Community Resource Management: Old Rules, and New Sustainable Ones

researchgardenAs regular readers of these pages know, I am predicting that, at some point in this century, the large political and economic structures (state governments and multi-national corporations) that currently govern much of our lives will collapse, probably due to a combination of total dysfunction in the new wired world and economic bankruptcy. This will leave a vacuum that will be filled, I predict, by community-based organizations.

I think we have seen a preview of government dysfunction in Homeland Security (the largest centrally-managed organization in the history of the planet), of the kind of economic incompetence that will lead to large government bankruptcy in the Bush administration, and of the superior effectiveness of community-based organizations in the response to Katrina and the other natural disasters that we have faced this year.

The challenge is that we have become so used to relying on large central governments and corporations to manage things for us, that we have lost the knowledge of how to self-manage our own communities. My nine articles on communities (list here, scroll down to the Community subheading) have focused mainly on the social management of communities — self-forming new communities and then getting along with other members. Just as important will be the economic management of these communities, and in particular the management of the communities’ resources.

When I speak of communities I am not talking about housing subdivisions where people are thrown together by serendipity, commuting needs and similar financial wherewithal (and in some cases similar ethnicity). And I am not talking about municipalities whose boundaries are the result of historical accident or political convenience, and which are often as big as some countries — far beyond the limits of the rule of 150.

By community I mean a small, self-manageable group of people who have chosen to live or make a life together. And I am talking about community in its original sense of “those in common”, equally with and by all — an egalitarian society whose property is held in common, together.

How should such a community manage its ‘commons’, its shared resources?

Perhaps the best answer to this question is to look at the rules that we use today to manage resources. Economists would probably cite these rules as follows:

  1. Acquire as many resources as you can at the lowest possible cost. That means shrewdly or coercively buying resource-rich land at far below its real value (often buying it before that value has been realized). It also means beating up your suppliers to get them to lower their prices, with the implication of ‘commoditizing’ as much as possible and exploiting suppliers (both human and animal) to offer their minds and bodies at the lowest possible price.
  2. As long as it doesn’t impede your ability to keep producing, sell as much as you can at the highest possible price (which usually means to the most affluent buyers, regardless of need).
  3. Treat all resources as infinite and expendable, and ignore ‘externalities’ (costs that you are not absolutely required to pick up, even if that means someone else will have to pay them). Assume that whenever a resource gets scarce (and hence expensive), the ‘market’ will drive suppliers to find more of it or invent an equivalent non-scarce source of supply.

These rules are based on the assumption that we live in a ‘market economy’, which of course we do not. Power and wealth are used to distort markets to the advantage of the powerful and wealthy, principally by bribing (no I don’t think that’s too harsh a word) public officials to pass or rescind laws and to enforce or ignore regulations that favour them and disadvantage others. The theoretical role of governments is to intervene to ensure that the disadvantaged have at least enough resources to live a healthy and comfortable life, and to coordinate activities when individuals and smaller groups are unable or unwilling to do so, though that role, at least in the US and most of Earth’s struggling nations, seems to be increasingly unpopular.

What rules will a community-based society need to put in place to effectively manage its resources when the existing central governments and corporations crumble and are no longer in a position to act by the above, or any, rules? I think, given enough time and through trial and error communities will (re-)discover rules that work. But here, based on a number of recent e-mail discussions with readers, is my first cut at such a rule set:

  1. Each community should only have as many people as it can support on its own, without having to rely on other communities, or on the grid. People are the ultimate ‘resource’ in any community, and they need to be self-managed just like any other resource. Most animals self-limit their populations to the carrying capacity of their natural community, so that the eco-system remains in balance. We need to learn to do the same. Today, affluent communities consume between 8 and 40 times the resources that their natural resources can support, by using the resources of struggling nations and communities desperate to sell whatever they can to provide basic requirements of life, and we all consume far more than the land can replenish each year, effectively stealing from future generations. This is unsustainable and unfair, and has to cease.
  2. Each community is responsible for managing its own resources in a way that is indefinitely sustainable (without importing resources). There is nothing wrong with trade, but to be resilient (unlike today’s political structures) communities need to be self-sufficient. This will make communities healthier, and less vulnerable to unpredictable events outside the community and to unscrupulous and exploitative people both inside and outside the community.
  3. Each community offers for export only resources that are surplus to its sustainable needs. These surpluses will be minimal and generally accidental. This economy offers no rewards for a larger per-person footprint than is necessary for the community’s members, and if all communities are self-sufficient there is no reason for excess production. But when clear surpluses do occur (e.g. due to an exceptional growing season) those surpluses would be offered free of charge to other communities.
  4. Each community imports only luxuries it cannot reasonably produce itself. This isn’t a contradiction of rules #1 and 2. It means, for example, that those in a temperate climate and those in a tropical climate might want to trade apples for bananas. A free exchange, Internet-enabled, just for variety. Don’t think it’s possible to live in a sub-polar climate without importing necessities? The Inuit did it for centuries. All it takes is a bit of ingenuity

Nature provides a near-perfect model of the use and value of these rules. It will require a lot of innovation and study for communities to learn from nature and (re-)learn the principles of bioregionalism. Adhering to these simple rules could allow us to free ourselves from thinking that the ‘market economy’,  acquisitive culture, and an ‘ownership society’ are the only way to live. The sooner we start, perhaps with Model Intentional Communities, the better.

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3 Responses to Community Resource Management: Old Rules, and New Sustainable Ones

  1. medaille says:

    I’ve been waiting for you to address this topic because it is of fundamental importance and is fairly concrete compared to some of the more social aspects you’ve been talking about. A dilemma that I’ve been thinking about lately is this: since its obvious that we are over-populated and that we need to reduce our population, how do we reduce it? If you have a community that is self-sufficient and where everything is communal set in a land of have-nots (because they live in a land of competition and have been outcompeted by resource-hoarders) people will try to emmigrate to a land of more bounty like illegal aliens from latin countries moving northward under the promise of getting more. This strains the community because its small size makes it easy to outconsume its own resources if immigration is high. Also since a self-sufficient community is limited by the amount of energy provided to it by the sun or other similar physical inputs its maximum population is already determined. This means that certain religious groups such as catholics will be forced into the dilemma of betraying their faith and using birth control or moving to a community that pays no mind to its resource-consumption and eventually starves itself. Is there a way to provide a means of population control without policing the population?

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Medaille: Alas, the solution is a combination of two things that most organized religions could not tolerate: Communities self-managing their population numbers in a sustainable, responsible way, rather than exporting their excess numbers to other communities, and very strict immigration rules so that communities that produce too many people have no alternative but to learn to stop doing so.

  3. Rayne says:

    I missed this post, just catching up on my reading. You do realize, don’t you, that this is rather Norquist-ian?

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