What Works: Community
By Guy R. McPherson
(Guy, a former UA professor, has inspired Sustainable Tucson with his writings and appearances at ST General Meetings during the past four years)
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 every 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 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 barter, and we’re ratcheting up the barter 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 barter? 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 Energy Bulletin (with photos and minor editing).
I’ll be speaking in Sedona, Arizona next week, with an emphasis on water and community. Details are here.
Most recently, Dr. McPherson served as professor at the UA School of Natural Resources and Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. In 2009, he was recognized as Faculty of the Year…. Dr. McPherson recently left academia for other pursuits. As he put it in his popular blog, Nature Bats Last: “I departed university life for many reasons, among them to dedicate more time informing the world’s citizens about the consequences of the way we live. My message centers on the twin sides of the fossil-fuel coin: global climate change and energy decline (commonly known as “peak oil”). …These unprecedented phenomena impact every aspect of life on Earth, notably including our ability to protect the living planet on which we depend for our own survival.”
As Albert Einstein once said, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others, it is the only means.” While Dr. McPherson might take exception to that thought, he decided to put it into practice. Today, he and his wife live in an off-grid, straw-bale house where they practice sustainable living by organic gardening, raising small animals for eggs and milk, and actively engaging with members of their rural community