Sunday, September 1, 2013

Thomas' Story: Towards Living Off the Grid

We are fortunate that Agnes has arranged a meeting for us with Thomas Heuser.  Thomas is the Managing Director of ZEGG and we are here to learn how ZEGG is working toward being a community that lives completely off the grid.  Thomas sits on the Council of the Global Eco Village Network (GEN) Europe and has been inspired by the principles of this organisation.  They include:

·      Envisioning the emergence of a diverse yet shared global pool of wisdom for sustainable living;
·      A belief that the most under utilised resource we have is the good intentions and creativity of citizens and our willingness to make a difference;
·      Promoting the building of community and solidarity as a fundamental part of transitioning to resilience;
·      Promoting the development of sustainable settlements around the world.

Watch this video to learn more:

But Thomas was not always involved in community.  He used to work in business administration for a big German construction company and it was while reading a publication called ‘Islands of Life’, that he first came into contact with the concept of community.  As he began to be exposed to a new way of living and being, he decided that he needed to discover what made this world of community tick…

He visited a number of communities and recalls feeling completely at home when he visited both ZEGG and Findhorn (in Scotland).  That was in 2005.  He embarked on a second world trip in 2006, living and learning about communities around the world for the duration of a year and a half.  However, in 2007 he was tempted by a really good job offer by his former company and returned to work for them.  By then Thomas had realised that he wanted to stay in one place and the offer, which meant he could work from home a couple of days a week, was too good to refuse.  He spent a number of years thinking, learning and reading about community but in 2009, he felt it was time to quit his job for good and look for other alternatives to life.   

He decided to visit his friends in ZEGG and finally made the decision to move in, in February 2010.  He requested to spend the first year working in the garden.  It was a chance to reconnect with his childhood and he felt he wanted a break from his profession.  But his skills were too valuable to be shelved forever.  He started working and consulting with the then Managing Director and when she stepped down from the position at ZEGG, Thomas was elected to the position through a Holiocracy election.  This is an interesting process where each full time community member says who he or she think would be the best candidate for the job. Thomas found that he and another lady with whom he now works very closely in the job were the two people uppermost in people’s minds.  

I think it must be incredibly empowering to know that you are inspiring a group of people who genuinely believe you are the best man/woman to be in that role.  Yet Thomas concedes this is the toughest job he has ever had.  The community operates on a consensus basis, which when you are a professional and used to making your own decisions takes a bit of getting used to.  In the mainstream world, you are appointed to a management position based on your knowledge and then you are given the power to get on with the job.  In a community that operates on consensus decision making the process is different.  There is a Management Team comprising 12 people with whom many of the day-to-day decisions are made.  However, there are other issues which need the consensus vote of the wider community and Thomas admits it sometimes requires a lot of effort to get his job done.   

He loves his work though and feels very inspired that the community he lives and works in, is contributing to making our planet a better place. 

Thomas asks that we check out the Solution Library just started by GEN.  It is a repository of information and solutions for sustainability issues around the world and deals with the social, environmental and economic aspects of these projects.  The on-line portal was developed with support from 6 incredible women from the Islamic world and this is an excerpt from the GEN website:

It is a special joy that what will grow into a global platform was started by six Islamic women!! Not exactly fitting into the common (mis)conceptions of our time, it shows that one of the steps we need to take towards global lifestyles that are resilient into the future, is to expand ourselves and go beyond what we think we know. The Solution Library of appropriate technologies will now be further developed and collaboratively filled by many to replicate best practices in resilience and sustainability.

Thomas encourages us to have a look at this on-line tool, use it for projects we may be involved with in the future and also to upload any information we may wish to share at the end of our journey.  The tool is a great resource for simple low cost solutions to things like rain water tanks which cost a fortune in the west but are used so simply and effortlessly in many parts of the developing world! 

 Thomas then expands on the issues that ZEGG currently face with the local Town Water Company.  In terms of drinking water the community have a closed water cycle, as the Stasi, who occupied these premises previously did not pay attention to regulations and dug very deep water wells!  The waste water is purified through a reed bed system but unfortunately, this is now under threat by the Local Town Water company who have expanded their infrastructure and requires all local residents to be part of the cost sharing process so they can payoff their investment.  To put it simply, they have installed a large pipe and now they need everyone’s wastewater to make it cost effective! 

Sadly, as is the case the world over, the energy and water companies who monopolise these systems are only interested in the financial sustainability of their operation. Considering environmental sustainability is often not a factor in their equations! 

The system at ZEGG works by first separating solids from liquids.  The solids are buried in the woods
to compost for a few years.  The reed beds purify the liquid.  This system has been operating for 21 years and is in fact supported by the Regional Government.  The contract that allowed ZEGG to occupy this premises stipulated that these sorts of schemes should be implemented.  In many respects ZEGG’s water supply is better than the local water quality standard.   However, a couple of issues remain due to the presence of urine in the liquid.  Abandoning their own system and linking to that of the Town Council would be a huge cost not just environmentally but also financially as initial estimates indicate it could be between 20-50K Euros a year.

Interestingly, the local Mayor and part of the Town Council are supportive of ZEGG.  They can see the benefits of a decentralised system and came up with the idea that ecological model projects like ZEGG could be a role model for local villages and hence be allowed an exemption from the scheme.  We hope that the Board and Managing Director of the Town Water Company can see the wisdom in this approach and ZEGG will be allowed to retain their reed bed system.    

Thomas feels really inspired that ZEGG could be a role model for the region in efficient ways of managing waste. He was touched and surprised that the Mayor supported them and hopes there is a solution to this problem in the near future. 

We don’t have time to talk about their energy solutions but Thomas tells us they are already consulting to regional villages about their practices.  At the end of this year, they will have a new contract with Greenpeace Energy, where all of the energy they use will be from renewable sources.  Currently, ZEGG have a variety of solutions that include; thermal solar panels, wood chips and cogeneration plants, as well as renewable gas. 

Unfortunately, our break is over and we have to go back to work. It has been inspiring chatting to Thomas.  He is a man with a vision for the future and it is evident to us he is leading by example.  We thank him for his time and wish him all the best in his work toward creating a sustainable community that will serve as a model to local villages.  We have loved hearing his stories and hope that the local authorities will co-operate rather than hinder such communities…

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