The Challenge of Building Community

buildcommunityWe’re starting to discover that the only effective way to make the world better is from the bottom up — by creating or evolving self-sufficient communities. As we saw in New Orleans, and as we see with failed states and failed cities everywhere, top-down political and economic solutions don’t work; when they change anything at all, they seem to make matters worse.

But creating community is not easy. In Creating a Life Together Diana Leafe Christian describes some of the challenges of intentional communities — finding members, creating honest consensus, resolving disputes, finding the right place to live, keeping it sustainable. This is tough work, and most intentional communities that do work are, well, rather pathetically small. It almost seems as if, as soon as you put more than a certain number of people into one interdependent group, you need hierarchy to keep things in order. Why might this be?

In gatherer-hunter communities, there was lots of space for community members to get away from each other temporarily, and lots of space between communities. Evidence suggests that such communities or clans consisted of about 150 individuals (depending on the ecosystem) which operated via a ‘fission/fusion’ social system, where the group continually split up into smaller, constantly changing (likely to vary and optimize individual learning) ‘foraging parties’ or bands of 30-50, and then re-formed as a cohesive group. The theory is that 150 is the maximum number of individuals you can get to know well enough for meaningful social interaction, and beyond that the group starts to splinter into a more self-manageable size.

Tribes consisted in turn of several clans, and comprised 1000-2000 individuals. Bands were the optimal size for short-term collective action, clans for mutual knowledge and learning, and tribes for buffering (to optimize inter-tribal physical and cultural diversity and to minimize inter-tribal conflict, both Darwinian advantages). Interestingly, early villages and early professional armies were usually the same size as gatherer-hunter clans, and military platoons the same size as gatherer-hunter bands. The clan defined the boundaries of both collective intellectual (recognition and distinction) and physical (mutual grooming and love) behaviour.

Today we find ourselves born into societies that have no band, clan, or tribal cohesion. Instead, at the micro-level, we have substituted the nuclear family, much smaller than a band and too small to comprise a self-sufficient functional unit. And at the macro-level, we have substituted the state and corporation, hierarchical and multi-tiered constructs much larger than a tribe, and too large to function as an integral unit.

One could cynically surmise that the nuclear family was devised deliberately to be inadequate for self-sufficiency, so families were dependent on and non-threatening to the inherently dysfunctional corporation/state. One could also cynically surmise that the corporation/state is a purely cultural construct designed to organize, suppress and keep individuals from seeking more natural and effective forms of organization, by presenting them with a simple, monolithic pyramid scheme and promising them the moon and stars (fame, fortune, sex, salvation, happiness) if they dedicated their lives to climbing the pyramid.

It has been suggested, for example, that the Great Wall of China was built not to keep Mongol Hordes out, but rather to keep stooped and malnourished rice-paddy slave-families from fleeing back to the more natural life and tribal social organization of Mongolia. Once you mess with the natural band/clan/tribe cohesion, it seems, you need a brutal, hierarchical, inherently undemocratic political and economic machine to keep individuals divided and in line.

The history of our civilization has been largely one of pioneers fleeing the ghastly tyranny of the hierarchical corporation/state, slaughtering gatherer-hunter societies in the ‘unincorporated’ lands they fled to, and then, as their numbers grew, replicating the hierarchical corporation/state themselves, and then constantly warring with other corporation/states. Now we have run out of places to flee to, and, thanks to immigration laws, we do not even have a choice of which hierarchical corporation/state to ‘belong’ to. Our resultant anger, frustration and impotence is acted out with distressing frequency in both family violence and corporation/state violence.

So much for the dismal history. Let’s turn to the present and the future. Theoretically, the modern equivalent of the band should be what I have called the Natural Enterprise, a non-hierarchical partnership of around 30-50 people working towards a mutual goal of providing a living for themselves. Not all that different from the hunting bands going out to round up grub for the rest of the clan, is it?

And, theoretically, the modern equivalent of the clan should be the Intentional Community, a cohesive group of about 150 people comprising several bands, who love each other (you can’t spend 15-20% of your life physically grooming people you don’t love) and live together, their society cemented by rites and shared principles.

But most entrepreneurial businesses strive (either for ego reasons, or because their flawed organizational structure requires them to) to grow far beyond band size, without limit. And most intentional communities fail to sustain membership of much more than a dozen, far below clan size. Why might this be? Have the instinctive social dynamics that governed us for three million years been forgotten, or do they no longer apply? After three million years of making a living with 30-50 cohorts and living with and loving 150, why are humans suddenly so incapable of making a living in a small group and loving a large one?

Maybe it’s a lack of practice. Working in groups of 30-50 and living and loving in groups of 150 may be instinctive, but we lose our instincts if we don’t practice them.

Maybe it’s because we’re brainwashed, culturally conditioned by peers and media who say small business can’t compete until and unless it gets big, and by religions and politicians who say it’s wrong to physically love more than your family and wrong not to intellectually love your state.

Maybe it’s because civilization is now the only life we know, and like Lucky the dog, we keep returning to an abusive and unnatural way of life because we can’t imagine anything better.

Or maybe it’s because there is no longer space and time for pioneers to rediscover our natural social ways, and hence there are no natural models for others to emulate. Even modern gatherer-hunter cultures, now so astonishingly different from our monolithic culture that we can’t conceive of ourselves living that way, are so compromised by civilization’s encroachment on their land and depletion of their resources that their culture has been altered and pushed to the edge of extinction. There are no natural models left. There is no ‘unincorporated’ land left, clean, undeveloped land with good soils that pioneers can move to and take the time to evolve intentional communities in. In our ubiquitous globalized civilization, we must live every day with the fear of not having enough, so there is no time to imagine a better way to live.

I’ve read everything I can get my hands on on intentional communities, and what strikes me most is that their failure, just like the failure of so many new-age business models, is a failure of imagination. The intentions are good. They invest a lot of time and energy in research, and in trying to make it work. But when they run into difficulties, they keep falling back on ‘conventional wisdom’: we need a council, and committees, and voting and non-voting shares, and strategic plans, and legal agreements, and to borrow lots of money; we need to work harder, and to wait until conditions are exactly right. I appreciate that creating a new community is scary, but the social, political and economic failings of the old system are exactly what got us into this mess, and incorporating them into the new models is just asking for the same terrible results.

Perhaps what is needed to overcome this failure of imagination and the resultant relapses into old-model orthodoxy, are some guiding principles for the new models. These might include:

  • Reject all the practices that have made the old models for community and enterprise oppressive and dysfunctional: There will be no voting, no shares, no political hierarchies, no work assignments, no lawyers, no laws, no titles, no delegating, no private property, no regularly scheduled meetings, no money changing hands. If you feel you have to have some of these things, don’t even start.
  • Do lots of research, and have lots of conversations, but don’t plan, improvise instead. One step at a time, taking things as they come, finding creative workarounds without compromising, without stopping.
  • Trust your instincts. If you’re troubled about something, talk it out, figure out why, get it out there. Don’t suck it up. Life is too short for stress. Discharge it.
  • We are all equal. The value of our ideas and opinions is all equal. The value of our time is all equal. If you can’t accept that, get out.
  • Never compromise with The Man. Once you prostitute your principles to get something accomplished, you’re hooked, and you’re no different from the billions caught in the old model.
  • Don’t grow too big. Beyond 150 people, the community needs to self-restrict membership. Members who don’t like that should leave and start other new communities.
  • Stay sustainable. No degrading of the land. No expansion of development. No taking more than you give back.
  • Be a part. The community must be within a natural ecosystem and intensely aware of and respectful in its ‘part’-nership in that ecosystem. You can’t learn to live a natural life unless you have natural life all around you to learn from.
  • Learn about and use Open Space. This is how non-hierarchical, gatherer-hunter cultures have always self-managed. Invite. Open yourself to possibilities. Listen. Learn. Converse. Share. Let understanding emerge. Then just go and do what you’ve learned needs to be done.
  • When you’re stuck, get together with others you love and trust and imagine possibilities. Think outside that horrific, stifling box. Study and imitate nature. Create your way out.

Not easy. But isn’t this worth striving for, more than anything else? Or am I just a hopeless idealist?

Because of the ubiquity of civilization and its oppressive rules and restrictions, the new model will need a sponsor, someone to run interference for us, deal with The Man so we don’t have to. A George Soros type, perhaps, who will, no strings attached, donate the land and buffer the members from the politicians and the lawyers and everyone else who will be threatened out of their skin by this new model.

Suppose we succeed. Suppose this new model community of 150 people proves to be sustainable, perhaps even without the ongoing need for a sponsor to buffer us from the fear and loathing (and envy) of civilized humans. Suppose the natural enterprises of this community allow the community members to be completely self-sufficient, independent of the rest of the world, trading only its surpluses to the outside world in return for occasional luxuries for its members. Suppose the love and joy among members of this community are so startling, so awe-inspiring that it causes the students studying the community, and the film crews telling its story, and then the people watching the story, to long for a similar life, to realize there is a better way to live. Then what?

Even if it were replicable, even if there were enough sponsors to bootstrap many more communities to follow this model, I think it unlikely that it would replace our civilization culture. We are not all pioneers, and many of us who aspire to be have acquired too much of the baggage of civilization to ever be able to live a natural life. To the extent that the copies of the model community compromised its principles, they would fail. And there is not enough land to accommodate more than a tiny fraction of today’s human population in such an extravagant, natural manner.

So why do it? Three reasons:

  • To give us hope. The latter part of this century is going to be grim. Knowing there is a better way to live, that can work, will be important to those struggling with the collapse of civilization. At least they will know there is a chance for their children to learn from their, from our, mistakes.
  • To serve as a post-civilization model. Life after civilization will be unplugged and pedestrian. It will be useful for its human inhabitants to have a model, one that works in such circumstances, to follow.
  • To make us think and imagine. We learn from being shown, not by being told. The success of this model could make us radically rethink many of the things we do today. Not enough to save the world, but enough to make life genuinely better, more egalitarian, more meaningful, happier. Once we start to trigger people’s imagination of what’s possible, we may be astonished at the improved quality of life some focused human imagination could produce in a surprisingly short time.

I like the ‘how to build community’ bookmark reproduced in the illustration above. It certainly can’t hurt to do these things. But I don’t believe there is any chance that we can bring about sustained change within existing communities, even if to some extent these activities are paid forward for awhile. Things are the way they are for a reason, and that reason has a billion tons and thirty millennia of inertia. It makes more sense, I think, to walk away from that inertia and to try to build something new.

That’s all I’ve got. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m trying to think my way out of the inertia of my own life. I keep hoping that an opportunity to do something this important will fall in my lap. Not likely to happen. Courage, as I keep saying, is doing what you have to do. Sooner or later, I have to do something.

Image: By Karen Kerney for Syracuse Cultural Workers

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19 Responses to The Challenge of Building Community

  1. MatthewJ says:

    One other thing,I think that one reason intentional communites don’t always work so well is that they focus too much on the living together and not enough on the working/making a living/”moving in the same direction together” type thing that actually create cohesion.MatthewJ

  2. John H Coxon says:

    Dave,”I keep hoping that an opportunity to do something this important will fall in my lap.”It already has – and you’re doing it. What you are contributing to your readers attempting to think this stuff through is of immeasurable value. Certainly it has been and continues to be for me as I struggle to make sense of all that has gone so horribly wrong for our species and our fellow travelers. You have a community right here, intentionally or not.The way you describe building a new form of intentional community conjures up in my mind an image of a physical community separate from the prevailing culture. I agree that is probably not possible at any useful scale in todays resource scarce world. I am beginning to think the only place left is to commune in the interstices of the web of the prevailing culture, living ones principals quietly, doing what one can do, setting an example. Not trying to push the rope. Seeing a need, just fill it, no comment – no expectation. Gently tell parts of the story if asked. Let it build. Once in a while when someone begins to get it gently tug on the rope a bit.If I look closely I still see evidence of older communities centered around extended families, the church, the fire hall, the old neighborhood, any common ground where sharing naturally occurs. These communities have been at least to some extent passed by in the economic race and derive both emotional and economic support within the group. If only they could know how lucky are to have a a skillset to give them a leg up on the coming turmoil.John

  3. laodan says:

    What was in the past belongs to the past. There is just no point of going back. When societies change it is the result of the interaction between all the factors at work within those changing societies. It is never the will of man that brings fundamental societal change. That does not mean that individuals and groups can do nothing. They can indeed have a dream and surf it on the waves of the complexities of reality… Dave you describe 2 points that I find of particular interest.1. There is just nowhere to run from modernity, it is pervasive. Slaves or serfs could flee the manors in the middle-ages and survive in uncontroled lands where they have laid the foundations for the European cities where modernity later emerged. But we don’t have this luxury of uncontroled spaces where to flee any longer. John suggests the interstices of freedom on the net. But this is only a tool, it can’t be our lives. 2. … “their society cemented by rites and shared principles”. Yes this is foundational in whatever society. Our problem is that our worldview is modernity, yes indeed, for all of us. The Marxist left and the ecologists share indeed the tenets of this worldview with the capital holders (rationality, science and technology, individualism…). But we are nevertheless still free to have a dream and then to surf this dream on the waves of the complexities of reality. The dream for me is to be personally autonomous from the system of modernity, completely or at least, as much as possible. It all starts with being free from debts, for, if you have to pay the bank every month you have already given up on your freedom to rest and to DO. And as says John “What you are contributing to your readers attempting to think this stuff through is of immeasurable value”. Thanks for that.

  4. Haig says:

    In a previous post you started by quoting bucky fuller:

  5. Janene says:

    Hey Dave –Good article. As always, this is an issue very near the forefront of my mind. And I think that you successfully hit on every one of the major issues that we face.Except for one thing that disturbed me, a little. A benefactor? No matter how well intentioned, I think that this would turn out to be a horrible, devastating, complicating mechanism. Not to mention that it takes our futures out of our handsThere is no doubt that free land and a buffer would make some things easier, but in order for us to really put everything we have into building a community, I think we, individually, need to be fully vested in that community. That means financially, as well as emotionally, intellectually and socially. And I think it is critical that we come to understand that we are the only ones capable of doing this. No savior is going to drop from the sky to make change occur. If we want to change the world we live in, that will only happen as the result of millions, billions, of individual persons making changes in thier lives… the metaphorical ‘death of a thousand cuts’. It IS daunting, but that is where Bucky’s quote kicks in, as well as Ghandi’s: ‘Be the change you wish to see…’ Janene

  6. Mariella says:

    To filter life experiences through solidarity instead of charity——I agree with Janene… what is needed is a partner, it is the union of intentions.Charity given by benefactors has the silent message that you are not able to achieve what you are being given… this reflects in the results of the work the charity was given for…. It took me a long time to delete this “charity religious sense” (and its modern ONG version)filter, that placed me in a step higher than the reciever and made me feel “good”.

  7. DP – “Intentional Community…[is] a cohesive group of about 150 people comprising several bands, who love each other (you can’t spend 15-20% of your life physically grooming people you don’t love) and live together, their society cemented by rites and shared principles.”MR – Healthy community consists of gift-giving, in the largest sense – analogous to Dave’s physical and intellectual (and perhaps emotional and spiritual) “grooming.” And this is where modern societies have become quite out of practice, and where the nuclear family is an utterly insufficient community – too small a bank of available resources.I agree that intentional community founded on shared purpose and principles (i.e. Dee Hock’s Chaordic Organization) will go far in reestablishing community. But lack of their success hints that 1) we are out of practice; and/or 2) the model does not (per Bucky) render what we have obsolete.My interest is in creating mechanisms to enable community “grooming” services that can operate without the need for proximity. This could be done through the creation of complementary currency systems (e.g. TimeDollars, Japan’s Eldercare Hours) that are available in abundance (as opposed to fiat currencies that have value only to the extent that they are scare) and non-interest bearing (as opposed to traditional currencies that systematically introduce competition through interest). Now, I still reserve the undeniable value of clan-sized, proximate community. But as 1) a bridge for those that are out of practice; and 2) a system for enabling the widespread transfer of non-financial value; complementary currencies offer a lot. We don’t need to leave behind modern society, just modern society’s single-minded dependence on scarce, inflating, competitive currency as its dominant medium of value exchange.

  8. Gary says:

    Great post and great comments. It is becoming obvious that so many see the need for change. I would caution against the attitude that all is “horribly wrong” and just work to improve on what is, by application of the understanding of that which does not serve so well. Fear need not be a part of the impetus.It would seem to me that it is far too easy to get he cart in front of the horse. A qoute I was exposed to some time back really changed my view. “In order to have a better world we need better humans.”All of this talk about changing society/the world, actually boils down to changing man. It is a different way of relating to each other. What we are looking for is harmony.In that view – if we can just work on harmony – all else will fall in line.Another quote I love so much is from Eric Butterworth; “Your life is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift to God.”Just imagine what could be done with all the money from defense budgets (redirected) if man could just get along with each other ! ?? We would not even be having this discussion.So – yes we should work on society changes – but maybe only after a good look at ourselves. In all honesty I do see that process begining so there is hope – oops I mean opportunity!Gary

  9. Timothy Wright says:

    I have no hope that a small committed group of people will ever change society. I mean, look at our hearts. All of us are selfish, and want what we want, we all have lists that we need to have in order to survive. Watch what happens when we don’t get what we want. The first thing we do is try and meet our own needs, not putting the needs of others first. Unless we all become totally selfless, we are dreaming.Tim

  10. Vince says:

    Fascinating post, I’m glad there is still hope out there and that alternative ideas are indeed flourishing.Tim: I think that your fears are a manifestation of your inner thoughts and feelings, I do not subscribe to your analysis nor do i consider it to be accurate for everyone.

  11. Jordan Mechano says:

    I’m not so sure about your numbers and definitions Dave. As far as I know, most anthropologists see it the way:Band: Made up of a family group typically smaller than 25 individuals with weak power structures.Tribe: Larger extended familial group or group of families, typically smaller than 100 individuals. Power is still weak, and most status is acheived rather than ascribed.Chiefdom: Several family groups, perhaps different clans, perhaps a clan, perhaps totally unrelated, up to about 1000 people. Class division and specialization arise, as well as ascribed power (the chief).State: More than 1000 people, all mostly unrelated. Strict power relationships bound together by language, national pride, etc.Of course, these definitions are bound to scrutiny, even in anthropology. I’m no expert, so if I’m wrong please say so.

  12. Jordan Mechano says:

    How the heck do you space out a comment? Every time I have new paragraphs in the comment box, it gets jumbled together in the post.

  13. Gary says:

    To Timothy, and all.You are right about people – at least most people. That is why the comment I made about needing better humans is so important to look at. (contemplate) This is all about people, not the earth. The earth did not make us get too top heavy and unsustainable. It did allow! Better people will make better systems.Gary

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Great thread, everyone. The subject of community seems to galvanize a lot of energy and imagination from people. I suspect this may be because it’s manageable, accessible — we can really see the possibility of it working, if only we could find the time and space to try it. Thank you!PS to Jordan and others struggling with Radio’s comment server formatting. Radio accepts full html formatting. So you can use the br tag (surrounded by <>) twice for a double line space.

  15. medaille says:

    I must admit that I haven’t really been exposed to intentional communities in person, but it seems to me that their are a couple of things that make the transition to intentional communities difficult.Intentional communities lack or aren’t using their power in a way that would replace the social norm. They are still existing within society, which is a game thats rigged to benefit those who are already in power. If they don’t make an effort to change the rules of society to benefit themselves, then they will continue facing greater resistance, and most people will continue to follow the path of least resistance. The way to change this is to reclaim the power that they’ve given up. They need to make conscious decisions to mold their mini-society into one that makes the path of least resistance the one that they desire. I think it would start by increasing security for its members. Growing their own food, producing their own electricity, etc to remove the effects of fear of scarcity from the members lives. There are lots of people that are locked into jobs to fulfill their own basic needs but leave little time to fulfill their higher needs. People with security do not need to be comforted with the trinkets of corporations.I also think that given the leverage of our technology, that we still need organizational structures up to the global scale, because their are some issues that are just too big for communities of even 1000 people and you’ll always need a method of preventing one community from violating the rights of another community. That said as the community size gets larger, their responsibility should decrease. I think our current structures are fairly correct, but have been bastardized by the people. They were intended to give the people a voice, but that voice has been stifled for many reasons.The main goal here should be not necessarily just to change structures for the sake of changing, but to take the power that has beengiven to corportations and governments and give it back to the people. People need to be retrained to utilize their own power.

  16. Pearl says:

    Good tips. The book has 404’d but is now at

  17. David:Great post. But I think you are making a mistake. The basic unit in tribal times was the family, not an intentional community. So why not combine families on the one hand, for local mutual support; and this does not preclude to create intentional ad hoc communities in all kinds of ways, with friends and associates.

  18. Jutta Ried says:

    According to modern Matriarchal Research there has been a time in history when all peoples lived in mothercentered tribal units. There is a lot of discussion in intentional communities in Germany today what we could learn from the traditions of historic and existing matriarchal societies. I hope to be doing some translating work of this important discussion in the near future. Until now there is very limited material in English about this fruitful discussion.For those able to read this is an article about the meeting of the political concept of anarchy with matriarchy in a news paper for intentional communities in Germany.The authors also have their own website. RegardsJutta

  19. Lee D, says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. I also believe that our social needs would be best met by living in bands, clans, and tribes, in an arrangement such as was mentioned in the article.

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