|Over the past two days I’ve been rambling on about the Gift Economy and how to make it work. I’m beginning to believe the success of the Gift Economy and the success of Intentional Communities are connected. The former is the means, I believe, to change our economic system, while the latter is the means to change our social and political system.
Intentional Communities are not, as some believe, isolated communes or anti-technology cults. They aspire to self-sufficiency but not disconnection from the rest of society. Ideally the Gift Economy could work both within and between Intentional Communities.
What are the challenges that Intentional Communities face?
To see how we might address these problems, let’s create a story about a fictitious person, K, looking to create, join and make an Intentional Community work:
K is separated, progressive-minded, vegetarian, and disenchanted with the singles scene and with urban life in general. But while she’s not averse to spending some time gardening, she has neither the skills nor inclination to make a living farming. Ideally she’d like to continue her existing business, which entails web-site design and freelance writing, from her new home. She’s read Creating a Life Together so she knows generally what to expect, and she also knows what she’s looking for — a place with people with like minds, not too far from a city and an airport.
She starts by looking at the FIC and FEC and EcoVillage Network sites to see what communities exist already, what they say about finding community, and suggested additional readings. She visits a local IC but finds it too crunchy and too pretentiously spiritual for her tastes. She taps into all her networks but the only existing IC that seems compatible with her objectives is one in Italy, and she’s not sure she’s ready for that. She has contacted some other people who have tried to establish their own IC, and studied an exhaustive list of others in the process.
She’s already discouraged. LinkedIn and Ryze offered nothing in the way of social networks on the subject, and while MeetUp did have some IC groups, they didn’t seem to be very well organized, which she thought was an inauspicious sign. K is also convinced that trying to find like minds online through social networking applications is awkward. She thinks you need to know people well to assess whether you want to create a life together with them. Instead, she decides to create a list of friends, acquaintances, bloggers and other people she thinks she knows well, and invites each of them (1) to attend an in-person meeting at her house (she’ll feed everyone and let them crash at her house overnight) just to discuss the idea, (2) to suggest other people whom she might want to invite, and (3) to comment on the ’10 founding principles’ list she has put together to suggest who the IC might work best for, and how it might operate.
The response is disappointing. A lot of the people she invited are horrified at the idea, and find it threatening or preposterous. The people who are interested strike her as less self-disciplined and responsible than what an undertaking of this magnitude would require. She wants the IC to be large enough to offer substantial diversity and cross-pollination of skills, knowledge, ideas and interests, and the fact that existing ICs average fewer than a dozen residents — less than the average family size of six generations ago — is making her wonder if the whole idea was a mistake.
One of the people who accepted her invitation, and showed up for the discussion meeting, convinces her to keep going, and to start small and let it grow, and not expect too much too fast. Two of the eight people accepting the invitation are retirees, and independently wealthy, and with some conditions (if the IC fails the property reverts to them) are willing to finance the purchase of the property and put it in trust for the group. Two more people drop out when they find that two of the accepting invitees are a gay couple, but another couple with two small children joins in, so the project seems ready to go, with a motley group of ten, on a forested property twenty miles from a city, with several established gardens and a biological research centre on it large enough to house the whole group (the site was being sold due to EPA budget cutbacks).
But the rezoning proves to be problematic. The neighbours try to block the establishment of the community, fearing “a bunch of crazy pot-smoking hippie types” will be a bad influence on their families, and insist that only one ‘family’ be allowed to reside in the building, and that no further buildings be allowed. The wrangling goes on for nearly two years, and four more of the IC’s planned members give up before it is resolved. Finally the zoning is approved, and just as they are about to move in they receive an unexpected boost — eight students from the university in the nearby city ask if they can join, for a one year period, and use the establishment of the community, now named GaiaWyld, as their masters’ thesis subject. K’s group meets with the students and, after a day-long session, agree to accept the students, on provision they agree to be full members rather than just observers, and consider staying on after they graduate. An improbable community in born.
Although her plan was to continue to do website design and freelance writing work, K finds that it is a full-time job managing the community and liaising with other ICs to learn from them. Five of the students stay after their thesis year, one gives birth to a baby, and the publicity that GaiaWyld attracts among the university community results in ten more students asking to join. K worries that the diversity, knowledge, experience and earning capability of the group will slide. She doesn’t want GaiaWyld relying on the financing of students’ parents, and doesn’t want the older members becoming surrogate parents riding herd on the students to accept their share of the responsibilities for the community’s self-sustaining activities. Again, a surprise development resolves the crisis: The new student group receives a grant to construct a solar and wind farm at GaiaWyld, one which would employ the students even after graduation, and provide significant revenue to the community from sale of excess power to the nearby city. With this new success comes some new challenges: GaiaWyld needs to construct accommodations for the growing number of visitors (engineers, government representatives, the media, and members of other ICs, as well as parents of some of the students). And eight more adults, with three children between them, have asked to join GaiaWyld. K would like to say yes, because it would restore some of the diversity to the community (and because she really likes the new applicants), but now there is a capacity problem, and if that entails building another building, she shudders to think what the zoning approval meeting will be like.
The above story is meant to illustrate how quickly the ‘best laid plans’ can get out of control, as a new community begins to take on a life of its own. What could we do to make it easier?
I think what is most needed is education, starting at the high-school level, perhaps as part of the civics curriculum. Students need to learn how to find and create community, how to make a life with other people, and how to make a living with other people. These are essential life skills for everyone, and their absence and our resultant helplessness has created many of the social problems we face today. Such a curriculum could also be provided, alongside cooking and weaving and gardening and other life-skills courses, in community and adult education centres. Such centres could be a natural meeting-place for those seeking Intentional Community with others, and attendees could be linked up with those taking such courses in other communities, and ‘meetups’ between them could be part of the curriculum.
I believe the other problems are relatively easy to solve — if the movement becomes sufficiently popular, and successful, opposition to ICs from neighbours will fall away, zoning laws will be modernized to accommodate them, and the inevitable disputes that arise will be mitigated more quickly as the principles of self-organization and conflict resolution become part of all of our core competencies.
What else do we need? Am I overstating the importance of physical meeting, the trading of atoms and not just bits between prospective community members, before they can hope to assess whether they want to create a life together? If it’s this easy, why are there still so few ICs and why are they, on average, so small? How can we get ICs to network better with each other and with the rest of us, so we can find models and learn from them?
And, most important, what would it take for you, dear reader, to consider or accept an invitation to join an IC with people you really love, or even to establish your own?
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