It Takes a Village

bonobo mother playing with her baby; photo by Frans Lanting in the Smithsonian

The word village comes from the PIE root word weik which refers to a clan or tribe — a small group of people that is larger than just a family of relatives.

The expression “It takes a village”, usually followed by “… to raise a child” speaks to the fundamental way in which humans live together. We cannot survive as individuals, no matter how rich and powerful and clever we may be. Our species just doesn’t have the physiology or the individual capacity to do so.

Primate species have a wide variety of social arrangements, depending on what has provided evolutionary success in their biosphere, but the primates closest to us, the bonobos and chimps, almost always associate in what are called fission-fusion communities.

Fission-fusion communities are less cohesive than [other] multi-male multi-female groups [such as those of baboons and macaques]. These groups occupy very large home ranges in which temporary foraging parties cleave and coalesce over time with changes in resource availability and female reproductive condition. These social systems are typically characterized by female dispersal [females leave the group at puberty and join other groups] and male philopatry [males remain with their natal group for life].

There is an obvious resonance and similarity between this bonobo/chimp social organization and that of humans, dating back to our earliest origins. Land and property has often remained with the (usually first-born) male human, and females have to find accommodation elsewhere, usually mating with males from other nearby communities.

Because of the variable fission-fusion nature of the societies of bonobos and chimps, they are not really ‘troops’, which is why the term ‘community’ is usually used to describe them. Chimp and bonobo communities generally vary from 20-80 individuals.

Historically, in most parts of the world, a village is the closest human settlement in size to a chimp or bonobo community. Wikipedia states: “The population of a village varies; the average population can range in the hundreds. Anthropologists regard the number of about 150 members for tribes as the maximum for a functioning human group.” This (quite controversial) maximum number of 150 is famously known as Dunbar’s number.

And hence “it takes a village”, not only to raise a child, but to function effectively and sustainably at all as a human society. Fewer than 20 and you don’t have the diversity needed to reproduce healthily and learn effectively from others. More than 150 and the group loses cohesion and effectively becomes chaotic and ungovernable.

Of course, it takes a lot more than the right number of ‘members’ to constitute a healthy, cohesive, and functional community. Most of us, regardless of what we are used to calling a “community”, have absolutely no idea of what actually building and being in community entails. But here’s a list of some of the qualities I have observed or been told about, that every effective community must have:

  1. Mutual trust
  2. A diversity of skills, knowledge and capacities (“mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive” to meet all the community’s requirements)
  3. A willingness, and the experience, of the whole group to self-manage
  4. Love and respect for all of the community’s members, including those you don’t particularly like
  5. The will and capacity to collaborate rather than compete with other members
  6. An appreciation of the resources, advantages, limitations and dangers of the specific place where you live
  7. Freedom from chronic debilitating stress
  8. Enough local basic resources to enable the community’s self-sufficiency

On a psychological level, there are additional individual needs that the community has to meet (healthy attachment and capacity for authenticity, a sense of meaning and purpose, possibility of optimism, sufficient attention and appreciation, connection with the natural world etc). The community cannot hope to be healthy if many of its members are ailing or dysfunctional.

How does a community self-organize and self-manage to ensure these requirements are met, so that the community remains caring, cohesive, collaborative and functional?

The simple answer is: practice. There is no formula or rule-book for managing a community, which depends on the community’s ever-evolving culture, preferences, opportunities, appetites, needs, situation, and passions. The sense of community is an emergent phenomenon of its membership and its circumstances.

Why is this important? Because as collapse deepens, our very survival will ultimately depend on our capacity to build and live in community. Fortunately, the collapse we are now going through is a long (relatively-speaking) emergency. We will have time to practice, to learn, to fail, and to start all over again, and again.

We might begin now to identify where we think we want to establish community when the SHTF in our particular part of the world, and who we think we might want to live in community with. But what will ultimately happen in and to our particular little community is unpredictable.

As Tyson Yunkaporta says, the key is not to try to create community by imposing or following any particular ideology, theory or model, but rather to stay adaptable to ever-changing circumstances. We may be looking at multiple long-distance migrations to new and unfamiliar places before our community takes root, and its membership will likely change during those journeys.

That will also mean leaving egos at the door. What one person thinks, believes, or thinks they know, is not going to matter. The building of community, especially among the ruins of a dying civilization, cannot be designed, planned, directed, or conducted. To create a true community, there will first have to be a sense of urgency, since as Joe Bageant often said “Community is born of necessity.” In most places we are not even close to a recognition of its necessity.

And then, once there is a sense of necessity, we will, one way or another, look around and find a way to create a community with those with whom we find ourselves, wherever we may then happen to be. And when we get to that point, ready to self-organize, well, then… it will take a village to make it happen.

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1 Response to It Takes a Village

  1. Venkataraman Amarnath says:

    I know a lot about the language and history of Tamil people in deep south of India. Many villages existed for two thousand years and would hve survived longer if not for the arrival of the British and their railroad. Small kingdoms and large empires came and went but the villages managed to pull through.

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