A Visit to a Sustainable Society.

Ted Trainer.


It is increasingly obvious that there are fatal flaws in industrial-affluent-consumer society. Most of our problems are getting worse. In all rich countries there is increasing inequality, social breakdown, resource depletion, debt, deterioration of public services and a falling quality of life. We are probably within a few years of a very serious petroleum shortage. Even more importantly, our society is grossly ecologically unsustainable. We are rapidly using up the available resources and damaging the ecosystems of the planet. There is no chance that all the world’s people could have the per capita resource use rates we have in rich countries. Yet we are obsessed with economic growth and raising "living standards"; i.e., with increasing our levels of production and consumption and GNP, constantly and without any limit.

In addition we few who live in rich countries can only have our affluent living standards because of the gross injustice built into the global economy. We are grabbing far more than our fair share of the world's resources and condemning most of the people in the Third World to extreme deprivation.

There is a way out of this alarming and accelerating predicament --- but only if we accept that the problems are generated by some of the fundamental principles of consumer-capitalist society, and therefore that the problems can’t be solved without radical and extreme change. We must move to The Simpler Way. This must involve materially simpler lifestyles, high levels of local economic self-sufficiency, more cooperative and participatory ways, a very different economic system…and some very different values.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of out situation is that it would be so easy to eliminate the problems --- if we were prepared to make these changes.

At first encounter the idea of having to move from our present affluent living standards can seem quite threatening, but this is a misunderstanding. The purpose of this book is to make clear how workable and attractive the alternative could be. We could all live very well on a small fraction of the present amount of work and production and resource use and waste, in pleasant surroundings and in supportive communities, with much time for arts and crafts, or learning or personal development, and knowing that we are no longer causing global problems --- but only if we abandon affluence and growth, and the institutions, systems and values that go with them.

I have given a long account of the necessary alternative ways in my The Conserver Society. What I have tried to do in The Way It Could Be is to give a much lighter and more readable account, in the form of a visit to a town that functions on alternative lines. My conviction regarding the availability and workability of The Simpler Way comes primarily from the fact that it is the way I have lived my life, in so far as that it possible when one is trapped in consumer-capitalist society. Many of the ways and figures given in this account derive from my own experience of seeking to live frugally and self-sufficiently on a homestead.

There is now a Global Alternative Society Movement in which many small groups are attempting to more or less live in and explore and demonstrate this way. There are now many "eco-villages" in existence around the world. Some are more than 20 years old. However most are rural communities and the most important step to a sustainable world order will be the development of alternative communities and economies within urban situations.

Our greatest problem is the steadfast refusal of the mainstream to address these issues, to even recognise the claim that consumer-capitalist society is grossly unsustainable and unjust, and that the alarming problems facing us cannot be solved without radical change from the obsession with affluence and growth. What then is the best strategy for us to pursue if we wish to contribute to the transition? I firmly believe that the fate of the planet depends on whether the Global Alternative Society Movement can establish a sufficient number of impressive examples of The Simpler Way in the next two or more decades, so that as mainstream consumer society runs into more serious difficulties people will be able to see that there is a better way.

The Way It Could Be.

Part 1 of 6.

Day 1: Morning

As a journalist, Mike had from time to time come across accounts of alternative settlements and lifestyles and although in general he thought well of people who lived that way he regarded them more or less as fringe dwellers who had opted out of conventional life. He had never really thought of them as being of much social significance, as in any way pioneering important new ideas and practices. He was therefore somewhat surprised to receive a letter claiming that a town within a few hours of his city held the key to a sustainable future for the entire planet. This sounded rather implausible but he could see the possibility of an interesting story. Occasional discussions with others in his pool eventually led him to suggest the idea to his editor, but the project was not regarded as being worth the time and effort. He did say though, that if Mike wanted to visit the place taking a few of his holidays and a useful article came of it, then he would be willing to credit that as work time. This put Mike off for a while but then office politics intervened.

The Features Department ran at a hectic pace with pressure to churn articles out in competition with tough colleagues, always eager to get the jump on each other, in the pursuit of good stories. Then there was the competition for the investigative assignments, the effort to fool the executives higher up to secure privileges, and jockeying for positions likely to become vacant. Mike had been outmanoeuvred for the office he’d had his eyes on getting when Henry left. He was nursing the bruise that gave to his self concept. The office and Henry’s job went to Madeleine, Medusa as Mike called her.

It wasn’t just that the office was a jungle of petty warfare but Mike knew he had been outsmarted on a number of occasions and felt that he probably deserved his place in the lower ranks of the pecking order. If he’d been better at the in-fighting he'd have more than Henry’s office by now. He could admit to himself that bad feelings were smouldering away; how nice it would be to even some of those scores. He always kept his eye open for chances. But when there’s a mortgage like his to live with you think twice before lashing out, and indeed you bless your stars for having a job with a reasonable income. He knew he was lucky to have some freedom and scope for initiative, like deciding how to approach a story. It was a long time since he’d had a break. So the idea of getting out for a few days became more attractive.

As he set out very early that morning Mike realised that he had been so busy on other assignments that he had done almost no homework on this project and had little idea of what he was going to find. He hadn’t thought of a possible angle, let alone searching questions. He decided that he might as well take the relaxed approach — look around at a leisurely pace and chat to a few of the locals, and just treat it mainly as a three day break from the office. He took along a folder of work he’d have to get through if urgent deadlines were going to be met in the week after, neatly tied with a red cord.

The Glen was a tiny town on one of the minor country rail links still functioning. He had arranged to be met at the station. When he found that that only one train stopped there each day this reinforced his doubts that he was going to find a thriving rural metropolis.

He nearly missed the stop. He was dreaming but with part of his mind on the need to watch for the station signs. The train slowed and he was dimly conscious of dense forest and scrub all around. The train clunked to a stop, apparently in the middle of nowhere. He chanced to look across the aisle and out of the window on the other side, and realised they were standing at a primitive wooden station, and there on a seat was written "The Glen". After a grab for his bags and a scramble down the aisle he dropped awkwardly to the decking, some way below the level of the train door. He looked around but was the only person on the short platform. A couple of sheds, a small crane at the end of the platform and a patch of bitumen were just about the only signs of human settlement in the middle of what now clearly was dense forest in all directions.

Then he saw two people walking quickly out of the forest and towards the platform. They waved and in a few seconds Mike had descended the ramp to meet them.

"Hi, Mike I guess, I’m Jan and this is Pete."

"Gerday. Yeah, I’m Mike."

"Sorry we weren’t here. The train was a bit early."

"How was the trip?"

"Not bad. Nice to travel by train for a change. I mostly have to drive."

"Yes, we never drive if we can help it."

Jan was maybe in her forties, somewhat tall and thin, and seemed to have an energetic manner, moving quickly and using her hands expressively. Pete was a little older, more stocky, and seemed to have a more slow and relaxed manner.

After a few more words Pete picked up one of Mike’s bags and said, "Well, lets take you down town." He led off across the patch of bitumen towards the wall of forest. Mike looked around for a car, but couldn’t see one. Within seconds Pete had plunged into the bush, striding along a narrow path. Mike thought, "Down town?" It suddenly struck him how thoroughly unprepared he was, and the fumbled for a way of partly apologising for having no idea of what he was getting involved in, and partly trying to elicit some clues without appearing to be too incompetent.

"I have to confess that I really have little idea what to expect."

"Good." said Pete. "It can be a discovery adventure for you."

After no more than three minutes they were coming out of the forest, as if through a curtain, and there about two hundred metres ahead, down the slope, was the edge of a settlement of some kind. All he could see were some house roofs above and between a lot of tree tops. Pete walked a few metres more and put the bag down.

"Welcome to The Glen," he said, spreading his arms as if performing to a fanfare. "Our place is only another three hundred metres or so over there, but this is a good spot to stop and explain a bit about the geography. We’ve just come through what we call The Wall. Most of that forest was planted twenty years ago, to screen us off from the railway. Twenty years ago you could see the whole town from here. Mind you twenty years ago there were a lot more trains thundering through all day than there are now."

"Twenty years ago you could see the town dying you mean," Jan said. "It was a typical tiny and struggling country town. From here you could see all the streets and just about all the houses, because the streets were pretty bare. Can you make out how those house roofs there form a line, well they were along a street. Our house is on that line, but you won’t see a street there now, just a path with a lot of green. We dug up the road and planted most of it…

"...and put in fish ponds and woodlots and swings and the odd windmill. Lets go on," Pete said, picking up the bag again. After a few more minutes on the path they turned sharply through a gate in a hedge and seemed to be walking through someone’s garden, then through another gate into a thicket, around a bend the other way and out of the low hanging overhead foliage onto a pasture surrounded by trees, again with a few house roofs visible. They could now hear sounds of settlement; chickens somewhere close, people talking from time to time, someone hammering. An engine started up some way off, and then a cow could be heard. Mike thought of traffic and realised he couldn’t hear any, although they were now only a few metres from the closest houses.

Soon another gate, this one with a low dense vine above, making Mike bend to pass thorough. As he straightened up he found himself in a neat and compact domestic garden, with a house veranda up a few steps some metres to the left.

"Here we are," said Jan. "This is base camp. This is our patch. This is where you’ll be staying." Mike was caught off balance; he’d thought a room had been booked for him at a hotel. Well, boarding would be alright, as long as he was left to his own devices most of the time.

They mounted the steps. "Take a seat and I’ll put the kettle on." Jan directed Mike to a rocking chair. Mike put his bag down, turned and lowered himself into the chair, gave it a little rock to get the feel, then looked up. He was surprised to find sloping away before him an extensive landscape, with long views across clumps of trees, fields, houses, stretches of water, to thickly forested hills not so far away. Immediately in front of him was a cottage garden beside the patch of lawn they had come across. He hadn't seen the pond, or beyond that a low ornamental fence bordering a vegetable garden Then a chicken pen, then orange trees and a high bamboo clump arching from the left . A little further off to the right a thick cluster of very tall eucalypts jutted into the sky. In the middle distance were fields, a large lake and two windmills. Dotted throughout were several house roofs almost obscured by the dense clumps of foliage. Mike felt he could spend hours zooming into parts of the complex panorama to examine what was in each little section.

"Look at this," Pete broke in, as came from the house and handed a photo to Mike. He gave Mike a few seconds to get confused, then said, "This is what it looked like twenty years ago, from right here. See the edge of the old fence over there, that was this bit of fence in the edge of the picture."

"But, there's a town there," said Mike, looking up from the picture.

"Still there," Said Pete, "Just buried in the trees now. See that's the tip of Wilson's house roof, over there, see just to the right of the oranges. And see how those houses are in a line, along the street, well, when we go for a walk there soon you will see they are still in that line, but not on a street; we got rid of that."

"Got rid of it; what do you mean?"

"Just dug it up and planted it, left a wide cycle path wandering along but mostly that area is a sort of cross between a park, a forest and a farm now. Still all public property though."

"Well, well," muttered Mike, jiggling the rocking chair around so he could face straight down the view, and looking up at it and down to the photo again and again. "You'd never know. And the town in the photo looks so bare, you can see road surface over there, but it’s like a jungle there now."

"Yep. We sure jungled Elm St. Fancy calling that strip of grey dirt Elm St in the first place. No elms there then, but see that crown there, that's a Pecan, and I planted him, about eighteen years ago now. He's one of my children you know. There are probably another fifty of mine out there we could see from our roof."

"It sure is a nice landscape," Mike said.

"Yes, but that's only half the story. It is also a very productive landscape --- we say 'edible landscape'. Nearly all the green you can see belongs to a tree or a shrub producing something for us, mostly fruit, nuts or timber. And just about all of it is public, I mean it’s planted on what were roads or parks and those areas are now growing things for the community to use or enjoy."

"..and fish," said Jan who appeared with a tray carrying a pot, teacups and biscuits.


"Yes, there are lots of fish out there too."

"In the ponds," said Pete, "…nibbling the toes of all the ducks and geese out there. You can see the edge of the big pond down there, but there are many more smaller ones in among the trees. Parallel to Elm St, about where the back fences were there is a shallow natural water drainage line. It used to rot the wooden fence posts out. Now it’s been turned into a chain of ponds along a creek. Most of them have fish in them. Some have islands for particular types of bamboo. Some bamboos will run everywhere and become a pest, so we confine them on little islands. But others, the clumpers, don't need that. See that big one arching from the left just down there. He's a clumper. We get building materials from that one, and things like our tomato stakes from the smaller ones.

"That's where our dinner comes from," said Jan, waving at the view. "Just about everything we eat comes from that scene in front of you. We have to import a few things, but I'd say 95% of what we eat comes from land you can see from our roof top. Mostly vegetables and fruit, but there is also poultry, fish and rabbits for the meat eaters. Can’t see the dairy from here but it ‘s about a kilometre away."

"And there’s a lot of manufacturing industry out there too. You’ll see when we go for a walk. Many little firms and industries throbbing away. Many people work from home here, or in small firms that are around the corner from where they live."

They heard the door at the front of the house open. "That’ll be Gran," said Jan. And within a few seconds an elderly lady came into the kitchen adjacent to the veranda, wearing an apron and loaded down with baskets and bags. She was almost tiny, a little stooped and wearing thick glasses, but moved quickly.

"Gran, here’s Mike."

"Hi there, nice to meet you. Are they looking after you?"

"This is really Gran’s house. Pete and I moved in about ten years ago," said Jan. "Decided whether we can stay yet Gran? Gran is the greatest cake maker and dinner roaster the world has ever seen" said Jan.

"And knitter and herb gardener. This jumper is one of her works of art".

"Gran what on earth have you got there?" said Jan, looking at the bags.

"It’s all from Mary, you know the story. I only pop in to say hello and now it’ll take me an hour just to plant the cuttings, let alone put away all this other treasure. Look at this a bottle of marmalade. She says it’s a new recipe."

"By the way," said Jan, "Where is Amy?"

"No idea. Said she’d be home for tea. I think she and the Smith twins were going up to the lookout on their bikes".

"Did she take a jumper? It’ll be cool this evening."

"Don’t know, she can always borrow something from somewhere."

Pete turned to Mike. "Amy is our nine year old. Occasionally she comes back to visit us. Spends most of her time in somebody else’s house."

Jan said, "That evens out when she brings her friends back to camp here without any warning. That’s when you send out the distress call to May for emergency egg delivery, or to Tommy for loaves of bread. She knows Mike will be here, so she’ll be back sometime. You know what she said? ‘I’m very interested in aliens’. I hope that’s not too offensive Mike."

"Actually", said Pete, "I should explain. In this town we feel such a huge gulf between mainstream people and us. It’s an uneasy, maybe a confused relation. We really are a friendly easy-to-get-on-with lot, but we so strongly dissent from the mainstream ways, that I have to say there is a strand of resentment there. Let’s face it we think we’re on the right track, and the mainstream isn’t. And it’s important you know. It’s actually a matter of saving the planet. So there is a tension in how we connect with visitors. Amy puts it in terms of visitors being aliens."

Mike was not sure on how to respond. He didn’t recall any reference to this in any of the correspondence he’d seen before setting out. He just nodded.

There was a lull and Jan said "Let’s get back to our landscape. Do you realise that we’ve crossed two farms to get here?"

"Well it did look like a farm when we came out of the trees, but surely that place was too small to be a farm." Mike said.

"Yes that was the Wilson’s farm, made up of three old house blocks, and that’s a common farm area around here."

"Even including the homestead!" Pete added.

"You see many people here grow lots of things around their houses, for their own use, but also to sell. Often the quantities are very small. But they are really mixed farms. They are parts of this neighbourhood’s agricultural system. The Wilson’s actually have two cows, but they don’t feed them just on their land. They tether them around the neighbourhood much of the time. Mol and Mim supply several houses here with their milk and butter and cheese. Dairy products are the Wilson's main source of income. But it is a very mixed farm. They also produce vegetables, flowers, poultry, herbs, honey, and fruit."

"We have many much bigger farms in the area, but they grade down to the point where you would say they are just home gardens which might sell the odd bunch of surplus carrots now and then. Most families have backyard gardens where they produce much of their own food and they sell what they don’t use."

Pete came in, "...or give it away. You’ll see surplus stuff down at the neighbourhood workshop later, just there for anyone to take."

"And Harry Wilson is a good wood turner, and Meg knits. They sell some of that stuff too from time to time at the weekly market. I’d say they probably derive their cash income from about twenty products."

"Hold on," Mike had to say. "Back up! How did you get this landscape. How did you end up with mini-farms, right in the middle of what used to be a normal town?"

"Well the farms and gardens and these woodlots and ponds have just been put on land that was backyards, or parks, or wasteland, or land beside the railway line. And then there is the space that was unused at the back of the hospital, and all the nature strips even where roads were left, and of course then there were all the roads we dug up. Did you know that in a normal city roads and cars and parking lots take up more than one-third of the space. Convert some of that to fruit and nut trees and you are off to a good start."

A knock at the front door. "Who’s that?" Jan said to herself, as she left the room. She came back accompanied by a somewhat short old man in scruffy overalls and a battered straw hat, wearing glasses and carrying a large basket.

"Mike meet Barry. He’s just brought us some eggs."

"Hello," said Barry. "Have Jan and Pete run you off your feet yet?"

"Not really, only just arrived."

"I’m sure they’ll wear you out fast."

"Can we have a dozen Barry?" Jan said. "I think that will do. Oh, I should check; Mike do you like eggs?"


"Our hens more or less keep us in eggs for most of the year, but when we have someone else in the house, we have to get more in. These are from the Wilson’s. I could’ve got some from the co-op, but May said Barry could drop some off. Do you have some for others Barry?"

"Yes, May’s got me running errands all over the place, I’ve still got three lots to drop off".

He was such a quiet and timid looking man, Mike thought, and he couldn’t classify him at all confidently. He was well spoken and seemed slow, but maybe it was just his retiring nature. He smiled a lot. Mike’s best bet was that he was a slow old grandpa and made himself useful doing odd jobs when asked, such as delivering eggs. After a few more words with Jan, he said "Cheerio" to Mike, predicting that their paths would cross again before long.

Jan called after him, "Tell May to debit me a dozen or I’ll forget."

Pete explained, "That means record us as owing for the eggs. May tells the accounts office who owes what to whom, and later we all send in our debts and credits. Someone types them in and at the end of the month a computer sends us a statement. You more or less try to keep your trading account above zero over time. If you find you’re in debt at the end of the month, you make a note to supply a little more to people than you get for a while. It’s a cashless exchange system."

"What do you trade?"

"More or less anything you want to sell and anyone wants to buy. Mostly produce from home gardens and crafts, but also things like piano lessons."

"What if someone runs up a big debt and can’t sell enough?" said Mike.

"You could just write a money cheque, or better still opt to work it off on some community project. You can pay some of your rates or electricity bills by work time inputs, for instance, on the teams that maintain the windmills or the power lines".

"Can I get back to the mini farms?" said Mike. "I can’t see how they are viable. For example, they must be too small to use tractors even."

"Yes, many of them are. But our farms don’t use much machinery. Certainly nothing large. Some rotary hoes are used. But the local farm cooperative has two very small tractors the commercial farmers hire when they need one. You see much of our produce comes from permanent trees and shrubs. Very little ploughing and digging gets done, except in home gardens. Most of the food producing around here is done by hand, because most of our farmers are more like home gardeners. Did you know that the home gardener is by far the most efficient food producer of all?"

"Surely not" Mike replied. "Surely the biggest farms are the most productive, the ones that can use gigantic specialised machinery."

Gran had been sitting quietly in a chair in the corner and had taken up some knitting. At this point she suddenly said, "Not at all. Yes they get large yields, but only by using huge amounts of fuel energy, and water and pesticides and fertilizers. Home gardeners don’t have to use any of those inputs. And home gardeners improve the soil, whereas agribusiness damages it. Agribusiness cannot return soil nutrients to the soil. All our scraps and animal waste go back into our soil. That’s not possible when food is transported long distances. Do you know how far the average bit of food in the US is traveling now? "


"One to two thousand kilometres! "

It was Jan’s turn to take up the theme. "Whether you measure crop output in dollar or energy terms the home gardener produces food at far lower cost."

"And home gardeners only use porridge for fuel!" Gran’s turn.

"What?" said Mike.

"She means they are fuelled by breakfast. They mostly use only human energy. They don’t require imports of petroleum from the other side of the world, which could be cut at any moment by wars or price hikes. "

"And the food from the home gardener, or the small local market gardener, is of much higher quality than the stuff you get from the supermarket, which has been stored and is full of preservatives and pesticides."

"And of course agribusiness grows only those varieties that look good and are big, and last a long time on the shelf, and are tough enough to be packaged and transported. They don’t develop the varieties that are most nutritious and tasty, or least dependent on pesticides and fertilizer and water."

"And our food is very fresh. We can eat carrots here a few seconds after they were growing in the ground."

"And that in turn means we have few fridges here, and little packaging. We don’t have to store food for long before its used. The vegetables in your supermarket have probably been dead for weeks, oozing out vitamins all the time. For example, if we have roast chicken for tea, that rooster could have still been strutting around at afternoon tea time."

Mike had to break in with, "But I can’t believe it’s at all economic to do things on such a small scale."

"Look, sometimes large scale is best. Backyard steel production really doesn’t make much sense. But you would be surprised how often the small way is best, even on conventional economic measures. There’re many things we can produce here in this kitchen that are dollar cheaper than agribusiness."

"Such as?"

"Bottled tomatoes," Jan said immediately.


"Yes. We’ve costed it out, including a labour cost. And that is not taking into account many factors like the energy and pesticides and fertilizers we don’t have to use to produce our tomatoes."

"Nor the energy cost of trucking them to and from the supermarket," Pete said. "Nor the energy to light and clean the supermarket."

"And then there are the intangible things like the sensation of cooking with and eating vegies you produced yourself. That’s nice, apart from the freshness and the fact that you know they have no pesticides in them."

"And above all an home grown tomato has a far better taste than the plastic ones you have to buy from the supermarkets."

" And there is one very important thing we haven’t mentioned yet," said Gran. "Small farms give a very satisfying livelihood to many little people who just love small farming. The economy you have come from couldn’t care less about them. It just strips them off their land and into unemployment, because it allows some giant corporation to take their business and livelihood."

Mike wasn’t sure he was convinced on the general issue of scale but decided to let the issue go for a while at least. "I like the greenhouses, up against the walls here and there. They would be nice to wander into on a cold day."

Pete said, "Yes they are. But greenhouses are also used to warm our houses…"

"How do they do that?"

"Oh just by ducting the warm air from the greenhouse into the main house, sometimes with a small fan, but mostly by the normal tendency for the warm air to rise."

"Sorry, I cut you off. What were you going to say, about other things they do?"

"Our greenhouses are also fish farms, house air coolers in summer, and hen houses."

"You’d better explain. How can a greenhouse be a fish farm and a hen house?"

Jan jumped to her feet. "Come on. Best way is to have a look. That’s Amanda’s place next door. She won’t mind us popping in to her greenhouse. Be back soon Gran. "

Within two minutes Jan was opening the glass door into a cavernous jungle of green, with hardly enough space for a person to walk down the narrow little path between shelves packed with pots.

"See," said Jan pointing, "…down at the end, those are small water tanks . They produce pond plants, and fish. See in the bigger one at the back, they’re Tilapia. Amanda cemented a glass sheet in the front so the kids could see them swimming. You can raise a lot of fish in small tanks. And see here, this is where the hens roost in the corner of the greenhouse, behind a wire screen that keeps them away from the plants. The greenhouse helps to warm then in winter and they help to warm it., They get in at night through the opening there, from their run outside. Their breathing throughout the night and their droppings add carbon to the atmosphere. That increases plant growth."

Pete elaborated. "That’s an example of how we get things to overlap. I mean we try to put things together so that the needs of one are met by something the other does naturally. In this case the hens get warm automatically in the greenhouse while they provide carbon dioxide to it. Meanwhile they also provide eggs, meat, feathers, and manure for the gardens."

"Yes, that’s really important," Jan said. "That’s an essential Permaculture principle. You always try to design your systems so that any one thing is performing many functions, and benefiting in several ways from other things in the system. For example ducks provide eggs, but they also provide feathers for insulating clothing and making pillows, and they produce ducklings..."

"And they are a great source of entertainment! " Pete said. "They’re comical and self-important, and bunglers, and clumsy. Being able to watch them now and then is part of my leisure and entertainment world. And the ducks benefit from other aspects of the system. For example the gardens sometimes have pests like slugs, and the ducks like eating snails and slugs. Many things in a well designed system perform functions automatically for each other, whereas in conventional agriculture you would buy energy-intensive products to kill the snails, and energy-intensive food for the ducks."

"And anyway the snails would be on one farm that was growing nothing but lettuces while the ducks were on another miles away..."

"...not even touching the ground let alone scrabbling through lettuces. Did you know that in factory farms hens are kept all their lives in a cage that legally has to be no bigger than and A4 sheet of paper?"

Pete didn’t wait for an answer. "And of course the water in the fish tanks in the greenhouse is a great heat store. The sunlight warms up the water in the day time and it keeps the greenhouse warm overnight. No fuel is burnt to keep it warm.""

"We have three little fish farms in this neighbourhood. Many people have a small number of fish in some tanks around the house, but there are three families whose main source of income is fish grown in their tanks, or in community ponds that they have leased. Come and look."

Pete led the way out of the greenhouse, and pointed into the middle distance. "See that water down there, about 200 metres away. That’s the Smith St. lake, although it’s really only a shallow pond excavated where two roads used to cross. We dug it -- took the earth to make two houses and some animal sheds. One fish farmer has the lease on that and so while it’s used by all of us for recreation. I mean the kids can paddle their canoes, at the same time it is growing bigger fish that Bob Simmons will net some day and sell."

"What do the fish eat?"

"At the domestic level their food is mostly household scraps, but farm wastes can go in. With small ponds you have to change the water from time to time, so that’s a great source of nutrients for the garden. Some things are specially grown to feed them, like worms, but mostly they just feed on the critters growing in the pond. It’s also part of the drainage system for the neighbourhood so nutrients are coming in all the time. In other words the lake catches nutrients that would be wasted in run off, and enables them to be recycled through food."

"Again you can see the interlocking functions. Our worm farms obviously contribute to soil enrichment and recycling of food wastes, but some worms also go into fish feed. All food scraps end up back in the soils or ponds, but on the way it makes sense if they can be food for animals. The nutrients are actually improved for the soil if they go through an animal, rather than straight into the compost heap."

Pete suddenly said, "Hey I forgot to explain how the greenhouse cools the main house in summer. See there is a vent there in the top that allows warm air flow out through the roof and another here low down opening into the greenhouse from the house. As the hot air flows out of the greenhouse it draws air from the house via the low vent, and that draws cool air into the house from a fernery at the back of the house."

"Let’s go for a ramble." Said Jan.

"Great, but I should be writing things down," said Mike. " Can you wait till I go in and get my pad?"

When he returned Jan led off. After walking for a few seconds they came onto a broad cement footpath.

"This is one of the original footpaths. It was beside the road, which you can see used to be here. The footpath is now a cycle way. They now run all over the neighbourhood. This one has been widened a bit, so in an emergency a fire truck or an ambulance could get along here, to access these houses that are not on a road now."

"In general we left the path on the southern side, when we dug up the roads. In the winter the path is in the sun, because the trees are deciduous."

Mike said, "Yes, I was just thinking what a lot of leaves must come down in Autumn."

"Ah," Pete said, "That’s a fabulous source of material for mulching and for composting. These big Plane and Poplars and Liquid Ambers deliver lots of minerals and other valuable things to us from metres under the surface of the ground. Their roots bring them up and make them available in the form of falling leaves and bark, We rake up the leaves here, but in most of our forest gardens the leaves just lie there and rot down to enrich the soil in which many useful trees are growing."

"...and help feed the poultry as they scratch in it for worms and grubs."

"Then there’s gleaning. If you have a lemon tree in your yard you can’t use them all, so you organise for people to come and collect the surplus and take it to the coop. This in effect makes more of the private property into commons."

Just then two people came around the corner.

"Hi," said Jan. "We were just showing Mike your greenhouse. Mike this is Amanda and this is Alice".

"Hello, we were expecting you."

"He’s only just got here. We’ve dragged him into an exploratory tour."

"Where are you taking him next?"

"How about we just go down Main Street. Want to come along?"

"OK. I’ll put this basket inside and catch up."

Jan headed down a short lane and left into what Mike could see must have been the street but the space between the rows of houses was now a confusion of flowers, shrubs, trees and patches of vegetables. It was impossible to form much of an idea about the overall geography because most of the time the path wound through a dense maze of shrubs and hedges, gardens and thickets of trees, although here and there were open patches of grass and some small ponds.

After a few minutes a small shed came into view ahead, beside the footpath.

"What’s this?" said Mike. "Looks like a roadside stall of sorts, on a microscopic scale."

"It is," said Jan, pointing to a sign that had been written in crayon on a piece of card, saying "Sorry, all the beans have gone. Should have more tomorrow. Write orders on the pad."

"This is the stall for the Atkinson’s and the Welling’s farms. Maybe I should just call them backyard gardens, but both families get most of their cash income from their produce. They grow most of their own food but sell their surplus through here. There is hardly ever anyone in this stall selling, but you’ll often run into one of them bringing more produce down or tidying up. They don’t have to waste labour staffing this shop! People serve themselves. See the paper bags there, and the scales. Mostly people bring their own baskets though; no need to wrap when you will be back in the kitchen in three minutes."

"See the second grade bins," Pete said pointing. "They’re for fruit and vegies that might have a bruise or a bit pecked out by a bird. Sometimes you’ll see a sign saying half price, or just "Please take me". This means those things aren’t wasted. They get used up, but in a normal food system they’d be dumped. Usually when we take that stuff we pay anyway.

Pete said, pointing, "Look over there, what do you see?"

"They look like apples on the trees."

"Yes, but what kind?"

"I hardly know one type from another."

"Oh these are a kind that you don’t see where you come from. They are called free apples."

"Free apples?"

"That’s right. Come on. We will see if there’s a ripe one for you."

They walked where the cycle path passed the small group of trees, all heavily laden with ripening apples. Pete looked at a few, and then pulled two off and passed one to Mike.

"Have a free apple. Get it? This is a community orchard. You’ll see lots of these through and around town. Some like this are patches of the one plant, but some are mixed little forest gardens. We just take the fruit, nuts and herbs when you want them. Good idea?"

"Don’t people steal them?" Amanda and Alice both laughed.

"Yes that’s the idea! They’re here for people to take what they want when they like. But if the fruit tree sub-committee of the commons committee finds that there are not enough fruit trees, because people are taking fruit so fast, that there’s none left when others come for it, what do we do? That’s right, we plant more trees. But now we’ve got it pretty well worked out. There are just about enough trees to keep people in fruit and nuts, without many surpluses or scarcities.

"Oh we should point out," said Jan, "The fruit isn’t really free, because we pay for it, when we come to the working bees that plant, prune and harvest. That’s how we pay much of our tax."

Mike looked up from his note pad. "Tax?"

"Yes, tax is your contribution to public works and maintenance isn’t it? So one way we do that, is by paying money, but another is by working directly on developing and maintaining public facilities and resources."

As they left the apple trees Jan said, "See that block of high rise units over there. Most people living in there have garden plots within a hundred metres of it. There is a large community garden on what used to be a parking lot close to the units.

"What that building?" said Mike, pointing. "That’s hardly high rise."

"Well it’s four stories," said Jan. "Tallest building in town. Too high for old people. No lifts you see. All our other buildings are no more than two to three stories, so it’s easy to go up by stairs. There are several community garden spaces like that through the town now."

"So how big would one family’s plot be?"

"It varies, depending on how much effort people want to put in. Some people have only a 5 square metre area. But mostly people don’t have their own private plot. They might have a little plot for special things they like to grow, but mostly they garden collectively, so that..."

"Collectively? What do you mean?"

"Alice, you explain. Alice is in a poultry group."

"They just work as a team. They decide what needs to go in next and they all turn up at the arranged times and work together to get the planting and other work done. Or sometimes they have a notice board system so that if you go down to the garden at an odd time you can look at the board and see where the others have got to. It might say the new bed is ready for broad beans, so if that’s the next thing to be done you might do that. So one group will work together to produce a crop, and they will all share it. See the big advantage of doing it this way is that everyone benefits from the expert’s knowledge. If Jan knows a lot about growing good herbs then if I’m in her group I’ll get good herbs and learn what she knows. If we each grew our own I wouldn’t do so well."

Amanda took over, "And it would be in my interests for Pete to learn more about herb growing because some day I might want to get some from him. See the incentives here are to cooperate, to share knowledge. We’re not in a situation where we’re competing against each other, for example to sell herbs. The more I help others to learn and develop skills and be happy and secure the better for me too."

They walked on in silence, not feeling any need to talk but just looking around at the variety coming into view. Mike was struck by the diversity of the landscape and slowed the pace by stopping to look at things. Much of the space was given to fruit trees or vegetable gardens, in among houses and pockets of dense bush or forest, but there were many structures including sheds and trellises and many small spaces evidently for leisure purpose, including seats and little ponds, and here and there figures, sculptures, ornaments and plaques, some with short sayings and scraps of poetry.

‘We’re coming to one of our experimental planting sites. Now this is really important. What we’re doing in these plots is growing tree and shrub varieties from many parts of the world, to find out what ones will thrive here in our soil and climatic conditions, with a minimum of attention and food and water, to provide the nicest, most pest-resistant fruits. We actually have about thirty varieties of tomato under trial at present. Mostly the seedlings are grown in the greenhouse over there and in these plots and then planted out in many private gardens around the neighbourhood. We keep good records and as time goes by we get clearer about the best varieties for us to grow here."

"See over there, that’s one of the bigger plots where we are doing it with almond trees. It might take us ten years to know which types will do best here. It takes about seven years for nut trees to fruit. There are hundreds of great fruits and nuts growing somewhere in the world that we’ve never heard of, so the committee is constantly bringing a few more in to be tried here."

Mike jotted notes on his pad. Jan said, "And in addition there’s the problem of working out which ecosystems and combinations of plants are best. Many things facilitate or inhibit the growth of others and eventually we need to know how best to cluster plants in our permanent forest gardens."

"What do you mean, forest gardens."

"Every suburb should eventually have within it and around it many patches of forest containing a wide range of useful trees and shrubs and vines, all interacting to provide each other with the conditions they need. For example some like shade, so they are best under big trees. Maximum use can be made of the space to provide lots of food and materials and timber for local people from all the available niches."

"What do you mean, niches?"

‘Well, when you plant a wheat crop you only use one ecological niche, or location where things might grow. For grain it’s about this high isn’t it? But what about all the things that could be growing 50 metres above the wheat?


"What about the canopy of a rainforest. There’s so much biological activity and growth and food 50 metres above the ground that many species such as monkeys never come down. Under the canopy there is the understorey, the shrubs, the herbs on the ground, the vines that grow from ground all the way up to the canopy, and the tubers under the ground. Useful things can be growing in all those places. A basic Permaculture principle is to stack your area with as many producers as possible, using all those niches."

"By the way we grow medicines all over the place too?"

"What do you mean?" Mike asked.

"Just herbs of different sorts, not just around the ponds but here and there everywhere you will see patches of this and that. See that over there, up in the drier area that’s an Alovera. It is very good for ointment, for burns especially. Just break a leaf and rub the juice on. Many people around here know a lot about herbs and herbal remedies. Some earn lkan income from harvesting and preparing various medicines."

"Like Tea Tree oil; its a powerful disinfectant, did n you know?" Pete said. "The Watson family work a few small groves of t Tea Trees further up this gully, in a boggy area, and derive a small income from t selling the oil. Again that is a common resource, but they have "rights" to harvest the Tea Tree oil. "

"There are about five people in the neighbourhood earning small cash incomes from essential oils of different kinds, all processed from plants growing around here. Some have their own small plantations on private ground but they all get some of their material from plants on public space."

Again they fell into silence as they strolled on. Mike began to feel that he had an intellectual indigestion problem coming on. Too many new and somewhat strange ideas to come to terms with. However he realised it would be best just to let them introduce him to these things at their pace and he could mull it all over later.

As they walked the other four often exchanged " Hellos" and chatted with people they passed. There was a lot of bicycle traffic, and many of the bikes had carriers and even little trailers. He saw no cars and realised that they had been on narrow winding paths and lanes nearly all the way.

"Why aren’t there many roads and cars?" he asked.

"Because we don’t need them!" Jan was again the one to deliver the short sharp retort, but again with a smile. His initial impression had been correct; Jan was more impulsive and expressive, Pete more slow and restrained, and prone to wordy explanations.

Pete detailed the point. "Most people here don’t need to travel far to work. Much of the producing takes place at home or in little firms that are close to home, so people can get to work on a bike or by walking. And because so much of what we need is produced here we don’t need many cars and trucks bringing things in to sell in the shops. People mostly walk to shops."

"And then there is the fact that people spend most of their leisure time not far from home, so they don’t need cars to drive away for leisure. If you do want to go to the theatre over in Scotsdale, you can take the bus. A few people here do own a car, because they need one for their work. But others who need one from time to time can just use one of the community cars."

"Community cars?" Mike asked.

"Yes. They’re like hire cars. We’ll see them at the community workshop later."

"The point is if you decentralise industry as much as possible and locate many small factories and offices throughout a region or a city, mostly producing to meet local needs, you can cut huge amounts off the travelling and transporting that has to be done."

"So you see, less cars means less roads, means more space for growing things and for play and building premises for small firms..."

"And less cost in accidents, noise, and dollars to pay for fuel and spare parts, imported into this suburb, and therefore more money people here have to spend here."

"That’s why we have so much green space, and gardens and patches of forests and ponds throughout our town, because over time we dug up all the roads we no longer needed and planted them. We actually added about one-third of the area we had, I mean that’s how big an area that the car used to take."

"And" said Jan, "guess what we did with the petrol stations that were no longer needed.":


"Turned most of them into community workshops and garden sites."

"By the way Mike, can you solder?"

"Solder? No"

"Can you cut glass?"


"How about extract honey from a bee hive"?"

"No. Why do you ask?"

Can you chair a meeting?"

"Ah, yes, sort of. Not very good at it, but I’ve done it."

Pete went on, "See Naomi up ahead, the girl coming this way. She can do all those things. She’s ten years old. She can do lots of other things too, like ride a horse, weld, and paint pictures, and make fruit pie. The point I'm making is that kids grow up here naturally and easily learning a very wide range of skills, just by being involved with others who’re doing all these things in their day to day lives. Just about any person living here can do a huge number of thing practical things. We’re very self-sufficient at the household level."

Jan said, "Naomi can also care for rabbits, saw wood, make baskets, operate a pottery wheel, spin..."

Pete cut in, "All that makes her life very interesting -- lots of thing skills to exercise, and many people around who she can do those things with. In mainstream society most people only do one thing and get paid for it, then buy everything they need. They have to buy their entertainment too, because they don’t have many skills, or many people to practise them with."

"Kids here learn these many things automatically, just by helping or being around when bee hives are worked or blacksmithing is done or meetings are held. That’s is not just good for the individual. It’s important for our society for as many people as possible to have as many skills as possible. The more people around here who can grow good carrots or design good electronic gadgets the richer we all are, because the more easily anyone with a problem can get help or advice or the more easily we can design and build a solution to a problem. "

Amanda took over. "That also means we all have a strong interest in helping each other to learn things. If I find out a new variety of strawberries that tastes better, or learn something new about welding, it’s in my interests to tell everyone else, because then they can grow lots of excellent strawberries and I’ll be given some of them. There’s a lot of learning and experimenting and sharing of ideas and knowledge going on all the time. As I said before, you can see it’s in everyone’s interests to do this, to share knowledge. Out there in mainstream society the incentive is not to share, because if you know something and keep it from others you have an advantage over them, because you are competing against all others as an individual. The situation is totally different here. The more I share and help others the better for me."

As they rounded a bend in the lane a medium sized windmill came into view not far away. Mike had seen several here and there at some distance. "What does he do? Can we go and have look?"

"He pumps water of some kind."

"Some kind? Isn’t water water?"

"No. We have about for main types of water here."

"Really. What are they?"

"Drinking water, from rainfall. Then there’s ground and pond water, pumped for irrigation. And then there’s grey water; that’s recycled washup and shower water, again for gardens. Then there’s black water; that’s sewage. That’s recycled to the soils in various ways. They all have to be pumped. This mill’s con rod can be connected to one of the four pumps there at the bottom."

It was a small to medium sized mill on about ten metre tripod angle iron tower. The blades were turning very slowly in the light breeze and Mike watched the shiny rod sliding through the seal into the pump.

"Who maintains it?"

"Windmill committee. At least they organise the rosters for checking, oiling, painting, etc. We had a working bee to paint this fellow only two weeks ago. They just about last for ever you know. Simple mechanism. Just have to replace the pump washers and seals every two or three years, and the oil."

Alice said, "Hey while we’re in this direction let’s show you the Albion St. water wheel."

Within 100 metres they came to a path down into a gully buried in thick forest. Mike could hear lightly falling water. As they reached a small pond at the bottom a five metre high water wheel came into vie, slowly turning, with water dripping from the buckets around its edge.

"There’s usually not much flow in this gully so it’s a very light construction, just tubular spokes. See the pump connected to the hub crank. Further up the creek there’s a pond and a 50 metre pipe bringing the input water to him at his overshoot height there. There are other wheels along this gully."

"What’s connected this side?" Jan asked.

Pete looked at the belt from the opposite side to the pump and said, "Paper. "

"Ah Jessica’s stones must be done then. See the drum being churned around, that’s got old bits of paper and rags in it, and water, breaking up the fibres for paper making. And that other drum’s for tumbling stones. Jessica had some going for a week, polishing them for her mosaic work. And see that other belt, it can drive the pug mill over there, for mixing clay for the pottery. See the bum, with several grouves — you can connect a belt to drive this or that device."

A few minutes later Mike could see they were heading from the fringe of the neighbourhood towards the centre. There were more people around and more cyclists passed them. More of the houses and small buildings were obviously firms and shops. They crossed a normal tar road, although it was quite narrow, and more like a tunnel because of the tall trees arching over it from each side. Jan explained that most black tar areas were now shaded by deciduous trees, meaning that in summer they soaked up less heat and in winter they would let the sun in to warm things up.

As they passed a little alcove beside the path containing a rustic log seat Mike was again struck by how frequently he had seen pergolas, ponds, seats, gazebos , ornaments and little statues beside the path. There had also been written passages that he had not taken much notice of, some painted on boards, some carved in wood and even stone. There had been murals and pictures, mosaics, decorated pots and a some little ornamental houses and castles. Many of the ponds had little bridges and islands. Some of these things appeared to be in private space, near houses, but many of them were obviously in public space, beside paths and around open places.

Mike stopped to contemplate a heavy wooden bench seat, set in deep shade under an awning of foliage. He could see it had been arduously chopped and carved out of a big old log, giving a sense of great age and solidity and security. Certainly no one would run off with it.

Jan said, "Ah, that was made by Anthony and his two boys. It was a big Camphor Laurel that blew down in a storm. They did it all with tomahawks and hammers and chisels. Took them ages, chipping away now and then."

""What’s it doing here?" asked Mike. "Why are there things like this all around the place?"

"Well these are just what you might call public works. They make our public space nice. People can sit here and enjoy the alcove and the view and the carving."

"But who’s in control of this public seating. Does the council look after it?"

"Oh, no. No one is in control. Anyone and everyone can build a seat or put a little statue beside the path if they want to. People will do things like that just make a spot nice and interesting. Have you read any of the poetry along the way? Some people will maintain a nice bit of flower garden beside a footpath. That will just be something they like doing, to keep that area nice and enjoyable."

"See, all this helps to make this suburb ‘leisure-rich’. You can have an enjoyable hour just walking around and looking at these sorts of things. That’s one reason why we tend not to go away for leisure and entertainment. This is an interesting neighbourhood to spend time in, especially because of all the little enterprises and waterwheels and craft groups and animals and forests and ponds we have. You can drop in and watch people blowing glass or doing pottery or repairing boots or milking cows, any time."

"But who maintains things like this seat?" Mike asked.

"Everyone and no one. Maybe the people who made it will give it a coat of paint when it is needed, or maybe one of our committees will organise a working bee to fix it up."

"Committees? Working bees?"

"Ah, you’ll see them in action later."

Mike moved closer to the seat. Carved deeply into the top log were the words, "


"It’s an Arab saying," said Pete.

"It certainly isn’t an Australian one," said Mike.

"It’s totally foreign to western culture isn’t it. A seat in your park would be more likely to say ‘I’m OK Jack bugger you.’ We don’t have any poor people here in the Glen."

"Yes you do," Said Mike with a grin. " You all seem to me to boast about being dirt poor."

"Yes, in terms of money wealth, but in the things that matter we are fabulously rich."

"But what about inequality here. Are there wealthy people and poor people, in conventional income terms.?"

Pete thought for a moment. "Can’t say. Simply doesn’t matter. Money wealth is irrelevant here. You wouldn’t know whether I’ve got a lot of money in the bank, from my lifestyle. You can see how my life experience doesn’t depend on my income. The person in town with the lowest dollar income, whoever that is, has access to the same things I have. Most of our satisfactions come from community things, like the landscape and the workshop and the people we know, and all the events happening and the things to do."

"OK, I can see that."

"I’d go much further. I’m not indifferent to wealth. I don ‘t like it and I don’t approve of it. It’s just not good for you."

"Eh? Why?"

"Apart from the fact that it deprives others of necessities, it distracts you from what matters in life, and it debauches. It ruins your sensitivity and appreciation. Look, who is the richest person in our house? Never mind, you’ll never get it, it’s Gran. Know why?"

"She owns the house?"

"No. Her life is rich because she can get so much out of so little, out of everyday simple things, like just sitting in the garden and soaking up the views and the perfumes.

She’ll go out just to look at the beans or chat with the chooks, and she’ll come in excitedly with a flower or a bit of bark and say ‘Look at these colours’, and quote you a bit of poetry it brings to her mind. She has millions of things she wants to do, and millions of close friends. You could drop her anywhere and she’d immediately see some rock or plant that’s interesting to her. You’re wealthy, your life is rich, if you can appreciate and enjoy a lot, and she’s a Zen master at that. She sees sources of interest, awe, wonder, in fact reverence, all around her. If she won the lottery she’d say, ‘Never mind dear, you take it, I’ve got some strawberries I want to plant out this afternoon.’ It wouldn’t make the slightest difference to here quality of life would it."

"Now contrast that with the pathetic billionaire who has to buy another sports car to get a thrill, because he’s bored with the one’s he has already. See, wealth debauches. It seduces you into going after more and more elaborate things. It reduces your capacity to appreciate simple things. So now movies must have two train wrecks and three chainsaw murders to be attractive. Everything has to get more spectacular, horrifying, thrilling. But this is impoverishing, because it’s about people becoming less able to get interest and enjoyment from simple things."

They had begun to pass a few shop fronts. Pete said, "We’re now in the CBD. Keep an eye open for stray sheep."

"Hello, what’s he doing?" Mike asked, after suddenly seeing a man at work at a bench just inside a glass shop front.

"That's Henry, our boot maker. Notice how we try to set the work areas of our little shops and firms out towards the front window, so that as you go by you can see people making and repairing things. Makes it interesting just to walk down the street."

Mike wrote a few notes on his pad. Pete led into the shop.

"Hi Henry, what are you doing there?"

Henry looked up and said," G’day Pete. Just fixing Hobson’s shoes. A few more stitches on the side of the upper here and they’ll last him a bit longer. Do you know I can remember making these. This leather came from Goldilocks. Remember Goldilocks?"

"You mean Nelson’s old cow. Well, I knew she’d finally gone to that big pasture up in the sky. So you got the hide eh? "

"Eventually, some of it. Anderson did the butchering and the tanning. I got some leather from him the other day and he told me this was dear old Goldilocks, still being useful around the place."

"So she’ll live on a bit longer in Hobson’s boots!" Jan said.

Pete said to Mike, "We used to feed her grass through the fence on the way to the shops. She was a bit famous for getting off the tether and into vege gardens. Had a preference for broad beans you know. If she could get into a garden that’s what she’d head for first"

"Luckily there are always people around so if an animal gets out someone usually notices soon." Jan said.

Pete went on, "There’re a lot of animals through the neighbourhood, mostly very small, such as poultry and rabbits, but there are a few goats, sheep and even a few cows. Many of the skins are used when they die or are killed for food. In winter you’ll see quite a few lovely warm rabbit skin coats here, all made locally, mostly by people who have that as a hobby production line."’

Mike asked, "So are all the skins tanned here?"

"Yes. We have three butchers, I mean people who will kill and cut up animals for human consumption or for other uses, such as fish feed. One is a great leatherworker himself and he prepares hides and skins. He sells some of them. There are several people who make bags and belts and slippers and shoes, mostly as a part time or hobby business. They’ll swap or give away some of the things they make. The tanning process uses bark from trees growing around here, including the wattles."

A little further on they were obviously getting close to the centre of the town.

"Most of our shops are only open three days a week. Waste of time having most shops open all the time. If you want to buy a pair of boots you know that shop will be open Saturday. But our main shop is open six days a week. Its the general store, or the co-op as we call it. That’s it down there, with all the gear out the front under the awning."

As they approached Mike thought he was walking into the Nineteenth century. It was a spacious shopfront with posts supporting ornate iron lace below the corrugated iron roofing. The footpath was half taken up with bins and boxes of things for sale, watering cans and buckets hanging by bits of wire, racks of clothes, garden tools, a table holding books, a stand of seed packets. Inside the wide arched doorway was even more cluttered although the space in the center before the wooden counter was relatively clear, occupied by a long table and chairs.

"Over there is bulk food," said Pete. "See, bins and scoops, just weigh out nuts and oats for yourself. Scales there. Look a honey drum and cock. Bring your own bottle and fill it. Over there are boots and sandals and slippers. Want a hammock, or a set of drills? How about some 20cm bolts. All here. Or if they haven’t got it they’ll order it in. That’s important. This is where you can get onto anything you want. You have to pay the postage of course but they’ll try to track down and order in any unusual spare part from somewhere in the world. Your local supermarket won’t do that will it? That’s because this is not a shop. It’s our cooperative store, which we run to meet our needs. It employs six people, part time and it provides the town with many of the things it needs. It’s also a drop-in place, see the table and the do it yourself tea pot. It’s where local crafts people or producers can leave samples of their work for people to think about ordering. See the notice boards, with information on things various people can supply. If you want your horse shod you will find some farriers listed there, or your computer fixed."

"Does it make a profit?"

"Overall, yes, but it is deliberately kept very low. The operation is designed to serve the town, at minimum cost, so it doesn’t set out to charge more than the minimum necessary. It’s a mutual non-profit. That just means any profit is returned to us all, although a small amount is siphoned off as a kind of tax into the town’s bank account, to be available for good purposes that come up, or for buying materials for the working bees to use."

"Look at that," said Mike. "Great photo opportunity." Side by side serving behind the counter was a very old man with an explosion of grey beard, wearing a leather apron, and a girl who seemed to be about twelve years old also wearing a leather apron rather too big for her.

"I’m a bit confused by this cooperative thing. I can understand it in communes, but this is a town."

"Good point. It’s not that to be sustainable we all have to live in the one kind of settlement. There’s a wide range possible. There’s the close commune where all things are shared, then there are eco-villages or intentional communities where people can own their own house while sharing many things. And then there are homesteaders — single families and farms that function simply and self-sufficiently. But The Glenn is the really important approach because it’s about starting with an existing town or suburb and converting it to become a highly cooperative local economy. That’s what we did in The Glen. Most of the world’s people live in towns and suburbs and we need to show how they can remake their economies."

"What about all the people who don’t have the money to buy a share in an eco-village."

"Good point. Huge problem. We need ways whereby large numbers of very poor people can get started in these kinds of communities, especially in the Third World."

"So what’s the answer?"

"Just enable them to move into dying towns, and to form new ones. Think about the large areas of land in Australia currently owned by farmers going broke. If the government had any sense it would buy them out and set up little towns like the Glenn at one and a half kilometres apart. They’d pay for this by the unemployment benefits saved. The people moving in could do all the building and garden development work.

"Strewth, look at that," said Jan. "It’s way past lunchtime, come on back to the house. Amanda, Alice, you coming?"

"Can you cope with us all?"

"Yeah, there’s plenty of salad. Let’s go."

They turned and walked briskly. The others chatted but Mike kept to himself, grapling with a confused mixture of feelings. He had expected to have flopped into a hotel room but here he was being hustled about like a long lost member of a doting family. Then there was the maincured landcape, like something out of a theme part, with every square metre carefully gardened and crammed with ponds, plants, ornaments. And then the technical ideas, many of them quite interesting and attractive. But it all seemed somewhat strange and unreal, quite difficult to assess. How well did these things really work? Were Jan and Pete making it all look more easy and prolific than it was. He felt a bit uneasy about the fact that several other people had taken the time to show him around. He didn’t want to take up their time and thought there would be no way he could repay them.

Mike sank into the rocking chair on the verandah. Pete and Alice sat down talking energetically about the best types of timber to use in a chair that she was going to make. Jan and Amanda hit the kitchen in a flurry of activity. At one stage Jan ran down the steps to the edge of the garden, plucked bits of mint and other herbs, came back to the table and chopped them into the salad. Within minutes bowls of salad and bread rolls and fruit, were being placed on the table.

After lunch Mike found himself for the first time with a moment on his own. He went upstairs, took some things from his case, put the folder of work on the edge of the dressing table, then sat on the bed. His mind drifted to the kind of house Jan and Pete lived in. It was fairly normal, small and quite old, and…one might say somewhat drab, at least in need of a coat of paint. It was neat and tidy but there were patches of paint off walls, worn surfaces and bare wood showing through varnish here and there. Eleanor would definitely not have approved. No microwave. No blender. And a wood stove. Although the wood box loaded from outside house, through its own little door, there were wood chips and bits of bark on the floor. Enough to send Eleanor into paroxysms…but she’d soon get the cleaning lady in to deal with it.

The main table was topped with unpainted scrubbed pine planks. The chairs didn’t match and were all simple and old. Some of the cushions were a little threadbare. Couldn’t judge the couch as it was covered in shawls and table cloths, but it too seemed ancient, with one end a little higher than the other.

What to make of it all? Well, it seemed convenient and functional, but Eleanor would have seen it as anything but "nice", indeed she’d have seen it as unacceptable, indeed somewhat revolting, not the sort of house you’d be proud to show your friends around. No scope for receiving flattering little compliments here. Nothing that could have been in fashion within the last two decades. Must remember to ask Jan where the fridge is.

He wasn’t left alone for long. Pete called up the stairs, "Time to take Mike to the workshop. The painters will be there today."

"OK. Good idea just wait till I get those grapefruit".

"We have this fabulous tree out front," Pete said. "It goes mad every two years. Produces nothing in the year between, but now we have stacks of more than we can use. So Jan’s getting some to take to the workshop".

"What for?"

"Oh just to leave there for someone to take them".

"At a workshop?"

"Well it’s much more than a workshop. Lots of things happen there. You’ll see soon".

Jan came through the house carrying two overloaded baskets, stacked with big yellow grapefruit.

"Here let me take some," said Mike.

Jan fussed around and split the load into three hessian bags, and they all moved down the steps and into the lane.

Only about 200 metres from the house the path opened out into a large more open parklike space which must have been where the road had been dug up for a whole block. To one side there were several little shops around the edge of the green. There was a pond in the centre, and nearby seats and ornamental shelters. There were bike racks and swings and a sea saw. Several people were around, some sitting and chatting, some on bicycles.

"This is city centre, " said Jan. This is our village green. You can see it was a street once." She waved towards the line of houses discernible between the foliage.

"Can’t see any cars now," said Mike.

"No. Plenty of bikes though. There’s a narrow road leading to a small parking lot for cars around the back, behind the shops."

They walked across the green to one of the bigger buildings, two stories high, quite open at the front, with an awning extending out over the path, covering a variety of objects and people. Some were sitting and chatting, some obviously making things. A number of people were sitting at the outdoor tables of a restaurant. As they came closer Mike could see more clearly into the hall-like interior cluttered with benches and tools and shelves and things hanging on the walls, and with more people moving around or working. He could hear hammering and sawing, and the sound of someone practising on a saxaphone.

As they approached the awning Pete announced, "Well, here we are. This is the main community workshop for the town. There’s one in each neighbourhood of about 300 people, but this one is big because its where the thole town meets for concerts and festivals. It’s the closest one to us so its also the one people in our neighbourhood use any old time. Lots of things happen at neighbourhood workshops. Firstly this is where people can make and repair things. Few people around here would have an electric drill at home, because there are three or four here they can borrow. And for heavier jobs there is a drill press, and there’s a saw bench, and a metal turning lathe."

Jan took up the explanation. "Out the back on the other side there’s a recycling area. Anything that people don’t need they just leave so that others might be able to use it or make something from it. There is an area for toys and one for clothes, inside I mean. There are bigger areas outside for building materials, including sheets of old roofing iron, bricks and bottles, wire, name it. Many racks for bits of wood."

"Who looks after it all?" Mike asked.

"Well, everyone. People come in all the time and sort things and fix up the racks a bit. But if you mean who attends to the overall management of the place, well there’s a committee -- about five people who informally keep an eye on what needs doing. Occasionally they’ll organise a working bee to clean up or build another rack or fix the roof or repaint."

"So what else happens here?" Mike asked as they moved into the workshop.

"It’s also a leisure centre. See, there’s a ping pong table, easy chairs, coffee maker in these front rooms. Up on the first floor is our library, and over there several information boards. Look, these are notices from various clubs and groups about coming events. Here’s a panel with swap and freebee notes on it. See, Alice Fenton wants someone to take her surplus apricots next week and she’d prefer to swap for fruit of another kind. She is a bit old to harvest her trees now but she’s a keen fruit bottler. This looks like the Thompson family has some ducklings to give away. Often when people have surpluses they just leave them here at the workshop on that bench and others can take them. Look there’s some beans there, and what’s that ... some jars of jam. These up the front here are just things that should be taken soon. Anything durable like clothing or timber would be put out the back in the racks. And there’s a TV set over there, and some computers upstairs, and things like tape recorders that can be borrowed. This is actually a tool library. Know what that is?"

"No," said Mike.

"Well just like a book library. How often do you want a stepladder. No point in having one if you only use it twice a year. Best to just pop down to the neighbourhood workshop and borrow one. Same with electric drills and picks and saws. Some workshops hire things, but we don ‘t. They’re just here to be borrowed. This is also where many of our neighbourhood committees meet."

"Come in to the main hall," said Jan, but was then caught up in conversation with another couple.

They moved a few metres from the surplus swap area, through a low opening and more or less burst into a large space with no ceiling, but heavy poles going up to two stories past galleries to the roof beams. The whole thing was made of un-sawn logs, including the wooden stairs and railings. In the centre of the far wall was a large, open fireplace, with racks of firewood and logs alongside, and old-fashioned iron crane swung out from the fire, holding a large iron pot. People were here and there doing various things and several kids were romping in a pile of mats near the fireplace. There were seats, tables and rugs strew around, and stacks of chairs.

Along another wall several deep old armchairs could be seen, and to the left a wide wooden staircase to the upper floor galleries running right around the open inner space. Mike could see rooms opening off the galleries and could hear unseen people in them. There were many paintings, sculptures and tapestries hanging from the walls. To the right there was an archway into the restaurant that he had seen from the outside. A few people were sitting at chairs and tables set out in the large hall and Mike could see others out on the green past the other wide door of the restaurant.

"This space is where we have our big town meetings and concerts and festivals. Now out here is the main general workshop. See, benches, drill press, tools and jobs under way. Let’s go out."

Pete approached a young man in overalls. "Hi there, what you doing? Oh Sam this is Mike".

"How are you Mike? Knew you were coming today. I’m welding Paddy’s Gate. Hinge broke. By the way we need another cylinder, this one’s getting low. Pete can you jot that on the reorder list here, before I forget".

"OK. What list is it?" Pete looked through many pieces of paper clipped to a large notice board. "Got it. What size cylinder Sam?"

Mike strolled around the large shed. There were many half completed projects lying around. Racks of materials, shelves of tools, bolts, hinges. Two other people were down one end bending tubes in a jig. Another large open door led into a room with many racks holding bits of glass, and sheets of tin. Some seemed new, but much of it was obviously recycled.

"Mike," Pete called. "See these vents. On cold nights a little fan pushes hot air from a chamber in the fireplace out through these to warm the whole place, or whatever parts someone is using. See just open and close the vents. Now come up the stairs".

Mike was nearly hit by two little kids who climbed over the railings at the top of the stairs and raced down recklessly.

"Careful," Pete called with little effect. "You got to be careful."

"Now these are meeting and craft rooms and over there around the gallery are the library and computer rooms. Ah, here are the water colour people. The Potter’s work out the back on the ground floor. We’ll see if anyone’s there in a minute."

He stood back and ushered Mike into a fairly small room. The walls were crammed with paintings and drawings pinned to every bare patch. Four people looked up and greeted Pete who introduced them.

"Where’s everybody today?" said Pete.

"Dunno. We had ten last week though and half of us had to set up on the balcony. But Trevor came over from Scottsdale to show us his techniques so there were more than usual".

"Mind if I have a look?" said Mike.

"Oh no, but I’m a novice. These three have been at it for years, but look at what Dee’s doing. She is our flower specialist. Look at that one on the wall. Don’t you just love the way she does roses".

Mike had hardly got around to where Dee was painting when Pete called, "Mike come out to the balcony".

In the outer wall of the room a large double door opened onto the outside balcony running the length of the building and overlooking the outdoor restaurant tables. As Mike looked out he was confronted by the large grassed village green where the street had once been, dotted with ponds, shrubs and trees. He could now see that there were many seats around the edge, evidently for spectators to watch events in the centre.

"That’s where all the outdoor games and festivals happen," said Pete. "Now it’s time for a cuppa at Marios".


"Yes that’s the restaurant".

They went down the stairs where Mike again was impressed by all the art works pinned to walls and just standing on galleries and landings. Pete saw him inspecting some of them.

"This is an art gallery. People leave many of their works here for the rest of us to enjoy. Many of them are still being worked on of course. Come out here into the pottery".

At the foot of the stairs Pete turned away from the restaurant tables and in a few paces had gone through another arch into a large shed, crammed with tubs, clay, dusty benches, and shelves holding pots and mugs. Again three or four people were working and two greeted Pete. Mike could see a kiln and large stacks of wood. Through a long opening in the wall he could see pottery equipment set out in the open area, tubs of water and clay, broken pots and some very large bowls and vases.

"Now to Mario’s," Pete ordered.

The restaurant was small, almost cramped. The décor was again saplings, rough sawn planks, rusty bolts and ironwork, and a low ceiling, all hung with interesting objects, some artworks but some old harness and buckets and scythes. Shelves held sculptures and pottery. Here and there were huge vases of newly placed flowers. On one side some tables had spread into the main hall of the workshop through the wide arch, and on the other others had been moved out into the open air on the edge of the green. Then he saw that a doorway on a third side led down a few steps into a grotto-like nook under a low canopy of foliage from densely planted palm trees and ferns.

Pete introduced Mike to a grinning, rotund Mario, and ordered tea and scones. They sat at a table near a small open fire, with a view across the railings into the big hall, and on the other side out to the green.

Pete was drawn into a brief chat with people at a nearby table. When he turned back Mike asked, "How on earth did you get this place? It’s huge. It’s like a rabbit’s warren?

"Get it… we just built it."

"Must’ve taken a million dollars and a million years?"

"No, no, it’s large but very simple. It’s mostly poles, bolts and old planks for upstairs flooring. Of course the downstairs flooring is just rammed earth, surfaced with linseed oil, beeswax and turpentine. Most of the walls are mud brick. The roof’s the only expensive part, and that’s mostly tin. Eventually we want to tile it, with tiles baked from our clay in our kiln, fired by our wood. But we haven’t got far with that yet. We’ll get there by the time this iron is rusted out. Maybe in 15 years".

"What about design? What about labour?"

"We had long discussions about different plans. No architect of course. Eventually we had a plan everyone was happy with and that we could manage. One problem was the tendency to go into something too big. I think we got it about right. All this space is used a lot, and it’s walls are so open, that when too many people turn up we can spread out into the green".

"And labour?"

"Oh that’s us. We just threw it up with working bees. Took about a year to get the main part done. Of course you never build a thing like this all at once. You get enough done in a blitz to be used, and then you take it easy with more rooms and verandahs as the need arises, at a leisurely pace. That’s the way to build a house too. Most people would turn up to the Saturday working bees, but some people were pottering away all the time.

"Where did you get the timber?"

"From our forests. One chainsaw and Andy’s Mill. Andy’s got big saws driven by a car engine. He ripped most of the planks".

"What do you mean our forests?"

"Our forests. I mean, the town owns lots of things. Like ponds, meadows, herb patches, bamboo clumps, lakes, clay pits and forests and plantations. They’re our community property, our commons. We cut quite a few of our trees to make the workshop, but then we replanted. More working bees. Working bees maintain all these commons".

"Does everyone have to come to working bees?"

"No, no one does. I’m being difficult aren’t I?"


"What I mean is that they’re all totally voluntary. Some are big and some are small. When you sign up it will say how many the coordinator things are needed for the job. But just about everyone comes to them."


"Because you wouldn’t want to miss them, that’s why! Because they are very enjoyable. We do lots of different things. Last week we painted that whole windmill in one hour. The week before we built a little mud brick store shed for Billy the Beekeeper. We work with comrades. We might be led by a very experienced mud builder or engineer, so we learn. We get a great sense of enriching our beautiful landscape building or maintaining something that will help everyone around here to thrive. Then when you have done the job, you can look at it and feel good. So most people turn up well to working bees".

"Does anyone not turn up much?"

"Yes, some don’t come as much as they should."

"What do you do about them?"

"Nothing. It doesn’t matter. Quite enough always turn up to get important things done, and that’s all that matters. And people who are a bit sloppy, or unreliable or a bit lazy, become known. We all have our weak spots, so mostly people tolerate failings like that. But yes some people are known to be not so good contributors, and that’s a bit sad. Most of us think it’s important to be respected as someone who works enthusiastically for the good of the community."

"Take Bill over there," Pete said, pointing. "Looks like a grumpy old bugger, doesn’t he? But he is just so reliable and hardworking on working bees. He really enjoys them. We all know he’s a terrific contributor. That’s a reputation you can’t buy. We know he’s a great bloke, and that means he is respected and valued. He doesn’t need to wear swanky clothes, or speak with a plum in his mouth. His status comes from years of action that people have observed. Just like everyone know that Harriet is a fabulous cake maker. And Vic can fix a wrecked bike. And Emma is a good chairperson and I’m not. When you interact with people over many years, in situations where co-operating and contributing is crucial for maintaining things in good shape, then reputations for reliability and care, consciousness and skill develop. That’s a force for good. People want to be well thought of. But then again I must stress the reason why people contribute by working bees is not fear of bad judgment, but the enjoyment of working with others on important and beneficial tasks. Have you been on a working bee?’

"Me. No".

"Well, maybe it’s difficult for you to understand all this. Let’s see if we can get you into one while you’re here. Come on," Pete said, getting up from the table. Mike followed not knowing what Pete was doing.

Pete walked out of Mario’s, across the big hall and into the vestibule, which was lined with notice boards. He moved backward and forwards for a few seconds and then said, "Ah ha, here we are. Look see this messy sheet, it’s where people write suggestions for coming working bee days. The Committee then sorts through them and sets out here what will be done at the next few. See, here are a few for tomorrow afternoon. Lets see, there’s one to prune the big peach orchard, one on a mud brick shed at the timber mill, one cutting down Elsie’s problem tree, and one to help out the Andersons with their honey. Would you like to think about some of those you would like to try?’

" Any one will do me."

"How about I put us both down for Elsie’s tree. Look at this. This is a list of meeting times for people working in study groups and research groups. There’s one on Thursdays learning basic heat mechanics from Mike Wilson. That ‘s important for making greenhouses and solar passive housing. And May’s group is revising our list of cheap but nutritious recipes from local ingredients. Then there’s the experimental planting group. They’re always getting more information on different plant varieties to try. And if you like you could join the lead light beginner’s group."

"What if I wanted to learn something not being taught?"

"Then just put up a note on the board. You’ll probably find someone in the area who can teach you."

As they were standing at the notice boards. Jan came into view.

"Has Pete got you tea yet?"

"Yes, we have a nice cuppa and some scones".

"Good. Let’s go back via Godfreys", said Jan.

"Good idea," said Pete. "Godfrey and Fran have just finished their little cottage. It’s a good example of how we build houses here. Our house is one of the originals, built a hundred years ago, made of weather board, so we retrofitted it. I mean fixed it up with insulation, put in solar heating and more water tanks, and the greenhouse. But these days any new house is built from earth, and with good solar passive design right from the start."

After a five minute walk through twisting lanes, across lawns, through thickets, around ponds and right through some private gardens they came to a neat but tiny little house with scraps of building materials scattered around the minced up ground. Jan knocked on the door and called out.

Pete pointed to the walls and explained that they were rammed earth, rendered with a coat of paint made from lime and milk -- basically a whitewash. "The 40cm thickness of the earth walls gives good insulation. And the windows are double glazed with mostly small square panes. Most of this was broken glass sheets, we just cut lots of 20 to 30cm squares from them. And see how they are set in a thin line of cement? It looks like lead lighting from a distance doesn’t it? The lines are not very smooth, but I think it gives it a rustic charm. Anyway they’ll last for ever, and never need painting, and are extremely cheap. See over there? Some of the windows are real lead light with coloured glass. Fran made them all. She had never done that before, but there are lots of people around here who can do lead lighting, so she quickly learnt how to do it when she wanted to".

"Did you say 40 cm thick?" Mike was taking notes.

Jan had given up on the front door and gone around the back. She reappeared with a slight girl in scruffy overalls and holding a hammer in her hand.

"Fran, this is Mike. Can we show him the new palace?"

"Sure. Come on in", she beamed, opening the door.

It seemed a rather normal house, but Mike was conscious of its very small scale, with much less spacious rooms that he was used to, and quite low ceilings.

Pete saw him looking up. "Ah the ceilings. Where to begin. Look, our concern is to build only as big as is necessary for comfort and convenience, because that saves a lot of resources, time and effort. Most houses in mainstream society are far too big, and far too expensive.

"And," said Jan, "the average Australian house size is increasing so fast, that it has just about doubled in the last 30 years.."

"While the average number of people in it have just about halved. Ridiculous!" Pete added.

"Anyway God, that’s my Godfrey, and I don’t have much money. So what we needed was a nice, ultra cheap nest. And that’s what we have. Don’t you think it’s gorgeous? Mind you, we’ve only been in for a week, and we still have a lot of work to do, and we haven’t got the decorative stuff organized yet. We’ll have indoor plants wherever we can".

"You do realize, said Pete. The smaller the house, the easier it is to heat. So less wood to cut".

"And less cleaning," said Fran.

"I’m surprised you have a concrete slab put down though, said Mike looking down. I thought you would’ve used timber".

"Oh no, that’s not concrete," said Fran. "It’s earth, rammed and surfaced, and there are little tunnels moulded into it, to take warm air from the fire in winter. Mind you the kitchen and bathroom floor surfaces are split rock set in earth, with cement between the chunks."

"Mike saw the flooring in the workshop. I told him about the surface treatment." Then turning to Mike, "See the ceiling beams in the main room? Just small tree trunks. Haven’t been sawn. Look great don’t they? Most of the carpentry is sawn timber though, obviously around the windows and doors. We have packed plantations, which makes the saplings grow straight up to the light, so we can get poles without any kinks."

"The sawn timber comes from the mill," said Fran. "In fact, God and I helped with the milling. That cut the dollar costs down".

"What about the roof?" asked Mike.

"Corrugated iron. The only real dollar and energy costly part. As I mentioned at the workshop, we’re working to the day, when we can do all our roofing tiles as co-operative pottery. But at this stage the cost is still a bit high. I mean we do produce some. But Fran and God had to compromise, given their financial situation. When this roofing needs replacing, tiles will go on."

"Mind telling me what the house cost?" Mike questioned, pen poised over his pad.

"Just give me a chance to boast", Fran smiled. "No you guess first".

"Well it’s difficult to say," said Mike. "How about I work back from where I come from."

Jan said, "Where you come from most people simply can’t have a house, because they can’t afford one. Those who can are paying 40% of their total income on house payments. That’s outrageous, and totally ridiculous."

"I agree," said Mike. "I know all about it. I am an expert on the subject".

"Really, are you in real estate?" asked Fran.

"No, I have a mortgage. A mortgage as big as an elephant".

"Really. So what are you paying for your house?"

"Well, mine is let’s say much bigger than this one. In fact, it’s probably four times as big. And it’s difficult to sort out the house cost from the land cost of course".

"That’s another thing you people do all wrong," said Jan. "You let the market set land prices, and then you are surprised that no one can afford a block of land."

"What do you mean? The economist would say the market is the most efficient way of allocating things like investment in housing"…"

Jan sprang into action. "Mike you should not have got me started. The market is the most appallingly inefficient way of meeting human needs. Do you know there are more than one thousand million malnourished people in the world but every year more than six hundred million tons of grain, or more than one third of all the grain harvested in the world, are fed to animals in rich countries. Now do you know why that happens?"


"Precisely because market forces are allowed to determine who gets the grain. It’s far more profitable in the market for the grain to be fed to animals in feedlots to supply meat for rich countries than to sell it to poor and hungry peasants".

"Well," said Mike, "You can’t expect that, because grain producers can’t be expected to sell at a loss…"

"But we’re not talking about a loss. There’re many necessary things that could be produced and sold for poor people at very low prices that would still enable a small profit. But no investor ever does that in a market system. They only invest in producing whatever will maximize their profits. That means they totally ignore need. Maybe three billion people need better diets, but that’s totally irrelevant. The food is sold to people who can pay most for it. And that explains the housing situation too. In Australia most low-income people now can never hope to have a house of their own, simply because the market is allowed to determine what type of houses are built. So housing corporations maximize their profits by completely ignoring the little people who would be very happy with a very small, very cheap mud brick house, while they only build too-big, luxurious, expensive mansions. The upper middle class want opulent status symbols and that’s where the building corporations can maximize their profits."

Then as if suddenly remembering where she was, she said, "Sorry, sorry, my apologies but you must really be careful not to mention market forces in my presence. Sorry, you were telling us what your house cost".

"Well, without land to build. May be $150,000".

"Ouch", said Pete. "$350,000."

"No I said $150,000".

"Ah, but you left out the interest on your loan, and tax and inflation. If you get a $150,000 loan, you’ll pay back about $250,000, right? And to have $250,000 to give back to the bank you must earn about $330,000 right, because the taxman wants about a third of each dollar you earn. Then the value of your money is falling every time because of inflation. I don’t know how to figure that in, but interest and tax alone means to own your house you are having to work to pay out your total pre-tax income from about 8 years full time work."

Fran piped up. " This one cost us $5,000, and it was built in about six months. Here we are in our house without any debt, and owning every bit of it, after one year of deciding to build. That’s not including appliances, just the house".

"You’re kidding," said Mike.

"No, but we use lots of scrap stuff. Like most of the carpentry is from recycled timber, and we did most of the work, and we got lots of help from working bees. And Anthony is a builder and he advised us all the way through. We paid him by helping on his sites, and learnt a lot about building from that".

"OK, so you should add the labour costs to your $5,000," Mike said.

"I don’t think so", Fran said slowly. "There was a lot of work, but we enjoyed it. It’s our house and we made it. Do you know what that feels like? And we got exercise. Most of the time we would have chosen to be here building than anywhere else. So I think we should deduct a few thousand dollars for the exercise, leisure and life satisfaction we got. Get it? If you want to add $3,000 to the cost for unpaid labour. I want to take off $3,000 for the satisfaction and other benefits received."

Pete said, "That’s important Mike. We go about economic accounting like that, taking into account much more than dollar costs than benefits. It makes an enormous difference to the desirability and cost of things. If you just take dollars into account you usually get the wrong impression of the real full costs and benefits".

"Did you say 8 years? Did you say I was working 8 years full time for my house?"

"About that. And of course you can’t say it’s yours for about 20 years, until you’ve paid the last installment, and until then you have to worry about getting the sack and being unable to keep up the payments, and therefore losing the house".

"Well I’ll have to think about all that," said Mike, feeling a little bit angry about being blasted from all directions.

Pete seemed to sense this and said "Hey, we’re late again. Time for afternoon tea."

Part 2.