© by Lee Altenberg.

draft of a section for the SEAC-Earthworks Student Environmental Action Guide

If you have been working hard as an environmental activist in college, you have likely felt a large amount of fragmentation in your life. The pressures on you to succeed academically and pursue a high-powered career, your human needs for social connection, and your concerns about the future of the planet may seem to battling each other for control of your time and energy. And the fragmentation you see in the society around you may be equally maddening: integrated pest management being taught in one building, while at your dorm they are serving pesticide-laden produce from Chile; reading about the values of democracy, while you look around your dorm room and realize you have no control at all over how your housing or food service are run.

In a growing number of campuses around the country, students have found a way to break through this fragmentation. Their solution has been to get a bunch of folks together, get hold of a piece of real estate, and attempt to create a community where all the aspects of their lives can be integrated, where cooperative relationships and collective actions are encouraged.


One universal feature of these communities is that they experiment in ecological living. Environmentalism becomes more than just an "issue" when students have a free social space where they can implement their ideals. It can become the fabric of ones life, and the participation with others on a day-to-day basis can catalyze new ideas and collective action that is simply impossible when pursued individually. Students have made their houses laboratories for the direct application of appropriate technology, including solar collectors, passive solar architecture, recycling, composting, organic gardening, gray water systems, energy conservation, vegetarian diet, home baked bread, "green consuming", community design, and environmental activism. This experience develops the aspirations and skills that have enabled many members to make careers out of activism.

These communities have names such as Synergy, Columbae, Lothlorien, Harkness, Ecology House, Agrarian Effort, and the Green House. Their histories have proven them to be enormously influential both for the campus and for those who have lived in them.


Community works on many levels at once. The most critical factor that allows a living group to become a spawning ground for social change is that it have a declared purpose, which gives a context for environmental action.

Without deliberately recognizing that it is o.k. to bring up certain issues in the community, social norms will make such issues undiscussible, and even unperceivable. For example, how many times in dorm meetings have students talked about turning lights out to save energy, or whether majority rule is the best method for group decisions, or whether eating out-of-season produce contributes to deforestation by causing third world economies to put prime agricultural land into export crops? By having a declared purpose, the ecological living group makes the full expression of students' environmental passions socially acceptable.

It would be a fundamental mistake to conceive of purpose as a requirement for "political correctness". That would make purpose an insufferable burden. The point of a French language dorm is not that you have to believe in French, but that you have a social context to create an experience of French culture. For an environmental living group, the point is not that house members believe in environmentalism, but that they be interested in exploring it, experimenting, trying things out, and to support their housemates' explorations as well. It is not "correctness", but a feeling of social freedom that regenerates the vitality of the community. You will know the theme is working when you find yourself suddenly surrounded by opportunities for fun and creative action.


These communities have another universal feature: they are cooperatives. The students have taken over the operation of their food service, housekeeping, and in some houses even maintenance and construction. Instead of paying money to a bureaucracy which hires strangers to feed and clean up after you, in a cooperative the students work together to take care of themselves.

There is no better way to get to know your housemates than by working with them. Day to day life in the house develops the comradery of a camping trip. By having complete democratic control over how you live on campus, you can directly put into practice ideas about more ecological ways to eat, clean, deal with waste, energy, you name it. Instead of petitioning some bureaucrat to stop using styrofoam and disposable dishware, you decide at a house meeting and it's done.

Once it dawns on house members that they are in control, it becomes meaningful to research and discuss the ecological impacts of decisions about running the house. This changes mere ecological awareness into ecological know-how in the house.

A living group with the purpose of exploring ecological living can add a dimension of cultural diversity that is utterly lacking in campus residences. When residential life is under the control of residential staff, what results is institutional monoculture. Student control over the fundamentals of their life allows the cultural diversity within the student body to find expression and fruition.

Furthermore, by creating residential community bases for environmental activism on your campus, you create a network of students who have had a lot of experience working together and who can take energetic collective action. Control over a piece of real estate gives students the power to provide food for different gatherings, house guests, hold meetings, throw parties, provide a headquarters for activist campaigns, and so forth. It's empowerment in the direct sense.

Dormitories embody the corporate ideal of hierarchically managed society. When students discover the pleasure of democratically running their own food and housing and enterprises, they can more clearly scrutinize the premise that corporations need to be in control of our economic activities. Living in a cooperative gives students access to the larger movement for creating businesses with the ultimate in corporate accountability: they are owned by their customers and workers, who can decide directly on ecological and social priorities, without having to expend great effort on issue-by-issue boycotts and strikes to make corporations behave themselves.


Consensus decision making:

The ideas of consensus decision making are essentially a formalization of the way groups of friends decide things. The group works cooperatively in building proposals everyone can accept, so that no one is overruled just because they are in a minority. The experience of creatively resolving conflicts in house meetings by consensus can totally energize everyone. People in these living groups that have developed a good consensus process will point to it as the heart of the whole community. Consensus has been used for everything, deciding who gets to live in house, room allocation, food policy, etc. There are all sorts of variations in the formalities of consensus process. For a good introduction, see the reference below. It is important that the group keep an experimental attitude toward decision making, and evolve practices that meet its own tastes.

Who gets in:

Like everything else in the community, the process for deciding who lives there can be an area of experimentation. You have the opportunity to find creative ways of allocating a limited resource (space in the house) and assembling a well functioning group.

You may be familiar with mechanical or exclusive methods (first come--first serve; lottery; "Greek" , i.e. current members admit new members; "objective", i.e. current members or outsiders review written application from prospectives). But ecological living groups have also decided by consensus, where all people who want to live in the house (current and new) get together and agree upon who should live in the house, without excluding any consideration that someone wants to bring in to the discussion. In this process, people can talk about all the real human needs that exist in the situation without mechanically ruling any out.

Mixing graduate students and undergrads has been very successful for these communities.


20 and 50 students living together creates an active, warm, and sustainable community. Less than 10 and it can become too cloistered and private; more than 60 produces fragmentation.

Socially designed facilities:

Typical dormitories with their long halls and minimalist repeated rooms are anathema to complex social interactions; so too are apartments. Fraternities and sororities, before post-war modernism, were experts at designing communal social space for students, and this knowledge needs to be revived.

You need a large kitchen, food storage area, and dining room to prepare a full meal plan for the house members and extended community. Sociable common rooms are key to building the spirit of the house. Gardening and composting space is important for experimenting in food self-reliance.

Television-free common rooms:

As incidental as a television may seem, the presence of a television in common rooms radically changes the social dynamics of the house. Casual time in common spaces is where the spontaneous social interchanges occur which allow the house to develop its own culture. Television obliterates this "habitat"; housemates turn to the TV instead of to each other for entertainment, and remain "consumers" rather than creators of culture.


It is very important for the house to develop its own information-rich culture, with a host of skills, knowledge, and relationships being transmitted from one generation of students to the next. Here are various possibilities to spark the imagination:


Appropriate technology experiments:

Agriculture- mini farm, bio-intensive garden, poultry for eggs, composting

Home making activities:

Materialism in its best sense should mean the creation of wonderful sensuous material -- nightly fresh bread, home made tofu, yogurt, sprouts, beer.


Skills Workshops:

Social Activities:

Community Service Activities:


AN EXAMPLE: Synergy House, Stanford University

Students at Stanford University interested in exploring nonviolence formed Columbae House in 1970. Living ecologically was an obvious element of not doing harm to others, and Columbae pioneered many practices, such as community gardening, baking fresh bread every night, vegetarian diet, and running as a co-op. It inspired the creation the following year of Ecology House, and the next year, Synergy House, with the theme of "exploring alternatives". Synergy was the project of a student-run course on finding alternative ways to live and work that could integrate students' social ideals with their economic needs.

Synergy opened in an old fraternity house the University had just taken over. The theme of exploring alternatives created a rich and flexible context for students to pursue their individual visions as the society changed. As the environmental movement developed new ideas and new issues came along, Synergy was ready to incorporate them. In 1975 house members in an engineering course built a solar water heating system for the roof. Members tried the biodynamic/French intensive mini-farming methods that the nearby Ecology Action center was researching. When the drought hit in 1977, Synergy built a gray-water system for its garden. When the Biological Sciences department was getting rid of some chickens in 1978, Synergy took them home and built a coop for them to become self-sufficient with fresh, free-run eggs. The back yard was a visible demonstration of nutrient cycling, with food waste going to the chickens, then to the compost, to the garden, and back to the kitchen table as corn, broccoli, chard, amaranth, comfrey, flowers, etc.

Books like Diet for a Small Planet, Small is Beautiful, Voluntary Simplicity all had concrete application in the house. The experience of consensus decision making, cooperation and activism enabled both Columbae and Synergy to take a large role in organizing the South Africa divestment movement in 1977, and the Abalone Alliance against nuclear power in 1977-80. The house has also been part of a network of safe-homes giving temporary shelter for battered women and their kids.

Interestingly, Ecology House lost its purpose within a couple years after opening (and changed its name to Terra). Their approach to ecological living did not provide a powerful enough experience of actually living in the house to make it a sustainable foundation for the community.

Being in a University-owned house offered many challenges to Synergy. In 1983 during the summer the housing office bulldozed Synergy's garden, coop, and greenhouse without telling anyone. But the students rebuilt and replanted them. Synergy's latest challenge has been an administrative decision to demolish its house and build faculty condominiums there, for economic reasons. Synergy members are seeing first hand how money can overshadow all other values in decision makers' minds, how it feels to be disempowered by an institution, and how to organize a campaign for change. By attempting to live with self-determination and commitment to a place, these students are obtaining an invaluable education in real world politics.

Synergy has offered numerous house courses, in which students have earned credit for studying: sustainable agriculture, environmental ethics, solid waste management, and political theater. Every night, residents gather in the kitchen as a dozen loaves of freshly baked bread come out of Synergy's oven. Since Synergy's founding, the 500 students who have lived there have baked a total of 30,000 loaves of bread.

The capacity of the experience of an ecological community to profoundly change students' aspirations for their own lives is evident with Synergy. A list of what Synergy members have done after living in the house includes:

Founding these organizations:

Working at these organizations:

Conference organizing:

From the house came all the directors of Stanford's recycling program over the last ten years [1980-1990], and house members have gone on to start recycling programs for Palo Alto, University of Chicago, Duke University, and have been recycling directors of Santa Cruz, Cornell, and Philadelphia.

Similar stories could be told for similar student communities around the country. If such communities became common parts of campuses all across the country, they could serve to sustain and deepen the student environmental movement into whole new unexplored directions.


The practical tasks of creating an ecological living group are to first, build the group, and second, find some real estate.

Building the group means gathering interested people for the project, developing a vision of what you want to create, and organizing the tasks it will take to get a living space. You want to build on the existing components of your student community. Making it a project of your campus environmental group is an obvious step. But creating a community cuts across standard lines of interest, so you should reach out to groups and places you might not think of at first.

Finding some real estate depends equally on the circumstances of your campus. If there are already student housing co-ops, the issue would be creating one with the specific educational purpose of ecological living. If there are other theme houses on campus, then you would begin with that structure and make proposals for your vision of a theme house.

If there are suitable buildings you can rent or lease near campus, then you could follow the steps well worked out by generations of off-campus student co-ops. The network of student co-ops across the country, NASCO (below), has organized the Campus Co-op Development Corporation to help students buy their own co-op houses, by offering technical assistance and getting financing from the National Co-op Bank. They hold an annual Institute in Ann Arbor in which hundreds of students from the US and Canada come to give and take workshops on all aspects of the student co-op movement.



Student Co-ops:

  • North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO), PO 7715, Ann Arbor, MI 48107 313/663-0899;

    Publications: Bringing Cooperation Home, Campus Co-op Directory

  • Synergy House, Columbae House, c/o 584 Mayfield, Stanford University, CA 94305 415/723-2300

    Publications: Living in Synergy

  • University Students Cooperative Association, 2424 Ridge Road, Berkeley, CA 94704, 415/848-1936

    Publications: Owner's Manual, Toad Lane Review

    Ecological Living:

  • The New Alchemy Institute, 237 Hatchville Road, East Falmouth, MA 02536, 617-564-6301

  • The Land Institute, 2440 E. Water Well Rd., Salina KS 67401, 913/823-5376


    Mind altering works clarifying the importance of community for moving to a sustainable society:

    Books that pioneered the technology and practice of ecological living:

    Consensus and group dynamics:

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