What works: community

As we continue into the decades-old, but only recently acknowledged era of destruction and extinction, it’s apparent the current model is not working. Truth has fallen and taken liberty with it. A vast majority of Americans are aware the industrial economy clings by the barest of threads but, too fearful of individual retribution to disrupt the industrial culture that is making us crazy and killing us, we hang tightly to the only system we’ve ever known. Pathetically reluctant to consider what lies beyond the omnicidal industrial machine, we cling to a system that has failed to nurture the living planet, human individuals, or human communities.

At some point, we simply lost track of the importance of communities, human and otherwise. Along the way to becoming a nation of multitasking, Twittering, Facebook “friends” we abandoned the ability to connect meaningfully, viscerally, individually. If we are to thrive during the post-carbon era, we’ll need to create groups of straight-talking, look-’em-in-the-eye, mean-what-you-say, say-what-you-mean, self-reliant, individuals who are not afraid to ask for help from the neighbors and who, when asked, readily offer assistance.

I know you hate those stories that start with, “When I was a kid, ….” But here goes, regardless. I grew up in a tiny, backwoods, red-neck logging town. By the time I was 18 years old, I’d seen more bar fights than first-run movies. I knew that when a man was driving home after getting whipped in a bar fight, and the man who beat him up drove drunkenly into a ditch on the way home, the guy who got pummeled had no choice but to stop and give a hand to the guy who whipped him. If the whippee didn’t stop to help, and anybody in town found out, he’d be better off driving to the next state than hanging around. Helping neighbors in need was not optional. The benighted community of my youth was a worthless pile of crap. But to me and my neighbors, it was our worthless pile of crap, and an outsider who threatened people in our town would have been better off bobbing for apples in a bucket of piranhas. The people who lived in that town, like the ones who still live there, are shoulder-to-the-wheel, down-to-earth folks who care about their community.

For a diametrically opposed perspective, see contemporary suburbia. Our self-proclaimed independence is a bad joke made possible only by cheap energy. As we leave cheap energy in our wake, it becomes increasingly clear the joke’s on us.

As Dmitry Orlov points out with his usual brilliant wit, communities arise organically. Despite the multi-million dollar efforts of countless scientists at Biosphere II, for example, the resulting collection of communities is a pale and pathetic imitation of the naturally occurring ecosystems they are designed to replicate. As with ecological communities, we know little about human communities and what makes them “work.” Nonetheless, we fill tomes about both kinds of communities. Along the way, a few people, including the always-thoughtful Dan Allen, think before they write. How refreshing is that?

Were I still a self-respecting, objective scientist reluctant to express an opinion or make a forecast, I’d stop with those two endorsements wrapped around a nod to ignorance. Actually, I would proceed to write a grant proposal explaining how I would overcome our collective ignorance for a few hundred grand and 50% overhead. Instead of taking either rational route, it’s onward, through the fog.

Although communities are self-organizing, we are able to nurture them and therefore influence species composition. We can plant trees and pull weeds. We can add water and compost. In fact, we do all these things, and we call the result a garden. As I’ve pointed out in prior posts, scale matters: I’m a huge fan of gardens, for reasons that run from healthy food to healthy psyches, but I detest farms. The former characterize Eden, the latter civilization.

As with ecological communities, I think we can and should nurture our human communities, recognizing and encouraging positive elements and weeding out negative ones. We may not be capable of building communities, but we can work with the ones we’ve got to the betterment of individuals who contribute to the common good. And, as with ecological communities, our ability to nurture human communities will vary. Every community is unique, and will require a unique set of approaches.

Too corny? Maybe. But I’m in the fine company of Plato, Aristotle, and Dan Allen, so I’ll run with it.

As I’ve indicated previously, as recently as my latest post, location is everything. Try nurturing community in the suburban wasteland filling most American cities, and you’ll run smack into the horrifically omnivorous maw of culture. If the most visible portion of every house is the garage, good luck organizing the neighbors into building community gardens fed by harvested rainwater and humanure. If it works in the short run, be sure to keep tabs on all the unprepared, self-indulgent free riders you’ll need to feed and water in the longer run.

I was, and am, quite concerned about my late arrival to the region surrounding the mud hut. As I’ve indicated before, I am quite fortunate to have found a like-minded couple of people who were willing to share their property. Financially, my wife and I could not have pulled this off ourselves. In addition, it would have been unwise from an interpersonal perspective. But our partners have lived in this area for nearly a decade, and they’ve worked hard during that time to develop strong relations with the neighbors. At some level, we’re the free riders I warned about in the previous paragraph. At another level, though, we came to the community with a strong endorsement and a built-in set of human ties.

Thus, my first recommendation: Community starts at home. If you can find somebody who is willing to take you in, I propose pooling resources. Given the increasing poverty in a nation addicted to the stock markets, this counter-cultural notion — which goes against the American cultural ideal of “independence” — is starting to make a lot of sense. I suspect we’ll see a lot more collaboration and a lot less ego-laden, look-at-me-and-my-mansion competition in the years ahead.

After establishing a home-based beachhead, the remainder involves common sense and little else. This ain’t rocket surgery, after all. Make yourself valuable by finding a niche. Provide a service, or set of services, integral to the daily lives of your neighbors. What do they do?

They drink water. So find a way to extract, purify, and deliver water when municipal power is no longer available.

They eat. So find a way to produce healthy food at a smaller scale than the big-box grocery store. Grow chickens, ducks, and goats. Make yogurt, butter, and cheese. And then develop a means of preparing the food without fossil fuels. Think drying racks, sun ovens, and firewood.

They wear clothes. So stock up on needles and strong thread, and sell your skills as a tailor, or even a mender.

They sleep. Make ’em blankets. Or, if you have the requisite skills, beds and other furniture.

Can you care for animals, including human animals? They have tender psyches and bodies that were not designed for the rigors to which they’re about to be subjected. They need therapy, just like the rest of us, and they’ll soon need a lot more. Can you provide it, at a finer scale than the current model, and for gifts or barter? Are you a medical herbalist? Can you become one?

They need respite from the drudgery of labor. Already, everything is amazing and nobody is happy. Imagine what our lives will be like when we can’t take our annual summer driving vacation, much less the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe or the Caribbean. Can you spin a yarn or play a tune? I recommend traveling minstrel as an occupation about to make a serious comeback.

They want educated people, and some of them want educated children. If you can write a coherent paragraph and perform long division, you’ll be in constant demand in a world without hand calculators. If you can teach children to perform these miracles, get set to launch your career as a post-carbon teacher.

They have sex. Never mind the world’s oldest profession: The potential for midwives and childcare should be obvious.

I could go on, but the point should be clear by now. As we leave the Age of Entitlement and transition into the Age of Consequences, everybody will need to make a contribution to their community. Those who are unwilling or unable to make a contribution will not be welcome. If you value living in a particular place, think about tight-knit Stone Age communities or contemporary Amish communities. The worst possible fate for an individual is to be shunned, because that means you’ll need to find your own way in a large, unknown world.

So, what about me, and my adopted community? What specific steps have I taken, along with my partners at this property?

We gift and barter, and we’re ratcheting up both at every opportunity. These efforts are welcome in a valley filled with self-reliant, life-loving economic doomers. We provide plenty of eggs (chicken and duck) and milk, and in return we have received various kinds of food (fruits, vegetables, and the most wondrous imaginable bread), heirloom seeds and bulbs, a large iron triangle for announcing dinner is ready at the outdoor kitchen, a full clean-and-trim job on our goats’ hooves, and other goods and services too numerous to list (and, in my case, too varied and numerous to remember).

On the personal front, I am working hard to befriend members of my community. I’ve joined an effort to reintroduce river otters into the nearby river, and worked shoulder-to-shoulder on constructing government-mandated otter pods for their release (the pods are large boxes built from plywood and construction lumber). I join a gang of locals at the nearest café for coffee every Tuesday morning (and I don’t drink coffee). I substitute teach at the local K-12 school (“today we’re learning about entropy”). I partake of potlucks and dance parties, as well as more formal annual events such as craft fairs. I’m extremely introverted, so each of these social gatherings is painful. As Nietzsche pointed out, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Perhaps it’ll make my community stronger, too.

In the not-so-distant future, we intend to provide a much broader array of services to our community. We can extract water from the ground via solar pump and hand pump. In addition to the daily overload of eggs and milk, we’re making and aging plenty of hard cheeses. We’ve stored some luxurious food and drink that will age well (and I don’t even drink alcohol). We can grind grains. We have the capacity to cook food via sun oven, Earth oven (orno), and wood-fired cook stove. We have solar-powered electricity and an assortment of power tools to aid with minor construction projects. This entire infrastructure is designed not merely for our survival, but also for the survival of others in our community. We thrive when our community thrives. We suffer when our community suffers.

I’m certain I’m missing many things. But any number can play, so please help me out. What can we stock for gifts and trade? What’s small, inexpensive, and easy to store, yet useful? What other skills should we learn in anticipation of a contracting economy and therefore an enlarging world? What other services can we provide, within the constraints of a small piece of land and little remaining money?

And what about you? How are you preparing for a life of service in the Age of Consequences?


This essay is permalinked at Island Breath, Sustainable Tucson, and Energy Bulletin (with photos and minor editing).

Comments 23

  • Marvelous post Guy.

    Your prognosis and Jeff Rubin’s predictions,I now think,will bring us to a far better and more humane place in history.And it is happening as
    we write.And it will be here sooner than most can imagine.

    Frank Mezek

  • Good post, Guy. I agree with you, have great neighbors now, and enjoyed remembering the redneck town we grew up in–which, much to the consternation of the native Bay-area Californian I married, has left me almost incapable of driving past someone stuck on the road.

    I also appreciated the words, “Were I still a self-respecting, objective scientist…” Of course my lack of ability to be either self-respecting or objective is what drove me into–and away from–journalism.

  • By the way, the idea of “community” reminded me of this, the top video of which should make even a doomer smile: http://www.wherethehellismatt.com/videos.shtml?fbid=Ulqwxp_T7gn

  • Hey Guy.

    Just in from planting a new orchard (by hand) & had a full-on belly laugh from the “Plato, Aristotle, and Dan Allen” line. Ha ha ha. I think my wife would revise that to “Larry, Moe, and Dan Allen.” :-)

    Age of Consequences indeed. Planting the orchard today was a bear — but as the sweat pored down my face & the blisters burned on my hands, I kept thinking, “I’ll be the post-carbon Johnny Appleseed of my community” — i.e. supplying & grafting all sorts of fruit and nut varieties for the new orchards that must necessarily spring up everywhere in the not-to-distant future.

    In other words, I was planting the trees partly for my family, but more-so to help my community try to weather the s&%$-storm that’s certainly a-comin’.

    Great post & thanks for the laugh. Take care — Dan

  • Nice post [Energy Bulletin}. What can we stock? Books, libraries, maps, blueprints.

  • But the stone-age? Under tumultuous circumstances, how can you really cling to one place long enough to care for permanent installations? Sure I have done permaculture classes and so forth. What I am saying is that the stone-age was VERY different. Do you really see what that means? I love this post, but I fear that the catastrophe is beyond our ability to perceive from this position of luxury we dare not release.

    Post this economy: You would be lucky to stay in one place long enough for one season of ‘gardening’ or whatnot. You are going to be where you are safe and secure (?) today. You are going to have to think on your feet and adapt to any multitude of challenges.

    Perhaps I beat a dead horse, but this link:

    These people are spending a significant amount of time every day just picking thorns out of each other. They have lived in the rift valley for ages without leaving a ‘permanent’ mark. People in MUD HUTS clinging to permanence are literally destroying them. There is no time to tend to a plant that may pay off in 40+ days. Today matters. Here matters. They cannot name another country. They have a commitment to transience and that is what nourishes their haggard bodies. They feed on a carcass like ‘wild animals’ to our civilized tastes and preferences. But they do share community. That part is very true.

  • bubbleboy, you make an excellent point that is beyond the scope of this essay. I was using Stone-Age and Amish communities as examples of tight-knit groups caring for each other and the land they occupy. Your example makes this point better than I have: The Hadza rely on each other for support and they are not destroying the land they occupy (and certainly not to the extent of industrialists). I do not doubt we are headed for challenging times, or that some people and groups will be far better off traveling than staying in a place (as I’ve mentioned, and even recommended). Certainly all of us will be forced to think on our feet and adapt to any multitude of challenges. Perhaps I’m missing your point. If so, please pummel the dead equine yet again for me :)

  • It seems the solutions are essentially a continuation of the farce.

    Perhaps that is the lesson of conservation biology.

    Anyhow, the emperor wears no clothes.

    I fear dying at thirty with a toothache or a broken leg.

    That is a hard reality to face.

    Perhaps Socrates should ask: What is reality?

    I want the answer.

    My college education is worthless to all employers but the government now… -The first thing to lose ground in a tough economy?

  • Guy, where do you draw the line between a garden and a farm? Is there an acreage limit? I suspect your definitions are a bit different than mine. To me, a garden is limited to plants, while a farm includes a garden and a variety of animals. A homestead or self-sufficient farm would include such garden, orchard and animal life that would allow its operators to live on what they raise or make.

    In answer to your question, another service one could contribute to a community – raise sheep and make clothing from their wool. Tan hides and make boots, belts, etc. Two of the few ways I know of to make new clothing when the old items are no longer mendable.

  • Wendy, I view a garden as a subsistence enterprise. A farm is a business, the goal of which is to provide income. The outcome of farming is food storage (especially grain storage) and therefore civilization (i.e., empire). Eden was a garden, but Cain wanted an empire … so he built a city (the apex of empire) and developed the ability to store grain (i.e., accumulate power). As we’ll soon discover, western civilization (including the industrial economy at its height) is not too big to fail.

  • Unfortunately for Cain, he never saw Eden so he didn’t know what he was missing.

    Thanks for clarifying your terms. Under that definition, the family “farm” of which I have often spoken is not truly a farm by your definition because it doesn’t provide an income. And it is in the process of becoming a subsistence enterprise. I only hope we can complete the transformation in time.

  • Great post Guy…as usual. I often think about those things that will not only be useful to myself and my family, but which will have utility in my community as industrial civilization winds down. In addition to all of the very useful skill sets you mentioned (and, no doubt there are a host of other ones) I would add that every community will need one or more folks who can help manage ( I know that the use of that word will probably draw criticism) and facilitate (that one too)the flow of products and services between members of a very local community (analogous to a neighborhood), between those very local communities and, less frequently, between more distant communities which might have some unique products and services that justify such infrequent trading trips.

    I still find myself in a quandary over the pros and cons of being land rich (i.e. moving farther out in the boonies where I can afford 5-10 acres) but neighbor and access poor, or, living in an established (albeit more densely than I care for) community like NE Portland where the folks are like minded, many things are walkable or bikeable but I don’t have that chunk of land for raising crops and critters.

    The decision would be easier if I could more accurately predict both the velocity and trajectory of our energy descent. And if I could find even a small group of like minded folks who wanted a more rural life and had already established at least the rudiments of a community.

    Now doubt I’ll find answers to all those questions in time…but that begs the ultimate question…how much time do I(we) have.

    Keep up the great work and we’ll all try and do the same. Gently and lovingly educate, hope for the best and prepare for something less than that.

    Take care,
    Chuck in West Linn

  • I’m a little wary of your attitude toward extinction. It’s a matter of the time-frame you operate in. In ten million years, even if life has to climb out of its sulfur-fixing hydrothermal outposts in the deep ocean and start over, the planet will have a whole new zoo and it may be even better and more varied and beautiful than the one we had in the Pleistocene. It just won’t be sending out interplanetary probes.

    That takes care of the big future for me.

    What I like about the Guy McPherson small future you’ve constructed is that you’re witnessing in an active sense, or demonstrating what’s possible by doing it. Yours is a powerful example, even if almost everyone who reads this blog can find a good excuse not to follow it. I’m reminded of St. Augustine’s prayer that he be delivered from temptation, but not just yet.

    The food, water, and warmth essays and photos are impressive and I can imagine planners in some future military regime using your sustainable ecology as a model for its officer corps.

    I can’t agree with you on the subject of community. I still live in a community similar to the one you grew up in. You can call these places community if you ignore the casualties, usually women and children and old people rather than the young men who get beat up in a bar fights. These communities are self-sustaining, but usually at the expense of higher human values and gentler humans. The lowest common denominator sets the tone, and often enough the tone is ignorance, interpersonal cruelty, and hatred.

    That doesn’t mean it has to be that way, but in a world that has so recently shown us the Balkan War, you do have to reckon with the lowest common denominator over time. And children have a way of ignoring the hopes and dreams of their parents, particularly where communitarian behavior is concerned. A generation will make a difference in any community, particularly when it exists in a world of increasing scarcity.

    So I don’t think you can do much more than live well in the present, and be ready on a daily basis to take the consequences of your actions or inaction. What impresses me is that you’ve built a good life for yourself in the Now. That’s where we all have to live, whether we want to or not–in the middle of history, not at the end of it.

  • I enjoyed this post tremendously. What’s funny (besides Louis CK on Leno) is that I was thinking of the same things tonight as I wrote in my paper journal. I thought about posting the following to my mini-blog, but it felt like I was betraying PJ:

    “YouTube videos killed the radio star,
    Facebook is killing the neighborhood, and
    My Blog nearly killed my beloved PJ…
    my dear old confidant, Paper Journal.” EM 2010

    It’s strange to think that the paper journal has been replaced by an interactive blog, but then again, the paper journal can’t hear me or you. And, let’s face it, we’re the kind of people that like to be heard.

    The link to Louis CK was just brilliant… it made me laugh and laugh. He brings up many a good point, and so do you. One day, we won’t be able to frivolously fly (or sit, eat, sleep and crap in the sky) to Europe for a vacation. Luxuries may go out of style because we will be too concerned about what to eat, what to drink, and how to survive in our home communities. We will be shunted backwards technologically, sent back to the primal life. I had a brief pause in my decision to go to Ecuador because I knew that it meant leaving what I’ve built on my own soil so far: friends and family, the garden, Mito and the chicks (which arrive this weekend!).
    I know now that I must go so that I can live among a people that practice a similar kind of community cooperation you write about. What I’m hoping is that I will acquire a sound knowledge of what it means to be a true community. Have you watched the documentary “Brother’s Keeper”? The film takes place in rural farm country and tells a similar story to your “can’t ignore your neighbor-foe when he’s in a ditch (no matter how much think you hate the drunk SOB)”. That community glue mentality, the quaint neighbor-love, died in the garage-n-private-lawn laden suburbs here, but I have a feeling I’ll be surrounded by it in rural Ecuador. At least, I hope so.

  • one of your best Guy,

    in terms of ‘barter’ – I have been giving
    jars of jam to my neighbours made from
    home grown plums in exchange
    for looking after the chickens whilst
    we were away.

    In terms of ‘skills’ and ‘preparations’ – soil conditioning and improvement is vital.

    This sounds eccentric – but, I have started
    to store and prerserve fallen timber, in anticipation I will need
    handles for tools etc. Plus the timber is too beautiful to burn.
    I already have made one for a small hand shovel using a spoke shave.

    Also, I have purchased leather needles (very inexpensive and ‘small’ from the US) and I have taught myself to make bow strings, and arrows for my recurve. The technology behind string making is fascinating,
    and I might add so is the knowledge of knot tieing – very useful skill.

    nice post

  • Your thoughtful perspective reaches out deeply, McDoc.

    Having experienced the work life from the isolated confine of a cubicle for many years, I struggle at times with tapping into the source of an existing skill or certain ability. It’s important to be generous towards others, I believe, in pointing out in fair terms a noticeable aptitude that would adapt well to meeting more intense future needs. This acknowledgement made from astute observations could become an important departure point of further concentration and growth for someone, as well as become a crucial confidence builder.

    Every now and again, I get a little tired of learning from books and long for a more hands-on approach, and yet I stay the course on that front.

    Soon, I want to learn how to maintain a sharp, rust-free edge on my gardening tools, and on my paring knives. Learning this sharpening skill, and acquiring the necessary supplies, will serve me well and hopefully others, too, along the way. I’ll sharpen your scissors, and who will trim your wispy bangs, Doc?

    Lately, I’m losing some sleep over the meaning of community, and have been pondering intention (I recently shook hands on a seemingly reliable exchange only to be taken to the cleaners — so to speak, and while at it why not search one’s own soul on the matter of community as personal impact!).

    It can be intense, sure, and please don’t mind me if I find it interesting from the standpoint of reaching insightful levels of self-understanding.

    Good work, Doc.

    Marguerite ScarFace Daisy ;)

  • Hey Guy,

    I have a question. I read these blog entries (and today’s entry is one of my favorites, by the way) with a mix of two emotions. On one hand, I feel a romantic connection to the life you are describing. On the other, I am horrified by the amount of hard work you must be doing. Tell me. Do you feel happier in this, your new life?

    I would think I would be happier. And yet there is the conflict, again. Because I also fear leaving what is comfortable and familiar in the admittedly detestable sloburbs.

    Isn’t it strange that I – and many others, I am sure – would feel “connected” to this life without connections. That I would feel that my life has meaning in this bland, stuccoed existence? I’m sure I’m not alone.

    What do you think?

  • Lance, I feel your pain and anxiety. My anxiety actually has increased since I wrote this essay last August. To abandon the comforts of the familiar is uncomfortable, to say the least. To make radical changes in lifestyle is quite the unsettling adventure. I am happier in many ways, largely due to my response to the moral imperative of living in this new manner. I’m dissatisfied because so few people yet understand the economic and social implications of peak oil, the moral imperative of living beyond American culture, and the importance of individual actions on others (which probably are small, so maybe I’m the one who doesn’t understand).

    Is this hard work? Yes, of course, and not merely physically … but intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically. But so was life in the ivory tower. As Henry Ford said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” I’ve never been averse to hard work, which probably will cause me considerable angst when we return to the Thoreau-vian days of sitting on the porch watching the sun climb, then descend. As Orlov points out, the highest rate of mortality in the post-collapse USSR was found in men aged 45 to 55 (primary causes were suicide and alcoholism). I’m 50, and I’ve been driven my hyper-competitive entire life to achieve. So I’m a little concerned about my ability to forgo hard work for extended periods of time. So far, that hasn’t been a problem :)

  • It’s interesting that your essay is largely about “community” as we have known it for, what, only a few hundred years? The community you talk about seems based on property lines, fences, and an enduring legal system and government.

    In an Orlov “Level 3” (or greater) collapse, who will be your community? Neighbours you have to drive to? Who will defend your right to you piece of land if powerful strangers decide they want your fruit trees and perennials?

    It seems to me that intentional community on a much closer scale is going to be the best defensive strategy. A small family and 40 acres is pretty easy to simply roll over; but 20 people on those same 40 acres is going to socially more difficult to simply squash, and will require at least an Orlov-4 or 5 collapse.

    Well anyway, we’re trying to get 15 families on 104 acres here. But as your assumptions in this essay point out, it is very hard to get people to see past the way property and community are structured today, in this high-fructose energy environment, rather than how property and community could be optimally organized.