Preparing for Civilization’s Collapse: How Do We Create Community?

BLOG How Do We Create Community?


My friend Joe Bageant (who credits his son with the quote) says that “community is born of necessity”. Hopkins village in Belize (photo above) where Joe now lives was founded of necessity three hundred years ago when a group of slave ships was shipwrecked and the escapees needed to find a place to live together. They’ve made their community work, for three centuries, because they had to.

theo pollard

Peel County, in Ontario, was “settled” in 1807 by a group of 13 families (with an average of 15 children each!), mostly United Empire Loyalists who came to Canada with everything they owned, including their farm animals, on foot and by wagon, and squatted in a temporary camp at what is now Yonge and Front Streets, Toronto, for two years, and then made their way up a new rough-hewn road through ancient forest to their 200-acre allotments, which had to be “proved” (two acres cleared for farming, and a log house of a certain minimum size built) within two years or they forfeited the land. One of those families were my great-great-great-great grandparents. They made their community work, for almost a century, because they had to. They worked with their “accidental community” of 200, with vital help from the Mississagua First Nation people (who’d sold the land to the occupying government but retained the river and adjacent lands), to do what had to be done.

For the last couple of years I’ve been studying and meeting people in intentional communities and in the transitions movement. Most ICs are not born of necessity. They are a conscious, often idealistic lifestyle choice. Often members will leave when they feel the community no longer offers them what they really want. The pioneers of Hopkins and Peel had no such option. They stayed, and did their best. They were probably happy, because there was no other choice. Their accidental communities quickly became the only life they could imagine.

My friend Janene has pondered the challenges involved in finding members and location for an intentional community, and concluded that perhaps an “organic community” might be more, er, fitting. My brother (I think) coined the term “gravitational community” — one that has evolved as a result of our propensity to gravitate, over time, towards people with whom we feel affinity. While these constructs seem more sturdy, and adaptive, than an intentional community that is planned out in detail ahead of time, they are still much more inherently fragile and volatile than accidental communities. If we’re not happy, we can and will leave intentional, organic and gravitational communities. We don’t have to settle.

Perhaps that’s why ICs often fail, usually stay small and frequently have to be ‘reformed’ after a major turnover of membership.

It is in our nature, especially those of us who are reasonably self-knowledgeable and informed, not to want to be tied down. Having to lock your life savings into a collaborative venture with a bunch of other people is understandably frightening. At this stage in my life, I’d really rather rent, thank you. I want to be free to change my mind. I want to be free, period. I think that’s why I have gravitated to polyamory so strongly and effortlessly, and found that it really works for me. So while I ponder what group of people I might want to live in community with, and where we might “settle”, I realize that I will always want to be free of long-term commitment, free of the necessity of living with any group of people. So if Joe is right, perhaps I (and most of the other idealists who are constantly thinking about, and forming, and re-forming, and abandoning, intentional communities) am just not meant to live in community. Or at least not in any one community — maybe we idealists are meant to flit, like butterflies (though much less fuel-efficient), full of imagined possibilities, between communities.

what you're meant to do

This is quite a breakthrough in thinking for me, because it brings home the struggle I have had creating my own (our own, since it would be a collaborative partnership) sustainable, natural enterprise. Which is rather embarrassing since I wrote a book on the subject. My sweet spot (what I do well, that I love doing and that is needed in the world — the intersection of the three circles above) is imagining possibilities, flitting around, seeding ideas that probably would never occur to most others. I don’t want to do that in one natural enterprise (even one whose business is flitting around seeding ideas). Almost all successful, sustainable enterprises (and I’ve looked at a lot over the past 30 years) are partnerships; they’re communities of passion. They are not sole proprietorships. No one person has all the capacities (or time) needed to sustain an enterprise.

Yet a lot of the people I know and love (and a lot of the people who write kind messages to me about my book, saying they’ve now found their sweet spot) don’t want to be in business with others, in partnership. Like me, they want to flit. And, often, they want to do that not only in the work they’re meant to do, but in the life they’re meant (they believe) to live.

I’m not sure if this is a disease of modern affluent-nation civilization, with its cult of the individual. Are we inherently selfish and irresponsible, to want to love and work with others, lots of others, but not be tied down or committed long-term to any one particular group of others? Is there something the matter with us?

Here is why that question is so important:

  • I believe we need to create working models of communities and enterprises that are sustainable, to show the world that there is a better way to live and make a living.
  • Intentional Communities offer enormous potential to be such models, but because they’re not “born of necessity”, people flit in and out, so they’re often fragile and unstable, which makes them realistic models but not terribly practicable ones.
  • Transition Movement Communities offer enormous potential to be such models, but such communities tend to be small towns and cohesive neighbourhoods in certain cities. Most people, unfortunately, live in “accidental communities” in big amorphous cities with no local cohesion; residents often don’t particularly like where they live (they’re only there because it’s handy to their wage-slave workplace) and often don’t know or don’t like their neighbours, and without shared values the Transition Movement is unlikely to take hold in them. 

So the ideal, of combining the best qualities of Intentional Communities (experience with, and desire for, working together,  and shared values) with the best qualities of Transition Movement Communities (shared objectives and shared processes to achieve them), appears to be just that, an ideal. Our desire to flit limits our capacity to create Intentional Community, and our lack of sense of place or affinity with others in modern subdivision neighbourhoods limits our capacity to create Transition Movement Communities in most big cities.

If we were to choose to leave our subdivision neighbourhoods to live in such an ideal place (let’s call it an Intentional Transition Community, or ITC for short), many of us would want the freedom to flit, which would likely doom such communities to failure.
And likewise, if we were to choose to leave our wage slave jobs, rather than moving to work in idealistic Natural Enterprises (built on the strengths of self-sufficiency, partnership, passion, responsibility and sustainability) within Intentional Transition Communities, many of us would prefer to be our own bosses, flitting from assignment to assignment, not tied down to business partners no matter how strong our affinity with them.

This is a serious problem, folks. If our software programming is to be free, to flit, to be in total control over what we do and who we do it with, and where, then we’re never going to be able to create sustainable models of how to live (ITCs) and make a living (NEs). And the Transition Movement will never be able to catch on in the big cities.

Eventually, thanks to climate change and the End of Oil and a host of other simmering crises, our civilization is going to collapse, and so then will our cities. Then, we will have no choice but to either flee the cities and suburbs to live in working Transition Communities in smaller centres, or set aside our dislike of our urban neighbours, declare our neighbourhoods as Transition Communities, and learn fast how to live collaboratively, sustainably, and self-sufficiently. Either is likely to be a mighty ugly transition.

But maybe there’s another way. There are several hundred million affluent-nation baby boomers poised to retire over the next decade. And there are several hundred million affluent-nation Gen Y’ers poised to enter the workforce over the next decade. These are the two most populous generations in the history of the planet.

What if we were to catch the boomers before they retire to condos on golf courses, and catch the Gen Y’ers before they climb onto the first rung of wage-slavery, and get them working together to create Intentional Transition Communities (ITCs) — a new class of Transition Communities — with Natural Enterprises (NEs) embedded in them?

This idea has all sorts of things going for it:

  • The boomers know a lot about business, so they can mentor the Gen Y’ers (who really need work) to get the NEs up and running, and provide largely-volunteer labour (in return for the right to flit, and the satisfaction, at last, of doing meaningful work)
  • The ITCs would have a good demographic mix (and hence essential diversity) because of representation from these two very different generations 
  • We catch both generations in transition, when they’re changing lifestyles anyway

The big question, as for all pioneers, is where will these ITCs be located? There are, after all, no new frontiers to stake out any more. But land and buildings, these days, are a lot cheaper than they’ve been in years. There are whole neighbourhoods begging for buyers, and a lot of small towns and farm communities that were deep-sixed by globalization and corporatism, and have never recovered, with high vacancy rates. It will take some care, and research, to stake out areas that are suitable — warm, relatively unpolluted, with good soils and solar energy potential — and to put together enough adjacent parcels to comprise a true community without bullying the remaining neighbours, but this should be manageable.

critical life skills

critical entrepreneurial skills

The biggest challange, perhaps, will be the scarcity of knowledge and capacities (such as those in the chart above, plus new skills like permaculture and transition infrastructure design) and the imaginative poverty that our ghastly dumbed-down consumer society, mainstream media and education systems have bequeathed us. The answer to that, I think, is unschooling. We’re never too old to learn, and we have tools and knowledge available to us now, online, that we couldn’t have dreamed of even a decade ago. We can learn from and teach each other.

And the Transition Movement, which has been brilliant at capturing public and media attention with a simple, practicable methodology at the right place and the right time, could help us to organize and publicize the whole ITC movement.

I know, it’s still awfully idealistic. And I’m still nagged by a real doubt that many of us are ready, at this stage, to make a commitment to ITCs and NEs that doesn’t allow us the freedom to flit when we feel like it.

But imagining possibilities is what I do. And this seems to me to be a real one. So what do you think, and how might we make it happen, on the same scale as the Transition Movement?

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5 Responses to Preparing for Civilization’s Collapse: How Do We Create Community?

  1. John Graham says:

    My first reaction: perhaps unschooling oneself is one thing (you only have to master Krishnamurti to do it :P), but deschooling society is quite another. Knowing the difference might be fruitful.

  2. Paris says:

    Very nice point Dave: idealism pushes people to flirt instead of commiting, though without commitment children can not be educated far from school, nor sustainable villages built , nor organic business run.Therefore look at your great great grandparents community, what ties them together in addition to necessity? blood ties!So your idea to untite young and boomers together in business has a very simple answer: change the american mindset of selfmade men who send their kids away to uni, and their parents to old people house, to traditional family businesses where children work with their parents and grand parents, while nursing mothers dont need nanies.

  3. Bob Watson says:

    On natural enterprise + free to flit, cf. Gypsies.

  4. Indigo Ocean says:

    There are some enduring communities I’ve come across in Hawaii, three on Maui (zLand, Twin Falls, Ulupalakula) and one on Kauai (Kavalau). There are more, but these 4 are ones I know people living at. I know of others also, but they don’t work so well, because the land owners in those cases have “issues” that don’t foster community.It would be hard in this small box to explain why the ones that work do, but the fundamental point I want to get across is that in every one of these cases you do see a big diversity in age. The older folks also lost the knowledge of how to live on the land, but they made the effort and had the resources to regain it and buy land. The 20s folks are mostly musicians and had to find a way they could live their art, so were willing to trade farm labor for food from the garden, covered platforms for tents or other non-standard private dwellings, and community kitchens and baths. In a way I guess you could say the older ones are there out of vision, after having already lived the way of commerce successfully and having found it empty, and they are the ones running the show, and the younger folks are there out of necessity, but find something within it that is more than what they originally sought.

  5. vera says:

    “Until you do what you believe in, you don’t know whether you believe it or not.”– Leo Tolstoy

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