|Diana Leafe Christian’s book Creating a Life Together lays out in painstaking detail the process to create an Intentional Community. She is unapologetic about airing the dirty laundry of the 90% of Intentional Communities that have failed, because these are the lessons that must be learned if the next generation of communities is to succeed. “This”, says Patch Adams in the book’s preface, “is the work for political activists who want to live their solutions.” If we want to change the world, we need to Be the Change, and create the model that others can look at and say “See, it works! There is a better way to live!”.
As a business adviser who has helped many entrepreneurs plan out and start up their companies, I tend to take a lot of the advice in the book for granted, and forget that most people have never learned about the different legal forms of ownership and enterprise, and about enterprise finance. Intentional Communities are essentially Natural Enterprises, and just about all the advice in my book resonates with Diana’s advice.
The book is extremely pragmatic, perhaps a little too much so for us idealists. I am a believer in self-selection and self-management of enterprises, allowing people to find each other, opt in and opt out as the enterprise or community evolves in ways they like or don’t like. Diana’s book is address to founders, and assumes that someone will be ‘in charge’ of the community. And while the book carefully lays out the principles of consensus governance, it warns that such governance isn’t right for every community, and unless done properly ‘structural conflict’ can be the community’s undoing.
Here’s the process outlined in the book, in a nutshell:
Wisely, the decision on buying land is near the end of the process (in most failed Intentional Communities it’s done too soon and using unobjective criteria). The section of the book on Vision is especially good, and again, it’s sound advice for any enterprise: Make it clear, goal-oriented, inspiring, make sure it doesn’t create false or unreasonable expectations, and above all, make sure it’s a collaborative vision, one that all members take ownership of and buy into.
The book has a number of exercises to teach members how to craft a vision document. These exercises ‘bring out’ the wallflowers in the group, clarify in each member’s mind their expectations and ambitions, ‘out’ unreasonable demands and bullies, and surface hidden expectations. One interesting exercise has each member identify “things, situations and systems that must be or must not be present” in order for them to go forward as a member of the community — a brilliant and innovative process to level-set and clarify expectations. Another exercise, ascribed to process consultant Rob Sandelin, called Where Do We Draw the Line, has each member use red dots on a large easel to define minimum acceptable and ideal standards and values for the community on matters as diverse as what foods will be raised and eaten, the use of automobiles in the community, and moral and aesthetic standards. The exercise quickly shows where there is, and is not, consensus, and which members are going to be uncomfortable with the group’s consensus.
There’s an interesting discussion on privacy. It turns out most people’s initial concerns about not having enough privacy in an Intentional Community is unwarranted. “It’s much easier to get solitude in the midst of community than to get community in the midst of solitude”, notes Tom Moench, a member of one community. When people opt out, it’s more likely to be over personality incompatibilities, unmet or changed expectations, or financial, power or principle disputes — the same problems that cause many marriages to fail.
The shocker to me was the size of successful Intentional Communities. In a survey by the author, successful communities envisioned an average of 50 members in the community, and had an average of 25 participants in early meetings prior to formation. But the median actual number of members is only eleven. an average density of only one person per eight acres of community land! Diana is only interested in establishing how many members a successful community needs, so she doesn’t answer the question of why so few successful communities have a substantial number of members. With more practice, as we start to overcome the zoning and other hassles that interfere with Intentional Community formation, and as the Internet and other social networking capabilities allow us to find like minds more easily, will this median size grow closer to the theoretical maximal community size of 150? And is our primeval need for physical and psychological space, and proximity to nature, behind the low density of successful Intentional Communities — historically hunter-gather communities averaged only one person per hectare (2.5 acres)?
The only thing that disappointed me about the book is the fact it doesn’t mention something that I think is critical to the cohesion and evolution of successful natural enterprises of all kinds: Love. The word isn’t mentioned at all, even in the context of creating community ‘glue’. I believe you need to love the members of your community. Diana believes you need to be hard-nosed, realistic and unemotional in (co-)creating and (co-)managing communities, and she’s right, but that doesn’t mean you have to, or even should, suck the passion out of the venture. When you love each other, you can sustain more adversity, you exercise more patience, you compromise more, you find consensus more easily, you trust each other more, and the whole enterprise is more fulfilling, more fun. I think love is instinctive, more than emotional — there’s something in us that allows us intuitively, if we trust that intuition, to know who we want to make a living with, and how to do it.
The book sidesteps issues of human morality other than ecological issues such as veganism and sustainable living processes. Just as in marriage, however, moral issues, differences and lifestyles are a big issue. In the 1960s, a lot of communes collapsed because of differences over monogomy vs. polyamory philosophy, over the acceptability of nudity and public displays of affection (especially in front of children), and over ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ issues of responsibility for others in the community. The book presupposes the continued existence of monogamous relationships and personal property, and there are many Intentional Communities for which these are critical, contentious issues.
But on the whole this is a thorough, brave and valuable handbook for creating Intentional Communities. Another addition to my How to Save the World reading list.
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Preparing for Civilization's End:
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Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
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A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
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Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
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Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
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Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
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Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
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No Use to the World Broken
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If I Only Had 37 Days
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A Long Way Down
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Learning from Indigenous Cultures
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Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
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We Have No Choice
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