Creating Natural Communities

ftss circles

The chart above is the one from my book Finding the Sweet Spot that describes the process of deciding what you were meant to do for a living. The more I think about Natural (Intentional) Communities, and why they’re so hard to establish, the more I realize the process for creating them is precisely analogous to the six steps to create Natural Enterprises. Adapting them a bit to Natural Community instead of Natural Enterprise, the six steps are:

  1. Discover how you were meant to live: This is the process of self-learning, to find where what you love doing, what you’re good at doing, and what your community needs that you care about, intersect. This is more than just what you want to do for a living, it’s what you want to do with all of your time. In my case, that is doing these nine things: play, love, learn, converse, give (ideas, knowledge and capacities), self-manage, write, reflect, and be attentive. But whereas in Natural Enterprise you are focused only on things that are in the ‘sweet spot’ (area 3 on the chart above), in Natural Community you are looking for all the things that you are passionate about (areas 1, 2, 3 and 4 on the chart above). It is important that you know which of your passions are in which of the four areas, however, because of step 2 below.
  2. Discover who you were meant to live with: Find the right partners for your community, such that all of the community-members’ area 3 skills, taken collectively, meet the collective needs of the community, and such that the members of the community all love, respect and trust each other. This ‘leaves room’ for your self-indulgences (area 1), the things no one else appreciates (area 2), and the things you love doing but are struggling to become competent at (area 4). A resilient, joyful community has to leave room (time and space) for these things.
  3. Research what you need to learn and obtain to establish the community: This is the collective work of finding places that match your interests, resources, and criteria for joyful, responsible, sustainable, meaningful living, determining how your community members will make a living sufficient to meet the needs of the community, deciding what principles and processes you will live by, and ensuring that you can create time and space for your members to do all the (area 1, 2, 3 and 4) things they love to do.
  4. Imagine, innovate and realize the community: This is the collective work of designing and building the community to meet the criteria you have set.
  5. Adapt continuously to change: This is the ongoing improvisational process of collectively navigating the inevitable and constant challenges, problems, changes and conflicts that arise in any community, taking them in stride and adapting your way of operating to them. 
  6. Act collaboratively, on principle: This is the ongoing work of optimizing relationships and networks, collaboratively, according to the principles that guide responsible, sustainable communities, principles you have all agreed to live by.

This is so different from the process most of us use to decide where and how to live! For so many of us, that process starts with step 2 above, but instead of focusing on community it focuses on finding just one person to love, and then expecting somehow that that one person will give us everything we want and need, and that we will in turn be able to give that person everything they want and need.

The next step most of us take is to find an affordable place near where we work. The people in the neighbourhood we live in are hardly given a thought, because we won’t be “living with” them anyway.

The rest of the process, for most of us, is just made up as we go along. In the interests of keeping the one person we live with happy, and keeping the one place the two of us live together (and keeping it marketable, should our job be relocated), everything else is sacrificed — time and space for most of our personal gifts and passions, time and space in our lives for most of the other people we love (or would love, if we only had time to discover them), time to find the place where we really belong, time for collective work and play with others, adherence to the principles of responsible and sustainable living we espouse but cannot ‘afford’ to live up to, and the joy of living in true community with others.

That’s quite a sacrifice, but we’re taught from an early age that this is the only ‘responsible’ way to live. As unnatural as it may seem, and as unhappy and unfulfilled as it may make us, and as unresponsive, irresponsible and unsustainable as we know it to be, most of us are resigned to this model. This is the model of most affluent nations, and most of the world’s cities everywhere.

Just as there is a better way to make a living than wage slavery, there is a better way to live than as disconnected, anonymous families in sprawling, stressful cities and suburbs. And just as Natural Enterprise is not as hard as many think and fear, Natural Community, the six steps above, need not be as hard as we think it might be. Most people, when they hear about Natural (Intentional) Community, say “It’s so hard just to find one person to love, finding a whole community of people to love and live with would surely be impossible.”

And even among those who think it would be worth the effort, there’s a propensity to want someone else to lead, to do all the work, and then to invite people to join. What’s worse, the prevailing model is so bad that some people will accept an invitation to join a Natural Community just because they can’t conceive of it being any worse — not a promising foundation for egalitarianism, commitment and consensus.

When I visited Whole Village I wrote about what I’d learned (in combination with other research) about current Natural Communities: that their members really cared about and shared principles of responsibility and sustainability, that most were still tiny or still at the idea stage, that they don’t have to be expensive, that they struggle to find people with the skills they need, that they require a lot of compromise and hard work to maintain, that most of them are farms, not ‘natural’ places, and that many of them are (because of climate) neither food- nor energy- self-sufficient.

What put me off most were the amount of work, their being ‘unnatural’ places, and their un-sustainability. I also confess that a lot of these communities are, well, not very physically attractive. I still believe these can be overcome, in part by not being purists about living completely self-sufficiently, in part by living more simply, and in part by locating in places where forest permaculture provides year-round food with minimal work and where heat (and living much of your time indoors) are unnecessary.

So when I went to the meeting of our local Intentional Community forming group on Saturday, I went with some rather high standards for continuing to belong:

  • Canada doesn’t make sense as a location, period. Belize, Costa Rica, and Australia are much more appropriate sites. I don’t want to live on a farm, I want to live in a forest near the sea, in harmony with the other creatures in the community, where the food grows naturally and abundantly without chemicals or irrigation. And I want to live most of my life outdoors. I believe this is how we were meant to live. I don’t want to have to work hard to eat well. I don’t want to work hard, period
  • I like the idea of small (500sf maximum) connected units, built (and easily maintained) from local materials, by the community members themselves, collectively, inexpensively, built right into the countryside so they’re unique, responsible, sustainable and beautifully blended into the natural landscape.
  • I want all the members of the community I belong to to know who they are and what they want to do with their lives. There are ways to accelerate learning about this. But it takes time and experience to figure this out. Being dissatisfied with society, or with your lot in life, or being lonely, are not sufficient conditions for jumping into a Natural Community. If you can’t do Step 1 of the six steps above, you need to get out in the world until you can. A Natural Community is a model to show others a better way to live, not a retreat. 
  • No leaders and no followers. Everyone equally responsible, and taking an equal part in all six steps. We can only learn if we all take part.
  • The group has to have chemistry from the start. This is a big commitment, and without a lot of love, respect and trust among all the members, it will be too easy to opt out. Without commitment there is no community, and no one should be coerced into making a commitment, or into making compromises they won’t be happy with.
  • Communal living. All the land and all the living space belongs collectively to all. No privately-owned units. That doesn’t mean there’s no privacy — just pick one of the bedrooms, or studios, and lock the door and you have privacy. And with hundreds of acres of wilderness around, there are many places for quiet reflection and contemplation outdoors too. We need to show the world that the Tragedy of the Commons is a consequence of our obsession with having private stuff. So give away your stuff before you arrive — you won’t need it here.
  • I’m not in a hurry. If it takes 5-7 years to find just the right people, and just the right place, and to do some replanting and restoration so that the edible forest gardens are ready when we move in, that’s fine. People need time to wind up other commitments, and there’s great value in planning together and dreaming together and making sure we’re the right people. We need time to practice living in community, because we’ve forgotten how to do it. And we need time to practice reconnecting with all-life-on-Earth, with our instincts and senses and our authentic selves, before we can really connect in community.
  • I want this to be a model that can be replicated all over the world, with a legal and design template that can adapted to different places, starting with the poor. So this community (or communities) needs to be connected, open, visible, accessible. That means high-speed Internet, space for visitors. This will be no place for recluses.

When I spoke to the others Saturday about this, I received a variety of responses. I think most thought I was idealistic, and ambitious, but they weren’t opposed to any of these ideas. For the younger people especially, 5-7 years was, like, forever. What struck me most though was that most of them hadn’t really thought this through at all, and this was far more detail than they were up to discussing, or even, I think, interested in. I think they were looking, mostly, for someone to tell them the answers, make the decisions, lead the way. Most, I fear, don’t really know what they want, or who they are. Sigh.

This may be unfair, and I’m going to stick with the group. The attendees this time were mostly newcomers, not the same as the eighteen who attended the first meeting a month ago. And they were a younger group this time. So I’ll give it time. Who knows?

I think part of my problem is that, when it comes to people, I’m a lot pickier than I’d like to be. I’m pretty impatient with people who don’t know themselves, and who don’t have a very wide range of interests. I constantly find myself paying more attention to the non-human animals in the houses of people I visit than the people. I just prefer animal company. Don’t know if that makes me anti-social, or a snob, but that’s me, and those who choose to live in community with me will have to accept that.

So, I asked myself after the meeting (and many have asked me this question recently): What are you going to do in the meantime? Have you figured out where you belong yet?


My answer, I think, is:

  1. I’m going to do the nine things I love doing: play, love, learn, converse, give (ideas, knowledge and capacities), self-manage, write, reflect, and be attentive. I belong wherever I can spend as much of my day as possible doing these things. 
  2. I’m going to meet as many people as I can, with as open a mind and a heart as I can, to discover the people who, in a few years, I intend to live in Natural Community with. I suspect a lot of them will be artists, who dislike ‘work’ as much as I do.

This entry was posted in Collapse Watch. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Creating Natural Communities

  1. Daisy Bond says:

    Canada doesn’t make sense as a location, period. Belize, Costa Rica, and Australia are much more appropriate sitesToday, yes. Give it a decade or two…

  2. Hi Dave,I admire and appreciate all your posts, they make one think and ponder!Playing the Devil’s Advocate; I only wish that, out of your exceptionally sound experience and thought process something practical and applied takes physical shape sooner.In my humble opinion, five to seven years to start forming a natural community is way tooo much! I totally understand your feelings and thoughts that we need to be completely in SYNC with all the members who are going to be in the community. I guess part of the problem is that, we are not able to cohesively come together to form THE team. This can only happen successfully, if there is a Leader who can provide a sound foundation on which we can all build. If you take, for example, some of the intentional communities that got built in the early 1970’s are still striving today were built under the leadership of Srila Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON (a.k.a the Hare Krishna Movement). He was able to establish a clear vision as to why we NEED the communities, how they are supposed to be run, what is the goal etc in plain simple English that anybody could follow. Hence they got built, and spread to over 100 minor communities all over the world in less than a span of 8-10 years.What we are missing, i think, is that same Vision and Cohesion. The advantages of a common vision is what we need and a Leader who can get us started off. Your take, that we have no Leaders or followers is very good, but then who will drive the project home? Generally, everybody is NOT as responsible as we would expect them to be… from practical experience :) Thanks,Srinath

  3. EJ says:

    Yes, I too think you are too harsh to say:Canada doesn’t make sense as a location, period.Is this because of the climate (natural, political, financial)? Canada certainly isn’t perfect- but then I don’t think any place is.

  4. EJ says:

    Drought ridden Australia might need another round of thinking:

  5. Guy Cross says:

    Dave, once again, great blog. Keep turning dreams into reality.Guy

  6. Dave, I need to agree with and expand on Daisy’s comment about Canada: “Give it a decade or two…”The geographical location known as ‘Canada’ is poised to become a more comfortable climate in the next short while due to the inevitable refashioning of our environment by climate change. Indeed, the ‘old folk’ in the small BC town where I grew up are no longer wintering in Arizona because the weather up here is becoming increasingly balmy. The trees are red and dead from the pine beetles, but there is less snow to shovel.I am surprised at the flippancy with which you dismiss the climate of Canada as inhospitable. Surely you don’t think we all live in igloos? I am convinced this is an oversight on your part.In fact, if you believe that a world-wide water shortage is looming, you should be running up to Canada while we are still letting people in. We have more fresh water than most countries can lay claim to and melting arctic ice caps will ensure a steady supply, at least in the short term.Of course, it is ridiculous to assume that countries actually exist, let alone ‘own’ water, but unfortunately I don’t rule the world.

  7. EJ says:

    Also any project that involves immigration has a long (years) time span and excludes (always?) most people with criminal records. Last I heard the paper processing time to immigrate to Canada was averaging 3+ years depending on where you apply from.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone. My reasons for dismissing Canada as a site for sustainable IC/NC:1. Short growing season. Even if you preserve, there just aren’t enough local foods (especially native species that grow with no work whatsoever) to suffice and be healthy, and farming takes a lot of work (especially if you try to do it without chemicals & irrigation). 2. Restrictions on outdoor living. In tropical places you only go indoors to sleep (and that only because of insects or for privacy). A 500sf house there is ample; in Canada, it’s cramped.3. Climate change, contrary to wishful thinking, will not be good to Canada. The West will face chronic and disastrous droughts, and much of the East will face large increases in rain and flooding. The Windsor Quebec corridor where most Canadians live will have the smallest temperature rise in NA, not enough to change lifestyle or growing season. The huge increase will be in the Arctic, melting permafrost and creating havoc. The effect of global warming is more extreme weather, not uniformly warmer weather.As for immigration, I agree this is a big issue, though in most countries it’s mostly aversion to people coming in and living off welfare or taking away natives’ jobs. The IC’s/NC’s function is the opposite, to live sustainably and self-sufficiently. And if some of the members bring some investment money with them, that seems to reduce obstacles even further.

  9. Thanks for elaborating on your comment. Odd, I have very little attachment to the social/political entity ‘Canada’, but it seems I am fiercely in love with the land. The trees, mountains and ocean seem to be the only things that say ‘home’ to me.Sadly, you are right about the short growing season and lack of fresh native food. I would argue that my 600sf apartment is not cramped, even with two adults and a baby, but I also agree that extreme weather, not uniformly warmer weather, is coming/already here.Were you mistaken when you said that the West (my home) will be facing droughts? That seems implausible, as I write from a city where the rain just keeps on coming. I am curious to find out more.

Comments are closed.