The Elements of Community?

I have been writing a lot of late on the importance of relearning to build and live in community, if we are going to cope well with the coming economic, energy and ecological crises. Problem is, most of us now live in anonymous, opportunistic, disconnected neighbourhoods, relating primarily to those outside rather than inside our communities, depending on outside centralized systems for just about everything, and not knowing or particularly caring about the people who live around us, the natural ecosystem of the place where we live, or how much of anything essential really works. We’ve forgotten what real community means, what it is.

This got me thinking: What are the essential elements of community, anyway? If we succeeded in creating or reshaping our neighbourhoods into authentic communities, what would they “contain”? What would they look like? How would they work? I started scribbling and the sketch above is the first draft I came up with. Imagine it scrawled on the back of a napkin (if my handwriting was legible I would have used a hand drawn sketch instead).

I have no idea what to do with this, and I’m sure it’s a very flawed and incomplete model. But it seems to me it’s something we need to have a model of, if we hope to create (or at least help evolve) communities that work.

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3 Responses to The Elements of Community?

  1. Ken Stokes says:

    In my “3 Spheres” (vesica pisces) graphic of sustainability in the human support system, the Community sphere is centered on “Social Capital” and shows two inputs (threats and opportunities) and two outputs (trust and initiative), with Networks as the driving process (among households and based on norms) and “Safeguard Cohesion” as the system imperative…all of which reflects a gross synopsis of the literature…if this helps!

  2. Dear Dave,

    Thank you for your (as always) engaging and spot on posts. I have been doing a lot of pondering on the subject myself. People, including and especially those on the left and of more radical persuasions, complain a lot about the current state of affairs, but what we really struggle to physically visualise is what an alternative world may look like. This is one of the greatest victories of industrial capitalism, and neoliberal capitalism since then: An ability to push out any imagined alternative (David Graeber anyone?): The ‘end of history’ and the TINA hypothesis (‘there is no alternative’) playing particularly strong ideological roles. This is especially the case since the failure and fall of communism resigned any mention of a vision of a more ‘communal’ life as almost heretic in nature (even though it can only ever really be accurately described as state capitalism and not true to communism or real community). Any argument against a current way of life is shot down on the grounds of being ‘backward’, ‘unrealistic’, ‘utopian’, ‘stick in the mud’ and challenged to think/defend otherwise. Meanwhile, “sustainable” alternatives presented in books like Thomas Friedman’s Hot Flat and Crowded ask for new ‘grid-smart systems’ with new appliances plugging into new complicated circuitry to better manage electricity and other resource use. However, in reality, these will only slightly slow the problem at best, as they depend on more extraction, not less. While production of these new appliances and circuitry would take more resources and fuel than they would ever save and still does nothing to ‘produce’ any kind of a community.

    What I think we all need to do—which will not be easy and would require us to engage with and challenge the imaginations of those in the deep ecology and other fields—is precisely to think realistically about real alternatives which must, by the urgency of environmental problems, encompass ‘simpler’, but not necessary ‘backward’ times. There are of course real-life, existing alternatives—Caracoles in Mexico, Vermont autonomy and various others come immediately to mind. But these are hard to imagine as widespread, everywhere. I’d love to know your thoughts on how a ‘global’ communal way of life, non-industrialsed, could look like. What would a physical alternative (almost apocalyptic in nature) look like if centralised, oligarchic, industrial civilisation as we know was forced—by socio-environmental movements or (most likely) natural tragedy—to turn into decentralised, self-governing, food- and culture-sovereign units. What would happen to existing infrastructure, like what would literally happen to sky scrapers and airports? What would/could happen to monetarisation (we’d need to look at historical, indigenous examples of trade systems that were not necessarily industrial but effective)? What would/could happen to knowledge storage and sharing if there was no internet? What would/could happen to heating and lighting—could people go back to candles and daylight? What would happen to entertainment and would we want that to happen? Would it be possible to have a ‘half and half’ economy where only the most essentially-deemed things were still powered, like digital books, but non-essentials kept off grids? What would people do as a ‘living’ in their communities and what would this mean for happiness? This seems like a huge task, but I feel it is a necessary one to inspire the imagination for change. I welcome your thoughts.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Ioulia: I think the lessons from anthropology are: (1) Community doesn’t scale (when it gets too big it gets unwieldy quickly, and tribal communities even adjacent to each other evolved very different languages and cultures for reasons that cannot be isolated to just the qualities of the local ecosystem). (2) The essence of communitarianism is emergence, Darwinian adaptation and serendipity (we can’t predict what any group of people will come up with as a successful way to live in community, nor can we hope to replicate it or export it to other communities because it will only be accepted by those who have context to appreciate how it evolved). So ‘global’ communitarianism is an oxymoron (and globalism is just a euphemism for coercive imperialism). My “Collapse” game is designed to help people collectively imagine how we would cope with and adapt to crisis as a community — including how we would make a living, self-manage, be healthy and keep peace when the central infrastructure that does that “for us” crumbles. It involves “imagining forward”, not just rediscovering past lost knowledge. It’s not an easy game to play!

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