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Making a start on community

Last week in the comments section, CS posted a good bit on community and the need for it in our uncertain future.

He asked me for a response & I’ve been thinking on it. In fact, I think the subject is going to become the topic of a future article or articles.

Meantime, I’ve touched on it in past blog posts and articles, including this one, which first appeared in the print edition of BHM.

Just one additional observation at the moment. Obviously, community-building is hard for individualists (herding cats and all that). Well, really it’s hard for anybody. The history of the U.S. is littered with “intentional communities” that failed, particularly in the nineteenth century. A lot of them were built around some communal ideal, and they fell apart almost as soon as they formed — or as soon as some strong, inspirational leader died off. We point at them and say that communalism doesn’t work. But based on my own experience, I think that what really doesn’t work is trying to build a community around an ideal. Any ideal. Idealism is for books and ivory towers.

A freedom community (a resilient community, as the thing is called over at Global Guerillas) will be built not on sunshiny ideals, but on real, dirty-gritty need. The need for other people’s skills. For mutual protection. For trade. Whatever.

I don’t entirely agree with John Robb (as quoted in CS’s comment) that we’ll all have to become prey or predators if we don’t build communities. Maybe. In some cases. More often I expect that in rough times we’ll simply discover communities, more than create them, among our existing neighborhoods and networks. Our communities probably won’t be composed of people who share our ideals. Bnd that could be good (idealists can be such air-headedly stubborn cusses), and the communities that develop may be all the stronger because they’re based on something more ultimately useful than a shared philosophy.


  1. Scott
    Scott September 13, 2010 9:22 am

    I’ve been corresponding with some folks at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage for a while(I want to visit and see if I could fit in),and, as far as I can tell, it’s doing just fine. Plus, it seems to be standing the test of time-they’ve been around for a decade or so. They do have a covenant, but it’s loose enough to live with. I do agree with you that communities form from need-people who can fill those needs start filtering in over time(or, as you pointed out, are discovered, be they next door, or across the planet courtesy of the Internet). Based on the rural places I’ve lived in Florida..(when there was a rural Florida) and Kentucky,you’ll meet all sorts of people-from the guy who thinks UFOs visit every Tuesday to the really hard core conservative, yet they all seem to get along fairly well(usually)-at least better than crowded urban areas. Having a lot of space is a good thing.

  2. Sam
    Sam September 13, 2010 10:23 am

    Claire, we are in the middle of that very thing. We moved to this small town in April. With all the fixing up, remodeling and garden prep work (mostly pulling out boulders) we hardly fit in. We met very few folks in that time.

    Then at the suggestion of my adult daughter, I looked into joining the volunteer fire department as a means of getting to know some active and solid folks. I am over 60 so I don’t qualify to fight fires, but they have a support team which (duh) supports the fire men/women. In this town that is just what I was looking for.

    After a couple of months of doing what needed doing with a good attitude, I was given a card for my wallet stating I am part of the fire department (which may be useful one day). No one ever asked for my SS# or other privacy violations. They just need to know I’ll come when I say I will (always my choice, I am one of a dozen) and support those in the thick of it.

    Eventually I’ll be issued a fancy pager-like gizmo that notifies me of whatever emergencies are going on in the fire district. This might be kinda handy SHTF. I am still not sure how I’ll handle that. Thinking on it.

    The fire folks here are great people so far. I have to earn their respect (good) and the process is slow (also good) as I learn what I can and cannot do. I’m guessing, but I think several of the fire folks here are preppers. We’ll see.

    Anyway, this seems to be working for us.

  3. G.W.F.
    G.W.F. September 13, 2010 1:10 pm

    That Dancing Rabbit place looked really neat. It was featured in Morgan Spurlock’s series 30 Days (Off The Grid episode). That episode was not very fun to watch: two spoiled “city-folk” spend 30 days living with no power, among vegetarians on a commune. The folks at Dancing Rabbit really seemed to have everything worked out and seemed to be living simply, but happily. I thought it was neat to get a glimpse into their world.

  4. naturegirl
    naturegirl September 13, 2010 4:56 pm

    I’ll probably be the only one to check in from the loner perspective. This seems to be my biggest brick wall throughout my exploration of prepping and survival info. I have learned new skills, adjusted some attitudes & lifestyles, etc, that I never would have thought was possible in “other times”. The thought of “community” strikes the biggest fear in me more than all the possible SHTF horror scenarios.

    Maybe it’s because I went from being an only child to a loner adult, maybe it’s because I’m not meeting the right people, but the thought of having other people around when things get crazy isn’t comforting at all. It’s trust, I’m sure. I know I can trust myself and have doubts about others. Some of it is responsibility, too, the willingness to accept responsibility for other people in times of crisis.

    I’ve read all the articles on the odds of single (or even small bands) of people surviving whatever the SHTF may be, so this is an ongoing challenge for me to try to accept/adjust to. I actually agree with and see the benefits of establishing communities, for most OTHER people. Maybe I’ll have to be one of the ones who “discovers” a community after it all flies….

  5. cctyker
    cctyker September 13, 2010 11:36 pm

    I’m with Naturegirl; community is the last resort for me too. I have nothing against it, nor for it: I just don’t want to be part of it.

    Except in one way.

    Free market activity. I need something; I’m willing to give up something for it; I find a person or persons who have what I need who also wants what I am willing to give up — be it money or something to barter. We agree on an exchange rate — say, ten tomatoes for three pounds of green beans. We exchange, I get want I want and give up what I want less; she/he gets what he/she wants and gives up what she/he wants less.

    We each believe we improved our life situation. (I don’t like tomatoes as much as I like green beans.)

    And we may never see each other again; then again, we may.

    If violence seems near, we come together, discuss strategy, develop a plan, wait for or seek the aggressors, and work our plan in hopes of success.

    If the violence seems subdued, we dispand and go about our personal lives. If violence still seems probable, we continue to work together to mutual benefit.

    Just some thoughts.

  6. CS
    CS September 14, 2010 12:33 am

    Dear Claire,

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Without getting into too much detail, let me point out my circumstances… I live and work in a smaller, agricultural community in a very scenic part of the country; so much so that in the last couple of decades it’s been overrun by newcomers, most of whom are retirees.

    Mostly, the newcomers are decent folk, but hardly the kind you’d look to as good neighbors when times get tough. They’re generally self-centered Baby Boomers who’ve made their money and have no great interest in the older, deeply-rooted and agrarian community that preceded them. They outnumber the old-timers about ten to one and the old culture seemed to be all but extinct.

    (Wrong again, CS.) After several years of careful observation, I realized that not only had the old “tribe” of farmers and ranchers survived, it was quietly alive, well and thriving, a “resilient community” inside a community. No leaders, no formal organization — just a very active network in which goods, services and values of all kinds are being quietly traded, in some cases right under the very noses of some of the more busybody “newcomers” who can’t imagine a world not conforming to every bureaucratic whim and regulation. The people I’ve met are generally cranky, mildly annoyed individualists who mostly want to be left alone, but who realize that the best way to do that is ally with other cranky, mildly annoyed individualists.

    As you observe, this isn’t a “Galt’s Gulch” or some commune held together by some overarching ideology. It simply is what it is, and you can take it or leave it however you like. It’s a long way from perfect and the people I’ve met who are involved with it run anywhere from flag-waving patriots to some of the more entertaining conspiracy theorists I’ve yet run across.

    There isn’t an organizational hierarchy, a member list or even a secret handshake. (That was sort of disappointing, actually…) You don’t get “in” by asking to belong or sucking up to someone special. You get there by filling a demand for something that someone else needs and by being very discrete, even though there’s not so much as a hint of illegality about any of it.

    The newcomers come and go. Many of them will likely leave here, should we encounter an era of genuine scarcity with increased costs of food, fuel and transportation. But I have a strong suspicion that should I require ten gallons of gas, a couple of yards of concrete or an doctor’s visit, it could somehow be arranged, done and paid for. (And not necessarily in US dollars.)

    What I see here, Claire, is the beginning of what you forecast. I think I see the start of one of Robb’s “resilient communities.” It’s a ways from finally saying “F**k the state,” (as you put it so eloquently) but it’s not impossible to imagine that as the existing top-down structures continue to crumble all around us. It’s a low-profile, self-organizing, decentralized, leaderless mess that somehow gets the necessary jobs done.

    I think John Robb is right in several particulars, especially in his emphasis on combinations of high- and low-tech to achieve resilience. (A couple of aspects I find interesting are that of local manufacturing via “hacker spaces” and the creation of local, private, wireless computer networks.) If his views on system disruption are correct, one can easily appreciate how the combination of knowable, robust 19th Century technology and more modern digital advances could further the creation of resilient, networked communities that could survive and even thrive in what may be to come.

    As an aside: Surprisingly (or perhaps not) quite a few of the people I’ve met know of and have read some of the things you’ve written and have been influenced by them. A good many of us go through life wondering if we’ve made a difference, if anything we said or did ever truly mattered. I don’t think that’s a problem in your case, Claire.

    Just thought you might like to know that.

  7. naturegirl
    naturegirl September 14, 2010 1:31 am

    Good point, cctyker, about the free market. I’ll take that one step beyond and say I look forward to (possibly) a time when money isn’t the “be all, end all” and bartering becomes the new value. As much as I’d wish it to be a more level field that way, I also can see the potential for abuses, but maybe still a far better lifestyle than the monetary system in place now.

    I “read” the undercurrent of what CS is describing as simple points: Self sufficiency of skills and a willingness to “get it done”, period. It’s the “busybody newcomers” types that I’d prefer not to have to deal with because their motives or intentions may not be in anyone else’s best interest.

    It all breaks down to human nature, and occasionally human nature isn’t at it’s best during chaos and fear. There’s no predicting how the guy next to you can handle it, or is willing cope with it.

  8. Scott
    Scott September 14, 2010 9:24 am

    Off the grid and off the books is easier now than it ever has been-I’ve known plenty of people who’ve “worked out a deal” for everything from car parts to dental work-and, as has already been said, not necessarily for paper money. Often, it’s faster and cheaper,and the quality is better,because someone’s honor/reputation-and getting you as a repeat customer-is on the line. An uncle of mine lived off grid(“tarpaper shack, lead-acid, kerosene and five gallon buckets” was the running joke) and books for a while back in the 80’s,and found parts for his ancient 1948 Indian motorcycle in a couple days just by asking around,and traded for them-all in a very rural part of eastern Kentucky,far faster and cheaper than ordering them from a catalog. How you present yourself has a great deal to do with it as well-open and friendly goes a long way. Sometimes the smallest courtesy gets remembered(like giving that old woman near you one of your flashlights and kerosene lanterns when the ice storm hits)long after you’ve forgotten it.

    Maybe I’ve lived a charmed life, but it’s my observation that most people are decent,it’s just that decent people go about life fairly quiet, and jerks kick up a lot of dust,make more noise, and get noticed more.

  9. Matt
    Matt September 15, 2010 7:31 am

    If you look back throughout our nations history, particulary the settling of the midwest and west, you will find many, many, many examples of communities that started out small due to mutual needs (security, skills, trade, socialization etc). Many of those communities thrived and still exist today. Some of them were planted by the railoroad, planned and had people imported (immigrants from Germany, Poland, France etc), others were more spur of the moment and grew up around a watering hole, river crossing, sometimes stock loading pens for the rail road, or even as an extension of ranch headquarters. In looking at history, it seems that small “resilient” communites are possibly the norm, not the exception. I have lived in several of these small communities (small is a very flexible term) and found them to be resilient and thriving once you got through the layers of summer/winter visitors and others that wanted to live off, but not become part of a community. It does take a while, but it isn’t impossible to become accepted in a small community, especially when they realize you have something to offer and respect their particular (sometimes peculiar) way of life.

  10. Pat
    Pat September 15, 2010 8:16 am

    “In looking at history, it seems that small “resilient” communites are possibly the norm, not the exception.”

    I agree, Matt. It’s usually how — and why — every society, tribe or group of people came together in the first place.

    Claire: “…and the communities that develop may be all the stronger because they’re based on something more ultimately useful than a shared philosophy.”

    I agree with this, too — and in saying so, I’ve turned 180 degrees from my original ideal of a “freedom community” several years ago.

    I once thought that a freedomista — in order to be free, in order to be happy in freedom — had to live, work, play near other freedom-lovers, and to believe and act on the same ideals. But this is naive: to believe that we must — or believe that we can! — be on the same page all the time.

    And I’ve learned this (ironically enough) through communication with libertarians. No two people interpret the same idea or action in exactly the same way. No two people will determine how something should be done, reach the same conclusions, or see from the same perspective as everyone else, no matter how much they agree with the goals of the community, no matter how much they are imbued with the spirit of cooperation.

    I believe it is this individuality that is the downfall of *planned* communities. Likewise it is this individuality that gives variety to every society, and allows a community to succeed in practical terms (the “real, dirty-gritty need”) if/when ideology collapses on itself.

    But what does have to exist — in every kind of community — is the DESIRE to cooperate, and an ongoing determination by every individual (no matter his age, his length of time in the community, or his status) to comprehend and work toward what the community really needs, without projecting his own prejudices into the mix.

  11. Victor Milan
    Victor Milan September 15, 2010 1:13 pm

    Doesn’t much depend on your definition of “community”?

    Most of what gets talked about is top-down “community” – imposed from above. It’s just another guise for authoritarianism.

    Authentic community is another thing. Do you have friends? If so, you’re part of a community.

    If you want to be a lone-wolf libertarian atomist type, and can make a go of it, more power to you. That’s freedom.

    It doesn’t appeal to me. I realize we are both social and individualistic organisms – or at least I am.

    Also, I am alive largely because of the actions of the voluntary community of my friends, who came together to help me in astonishing ways during my illness. It confirmed to me my long-standing belief in the power and beauty of friendship.

    And also, yes, the *real* free market is a form of community – one that doesn’t require friendship, or even any strong acquaintance. It’s also the natural human ecosystem. Its reassertion – renaissance may be the proper word – is our best, and probably only, hope to survive the well-advanced and accelerating collapse of statism.

  12. Ellendra
    Ellendra September 15, 2010 8:49 pm

    I noticed in the area where my land is, there’s a definite sense of community among the “old-timers”, but it’s a bit easier to see, and to get into, than what CS described. My neighbor complains about it, claims the “locals don’t trust anyone who hasn’t been there 50 years”. But they accepted me right away. I think it’s because my neighbor is as yuppy a control-freak as you can get (yes, I have stories), but I just want to build my house and raise my critters in peace.

    That neighbor’s house is now for sale, but he’s asking 4x what it’s worth, and can’t figure out why no one wants to buy.

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