Break It Down and Build It Up: The Virtue of Making Things Community-Sized

BLOG Break It Down and Build It Up: The Virtue of Making Things the Right Size

enterprise groupNature tends to determine the right size for things. If they’re too big, then they can’t manoever, or they get stiff and break easily. If they’re too small, then they don’t have enough space for the complexity needed to sense and adapt to the environment. Evolution involves a continuous right-sizing. Everything is more or less just the ‘right’ size, until something changes and everything has to adapt again.

We do our best, in human constructions, to make things the right size, but we don’t have the billions of years of experience or the capacity to do massive parallel incremental experiments that nature does. So our constructions are usually the wrong size.

For the first million years of humanity’s presence on Earth, we did things pretty well, because we mimicked what nature did, and we didn’t try to do anything very complicated. We learned by trial and error, with nature’s help, that clans of about 50 humans worked best. We formed tribes made up of many clans, but they were loose federations — most of political, social and economic activity was at the clan, at the community, level. Workgroups for gathering and hunting (our early enterprises) involved around 5-8 members, enough to enable collaboration, but not so many that the group couldn’t self-organize, or would need some kind of hierarchy.

Then about 30,000 years ago we discovered agriculture. As Jared Diamond and Ronald Wright have explained, it wasn’t an invention, but rather an observation: after severe fires or floods, the first succession of new plants were monocultures, and having no immediate competition they flourished. They were not sustainable, however, and only in the presence of continued catastrophes to stunt the succession process did they continue. So, brilliant creatures that we are, we arranged for continuous burning off or flooding of the land to keep the catastrophes coming, and discovered that we could live off these prolific monocultures, and no longer needed to gather or hunt for food. We became settlers.

There were a number of unintended consequences of this discovery however. The first of these was chronic malnutrition, since our new food sources lacked diversity, resilience and micronutrients (this is still true today, despite the obesity epidemic). Health became much worse, and diseases flourished in the denser concentrations of sickly humans. When the new crops failed because of weather or plant diseases, the result was a new, cruel, previously unheard-of phenomenon: famine. And whereas women previously had children only every four years or so (because of the necessity of moving them as the clan migrated), settled women could have children every year, and did. Settlements also allowed for protection against natural predators, so while the death rate from disease and starvation grew, the death rate from being eaten plummeted.

In short, we created a new, artificial, man-made environment in which natural balances and evolution were taken out of the equation. We had thrown ourselves out of the garden, and now it was up to us to make our own rules.

The right size for everything, in this new, complicated and fragile human ‘civilization’, as this man-made culture came to be called, seemed to be the bigger the better. More people meant more workers in the fields, more soldiers for the armies when the crops failed and it became necessary to steal from other settlements to live, and more police to prevent people walking away from the inevitable poverty (for all but the elite few) and hardship of settled life. Soon we had created cities, initially as fortresses but then as labour pools. Soon we had created a political system with a strict hierarchy to ensure law and order in this unnatural, crowded, scarcity-plagued, stressful environment. We had created an economic system to ensure that the power elite had the money to coerce obedience and threaten the poor with deprivation if they did not toil for the rich. And we had created an education system (working hand-in-hand with the religious elite) to brainwash everyone to believe that this was the only way to live, and to blame all the failings of these fatally-flawed systems on nature, on some outside enemy, or on our own personal inadequacy and ‘sinfulness’.

To survive, the institutions of these massively oversized systems have waged a continuous and brutal war against communities, the natural human structures that we instinctively seek to belong to. Aboriginal communities all over the world have been systematically exterminated, their members slaughtered or moved into institutional structures and forced to adopt the civilization monoculture constructs. Everything that could not be institutionalized has been atomized, so that communities no longer own anything; it is corporations and individuals who own everything. Our memory of the value and experience of community has been eradicated from our memories, relegated to ‘prehistory’ which has been rewritten to depict life in all non-civilization cultures as “nasty, short and brutish”, a propaganda coup.

So what we have now is a political system (nations, governments, cities, educational institutions, legal regimes) that is too big to work, and too big to be allowed to fail. We have an economic system (corporate oligopolies, industries, health care institutions, banks) that is too big to work, and too big to be allowed to fail. We have not only crop monoculture, we have human monoculture, what Terry Glavin has called “a dark and gathering sameness” all over the world.

These are complicated, mechanistic structures, not the complex resilient ones that nature has evolved. They are fragile and vulnerable, constantly at risk of flying apart.

The latest edition of Orion magazine describes the Transition movement as one that attempts to rediscover community, the natural ‘right size’ of human relationship and endeavour, between the atomized individual/family and the massive, groaning and ungovernable political and economic institutions and systems we have created that currently hold sway over our lives. We need to reframe the discussion away from big government versus big corporations versus libertarianism versus anarchism. The first two are different flavours of the unsustainably large and hierarchical, and the latter two are different flavours of the unsustainably small, narcissistic and atomized. The only structure of human relationship and human endeavour that has ever sustainably worked was and is community.

As Rob Paterson wrote today, “We have to change the prevailing story from ‘its all about me’ to ‘it’s all about us‘. The first step is that each of us has to take is to start to live this new story. We cannot lecture. We cannot explain. We have to live it.”

One way or another, we need to facilitate the breaking down of the complicated, dysfunctional and unsustainable hierarchies and systems of civilization culture, and the building up from alienated, atomized, narcissistic individuals, into community-based structures, relationships and endeavours. It is naive to believe that we can do just one or the other; we need activists breaking down the too-big and communitarians building up the too-small, until what we have is organizations of the right, natural size. Rob calls these right-size groups ‘natural organizations’. I have used the terms ‘natural enterprise’ and ‘natural community’. The right size is, usually, dense clusters of about 5-8, networked into larger communities of about 50. It is the only size that has ever sustainably worked, and it worked for a million years.

What can we do to break down the too-big and build up the too-small?

The whole point of this is that, as individuals, we can’t do much, and we certaintly can’t do enough. So while I certainly encourage everyone to live a responsible and radically simple lifestyle — buy less, use less, get out of debt etc. — the important actions are all ones we have to do in community.

Step 1, I would suggest, is to take stock of and assess your communities, and how active you are in them. Communities aren’t groups you merely belong to, they’re groups you do things with. That can include learning, but it doesn’t include just complaining. What communities do you belong to, how active are they, and how effective, how useful, are they?

Step 2, naturally, is to mobilize your communities — use the groups and relationships you already have, and make them more useful, and active. And remember, this is something you do collectively — don’t tell them what they should do, work with them to assess what you can do to be more effective, to carry out actions you collectively care about.

Step 3 is to organize — create new communities of passion, new natural enterprises, and new local living communities of people who share your purpose in life, and grow (within reason) existing communities so that they have more resources to deploy, and can therefore do more, and better.

In both steps 2 and 3, consider using a skilled facilitator. Such a person can help provide a framework and structure for community-building, and help negotiate the challenges such as how to intervene effectively in an existing system to bring about change, and how to build consensus and resolve conflicts.

What you specifically do — which causes you embrace, from blockading mountain-top or bitumen sludge mining to creating an enterprise or a support group to meet an urgent local need — is up to you, collectively. When you cease to behave atomically, as an individual or nuclear family member, and start to behave collaboratively, as a community member, your communities will figure out what needs to be done, and where they have the power to act in an effective way.

A nation and a world of strong local communities will start to break down the too-big systems by showing the world how dysfunctional they are and by demonstrating better ways to live, make a living, and do things that are important and necessary, thus rendering these large institutions obsolete. And it will build up strong communities that will have the organization, the skills and the knowledge to take over as these too-big structures crumble, and which will show the libertarians and individual narcissists that trying to do everything yourself, for yourself, is unhealthy, ineffective, and unnecessary.

Imagine a world where, when you are asked to describe yourself, you don’t tell people about your personal skills and accomplishments and data, but rather which communities you belong to and what they have done.

Imagine a world where, instead of feeding our low self-esteem by buying and showing off extravagant wealth, we fed our sense of belonging and love for all-life-on-Earth by creating and showing something we did together, exclaiming, We did that!

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