|Welcome to Utopia
Two local families show that everyday activism has its rewards
Bring up the term "activist" and a number of different images might come to mind. Someone who travelled to Quebec City to protest at the Summit of the Americas conference. Or a volunteer who lobbies the municipal government to maintain a certain amount of green spaces within their city. Or, someone who takes the time to help free political prisoners by writing letters on behalf of Amnesty International.
Clearly, people choose to express and act on their views in different ways whether by writing a letter to a politician, or getting arrested by lying in front of a logging truck.
Then there are those who also engage in everyday activism. An excellent example of this "think globally act locally" approach is situated in a red house near the end of a quiet street in Sunnyside.
On the outside of the house, stucco replaces non-natural materials like vinyl siding. Large, double-paned, argon gas-filled windows let in vast amounts of sunshine while trapping heat within the house. In the backyard, a large compost system percolates away, while a small garden awaits spring planting.
Inside, an organic, vegetarian stir-fry simmers on the energy-efficient stove, filling the bright kitchen with a pleasant aroma. In the dining area, three of the owners of the house discuss how their everyday activism led them to build this home together.
Noel is a co-ordinator of Sustainable Calgary, a group that promotes the concept of sustainable communities. His partner Linda is working down the street at Sunnyside Market, a store she co-owns, which sells a variety of natural foods and products. Their daughter Joanna is visiting a friend at the nearby housing co-op. Kerri is a medical practitioner at a community health centre, while her partner Gerald is a staff member of the Bow Chinook Barter Community, an innovative group that connects businesses and individuals who want to access goods and services without using money. Gerald and Kerri's daughter Delphi is around the same age as Joanna.
While talking to Gerald, Kerri and Noel, the intricate connections that exist within the local activism community quickly become apparent. In 1997, when both couples were exploring home-buying options, Gerald was on the board of the Arusha Centre, a local social justice organization where Linda had worked for several years. Gerald and Kerri had been attending meetings related to the co-operative housing "EcoVillage" movement, and soon they were exploring the idea with Linda and Noel.
Kerri says one of the problems they faced off the top was that all of the houses they looked at had one master bedroom.
"As opposed to this house," says Gerald," which has three equal-sized bedrooms. Because we had this house built for us, we were able to change things like the bathroom layout, to make it work for a group of people, with a separate shower room and a separate bath and toilet room, just for more high-volume use."
Working with a less-than-enthusiastic builder, the two couples retained the services of an environmental consultant who helped them implement as many features as possible in order to make the house more friendly to both the outside environment and the inhabitants.
Sticking as much as they could to environmentally friendly R2000 housing guidelines (www.oee.nrcan.gc.ca), the Red House was built with materials that don't emit off-gasses, and extra insulation retains more heat than the average dwelling. The electricity for the house is from Greenmax (wind power-generated energy distributed by Enmax).
Because the house is almost entirely sealed to prevent heat loss, a "heat recovery ventilator" re-circulates the home's air on a regular basis.
"So the whole volume of air in the house is replaced every 24 hours, creating a very healthy air environment," says Gerald.
But one of the most important features of the house is that there are six people living in a space that would usually have only two or three. Which means, explains Noel, that their ecological footprint or environmental impact is half that of an average household.
"Our neighbours in other in-fills have two or three other people living there," he says. "Twenty years ago, this would have been the norm that there would have been five or six or eight people living in a house this size, and now houses are bigger and there are less people living there."
Another aspect of their lifestyle revolves around economics, and the ability to re-think their financial priorities. In addition to shared resources and housing costs, both families save money on transportation because neither owns a car. Instead, they cycle most places, and rely on car-sharing when they need the use of an automobile. As well, organizations like the Bow Chinook Barter Community enable them to purchase goods and services with HOURs rather than dollars.
And because they are saving money, both families are able to have more control over what they spend their time doing.
"Many articles (on co-operative and sustainable housing) often make people come across as Gandhian martyrs," says Gerald. "But the reason that I'm interested in this is I want to reduce costs so that I can go out to the pub more, and play with my kid more.
"The average Calgarian is probably working a 45 or 50 hour week, and working 30 to 35 allows us not only to go to pubs, but also to go to community association meetings, and help in a park renovation process, or whatever. So the quality of society is all of a sudden bolstered when you have spare minutes."
For example, Gerald has time during the day to volunteer at the YMCA with Delphi, doing a kids program, and for that he gets a free membership while also being able to spend time with his daughter.
While activism certainly is about making a commitment to particular ideals and principles, it isnt always about making sacrifices. If life in the Red House is any indication, making a conscious decision to live with certain ideals, and to be pro-active as opposed to being passive, enables you to re-examine your priorities and discover what is really important to you things like having the time to spend with your family and friends, being able to contribute to a better community, and living in a healthy environment.
As Noel observes, "To us, everyday activism is about choosing to live simply in order to have a very rich life."
If you are doubtful, just ask one of the occupants of the Red House the next time you see them on the bike paths, in a park, at a gym or in a pub.