kind of situation where they're going to break down, if they're going to be burned or put in the landfill where they're going to break down quickly, they are one of the most toxic things to deal with. There was actually a very large environmental fine to somebody who tried to burn them, because there are mountains of these sitting behind forest nurseries, and what are we going to do with them?

So when our engineer told us, on the climate change demonstration building — that's the building we started many years ago. It was the first building in Canada to be monitored for ten years by the regulatory authorities, and it has helped open out the way for so many other possibilities within the building realm for sure, but within community building — in the midst of that building the engineer said, "You're going to have to put rigid styrofoam insulation on the roof." And we said, "Eek!" We had taken the environmental ethic so far, and we'd been 100% staying to the values and ethic and principles, and we just couldn't agree to that last piece.

We actually put the building on hold and stopped it, because we couldn't go there. There was too much work already into it. And then we had a student doing a practicum over at this forest nursery, and if you started to get a bit distracted in the conversation, you'd notice all these mountains of rigid styrofoam. And lo and behold, there were six inches deep of rigid styrofoam!

So you've got to become creative! You have to actually develop the lens to see everything in our world as a resource. Not to be consumed — we've already been on that plan. Not to be dominant culture, species, human beings that consume and take. But to notice all these waste streams of what we've left behind and not be dumping them. This is the time of — there is no "away." We're not throwing it away, we can't hide it away, we can't burn it away, we can't even shoot it to space. So how can we creatively become these amazing engineers and maybe try to follow Mother Nature's most incredible plan already? And put systems back together, and put those waste items back into resources? That is the philosophy of One United Resource.

Janaia: One United Resource, which is what O.U.R. Ecovillage stands for. United. I see that what you're saying is that resource isn't just the community of people who may come and go on your land, and on your gardens and so on. You've rippled out, as you mentioned, with your first building there, that the change in codes and so on — when we talked our first time — has affected those beyond your circle. Beyond even your island.

Brandy: Well O.U.R., the acronym One United Resource, is really more of a philosophical stance than a place. The village here, O.U.R. Ecovillage is just a confluence of all of those values and ways of being in the world. People just show up here because we have that shared ethos. But really, it's not about a place. It's not about the parameters of a 25 acre fenceline. It's about a way of being. And it's about a possibility of a way of seeing that we could transform things back into a value system where we care infinitely for everything we put our hand to.

Janaia: An ethos of caring. What I hear in the story of the styrofoam is — something that is being toxic to burn or flooding the oceans, and the animals eat it get ill or die — you are turning an end product back into a usable product by your use. It's a step above "don't waste." It's restorative in a sense. Certainly enlightened salvage.

Brandy: Imagine walking down to the gardens and stopping by our credit union that's onsite. This is a bit of testimonial to one of our major sponsors, which is a credit union locally as well. When they had some of their project managers come over and look at some grant money reporting that we're in the midst of, and they did a site evaluation, and looked at how things are looking with the grant project. We said, "You know, now that you're here, we should probably tell you we started our own credit union."

Our ecovillage is known the world around for taking on regulatory processes, and creating new models, and trying to bring back holistic models, and reintegrating things. You could see the flare of their eyes — oh no, what have they done now? So the upshot of that was that we got to say, "This is a bit of a different credit union system than done conventionally. This has an unlimited number of deposits per day, but only one withdrawal per year." Eventually we had to explain that this was actually a thermophilic composting toilet out of the Humanure Handbook, the model from Sweden. What we really wanted to justify here is that one person's waste is always another person's resource.

Even the human waste cycle of the human systems have to go back into somewhere. Because they are — so why aren't we creating one more life cycle? Not put on your food crops. We've got acres of new space to put out that waste stream to build soil. We need new biomass desperately on the planet.

Janaia: To counter that carbon that's being burned.

Brandy: Yep. And in other places in the world, this is an amazing resource. So why are we dealing with it the way we are in North America? Many people question that. Here we've found somewhere to put it to value.

And again, this is really about redefining value. For quite a long time now we've been talking about the Slow Food movement. Carlo Petrini. One of the fun things that's happening right now is that Carlo got together with a fellow named Woody Taasch, a venture capitalist. Investment folks have all started to gather around a conversation that's transformed the language and principles of Slow Food to talk about Slow Money.

Janaia: Slow Money. I know that slow food is about savoring local food, taking time — it's a total counter to the fast food life. What's Slow Money?

Brandy: And Slow Food is about a level of craft, and principles of how you take something and change it into something else. You may take a raw food item and cook it into something. Very simply said, think about the same thing with the world economy. Everything that the food commodity market is built on, so is the world economy. In transforming our relationship with food, there is a mirror possibility to transform our relationship with what we call economy. They're both economic products, if you will. Money, food — they're things we trade, we put value to.

What if we redefined value? Not just with food, with money. But then let's move on to things like the Slow Building movement. Because you know these buildings are laborious. It keeps a lot of people away from wanting to do this. But what if we invested ourselves that much in what we do? Whether it's the food, whether it's the way we use economic exchange, all the ways we value — most people now are pointing to that there is the crux of humanity's existence continuing on the planet or not — it's now time to redefine what we think those values are.

Janaia: What would you name them, the values straight out? Because you're living them here.

Brandy: You know there's a lot of people that come to our ecovillage for many reasons. Or they'll say when they first come — they're an engineer, and they believe that we really need to restructure things because our health and way we live on the planet will change the world. Other people will come here and say, never mind peak oil, let's talk peak soil. If we don't start to regenerate biomass, we're out of here in a certain period of time anyway. Everything depends on that.

These are interesting conversations and they're very important. We are facing issues with world hunger. We're facing the end of our carbon footprint that we're used to. What's next? I would suggest now that what we see here at our ecovillage where the value conversation lies, is in how we are going to choose to relate. How we relate to ourselves. How we relate to each other. How we relate as a community to the natural world. Every element of our being is relationship.

Janaia: Yeah but we're not oriented to think that way. So you're countering that, you're bringing that back in.

Brandy: We're trained, in North American society for sure, to be enculturated into the framework of rugged individualism. Community isn't our first nature in this latest generation. Imagine the conversation about the regeneration of the village heart and mind. Imagine that the village culture was the way of being — and it still is in many places in the world — but there is an understanding that my well being is actually based in the well being of the village. So if I bring in a resource, I bring it in for the village. And from that I'll probably get fed.

But I don't come home and fry up the bacon in my own home frying pan, and then if I'm fed I can go over and help volunteer in the kitchen to see if we can feed everyone else. I bring what's possible into the common good, and from that we'll all benefit. And imagine the possibility that, counter to what I'd say many societies think, that there won't be enough, or maybe we should hoard a little bit in case that plan doesn't work out — but imagine the wealth that could be created when you move different resources around like that, suddenly you have this incredible abundance for all to share.

And let's debunk this idea that we'll all have to take more than we'll ever use. Eventually we get full, and it doesn't work anymore. We'll wean ourselves from our consumption once we know that it's a never-ending supply. Because it is! We do have more than we could ever want, if we learned how to be united in sharing our resources.

Janaia: You have key words there: Sharing. What I hear in that is security by being part of the shared community. If you fall and break your leg and can't work for six weeks, in the standard North American model, it's a really difficult thing. If you lived in a community of people, you fall and break your leg, and there are others who can pick up parts of your life for you, and make sure you can eat and so on.

Brandy: And you're going to get old. I'm going to get old. And eventually we can't do the "It's okay, I'll do it myself" plan, because we need each other inherently as a social species, no matter how introvert, extrovert, whatever we are. Living in community, there's room for all of us and we all need each other. Whether we live in the same village, whether we live in the same

Janaia: "I've got mine."

Brandy: Or me-me-me, I've got to get mine first. Because there's a bit of a race on right now, because resources are slim. Poverty consciousness is high. Whether it's war over oil, or whether we're going to race the famine game, whatever it is that we're up to in the human species right now — just let play at the thought that that's only a story. And the thing about human beings is that we can write any story we can imagine. And we're only limited by our imagination. So what if we have so much on the planet right now that the story could be "Through a shared level of values, everyone is fed. Everyone is taken care of. There's a whole way to be that the planet herself is going to be looked after in a different way." And maybe that sounds like a fairy tale.

Janaia: It kind of does. I see places and visionaries like yourself, and places like you're creating here, and the ripples beyond what you're creating here — that you're actually living out that story. And the impossible is becoming possible. It may look like a dream, except when it starts having feet and hands, you start to say, this could be real. How do we grow it?

Brandy: Yep. And what we know through research is that, to create change, you cannot scare people. You can't show in the tobacco ads, Here's what your lungs are going to look like. People don't stop.

We don't look at the worst case scenario and think "Wow, I'm going to choose something wonderful and beautiful." We look at the worst case scenario and we close up and shut down and we disconnect. We can all of a sudden change our behaviors into something that are very unfortunate. Because we're not really connected to the totality of our experience.

And if we offer another option, if we show a beautiful possibility, if we say "here's a village culture and a village life", just for an example, and people come here, something happens to them in a demonstration site where there are these peak moments that open up where their village heart and their village mind reawaken. Somewhere in our DNA, no matter how recent or far away your past is of living in a village, somewhere in our knowing, we have the village culture DNA in us. And if we can enliven that, awaken it, people can go out into the world and do amazing things. They give their company to their employees and create worker coops. And large shifts happen because an individual says "I can. And I shall."

And this cliche we developed years ago that "No is just an uneducated Yes."

Janaia: "No is just an uneducated Yes."

Brandy: Anytime somebody says "No" imagine saying, "Oh, maybe that's just because we haven't learned how." In all of our regulatory work — "No, I'm sorry that's not legal," "No, you can't have a composting toilet," "No, I'm sorry that's too many activities on a land use zoning" — we said, that's a cliche'. How about if we all become a team with local regulatory authorities and all levels of government, and research bodies in academia, and we go out there and I guarantee you that somewhere in the world, something that's brilliant has been approved, at least an example. Maybe not all the things in one place — and this is the challenge when you get into holistic design — and you re-connect all the pieces that have been compartmentalized by our legal and regulatory processes. Somewhere you bring a by-law, a policy, an old story that shows This is So. Then our margins widen of our perception of our experience of our possibility and we say, "Oh, why not?" And suddenly you have regulatory change, suddenly you have personal transformation, suddenly — what else could be possible?

Janaia: We have about 3 minutes left. You probably have three wonderful days of sharing that we could drink up into. I want to make sure we have time for any last things. If you can't think of anything else, talk a little bit more about how slow money could work.

Brandy: One of the really interesting things that happened at our ecovillage a number of years ago is that we created, first, this land use zoning that's set a precedent. Now people come from all over the world. A group of farmers came from Spain saying, "Help! We need to save our farmlands in Spain. We understand that you've created this model. We've come to research it." That was a big step. It took a life of its own now. It's got its own path.

Then we had to take on the parallel processes of insurance and land taxation. As soon as you put a square peg in a round hole, it turns everything in the Rubik's cube, and you have to deal with all of those items.

Then we decided that in order to own something, or to put your name or some name on the land title, you have to have an organization that's all inclusive: multiple stakeholders providing multiple activities. What's that organizational structure? There's five ways to own land in common in Canada. We took best practices from those different models for ownership and we created a new hybrid ownership model a couple years ago. That was amazing and unto itself, it'll create its own lifespan. This is all open source material, so anybody can utilize it. We use public money for our research and for our legal fees, so what's done becomes public domain.

Janaia: Is that on your website? [www.ourecovillage.org]

Brandy: It's all being published. We actually just got funding for that. So the next steps are - the mortgage-holder for here said, "You created a what?? We don't have any mandate to deal with that." So we went on this unbelievably short-notice pursuit to try and clear off the land debt at OUR Ecovillage. It was too short a time period in most people's minds to ever happen, but we said, "Who knows what's possible?" and we went on it.

Anyway, things turned around, the credit union ended up carrying us a little bit longer, in time for us. Now over the last couple of years, we've created the Community Trust for Ethical Investment. And, its being incorporated By Community, For Community, Through Community so community projects — not just ecovillages and nonprofits and these kinds of things — any community project can replicate this organizational financing. In this model you can actually transfer your retirement savings plans into it and get a higher return than you would at any bank right now. Much more secure because it's backed by land. And we've gotten a Revenue Canada ruling, an allowance, to have a straight investment package as well, where you have a 30% tax rebate for becoming a part of the Ethical Trust.

So you've got return on investment, probably higher return on investment than you would with any retirement plan. But you have people within the community being able to move around their resources. And so somebody's aunt in Ontario says, "Hey I'm in," and you start to shift things around financially. And you actually create little Trust pockets. So you can go and save the farm down the road. Or "Save OUR Ecovillage Forever" is our new campaign that's on right now. So it's left for future generations forever.

This is the fun stuff. And this is kind of like I'd say the final frontier — for all of us community to take back investing in our community. Not as financial advisors, but because it matters so much that what we value, and the resources we have we mutually align, so we can have community By community, For community, Through community.

Janaia: Thank you. Thank you for being that model at each level, at each hurdle, at each "No" for being a model of how can we create the impossible. Thank you.

You're watching Peak Moment. I'm Janaia Donaldson. We're at OUR Ecovillage, where Brandy Gallagher is still creating the impossible. Join us next time.

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