Dr. Leigh Davison at Dharma Gaia Forum*, May 27
It’s one thing to recognise that our carbon-fuelled lifestyle is, akin to an alcoholic’s, headed for global warming disaster. And another to know how to move away from our addiction to all that marvellous energy that we can simply dig out of the ground. We know it’s unsustainable and our responses tend to shade from : revelling in fossil fuel mania (V8 supercar racing), denial, despair, depression, through to engagement with the issue, from faint acts of low-carbon living (turning off your appliances at the wall) all the way through to a carbon-neutral life style. Leigh Davison read the Club of Rome’s report “ The Limits to Growth” in 1972 and was utterly persuaded by its argument. He was a maths Ph.D. student at UNSW at the time and the mathematics of the study were incontrovertible. He realised that he wanted to act on its findings, and live a life that was simple and sustainable. Thirty-five years after he began this experiment in living, he presented his reflections to a group of buddhists at the Dharma Gaia Forum.
I first met Leigh in 1978, when we were both zen students in Hawaii. He met his future wife, Ellen at the zen centre there, and in September 1979, back in Australia, they bought shares in a 102 hectare community in the northern rivers region, on Terania creek near Lismore. One of the delights of the evening was the Power Point pictures that he used to illustrate his talk. We saw a youthful and gorgeous couple, on their land, beaming into the camera. It was a time when intentional communities were being set up all around the area, as an expression of the ‘back to the land’, alternative lifestyle movement. The pioneers of Dharmananda, as their community is called, had specific buddhist values. It is one of the very few that has survived and thrived, and has been examined and studied often. The values it began with were:
• respect for the land
• respect for each other
• food self-sufficiency
• no dope and no dole
Leigh emphasised that they have a strong work ethic on Dharmananda. But part of their schtick is creative leisure - to have fun while meeting basic needs. So for example, every Friday is a community work-day and Saturday morning is garden morning. This builds community cohesion. I’ve been a member of working bees here in the more conventional outer suburban fringe and it’s been fun and satisfying to work, and then eat, together.
Leigh and Ellen had very little money. “We had a freedom from choice.” Their first task was to build a home. With his engineering background, Leigh designed a small post and beam house which could be built by two people. Costing $7,000, their house initially was 46m. square, but as time went on they realised that there is a trade-off between environmental sustainability and social sustainability. You need space to have a party! The average Australian house is 250 m. square, Leigh and Ellen’s house is now 75m. square, walled in, with a 55 m. sq. verandah. Their water supply comes from a spring in the steep hill behind them, which is like a sponge and has never dried up, even in dry times. This water also runs their power supply, which is a 12 V micro-hydro system.
On the Power Point slide, Leigh displayed a facetious sign:
WELCOME TO LISMORE
CAPITAL OF AUSTRALIA
They learnt much about sanitation and waste management on Dharmananda. They wanted to not only manage the human health and environmental health part of the waste cycle, but also recover and use the resource. “We are a faeco-phobic society,” said Leigh. The NSW Department of Health was antagonistic to the idea of a composting toilet, but when a report in 1991 showed that the Minimus continuous flow toilet was no threat to health and did not smell, they changed their attitude and came up with guidelines for owner-built composting toilets. What goes into the top of Leigh and Ellen’s toilet comes out down the bottom as compost, usable on the gardens. Their grey water grows fabulous bananas - it runs straight out into the banana patch below the house.
Leigh talked about the history of the land, which had been used for dairying and bananas but was run-down when the group bought it. To keep the growth down in the early days, they bought a couple of cows. This has developed into a key part of their protein intake. Leigh and Ray get up early every morning to hand-milk the cows (jerseys). The community makes two or three cheeses every week. The cows (and the bull) are part of the nutrient pathways, for example eating the remains of a lab-lab bean and pumpkin harvest. The gardens at Dharmananda are located down by the creek where the soil is richer. There are eight sections of 500 m. sq each. Everyone can harvest any mature crop, but each person looks after only one crop. Carol Perry, one of the pioneers, is a whiz at growing carrots.
Dharmananda has grown like topsy, with new younger families building their houses on other ridges. It now has a tractor with nine implements. Leigh said that 1 litre of diesel could accomplish the work of one strong man over three weeks!! This means that it is a fantastic resource that we should be using frugally - instead of with gay abandon. “The Limits to Growth” predicted that food production would peak in the 2000’s. But in fact it peaked in the late 90’s. We will reach peak phosphorus ( conventional agriculture is heavily dependent on phosphate) around 2030. Leigh emphasised that frugality does not mean austerity, but it has a time horizon of hundreds of years.
There are three criteria by which to judge the success of a transition community:
• re-localisation ( not global)
• de-carbonisation (renewables)
• resilience (social cohesion)
Leigh was asking the question, how does Dharmananda score as a sustainable community? He ran through his analysis and I was interested to see that he gives it an 8 out of 10 for resilience. That is something to be very proud of. I think people tend to focus on the tangible aspects of intentional communities such as food production and housing, perhaps because they are easier to see. When one sees the power of the local movement against CSG at the Bentley blockade nearby, this is how social cohesion manifests. A number of highly effective movers and shakers have been nurtured at Dharmananda. The Multiple Occupancy movement itself has bred some very positive qualities like independence, the ability to act in accord with the values expressed above - the renaissance man or woman has many skills and is committed to their locality.
There were many questions after his talk, some quite technical. I asked Leigh, “What have you learned about conflict by living there? ” His answer was succinct.
“You learn that your point of view is only one among many.”
Bill McKibben of 350.org says it is important to build a movement that is creative and hopeful. Yes - “ You’ve got to dream it first,” said Leigh.
If you’d like to see a video of Leigh’s talk, we are in the process of putting it on the web. At present, you can find it on:
The best way to view it is to download it first, and then view it.
* The DG Forum was created this year as a means to look at the buddhist response to the climate crises we are headed for.
Diana Levy 25/6/14
On the 22nd of July, a Tuesday evening, I will be the talker! Bluegum Sangha has invited me again to be a guest speaker, at 14 Ridge St., North Sydney, 7pm sharp ( they close the door to the street at 7:15 pm). There will be a 45 " period of meditation, a break for tea, and then I will give a talk entitled, "Right Action in a time of Contraction".
Here is their webpage, describing their schedule of Tuesday evenings. If you go to the 'Home' page, you will find a map and directions under 'location'. It is about a 15" walk from North Sydney train station.