Cooperative housing and low carbon research – lessons from the US


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This is the fifth instalment in a series of blogs by Paul Allen as he travels across the USA talking with numerous grassroots groups about CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research project. The first blog explains the purpose of the trip and the second blog details his time in Boston, in the third blog Paul was in Ohio and for the fourth he was in Utah. Now Paul is in San Francisco, where he visits Stanford University and the ‘Magic’ Community. 

Visiting Stanford University

My research stop in San Francisco’s Bay Area began with a visit to Professor Mark Jacobson at his office at Stanford University in Palo Alto. Mark’s innovative modelling work had originally inspired my trip; initially he developed a robust academic scenario exploring how world energy demands could be met from renewable energy sources. The interest around this work, from journals such as Scientific American led to much more detailed modelling to create ‘50 plans for 50 States’ across the US showing how each could be powered from 100% renewable energy by 2050.

I spent the morning excitedly sharing notes with Mark in his office at the interdisciplinary Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Environment and Energy Building or ‘Y2E2’ for short. This is the brand new hub for environmental problem solving forms the heart of Stanford’s Initiative on the Environment and Sustainability, linking expertise in “sustainable built systems”, “climate and energy systems”, “oceans and estuaries”, “fresh water”, “energy”, and “land use and conservation”. The building also accommodates researchers from biology, law, medicine, education, anthropology, and economics, as well as civil engineering and Earth systems science. Clearly one of the “greenest” building on the Stanford University Campus, Y2E2 utilises the latest thinking from Arup in energy and water management. Its ‘Coupa Café’ features the best single estate, certified organic and fair trade coffee on Campus to ensure the different disciplines are attracted to this space to cross-fertilise.

Zero Carbon Britain and The Solutions Project

We explored origins of our work, and how it is used, perhaps the key aspect was our approach to the research funding – we both ensured our research was free from corporate funding, to give confidence in its independence to those who use it. Mark offered his insights into Zero Carbon Britain, and compared our communications work with that of ‘the Solutions Project’ that is rapidly emerging around his modelling. The Solutions Project arose in June 2011 when he was meeting with actor Mark Ruffalo, banker Marco Krapels and filmmaker Josh Fox to discuss how they could collaborate around their opposition to extreme energy extraction technologies such as fracking. Their conversation sparked an important realization – it wasn’t enough for them to be against something. They needed to be part of the solution. That prompted them to create a project that can harness the powerful combination of science, business and culture to catalyse the transition to 100% clean, renewable energy – and in the process change how we think about the future. To help me get a better understanding of their communications strategy, Mark set up a meeting for me with the solutions projects communications expert Jon Wank to share ideas on how we can make the findings of this research accessible to those who will use it.

The overwhelming core of our research methodology and findings were very similar. They key technical differences between our scenarios include the following:

  • Mark’s work has a major emphasis on the reduction of the human cost and economic cost of clearer air quality, and so shies away from using any synthetic liquid or gas fuels.
  • His 100% renewable scenarios do not include the significant methane emissions from agriculture and so do not aim to get to net zero emissions.
  • Mark’s scenarios have a target of 100% renewable energy by 2050, rather than 2030, although he stated that he felt it would be technically achievable by 2030, but that would be too fast a cultural shift for the US
  • My meeting with Mark made it very clear to me that our Zero Carbon Britain communications plans should not be modest in their ambitions. Despite much stronger anti-climate change misinformation in the US, the solutions project has attracted the support of a wide range of key celebrities such as Leonardo Di Caprio, made mainstream TV interviews such as the David Letterman Show (US equivalent of Michael Parkinson), and has attracted significant funding support.
Housing Cooperative Zero Carbon Britain Paul Allen San Francisco
Paul and Mark at Stanford University

Economics are a big part of the solutions project – they have already enrolled expert Marco Krapels and aim to show how this transition makes economic sense for all of us. Mark’s next area of research is to show how global renewable resources may change as the effects of climate change begin to be felt around the world, and the role offshore wind can have in storm mitigation and well as in emissions reduction.

Low carbon renewable energy strategies
50 States: 50 Plans. The Solutions Project

Whilst at Stanford, Mark had also requested that I make a Zero Carbon Britain presentation to his students on the Atmosphere/Energy Seminar programme, so they can see our perspectives on both the modelling and communications. This is also a good way for me to find new contacts for further meetings and investigation. After the lecture, Stanford provided lunch in the Coupa Café so I could spend time talking with the students. On of the students Aniket was particularly taken by my approach and arranged an invitation to Stanford’s Value-science living laboratory – the ‘Magic Community’ in Palo Alto.

The ‘Magic Community’ and ‘Valuescience’ – living our values

I accepted the invitation, the ‘Magic’ community is a living laboratory for Stanford University, it literally provides a home for people learning and communicating how humans can further ‘common good’ by practicing ‘valuescience’ i.e. scientific methods and principles applied to questions of value. I immediately felt at home, it reminded me of the CAT on-site community and of my time living at the Undergrowth Housing Cooperative that grew out of CAT in the mid 1980s.

Their aim is to maximise human wellbeing whilst also reducing their negative impacts. As we shared the most healthy looking salad and fresh vegetable meal I had seen since arriving in the US, I spent time talking with David, Hillary and Robin who form the core group of fellows, each with a tenure of more than fifteen years, and between them they shoulder primary responsibility for operating Magic. They work with several dozen associates and affiliates, including about a dozen who actually live in the Magic residential service learning community. A board of directors oversees the healthy functioning of Magic and they also draw upon support from a board of advisors. Each year hundreds of volunteers, donors, clients, and program participants contribute labour, material, money, and advocacy to make Magic happen.

I explored further what they mean by ‘valuescience’. Basically it is an approach for getting control of your life, so you can consciously make the best choices available, both for yourself and your environment – and can both learn from your mistakes and predict what might work in the future. They were excited to explain that it uses science principals to explore issues of human wellbeing and how this is influenced by lifestyle choices and the values sets that underpins them. They recognise that everyone practices ‘valuescience’ to some degree, although few of us do so consciously, all of us tap only a fraction of its potential, and so we suffer as a result of relying sometimes on choices subliminally biased by commercial interests. Clearly both Magic and its residents were thriving – at a location in which normal ‘nuclear family’ style residential living costs were unbelievable high! They had just completed the construction of an additional brand new super energy efficient residential unit with loads of communal space and two grand pianos! The findings from their ‘valuescience’ research forms part of the academic teaching at Stanford. But the essence of Magic is in a residential service-learning community so that we may better “walk our talk”. They describe their outlook in Thoreau’s words, “What you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear a word you say.” The evening ended with acoustic guitar and fiddle music ringing around the table, and I caught the very efficient ‘Caltrain’ on to San Francisco with feeling fond comparisons to the CAT on-site community.