SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL — BUT CAN WE STILL GET THERE FROM HERE?

working togetherI believe that small is natural and efficient, and big is cumbersome and bureaucratic — in government, in business, in education, in every aspect of our political, economic and social lives. It’s eminently logical: break a problem down into small parts, and it gets more manageable, while the larger an organization gets, the more it becomes prone to communication logjams, political infighting, misinformation, inertia, the ability to conceal corruption and incompetence, and problems of scale, and hence the less manageable it becomes. For that reason, I’m a fan of community-based organizations, and of decentralization of power, authority and responsibility. But I recognize that that creates several quandaries:

  • Municipal and state/provincial governments are still way too big to be responsive and responsible to their communities.
  • Local authorities can be tyrannical, unrepresentative, repressive and extremist, because
    •  their domains of authority are often not real self-selecting communities, but rather groups of strangers with widely divergent and irreconcilable opinions,
    • they’re often inexperienced, unskilled and untrained in politics, consensus-building and the exercise of authority, and
    • their decisions, being local, do not get wide public scrutiny.
  • While small autonomous organizations enable and encourage more diversity and creativity, they can also entrench inter-regional disparities: The best are really good, but the worst are really bad. Impoverished inner-city school districts are a case in point.

So while I believe that local teachers and communities should have substantial autonomy, I can also appreciate what such autonomy could produce in a cult or hate-obsessed community: the poisoning and even destruction of young minds. And while I think local, self-sufficient renewable energy co-ops are the future, I have seen the consequences of local, under-supervised water utilities in Walkerton, Canada, where negligence and under-regulation led to e coli deaths. And while small local agricultural enterprise offers us the best protection from the cruelty and waste of monster factory farms and genetically manufactured atrocities, many small local slaughterhouses have atrocious records for safety, environmental damage and animal cruelty.  How do we reconcile the promising concept of local, community-based, autonomous organizations with these awful realities? Is small only beautiful in theory?

In nature, communities are almost invariably small, and they have evolved over billions of years to work extremely well as political, social and economic units. “Pre-historic” man evolved tribal communities of hunter-gatherers, following this natural model: Small, stable communities with borders between them that were sacred — cross the border into another community’s territory and the result was war (though until the advent of civilization there were no deadly weapons — even arrowheads are a ‘modern’ human invention — so perhaps it’s an exaggeration to describe a conflict with no fatalities as war). You were born into a community and at a certain age you chose whether to remain in it for life, by participating in a rite of passage, or you left, struck out on your own to find or start another community. This very limited interaction between tribes had two evolutionary advantages: (a) It allowed a great diversity of cultures to develop, unhomogenized by others, with the ‘fittest’ of these cultures succeeding and the unfit dying off, thus continuing the species’ evolutionary ‘progress’, and (b) It allowed genetic diversity to be maximized, so when one tribe was wiped out by a newly evolved disease, the neighbouring tribes would be less likely to be genetically vulnerable to it as well, so the spread of the disease would be limited and the species as a whole would go on. These are rules for successful living as old as life itself.

When we invented civilization, and our numbers began to soar, we had to invent a whole series of new political, social and economic constructs as well. The instinctive and overwhelming authority of communities was (quite deliberately) subverted by these larger, artificial political constructs, by brute force and by encouraging intermixing and trade between communities, until what we call geographic ‘communities’ today are in most cases people physically co-located simply for the convenience of property developers and the commute to the workplace. With its cohesion destroyed, the community was replaced (with the blessing of the state, the church, the corporation, and the other new power structures of civilization) by the nuclear family. While, for most, families have captured the allegiance and moral authority that once belonged to tribes and other real communities, families are not autonomous, self-sustaining social, political or economic units. Families had to look helplessly to these strange new structures — the state, the church, and the corporation — to tell them how to live. That gave these new institutions enormous power, and you need only look at the lessons of history to see what such power does. All of these institutions preached, and still preach to this day, the mantra of perpetual growth: Bigger is better, more possessions is better, more babies is better. This keeps the rabble in line, since that perpetual growth creates perpetual scarcity, inequality, fear and envy, and also ensures the continued growth and power of these controlling institutions.

Many of us, realizing instinctively that this new system was corrupt, inefficient, unhealthy and unsustainable, have tried, since the dawn of civilization, to walk away from it and return to a community-based, natural, communal life-style. Such experiments have always been suppressed one way or another — overpowered by the military might of civilization’s armies and police, crushed by religious militancy, bought out and co-opted by commercial interests, ridiculed, legally banned or shunned. And the community model took millions of years to evolve successfully, so many modern attempts to emulate it have failed because the new-age community members brought too much of civilization’s baggage of ‘how to live’ with them. The most successful modern communal models are, alas, those of orthodox religious sects and cults that are even more oppressive to their members than the civilization they loathe. That repressive religious orthodoxy, too, is baggage from civilization, which communal leaders have been unable and unwilling to give up, fearing that if they did, their hold on future generations would be broken and their communities would collapse. They are probably right in that fear. The superficial ‘freedoms’ and the pretty baubles of civilization are seductive to naive outsiders.

If we were somehow able to obtain the land and resources to establish many of what I have called Model Intentional Communities, there is therefore a real question of whether our subversive, self-sufficient, community-based lifestyle would be permitted (it would deeply threaten all existing political, social, economic and religious powers), and, even if it were permitted, whether such a lifestyle would be able to compete, in the eyes and minds of future generations, with civilization’s illusory attractions, and whether the community members would be able to learn fast enough from their mistakes and shuck off the indoctrination of civilization on ‘how to live’ sufficiently that these Model Intentional Communities would survive, and ultimately attract more, until they were once again our species’ dominant culture.

Most existing Intentional Communities allow free movement of people, goods, and ideas in and out — the last thing they want to do is become repressive like the society they have left behind. But that very movement violates the rules of natural communities by which we lived for three million years before civilization took hold, and brings with it more of civilization’s bankrupt ideas and products, diluting and threatening the community’s ability to be anything different. I know of one Intentional Community that put all its property in a Community Land Trust, but whose members are now fighting among themselves over whether parts of the property should be apportioned to each ‘family’ in the community. They just can’t shake the civilized idea of personal property rights and ‘good fences make good neighbours’, and it’s destroying the community. What’s worse, the municipality won’t give them zoning approval to build a large communal building, saying that the land is “not zoned for multi-family dwellings” (which, in civilization culture, means apartment buildings). And the neighbours, God-fearing conservative farmers, don’t like the idea of a ‘commune’ near them, where “all sorts of immoral activities could be going on”, and want the community shut down “and the children removed and placed in proper homes”. Just a taste of the struggle that Model Intentional Communities face, and perhaps why they are doomed to fail in the ‘real world’.

The economic analogue to socio-political Model Intentional Communities is what I have called Natural Enterprise. While I am more optimistic that community-based Natural Enterprise can work in the real world (in fact, many of them already do), entrepreneurial business as a whole remains at a subsistence level, hardly a threat to the large corporate oligopolies. And while the economy is now completely dependent on entrepreneurship to solve the problems of unemployment (large corporations are, as a whole, shedding jobs, not adding them, even as they continue to grow more powerful and economically dominant), for most entrepreneurs life remains a struggle, with the playing field becoming more and more uneven. Meanwhile, the corporate media machine keeps churning out messages that you are what you wear, and what you own, and that big-name brands and labels reflect favourably on us, and if you talk to the vast majority of today’s young people, you’ll find they’re buying this crap hook, line and sinker. Watching the huge number of paid ‘product placements’ in music videos (even in the lyrics!) is enough to make you gag.

So, even while we haven’t solved some of the quandaries we would face in a world based on community — the dangers of cults, the political inexperience of community leaders, potential disparities of quality of life between communities, potential abuses without some kind of invasive minimum standards, regulations and inspections — solving these problems is an academic exercise if we find we simply can’t get there from here. Community-based culture evolved over three million years, and civilization culture has evolved over thirty thousand years, so the idea that we might be able to evolve a new, well-functioning community-based culture in the century we have left before our world faces social, economic and ecological collapse seems almost ludicrous.

Except that we really have no alternative, and when there is no alternative, evolution can proceed at a pretty fast clip.

What might we do to get there, despite the obstacles, and what could be done to deal with some of the quandaries? Here are a few ideas.

  • Experiment like mad, and learn fast from mistakes: The more different types of experiments we try with Model Intentional Communities and Natural Enterprises, and the more honest and sharing we are about what works and doesn’t work, the faster we’ll solve the problems and achieve models of both types of community-based structures that others can successfully follow.
  • Anticipate and plan for the problems: In the links above, I’ve suggested ways to build both Model Intentional Communities and Natural Enterprises. In those posts and in this one, I’ve outlined some of the problems and challenges to expect. As we build them, we’ll find more problems. We need to compile a list of these problems and be ready for them when they arise. Forewarned is forearmed and all that.
  • Encourage, celebrate, and demand openness: Models don’t have to be perfect, but they have to be open and honest if we hope to learn from them. And if they’re open, they’ll be less able to conceal serious problems — abuse of community members in cults, fraudulent operations and other problems that, unless found and corrected, could taint and undermine the whole movement for such structures. Openness carries with it risks, of course, as I’ve mentioned above, but I think they’re less than the risks and costs of communities and enterprises operating as closed structures, not sharing what they’ve learned.
  • Help each other out: There are associations of Intentional Communities and of entrepreneurs, and that’s a good start. But there’s a perverse competitiveness in all of us that we need to overcome — unless we all succeed, we may all fail. That means helping each other out not only to get established and to overcome problems, but by cooperation and exchanges and regular visits and offering support financially and as customers of each other.
  • Self-supervise: We need to take responsibility for all of our fellow community-based ventures, which means keeping an eye on suspicious community and enterprise behaviours and, when necessary, blowing the whistle on wrong-doing.

These ideas are a bit ‘unnatural’. Creatures in the wild don’t look out for and help those outside their communities. But in nature the models of community are well-established and work brilliantly. We’re a long way from achieving that, and we can’t be purists if we hope to get there from here.

If we get there, to the stage where there are many self-sustaining Model Intentional Communities and Natural Enterprises, networked together and collaborating and open to the public and getting a lot of buzz at precisely the time when civilization is starting to collapse from its own excesses, the network will start to engender some of its own momentum and integrity. Example: Today’s western education systems, despite the valiant efforts of most teachers, are largely dysfunctional. Community-based education could operate organically at the intersection of Intentional Communities and Natural Enterprises, with both structures playing a role in showing young people how to live, while providing different perspectives and alternatives instead of the suffocation of classrooms, home schooling and monolithic religious education that young people naturally rebel against. A high-school education that sent young people for a month to a variety of different Model Intentional Communities, where they would apprentice in and learn about different Natural Enterprises would be a tremendous learning experience, more than enough to counter the false glamour of civilization’s materialistic lure.

When I hear about the struggles of Intentional Communities and entrepreneurs, it makes me wonder if we have any hope of creating a Small is Beautiful, community-based world, in time, if we can even get there from here. But when I think of the rewards if we succeed, the consequences of failure, and the history of brilliant human invention and adaptability in times of crisis, I am re-energized: We have to try.

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2 Responses to SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL — BUT CAN WE STILL GET THERE FROM HERE?

  1. Life Tenant says:

    Warfare with fatalities is not a product of technology. Chimpanzee bands have skirmishes with fatalities, without benefit of the “modern” stone tools you criticize. Anyway, the bow and arrow were invented at least 30,000 years ago, stone arrowheads at least that old have been found, and stone tools date back millions of years: Homo sapiens coevolved with stone tools and they are as natural to us as any other part of our environment, indeed they may have shaped the nature of our species. For humans, some technology, at least, is natural.Yes, people in stone age societies tended to travel less than people in industrial societies today. But they engaged in extensive trade, as evidenced by stones and seashells found in stone age archaeological sites hundreds of kilometers from where they were quarried or collected. They migrated long distances, as evidenced by kinship among farflung languages such as the Athabascan languages of Northern Canada, Alaska, and the Southwestern U.S. Human groups have always benefitted, not just suffered, from interaction with their neighbors, and the import of ideas and artifacts originating far away. There is no “pure” human culture evolved in isolation. Human culture thrives on exchange and sharing. In selecting certain features of prehistoric human life and privilege them as “natural,” you deprecate some of the most creative and fruitful aspects of human behavior.You say that small, local communities are the norm in nature. But many species live together in large numbers. Social insects like ants and termites live together in very large, highly organized groups. Migratory birds not only congregate in huge colonies for breeding and nesting, they also travel thousands of miles, the opposite of “local.” These are not exceptional cases. Again, you select some animal behaviors as “natural,” but nature offers a wide variety of styles of life for us to emulate, or not. Privileging one style of life as “natural,” and condemningothers as “unnatural,” obscures the fact that our decision about how to live is a moral choice, based on moral judgments about right conduct.

  2. Derek says:

    I agree. Lets not pretend that aggression and competition are new things, created only by “civilization”. Instead let us focus on the truly unique and horrible inventions that we have created. Like the devaluation of human life, the pursuit of self, the concentration of wealth and power, and the ability to ignore environmental costs when making decisions.When you try to pretend human nature is something other that it is, the “wisdom of the crowds” or at least the wisdom of the readers will be to at best call you on it, and at worst just to tune out.

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