If Not Intentional Community, Then What?

Erskine FallsRegular readers know that I’m infatuated with the idea of Intentional Community, and that I believe the only way we’re going to make major positive changes to our unsustainable culture is by creating ‘working models’ of a better way to live and make a living.

An Intentional Community is a group of people with shared values and shared purpose who agree to live together to further those values and realize that purpose. Around the world there are hundreds of ICs, but the large majority of them are very small (smaller than the average struggling-nation family) or very short-lived. For awhile I doubted that ICs had enough urgency and commitment to compel most members to stick them out when times got tough or disagreements arose. Joe Bageant’s son’s argument that ‘communities are born of necessity’ is pretty compelling. And in Second Life the turnover in ‘communities’ is enormous — many people change their ‘home’ as often as they change their clothes.

But while ‘accidental communities’ may outlast intentional ones, the evidence is that most of them are not happy places — nor are they sustainable in a modern world quickly running out of room, resources, and the essentials of life. We’ve left community formation up to accident, and we got what we deserved — greedy real estate developers telling us where we can and cannot live, turning the Earth into unnatural wasteland.

My study of indigenous, ‘tribal’ communities suggests that, while they are sustainable (at least they were until our civilization encroached irrevocably and dramatically into their habitat), they are not necessarily happy places, especially for non-conformists and especially when they abut other such communities (this seems to trigger an endless cycle of inter-tribal violence).

I have a perhaps idealistic view of the communities of wild creatures, which are not nearly as violent as the makers of sensationalist nature films would have us believe. From my studies of birds in particular, I’ve learned that life for other creatures in the wild is mostly joyful, peaceful and care-free. I’ve also learned that Gaia, the complex self-regulating system of all-life-on-Earth, is graceful, respectful, honourable, and astonishing.

If all-life-on-Earth can figure out how to live as responsible, sustainable, joyful and mostly peaceful life, what’s wrong with us? Are we really a rogue species, unable to fit into the ecosystem that has evolved so effectively for millions of years? Or are we just going about the business of belonging to Earth all wrong, and, if so, what do we need to learn (or unlearn) and show to get us back on the right track?

My fall-back, if I cannot find a way to join with others to be a model in community, is Radical Simplicity, a model of a personal way of living devoted to:

  • leaving the Earth as we found it, unhampered in its ability to sustain itself indefinitely
  • consuming as little of the Earth’s resources as we need to be fully ourselves
  • measuring our ‘success’ not by material wealth or GDP but by the quality of our lives (‘our’ meaning that of all creatures we share our ecosystems with) — health, well-being, happiness, learning, love
  • relearning to listen to the Earth, to pay attention, and to live in harmony as a part of it

Perhaps because I’ve lived a prosperous, materially comfortable life, yet not found in it the happiness or health or well-being that I have always intuitively sought, it is easy for me to shrug off material measures of success. I can appreciate how those who have struggled for basic necessities all their lives would find my quest elitist, disconnected from the reality of the modern human condition. What good is a model of a better way to live if 90% of the people on this horrifically overpopulated planet will be completely unpersuaded of its value, even if they could afford to emulate it?

Yet I can’t shake my fascination with the idea of Intentional Community. In theory it still makes sense. For the same reason, I’m also still fascinated with the idea of polyamorism, the idea that we’re not meant to love or be loved by just one person, and that monogamy demands so much of us that we end up losing ourselves to compromise, or fracturing. I hear the two common objections to polyamorism: That it’s a self-indulgent and absurdly unrealizable fantasy of middle-aged males. And that it’s fearful, an attempt to insulate ourselves against the loss of love, against commitment, against responsibility, against being hurt. Maybe so.

(listening to House in the background — a woman says to her new lover, one of the House doctors, after he indulges her: “I need you to do what you want. I can take care of me…I need you to take care of you.”)

All of this internal debate inside my own head is, perhaps, the crux of the problem. I need to learn to let go, not to be afraid to be truly human, truly myself, to live in the real world. Not to be afraid of intimacy or responsibility. To be fearless. To try not to try too hard.

I need to think. I’m such a slow learner.

Or maybe I think too much. Maybe what I’m lacking is data. Maybe I spend too much time thinking and not enough time being. Before I can decide where I belong, perhaps I have to try belonging somewhere outside my own head.

Or maybe I should lock myself in a lab and learn biology and invent some dust that, spread from above the Earth, could halve the probability of women everywhere becoming pregnant. Or invent a meat, tasty as the finest on the planet, that could be grown in a test tube, in anyone’s garden, and spare the world’s creatures the outrage and misery of factory farms, and the horror of famine and hunger.

If not Intentional Community, then what?

I have no idea. I know it’s not political or social reform, or ‘free’ markets, or new technology, or revolution, or spiritualism. We’ve tried all these things for ten thousand years, and they’ve only made matters worse. And I know that there is no going back, that there are no noble savages, that history has many lessons but no better models of how to live.

When I know myself a little better, when I know who I really am and start to have an inkling where I might belong, maybe I’ll have some answers, some possibilities that make more sense. If so,you’ll be the first to know.

Image: Erskine Falls, Australia, photo from my Picasaweb collection

Category: Let-Self-Change
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18 Responses to If Not Intentional Community, Then What?

  1. Mariella says:

    …work out intention in already formed communities…..

  2. John says:

    The idea of IC sounds good. Am not sure we can measure the success of it based on its impact of surrounding community. I tend to think that enclaves have formed over the past couple thousand years intent on preserving inherent value of the people, community, nature, Earth. And most passed away without a hint in any history book. By being the glue/spirit of contemporary society, does this support enabling a system that is ultimately not sustainable. Is the IC based on isolation/protecting itself. Or preserving a seed for the future. I’m not sure…

  3. Daisy Bond says:

    If not Intentional Community, then what? Perhaps I have missed some crucial layer of this post, but I don’t think I understand why you’re questioning the power of community.Yes, many communities fail. Yes, many are very small (which is perfectly fine, I think). Yes, some are hostile, unhappy places. So what? That doesn’t mean that community, done well, doesn’t have the power to change — even save — the world.There are evil destructive people… Which doesn’t mean that someone like Jesus can’t bring a world-changing message of compassion. The existence of bad things doesn’t make good things any less good.And I do think it’s community (small “C,” lacking “intentional”) that is the answer. Community, to me, means, first and foremost, love. Specifically, active love: love as a verb. Love is the work we have to do, and love is work. I think that’s what you’re getting at when your fascination with polyamory — that’s what I get from your writing at least. I don’t know how many sex partners humans are supposed to have; I suspect it varies greatly (one seems to work for me, but it may be two or three or five for you). But I think it’s absolutely clear that no one is meant to love and be loved by just one person, and that we kill ourselves when try to make this happen.The natural outcropping of this, when we do it daily — when we form many diverse loving relationships, as many as will grow, and treat their maintenance as important work — is community. Loving leads to community, and it is the only road there.Good luck to you.

  4. Siona says:

    Oh, Dave. Answers? I’ve learned to look skeptically upon those with answers. If there’s anything I’ve learned from community building, it’s that it’s a question, not an answer; a process, not a solution. And the internal debate in your head is a part of this process, too, or at least it is as soon as you externalize that thinking. Please don’t stop. We’re all listening. We’re all listening, but (at least in my case) it’s not for answers. It’s to you. We’re listening, and it’s beautiful, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

  5. John Powers says:

    Hum, I’m probably shaky about the facts here, but as I understand it Shaker Communities often found their ranks of devoted converts swell with the first cold days of autumn and shrink with the first warm months of Spring. Old and infirm would sometimes be left in their care too. I really don’t know what the true believers felt about all of this, or what it has to do with your post? I suspect that for happiness in a community the community must risk openness to some extent. However much the Shakers might have resented those who came after the toil of the growing months were finished and left ans soon as the work began in earnest, there must of been some value in tolerating it. One item of Shaker furnishing that is a bit astonishing are the adult sized cradles, used to care for the comfort of the sick and dying. Caring for others was somehow worth the risk and expense.

  6. Michelle P. says:

    Quote “All of this internal debate inside my own head is, perhaps, the crux of the problem. I need to learn to let go, not to be afraid to be truly human, truly myself, to live in the real world. Not to be afraid of intimacy or responsibility. To be fearless. To try not to try too hard.I need to think. I’m such a slow learner.Or maybe I think too much. Maybe what I’m lacking is data. Maybe I spend too much time thinking and not enough time being. Before I can decide where I belong, perhaps I have to try belonging somewhere outside my own head.”You just described my own dilemma right there Dave. I want to live outside of this convoluted and obfuscated head of mine too. I just want to “be” you know! Simple, direct, heart-motivated to just do what comes naturally without second guessing the protocols or societal obligations.I “thought” I could do polyamory until recently. I could not. The depth of love I felt for this person was shocking to me even and my heart reacted with force that knocked me for six…it would not ALLOW me to share him no matter what he said or did.Letting go of that is proving to be a very painful and tough process of emotion and thought mixed together in some kind of gluggy miasma of internal dialogue and self-exchange. I, literally, am bursting with too much to think about and it hurts.I believe intellectually in the premise that no one can or should be loved by just ONE person alone…but still, when you find one with whom you can share your very essence openly and with enormous honesty and clarity…it kind of does your head in on the rest of love really.How can I let go of loving him as I do..wanting him to return that love in kind, but then allow him to be exactly what he is to someone else? This is rubber-hits-the-road stuff when it comes to understanding polyamory I think. Damn hard in practise…incredibly easy in theory.If I hadn’t learned recently the depth of my capacity to love so jealously and possessively… I’d have believed emphatically that I “could” and “would” have been able to be poly in my closest relationships.Live and learn.

  7. Tomas says:

    Just stopped by to say hello. You have the right attitude and write well. That helps. I have lived on two communes; one is still working organically and the other was a little to free for society. I now live in a 3 bedroom brick home in Kentucky.

  8. Miralee M. says:

    I can’t help but feel the remedy for your over-active brain is simply getting down into the dirt and planting something. Weed, plant, dig – commune with the earth and see if that helps to give your brain a rest.Meditation comes in many forms – being engrossed in any form of physical labour will help. Your community will come to you.

  9. Sarah says:

    I go through the same thought processes a lot. I would like to think that intentional communities can work…I suspect that a lot more of them will work out a lot better as our society begins to break down and can no longer offer shiny alternatives in the form of material wealth and creature comforts. I also think that a lot of existing semi-communities (accidental ones) will come to have more intentional aspects as we begin to need to rely more on each other to get by, and I think it will be really good for a lot of people who have grown up not knowing what community even looks like.I have always semi-consciously assumed that I will end up seeking out or starting an intentional community of my own eventually, once I sort out some other things in my life. I really believe deep down that I can’t be totally happy in any of the social arrangements I’ve encountered to date (besides ICs, that is)…

  10. beth says:

    Being intentional about community, maybe, as others have said here. Loving and opening as much as we can, which is very difficult, but the only work that really matters.The thinking thing is another issue. I meditate and walk and do physical work – gardening, whatever – because I get so damn tired of myself and the constant internal dialogue. Meditation shows you what’s going on so you can observe it non-judgmentally, even with amusement, and eventually give yourself a rest. The best discussions of this dilemma I’ve read (and there are many) are by Arnaud Desjardins – most of his books are in French but a few have been translated.(hi Siona!)

  11. David Parkinson says:

    Hi Dave! Long time no write (me). Still reading, though, and enjoying.I have an interest in IC’s, but (like Sarah) I am skeptical that they can be wished or engineeered into existence. For now, IMO, they exist mainly in the form of organizational potential energy, something we can imagine and design, but remain structures for which the appropriate materials are not yet available. The material will become available gradually as consensus fades away about the sanity of our current organizational structures (one-family-one-house, private ownership of everything, extreme privacy, freedom of choice as consumerist expression, etc.), and potential will become actual.Then all the dreaming and all the stillborn and deformed experiments will have a chance to flourish and produce beautiful creations. (Well, maybe.)Until then, the closest I dare to get is to create some social constructions that might get us partway there. F’rinstance, I’ve gathered together a crack team of non-experts to start banging out a plan to start a cooperative enterprise with the main purpose of increasing local food production. When the time is right, I’ll whip out the concepts of Natural Enterprise and Gift Economy, and see how we can apply them to what we’re doing.Don’t stop dreaming…

  12. Where did the idea that you’re missing something in your life come from?

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    Mariella: I think this only works if there’s a shared sense of urgency. Most existing communities don’t have that shared urgency, which is needed if there’s no shared vision and shared purpose.John: I like the ‘seed’ analogy. A successful model may not get traction nearby if the ‘soil’ isn’t right but might get it a long way away, if the wind (or electronic winds) takes it to where the soil is similar and fertile.Daisy: Beautifully put. It is great to hear younger people who see the connection between love, conversation and community, and who appreciate that one person cannot expect to be all things to another. If only love leads to community, no wonder our neighbourhoods and cities and nations are so dysfunctional!Siona: Thanks for the encouragement and catching my inappropriate use of the word “answer”. I think Stephen, who chimed in above, really hit the question.John: This ties into Daisy’s reply, that love is precondition for community. Caring seems to be a natural outgrowth of that, including our instinct to form community around those (children etc.) who need our collective care.

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    (I’ve responded to Michelle privately)Tomas: I’d like to learn more about your experiences and why you no longer live in IC.Miralee: I wish I had the confidence you do that community will find us. The world is now so large and the number of people we have to ‘sort through’ so vast I have to believe the process needs to be more systematic than that. But I agree that planting and other outdoor work is good therapy in the meantime!Sarah: I wish you well in your search. My study of the Great Depression (and reading Kunstler’s Long Emergency) makes me less than enthusiastic about the odds that, when the economy collapses, we’ll all suddenly embrace community. I hope you’re right though.Beth: Thanks for the connection to Arnaud Desjardins; I’ve been looking for some way to meditate successfully, though I confess I find many of the ways I have read about awfully severe and too prone to the worship of gurus, both of which I have some problem with. I can’t help thinking it shouldn’t be that difficult.David: In my study of Natural Enterprises, they seem to be easier than ICs, perhaps because they involve fewer people and perhaps because you can go home at the end of the workday, so we may be more patient with difficult work partners than with life/community partners. I do think that love is the key to both, however. Let me know if I can help with your new enterprise.Stephen: I could be cute and say “a little bird told me”. But mostly I’d say it was an instinctive realization, one that came to me when I had the time and space to allow that to happen. Cheers,

  15. anonymous says:

    “I’m also still fascinated with the idea of polyamorism, the idea that we’re not meant to love or be loved by just one person”Why the facination with sex? I’m assuming you are actually refering to sexual relationships because you must love your family, kids, siblings, friends, etc?I believe that I love many people. I am a married man and I even have a female friend I am very close with, but I don’t have sex with her.

  16. I think it’s wonderful to find others who share the same agendas and visions that you do. This is vital. I think however, that living together physically is of secondary importance here. You might enjoy seeing the Omnium internet community, Mr. Pollard. That’s a good example of a group of similar-minded people who have gotten together to work because of their common vision. I think that if one was designing a common living situation in the real world – you’d have to be pretty exclusive in how you set it up. It couldn’t be a charity thing, which invites anyone off the street who needs a place to stay. One has to have one’s own life constructed in a way that is in order, to be able to have the energy to go out and do things as a group, to help the world.The problem that I’ve seen in “intentional communities” which are better known by most as “hippie communes,” is that people don’t know themselves when they come to the place. And because they don’t know themselves, they develop these relationships with the community which are not necessarily healthy. The ethic of altruism can also be a serious problem. I have found in my life that when I am being altruistic, I’m not doing a good job helping the person or people which I’m trying to help. I have learned that when I feel burdened by some friendship or some community, there’s probably something that’s not noble in the other person’s actions or intentions.Now if a group wants to design an entirely novel set of social standards… oye! That can really end up as a mess. Everybody has their own sensibilities as to what those things would be. Certainly many communes run afoul of the law with their unique set of social mores and customs. I think that to push the envelope can cause more problems than it will ever solve. If I were helping to design an intentional living situation… I would insist on sticking stringently within the social mores and customs of the larger society. If you have a social fabric which works on this level… then you can spread your wings, and do things in new and constructive ways on top of that foundation.

  17. Jon Husband says:

    From my studies of birds in particular, I’ve learned that life for other creatures in the wild is mostly joyfulI’m honestly really curious as to how you learned and / or figured out that creatures in the wild are full of joy. Please let us in on how you have been able to communicate with them, or them with you, deeply and clearly enough to be able to state that they experience, and are full of, joy.I can understand how people and dogs can more or less communicate emotional states, and maybe even some cats … and it’s probably clear that chimps, bonobos, orang utans, monkeys, gorillas. lemurs etc. may be able to express some states that we humans interpret as emotionally-driven .. at a minimum content or not content … but joy ?

  18. The reason I ask is, I wonder how much you have analyzed the origins and the contents of your own beliefs – where did they come from, what motivates them, what their impact is on your life. Because some of the messaging I see in your posts seems to mirror commercial messaging. Which would mean that there will be a certain sense in which the issues can b dissolved, rather than resolved.Take, for example, the whole thing about polyamorism. What would make you think that there is some sort of ‘right’ answer to the question of whether you should have one or more than one partner. Why does this become a debate in your life? Where does this issue come from?

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