Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Costs of Community

The point to be made in this week's post is a bit complex, and I hope that my readers will have the patience to read through an apparently unrelated story that leads to it. A few years back, I researched and wrote a book on the UFO phenomenon, somewhat unimaginatively titled The UFO Phenomenon. It was an intriguing project, not least because the acronym "UFO" has all but lost its original meaning – something seen in the sky that the witnesses don't happen to be able to identify – and become a strange attractor for exotic belief systems that fuse the modern myth of infinite progress with archaic religious visions of immanent evil and apocalyptic renewal.

Behind the myths, though, I noted the intriguing fact that the "alien spacecraft" of each decade had quite a bit in common with whatever secret aerospace projects the US military was testing at that time. From the round silver shapes of the late 1940s, when high-altitude balloons were the last word in strategic reconnaissance, to the black triangles of the early 1980s, when stealth planes were new and highly secret, the parallels were remarkable, as was the involvement of the US military in fostering the UFO furore. While plenty of things fed into the emergence of the UFO mythology, it seems pretty clear that this mythology was used repeatedly for the kind of strategic deception the Allies used to bamboozle the Germans before D-Day, to provide cover for secret aerospace projects in the US and elsewhere, not to mention plenty of less exotic situations where it was inconvenient to talk about who was flying what in whose airspace.

What interested me most about the project in retrospect was the reaction it got. I ended up on – well, let's just say a very well known radio talk show about the paranormal, and leave it at that. The host asked the usual questions, and got to the one about what I found most fascinating about the topic, so I sketched out the hypothesis I've just mentioned.

He instantly changed the subject.

I was intrigued, and as soon as the conversation allowed, I brought up the same point. He changed the subject again, so fast he must have left skidmarks on the airwaves. So I brought it up again, and the same thing happened. We had a commercial break, and after that he suddenly wanted to talk about my other books; I humored him, chatted about my other titles, worked the conversation back around to UFOs, and then brought up my hypothesis again. He changed the subject again. As soon as the next break arrived, I was off the air half an hour early, and he was inviting listeners to call in to share their favorite paranormal experiences. It's probably unnecessary to mention that I've never been invited back.

That experience was typical of the book's reception by the UFO community, and it taught me something worth knowing about that community, which is that a significant number of people who insist they believe in alien spaceships in Earth's skies don't actually believe in anything of the kind. I did hear back from some UFO believers who defended their faith in alien visitation in spirited terms. With them I have no quarrel, though I disagree with their beliefs; but much more often, the reaction I got was the one that used to be typical of liberal clergymen who no longer believed in any sort of god, but got uncomfortable, scuffed their feet, and looked out the nearest available window when anyone openly avowed atheism.

Now the point of this story is not to rehash the issue of whether UFOs are or are not alien spacecraft. It's to provide an example of a particular kind of bad faith, as the existentialists used to call it, that pervades discussions of the point I want to raise this week.

What, dear reader, if I were to propose a citizen's strategy for carrying out constructive social change in the United States that has worked in the past, not just once but repeatedly? A strategy that works from the grassroots up, requires next to no money or media coverage to set in motion, and uses off-the-shelf social technology? A strategy that also has the proven side effect of building community on a grand scale? Would you jump on it like a duck on a June bug, as my grandfather used to say, and get it under way as soon as possible? Let's make the experiment.

Glance back through American history from colonial times to the present and you'll discover that the one consistently effective strategy for citizens who seek to change the direction of their society is to organize. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America not long after the Revolution, one of the things he found most remarkable about the new republic was the way that ordinary citizens who wanted to bring change to their society did it by organizing societies, lodges, movements, political parties, or any other kind of citizen's group you care to name. The same thing has been true ever since; glance back along any wave of change in American life and you'll find an organized group of citizens behind it.

It's popular to insist these days that such organizations can't possibly muster the clout needed to overwhelm, say, the power of big corporations. History says otherwise. In the 1880s, for example, corporations had even more unrestricted power in the United States than they do now, and the railroad corporations were the richest and most powerful of the lot. The Grange, an organization of farmers, took on the improbable task of breaking railroad monopolies that were forcing farm families into poverty by keeping the cost of shipping farm produce to urban markets artificially high. The short version? The Grange achieved total victory, and the railroad corporations lost the monopoly status that made their fortunes.

The key to understanding the power of citizens' organizations is that representative democracy doesn't respond to the will of individuals; it responds to pressure exerted by groups. Those who organize to put pressure on the system generally get at least some of what they want, and the longer and harder they push, the more of it they get. Those who don't organize, by their lack of organization, make themselves irrelevant to the political process.

You know this perfectly well, dear reader. Odds are you've grumbled about the influence of pressure groups in Washington DC, or your state's capitol, or city hall, or wherever. You may even support a pressure group or two yourself with the occasional donation. The obvious question, then, is why the torrent of vocal dissatisfaction with the political status quo these days or so hasn't resulted in another round of citizens' organizations rising from the grassroots, as the Abolitionists and the Grange and the Progressives and the Suffragettes and the Civil Rights movement and so many others did in their time, to influence the political process by turning popular dissatisfaction into a force for change. If it takes a pressure group to have a voice in American politics, why not organize a pressure group to give voice to those who consider themselves voiceless? For that matter, instead of griping about the lack of a viable third party, why not start one, instead of waiting for some political equivalent of Wal-Mart to package one in plastic and display it enticingly on a convenient shelf?

These aren't rhetorical questions. Much of what's wrong with the current American political system is the result of a vacuum at the center of that system – a very large empty space where organized pressure from the public used to go. Consider, for example, how political parties used to work in the United States. The basic unit was the precinct caucus, where neighbors would get together, debate issues and candidates, and organize publicity and get-out-the-vote activities for the next election. Each precinct elected representatives to the county convention, where this process was repeated, and cascaded upward through state and national conventions. These last weren't the pointless media spectacles they've become; they were working sessions where the candidates and proposals that rose up from the grassroots finally got sorted out into the slate and platform the party would offer the voters come election day.

These days precinct caucuses are moribund, and county and state conventions are little more than exercises in going through the motions; policy initiatives and candidacies begin, not with neighbors meeting in living rooms, but with media campaigns orchestrated by marketing firms and strategy sessions among highly paid party officials. Yet it wasn't some conspiracy of corporate minions who brought about that state of affairs; what happened, by and large, was that most Americans dropped out of the party system, and the professionals filled the resulting void.

It's interesting to speculate about why that took place. I suspect many of my readers have encountered Robert Putnam's widely discussed book Bowling Alone (2000), which traced the collapse of social networks and institutions straight across American society. The implosion of the old grassroots-based party system is simply one example of the trend Putnam documented. Putnam's book sparked a great deal of discussion, some of it in the peak oil community, but nearly all of that discussion fixated on the benefits that might be gained by reinventing community, and left out a crucial factor: the cost.

By this I don't mean money. Communities need regular inputs of time and effort from their members, or they collapse into mass societies of isolated individuals – roughly speaking, what we've got now. Communities also need subtler inputs: a sense of commitment, of shared purpose, of emotional connection, of trust. To gain the benefits of living in community, it's necessary to sacrifice some part of the autonomy that so many Americans nowadays guard so jealously. The same thing is true of those subsets of community already discussed – political parties, for example, or citizens' organizations, or any other framework for collective action that's more than a place for people to hang out and participate when they feel like it.

I know a fair number of people in activist circles who speak in glowing terms about community; most of them don't belong to a single community organization. I also know a fair number of people who've tried to launch community projects of one kind or another; most of these projects foundered due to a fatal shortage of people willing to commit the time, effort, and emotional energy the project needed to survive. Most, but not all; some believers in community have taken an active role in trying to build or maintain it; some projects have managed to find an audience and build a community, or at least the first rough draft of one. One of the reasons I don't dismiss the Transition Town movement, though I have serious doubts about some aspects of it, is precisely that many of the people involved in it have committed themselves to it in a meaningful sense, and the movement itself has succeeded in some places in building a critical mass of commitment and energy.

It's important, I think, to assess the ventures toward community that are under way now or have been tried in the recent past, both the successful ones and the ones that have failed, and try to get some sense of the factors that tip the balance one way or the other. It's also crucial, though, to recognize that there's a difference between fantasies of community that provides all the benefits with none of the costs, and the reality of community in which each benefit must be paid for by a corresponding commitment. I suspect the common passion among some peak oil activists for lifeboat communities that just happen to be too expensive ever to get off the ground, which often goes hand in hand with a distinct lack of enthusiasm for participation in real communities of real people that exist right now, is simply one way of evading the difference.

This is why I didn't spend this week's post advocating, say, the founding of Citizens Unions to give ordinary people pressure groups to exert influence on local, state and national governments, as so many successful citizens' pressure groups have done in the past. I think this would be an excellent idea, but if people were willing to invest time, energy, and commitment into such organizations, we'd likely already have them.

The problem we face now, though, is that uncomfortable looks, scuffing feet, and abstracted gazes out the nearest convenient window are no longer adequate responses to a situation that's rapidly spinning out of control. The costs of community may not be something most of us want to pay, but in the world that is taking shape around us, the alternative for a great many of us may be much worse. I plan to talk about that in next week's post.


darbikrash said...

Excellent post and I think a welcome extension from some of the themes in “The Long Descent”. At the risk of sounding a little like a helpless victim, I would suggest that although the investment of time is a component of community apathy, Douglas Rushkoffs’ book makes the point that perhaps there is some deliberation into the individualizing of our society. I do tend to share your aversion to conspiracy theories, but it is fair to say that the phenomena of our inability as a society to organize effectively benefits both those with a profit motive, (spread out suburban communities as opposed to dense urban housing for example) as well as those in government who may be somewhat “sensitive” to large groups of people with ideas not necessarily consistent with those in power.

None of this is helped by the war cries of the right whenever the subject of collectivism comes up in any form, this is usually presented as the first leg of a sleigh ride to Sweden.

The convergence of these two forces is too great to ignore, as this confluence effectively discourages community building as well as activism. As seen in nature, the most effective means of predation is to singulate before plundering.

vera said...

“The Grange achieved total victory, and the railroad corporations lost the monopoly status that made their fortunes.” Um. And then other robber barons stepped in and made off with other fortunes. This path… it has no end and never a real victory. Much less a total one.

“most Americans dropped out of the party system, and the professionals filled the resulting void” Most Americans are not stupid. They understand the futility of the system, and they refuse to play the game. Rightly so.

It’s one thing to care for one another in such a way that a community is built around us. Quite another to play organizational musical chairs within an unviable system.

Avery said...

The Grange was no ordinary organization of farmers: it was a secret society, like the Knights of Labor. Such secrecy used to be in the hands of the people; now institutions wield it under various legal excuses (trade secrets, security), while individuals who attempt the same thing are accused of hiding something.

John Michael Greer said...

Darbikrash, of course those who hold privileged positions discourage those who don't from organizing. It didn't stop the movements I mentioned in the post. Why is it stopping us?

Vera, it's very easy and comforting to insist that the game is rigged, as an excuse for not participating. Has that refusal to participate improved things in any way?

Zappnin said...

How are you going to convince a population raised on the virtues of rugged individualism and go-it-alone bravado, to start banding together. It'll happen when it has to, when their very survival depends on it. The ethnic populations that haven't yet bought into the cult of the individual will have a leg up. Meanwhile, as you say, the individual is politically powerless - let Joe six-pack strut about all he wants -- it is groups that threaten the powers that be.

John Michael Greer said...

Avery, as a past Worthy Master of North Side Grange #727 in Seattle, I do know a bit about the organization! Yes, the Grange -- like many other organizations in America in the late 19th century -- used the basic fraternal secret society template. I'll be discussing that in a good deal more detail in next week's post. In the meantime, I'd remind you that criticism of secret societies was just as common in the 19th century as it is today. Why do you suppose that didn't stop the Grange from using that approach effectively?

Zappnin, you're getting close! Still, you'd have a hard time finding a population more convinced of the virtues of independence and go-it-alone bravado than, say, the frontier communities of the American West -- despite which, community organizations were hugely popular there. The difference is that we still have, or think we have, the luxury of avoiding the costs of community. They knew better. I suspect we're about to learn the same lesson, the hard way.

G said...

What role do you think technologies such as television, video games, and more recently the internet, have played in this?

I'm of the younger generation, and the very idea of organizing is foreign to us. We sit in front of screens for much of the day, and we move around a lot.

BrightSpark said...


This is a very useful post. I'm in the political Labour (spelled correctly!) movement, who have kept the traditions of community organising largely intact, although with far less people to do it. I see some strong parallels here with lodges, in that various political parties (preferably those away from political centres) keep useful traditions and knowledge alive.

Anyway, that's the environment I was moulded in, and as such my answer to problems is generally to "organise, organise, and organise", in the words of Joe Hill, your American union leader. A little bit of pre-thought doesn't go astray either.

I relate the decline in community involvement directly back to specialisation and professionalisation of too many things. It seemed to make sense at the time, but it led to the removal of the co-production imperative - the idea that both parties to a transaction/deal/service etc have to contribute to make the arrangement work. The community currency people understand this problem well (see Edgar Kahn's No More Throw Away People for instance).

Many have their doubts, but I think if you start a local currency to reprogramme the invisible hand, you can use money (which people understand) to deliver those older values back to people again.

terrapraeta said...


Well.. I think vera has the right of it, but I'll expound a bit further. Pressure groups, by thier very nature are able to tweak the sytem -- but as they are *part of the systme* they are unable to make any *fundamental* change. I suspect that some/many?/most? of the people truly dedicated to change in this day and age have come to the realization that the system itself is flawed. And so they are looking at alternatives to the way things are as opposed to minor modifications of the status quo (myself definitely included in these).

Add to this.... two very different perceptions of community, Are we looking for a "neighborhood" that gets together a few times a year for a picnic and a political action, or are we looking for something else... something more real, something more *enduring*? In order to achieve the latter, the costs are exceptionally high, starting with ourselves and the way we relate to other persons. Not something that any of us can find or create overnight. I mean... I can call on a hundred people that all want this... but they are spread across the US, dedicating themselves to their own landbase, their own ecology.... for any of us to pick up and move to be together in one community is *more than* a lot to ask... so we struggle forward on our own, slowly finding others near-by with compatible ideas........


Joel said...

I've brought up David Brin a couple times: he considers these issues in his blog a lot, also.

He's mentioned several times that a component of most American stories is "don't trust authority." He says it's the most pervasive propaganda campaign ever...I might not go that far, but I think it's relevant.

I believe part of the reason we don't organize more, is that imagining ourselves with a powerful group casts us in the role of villain.

I worked as a union organizer for a couple of years, and I think the hard work was tolerable. What really gave me pause was how uncomfortable the responsibility was, moreso when people explicitly gave me power (e.g., by cutting off my explanations of the issues, with "just tell me how to vote").

Thai Up said...

Your comment this week reminds me of what has happened in rural Cambodia over the last decade. The borders were first opened about 12 years ago, and in my first trip I remember seeing communities in the evening sitting around the oil burning lamps telling stories, laughing and drinking.

Then batteries and battery charging services became prevalent, allowing for electric lights, fans and the worst weapon ever devised, television. Many of these communities still do not have electricity, but the last time I went I saw all the families retreat individually to their shacks to watch their own personal television sets. They all still interact by virtue of the fact they grew up together, but you can already see that in another generation that will be gone.

It is my belief that TV provides an escape that reality simply can not compete with. This draw is much stronger than books, and requires substantially less intelligence. While I was reading your post this week, I was simultaneously thinking that the erosion of community does seem to be correlated to the introduction of television into a society, Cambodia being a striking example because of the speed at which it has happened.

My hypothesis is that politicians and professionals use television to subdue a populace that might otherwise find value in organizing. By giving the people something more satisfying with less risk, the television acts to prohibit a critical mass of organization from forming.

I am always amazed at your ability to find parallels for today's problems in the historical record. Are there any ancient scenarios which would give us some insight into this phenomenon?

Charles said...

So much of what is passed off as 'community' these days is little more than a packaged product manufactured and marketed in much the same way as a box of tissues. The Tea Party movement comes to mind immediately as a good example.

I'm a proponent of grass-roots community myself although I'm a recluse by nature. In my attempts at organization I've discovered that you have to give away alot of 'carrots' (these were literal carrots for a while in my case) before anyone is willing to accept the 'stick' of commitment.

There are multiple problems with current efforts at building community. Foremost among these is that community needs a sense of place and in our hyper-mobile society, place has become more metaphor than location. Related to this is the factor of time. Most people, even those who are fortunate enough to work out of their homes spend most of their time virtually somewhere else, and the time they actually spend in - dedicated and aware of their actual location tends to the miniscule.

I don't think all is lost however. Eventually some external force will mandate an awareness of place and (most) people will (hopefully, probably) adapt.

Hector said...

I think people will come together in community when they need to get something done. As has been pointed out here already, for most modern individuals, there is little perceived need: you can order books and pizza online and the local authority will clear the road if it's snowy (or not, as people in Ireland and Britain have been finding out)... but broadly speaking, we expect systems and 'Them' to do what needs to be done. Clearly this will change in an energy descent future; it already is, in many places.

But I'm not sure I believe in 'building community' for the sake of it. It seems artificial. Communities always require some goal, I feel: whether it's raising a barn or clearing a road. As you've alluded elsewhere, JMG, religion can help provide that goal, and it does seem to be a key factor in tying together successful communities.

I'm becoming more involved in a local Buddhist sangha, and part of that is an inchoate feeling that creating ties now in the context of that particular belief system (or whatever one can correctly call Buddhism) makes sense both now and in an increasingly uncertain future. Any more ideas at your end, JMG, for creating community?

Many thanks

galacticsurfer said...

I think G is on the right track. People are isolated by meida, which makes us think we are all one happy family (seeing nightly news or a popular film, etc. instead of reciting poetry or sionging in church). Get rid of cars, telephones, TV and video and internet and then people have to get invovled locally with real people or they will just be totally isolated emotionally.

timewalker said...

G - I think it must have a lot to do with it. There are so many entertaining and enjoyable distractions with more immediate appeal than sitting in cold public meeting rooms arguing about stuff. And the feeling this gives of being in an exiting global "community" makes the real one feel a bit dull superfluous.

Also, I think it's a factor of life being so easy and comfortable these days (in a material sense, at least if you live in the "developed" world and have a job) that it's easy to be lazy. While people may grumble about things in the news, the urgency for community action and organisation doesn't seem very real or urgent.

However there is some community organisation going on, involving "fun" things like sports and hobbies, things people enjoy - another aspect of the same phenomenon, perhaps? But the spirit to organise it still there, and is something that can be tapped into once things start to get difficult?

knutty knitter said...

Secret society for the young.....facebook?
etc, etc.

viv in nz

Jason said...

To me in the uk, the fascinating part of this post was here:

Communities need regular inputs of time and effort from their members, or they collapse into mass societies of isolated individuals – roughly speaking, what we've got now.

Our Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, was famous for saying that ‘There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.’ Her quote is hauled out and excoriated every time anyone wants to pinpoint her ‘evil’.

But this is nothing more than the same kind of bad faith shown by your UFO crowd. What many self-righteous people are so sedulously trying to avoid saying is that she was absolutely right, as things stood and still do stand, which is why the Labour movement here had to morph into a version of her ideas. Nobody could muster the energy for anything more!

Personally, when you say this:

Yet it wasn't some conspiracy of corporate minions who brought about that state of affairs; what happened, by and large, was that most Americans dropped out of the party system, and the professionals filled the resulting void.

… to me it is not hard to agree with G that the spell of the media plays a role. I think the rise of this atomized society and the rise of the alternative electronic reality do roughly coincide. It brings up that brilliant William Irwin Thompson idea of ‘electronic serfdom’, which is essentially what you have when the Grange is replaced by Second Life. :)

Don't tell me all the power-fantasy video games aren't taking up energy which could organize itself rather differently if it were unenglamoured. I know that you, JMG have talked about the 'debased magic' of fizzy brown sugar water. ( )

Glad Transition Towns are taken more seriously in this post. As you can see, they are gearing up to look at precisely these questions more closely:

deedavid said...

G. you make an interesting point re: young people and media.

I live north of the 49th, though what I see here in Canada probably holds true elsewhere. Most people work hard to keep their head above water. Looking around me at my neighbours, a good 80% are one paycheck away from the street. Debit is crushing the spirit of many. Best to stay low and not rock the boat, right?

disillusioned said...


I was (am?) a member of the Transition Town movement and saw the same early enthusiasm / drop off of participation happening. I went to about 15 meetings over a year, put in quite a bit of effort until there was just me (in a focus group) and two others. The group I was in started out as 20, but is now too small to be effective (also I got ill and I dropped out). All that remains of my contribution is this: a web-page of about 150 relevant and interesting links.

Why did that dynamic happen?

I'm in the UK - which has NOT had a history of rugged individualism (well, not until the 1980's). Indeed the reverse - European and UK history is filled with progress driven by collective movements, the biggest two over the last, say, 150 years being various socialist struggles and the war against fascism. For Americans, know that before 1900 working-class Europeans faced a similar struggle to US blacks prior to mass manumission. America had a civil war; in Europe Communism and socialism arose to tackle the same forces of repression. Be clear, this was the same struggle - freedom from forms of owner-slavery (...and I just don't know what that connection is not made in the US). The biggest expression of this in the UK was the Labour Party (but by no means the only one; every employer had unions; “working men's clubs” were common).

Then the German wars. From 1914 to the end of WWII about 120 - 150 million died across Europe, often grotesquely (...the number is unclear as it's difficult to figure the Russian losses). The entire experience was a gagging horror and nations only pulled through by exerting both individual and collective effort, sometimes maintained over decades (the last unrepaired WWII bombing damage I saw in the UK was in 1983; the last “Elenor Rigby” {the Beatle's “lonely people” - the collective of spinsters across Europe who would never have a husband, having served and fallen as soldiers} that I knew died in 1980).

So why has this tradition of collective will evaporated?

Governments have enacted socialist policies - the working classes mostly got what they wanted. Their cause successful, there is little to rally around. The German wars did for religion - attendances dropped from the 1950's (the visceral reactions here being that one of the following was certain: there was no God, God did not love his people, God is irrelevant or that any God that would permit these things was a God you turned your back on). For decades many churches had sub-dozen attendances and many were abandoned or re-purposed.

Plus TV arrived to soak up daily spare time; the effect is to displace family and hobby time with mute passivity.

Unifying factors (wars and Sunday worship) had been swept away; TV is intrinsically isolating and de-skilling. The cult of the individual-as-all was promoted; collectivism collapsed and is no longer normal.

Collectivism is both a social process and a habit; these skills have waned :(

Mark Stavish said...

John, a fine post on a topic we've discussed often, and one I recently asked on VOXHERMES, the newsletter, for the Institute for Hermetic Studies, in the form of, "What is modern spirituality building for the future?"

I'll step into the slippery terrain of bringing up modern spirituality in relation to politics and social action as so many of your readers are also involved in it in some form, and restate some unpleasant facts: the political Left, and Progressives in the US give the least amount of money to charity. Interestingly, the break down by State, shows that Northeastern Liberals are the cheapest in the bunch, Southern Conservatives, particularly those in Mississippi and Louisianan, give the most, percentile to their income.

My experience has been that " Progressives ", love to talk, complain, and point out the failures of society and those around them, but ask them to give the Three Ts: Time, Talent, and Treasure to a cause and they don't just gaze out the window, they run out the door. Excuses, excuses, excuses and pity me attitudes abound, and this is the reason why modern spirituality, and many of those causes and movements appended to it are irrelevant. Kick the ' conservatives ' if you will, but they at least can agree on something long enough to get something lasting done.

Look at the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and just about any fundamentalist Christian or Islamic group of two dozen people or more and they all have their own houses of worship. During the 1920's until the 1940s when most the Rosicrucian Order (AMORC)'s lodges were established, individual members often signed on and agreed to pay the mortgage to ensure the establishment of a local facility. The Masonic lodges in my area were all built by members making contributions specific to the building fund. The list goes on.

However, the welfare-entitlement mentality that permeates so many of the movements we would like to see succeed today is their very source of failure. They are in fact self-defeating, because how can you expect people to exhibit self-reliance, sacrifice, and commitment, when much of their psychology and philosophy is permeated with a sense of victimhood, powerlessness, and the idea that someone else, - Big Mommy, Big Daddy - will pick up the tab?

In the end, too many social and spiritual movements of the type discussed here fall into the cult of the personality, or abusive dictatorships, or simply fall apart, because ' the people ' are simply too morally weak to do what they need to do, and fall back into the comfortable and familiar role of being a victim, or child in adult shoes looking for approval and someone to tell them what to do, or to give their life meaning. There are also issues of quality leadership, but that is another post for another day.

The so-called educated class is not exempt from this fault, and a widespread lack of common sense and having to experience the results of their actions has created a group that simply intellectualize their failure better than others, but who still, in the end, act like sheep crying out for their elected Messiah or one from heaven to rescue them from themselves - and as such, they gladly do.

dragonfly said...

I live in a neighbourhood in the core of the largest Canadian city. Our neighbourhood is a community, thanks to the hard work of a few people and the willing participation of many more. We organize on the street (yard sales, street parties, dog walking...), through local activist organizations (for clean air, street safety, local business support, mass transit...), and on the internet (via Yahoo groups, for sharing of resources, handling emergencies, drumming up support for our favourite projects, businesses and issues). We call on local politicians to represent and intervene for us, they recognize us sufficiently to ask for invitations to local house parties to further their own political careers. But it is hard work and most of the people around here are working families with little time or energy to spare, so it's a fragile thing.

More than half the world live in urban settings. Cities and municipalities are at the lowest levels of democratic organization, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Bad in the sense of commanding less in political (taxation, lawmaking) resources, good in the sense of being more responsive to citizen demands. The latest Copenhagen Climate Change affair may have been a failure at the level of large national states, but it was wonderfully inspiring and fruitful at the level of municipal and regional governments. Hardly any media coverage of that, but nevertheless very useful exercise in international cooperation and networking.

Recently David Suzuki suggested that it is time to change the slogan "Think Globally, Act Locally" to "Think Locally, Act Locally". This works on a number of levels: democracy is still alive and well at the lower levels of government, it wards off the sense of overwhelming disaster by keeping the eyes on the ground, it builds community, it builds democracy, it gets stuff done, it inspires. I see otherwise politically apathetic folks get truly engaged when the issue is literally and figuratively on the street where they live. But it's hard work and people with families and jobs burn out and others have to step in to pick up the slack. It's always going to be hard work.

Arabella said...

Eegads, man! You expect us to have actual face-to-face interactions with other human beings and engage in truly frightening prospects such as commitment and dedication???? You are demanding!

I think you have exactly identified the most vital and most difficult aspects of the work that is in front of us to do. I very much appreciate this post.

Bilbo said...

I agree with a lot of what you say. I think the primary reason why our society cannot organize in communities as we have in the past is that we are in collective denial - denial of what the real problem is. Our collective behavior is much like that of an addict who refuses to admit his addiction. At first his drug makes him feel invincible, that he can do anything. Over time he needs more and more of it to get the same effect. Eventually the drug is no longer effective and causes new problems of its own which cannot be solved by taking more of the drug. Our society’s drug is the belief in perpetual growth, the belief that growth is a panacea that can solve all of our problems.

Belief in perpetual growth is much like belief in the scientifically impossible perpetual motion machine. I have met several people who refuse to believe that perpetual motion is impossible and that we will develop new science to replace that old dated science what denies them perpetual motion. This belief is exasperated by the virtual, digital experiences so predominate in our society. Many people believe that if you imagine it and believe strongly enough, you can do anything, the Tinkerbell Syndrome. This belief is strongest among many with computer programming experience.

Like any addition the belief in perpetual growth will persist until we hit rock bottom. When it becomes obvious to many that growth is no longer possible and that the pursuit of growth causes more problems than it solves.

How much damage will the withdrawal from addition to perpetual growth do to our society?

HeapSort said...

During the boom times of the postwar period, various economic and social changes reduced peoples' involvement in "natural" communities and group activities in favour of individual, family, or artificial group activities.

It seems to have been the consequence of so much wealth and all the things other posters have mentioned, and more: mass media (not just TV, but it's the most vivid emblem), rapid transit (personal or otherwise), the suburbs. Combine that with the terrors inspired by foreign places, the fragmentation of culture into subcultures, the political division between liberal (educated but selfish) and conservative (compassionate but ignorant) and their horn-locked battle, and office-cube jobs in multi-national conglomerates owned by millions of strangers (shareholders).

At the root of it was too much wealth, too fast. It quickly led to a pervasive sense of entitlement, so that more and more people in more and more countries, even if they were technically poor, believed it was their right to have whatever they wanted. I'm not saying the wealth was spread evenly, let alone "fairly", whatever that might mean, just that it was ubiquitous and in everyone's face, so it must have felt like everyone was suddenly rich.

I admit that I'm no expert, and the cause is not terribly important, because I don't think understanding it gives you the power to affect it, unless you just happen to be the right person in the right place at the right time, although even that is suspect.

In any case, now we have superficial community based on common likes and dislikes (usually shallow and pop-culture oriented), and not much else (at least where I live).

Anyway, on a personal level, I see (in myself, my friends and co-workers and our families) a general sense of disconnection and accompanying mistrust of leaders and regular people, lack of common beliefs and feelings, fear and no shortage of cowardice, lack of direction, and an underlying sense of powerlessness, hopelessness and uncertainty. Such feelings are most easily erased with entertainment and other distraction, usually in media but just as often in partying, watching sports, or drug abuse.

Overall, a sense of confusion brought about in no small part by the excesses of information. Especially misinformation, or at least, contradictory ideas and opinions. All of which, to those who just want to live their lives, often seem equally well argued by pointy headed pundits. The only sane choice is to just ignore it all.

As a society, we are diffuse. To incite the mass action of the air is to bring down a maelstrom. I don't much like the idea.

LynnHarding said...

Great post and start of a worthwhile thread. I have a couple of thoughts but not a lot of time right now to organize them properly so here goes:
1) I did a lot of organizing in the 60's and 70's from anti-war to anti-highway to food coops. Though a lot of the leadership was male, most of the real workers were female. When they all had to (or wished to) go off for paid employment the movements suffered. The men always get to tell the stories so they ignore the extent of female participation - or maybe they just don't notice!
2) To be successful as an organizer you have to have a clear goal and the process has to be FUN not BORING. Most meetings of earnest liberals are just deadly.
3) It is much easier to organize against something than for something. It is generally easier and more fun to destroy than to create. We have lots of organizations dedicated to tearing things up and stopping everything. That was the subject of one of your earlier posts. I imagine you will be getting to this problem as you must understand it well. Somehow one has to know what to do (predicament vs problem to be solved?) and then insert some "transcendence" into the organizing. The Catholic Workers party used to do a good job of that IMHO.
4) As for me, I am old and need to keep one foot in the FIRE economy in order to fund my own transition. However, I am trying to get a project going in my own small town. I am starting with the "public safety officials" who are the most powerful nay sayers and then I will work my way towards the people who already agree with me. We will see whether there is still so much fear and spite that people will rather starve than cooperate! I believe it will work.

eatclosetohome said...

This is a little off-topic, but what was your impression about the openness of the Grange to non-Christian religions? Supposedly they are religion-neutral, but every time there's a prayer before a meal at my local Grange, it's offered explicitly to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

Yaacov said...

Great post!

HeapSort said...

If someone were to start an organization that had any hope of taking on a life of its own, it would need a few things.

1. A clearly stated spiritual (human and moral) purpose.

It should acknowledge that human beings and the universe have a nature which is at least in partially hidden, eternal, and not fully knowable.

I suspect that all practical, non-profit organizations only work because they are in fact extensions of other, pre-existent--possibly informal--religious or spiritual or philosophical organizations.

2. Practical goals, and reasonably-defined tasks to achieve them.

Affecting real change provides a measurable sense of progress--it must be observably effective in ways that are deemed positive by both members and non-members. This might be the most important part, because it distinguishes an organization as making the world better by its existence. Without that, why bother?

3. Structure. It doesn't have to be a hierarchy, but usually a loose hierarchy or at least a sensible division of parts with some natural relationships amongst them.

4. An intellectual arm.

Organizations have to be able to explain themselves. The underlying goal must be logically sound, intuitively right and emotionally familiar. It must be easily expressed in sophisticated or common language. They must also be able to respond to criticism and to successfully criticize their opponents.

Movements live or die by their ability to describe themselves and their purpose. And that purpose must stand up to scrutiny.

5. Leadership.

Distinct from the intellectuals, hopefully. And not a single person, a charismatic with whom the organization lives and dies. And especially not a psychopath or other mentally disturbed person.

I suspect that spiritual purpose is by far the most important necessity. It's absence or distortion is the core of our problems today. So many people are without a shared spiritual belief system, or are part of one which is degenerate or silly.

We are an aimless people, we unhappy and dissatisfied modern men and women. At least, the goals of better safety and security, the direct pursuit of happiness (skipping the intermediate steps of working for it), or the dream of a house, two cars, two kids, a dog and a good job, just aren't cutting it.

That part of me which is (was?) a techno-utopian had always hoped that science and exploration of the universe would serve that purpose, but clearly that was naive. Most people don't care to cram their heads full of scientific facts and theories, or even to appreciate the world (or other worlds) without trampling it, nor would they like to live on other planets for which they are not evolved and physiologically well-suited. (But I can still dream about something like Starfleet once in a while.)

The religion of consumption has serious problems. But what else is there if you don't believe in anything? What kernel of truth is there around which to grow new social organization if life has no purpose but to be lived?

I pray, to no God, that it's something more than an endless afterlife of unbridled consumption where all resources are infinitely renewable.

But mostly I fear that we, human beings, are basically incapable of understanding the powers at our disposal, let alone using them sensibly. Even discounting those that depend on fossil fuels. But I could be wrong, and it's just that the fossil fuel explosion gave us too much, too soon, and we got too drunk. So we'll have a bad hangover, and hopefully survive to a more sober future, and learn to believe in something bigger than ourselves again. Just not the sky beings, please!

vera said...

JMG: what is easy is to try to push people into repetition of past efforts that stopped working, by pointing out their partial victories while ignoring their overall longterm failure. Your usually astute logic appears to be taking a backseat to wishful thinking.

Has the refusal to participate in rigged, unviable games improved anything? Of course it has. That's what rotted communism from the inside. -- Just think... if most people stopped voting... the system would be delegitimized overnight, and would be forced to reconfigure. All that without any of us sitting in miserable rooms arguing! :)

There is, among many people I know, tremendous hunger for community. As 'disillusioned' already pointed out, if we go about it in unfun, unrewarding, uninspiring ways, people will go back to screen watching. How do we go about creating community in a way that will blow our socks off? Now that is a question worth applying ourselves to!

I am not at all against sifting past experience for pearls to help us along, as long as careful sifting IS engaged in, past failures are acknowledged, and the dross is tossed.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

I was reading a Gary Snyder book of interviews called "The Real Work" that had me thinking along these lines recently. A point Snyder brought up that seemed striking to me was community versus network. With the internet we have all kinds of networks: for people who are interested in specific subjects of occultism, music, poetry, science-fiction, whatever. These groups often call themselves "online communities" and I can't totally disparrage them because I am part of a few myself... but after reading Snyder's thoughts about it they seem more like online networks. Networks that connect people with similar interests. But to parphrase Snyder, when living in a community you won't always agree with or be interested in the same things that people in a network are interested in. You live close to them, you may end up knowing more about their personal lives than you would in a network, how so-and-so is a brillant musician but can't keep a steady boyfriend, or that Mr. Jones across the street has started drinking heavier since his wife died. And you get irritated at the people in your community from time to time: the boxes of papers sitting on Georges porch for three years, Mary never managing her money right and always asking for help at a certain time of the month. Yet in a community the triumphs and victories will also be shared and more often than not the irritations overlooked... in times of weddings, aniversaries, the seasonal holidays. When it comes time to share in the harvest or work on a project with a group of people. But as others have pointed out our digital technology has caused us to withdraw. There have always been networks and I don't think they are bad. They are necessary even but networks can't or won't supplant community. Knowing someone in a network might help you with a project but will it help you get a garden planted, and food canned and stored for winter?
JMG -I know you don't where your druid hat too often on this blog, but this area of community is a place where a druid could help. Who remembers the collective knowledge of the tribe but the Bard, singer of songs, teller of tales, and a person that can help bind the peopl together in creative ritual. I for one, would like to hear how such a vocation can help build community, something needed in this time of long descent.

straker said...

"the phenomena of our inability as a society to organize effectively benefits both those with a profit motive"

Guess who has a profit motive? THE INDIVIDUAL.

Being doom-aware should cause everyone to reassess their relationship to money and their career aspirations. With 10%+ unemployment (including myself, BTW) now would be a good time to look in the mirror instead of merely playing the martyr.

Twilight said...

It's great topic, and community organizations seem like a glaring omission from our society. But why? I would suspect that it is related to the fact that we don't have communities anymore, let alone community organizations. I think that is due to the pervasive effects of abundant cheap energy and a society built around the automobile. Thanks to our many "energy slaves" we are able to exist as independent family groups with little or no interaction with neighbors or much contact with the community. People travel out of the community every day. As you have described before, the demise of the household economy has meant that often both people work, so nobody is a part of the local community. More mobility (people are not tied to the land through agriculture) means everyone is from somewhere else – and often do not expect to stay in the area long. The decline in per ca-pita income since the 1970s and the increase in debt load mean that people are working longer hours at those jobs, leaving less time left over.

So I think that the conditions that have caused this situation need to change before you will see any real increase in community involvement. Also, I think people will have to get a lot angrier for a lot longer before they are sufficiently motivated. I don't think the time is right yet, but lots of unemployed people with less access to energy will help change that.

A couple of other thoughts (in no order):

Probably the best organized and funded recent movement are the fundy Christian groups (maybe not grass root though), and I don't see that they have been very effective. For the most part their political candidates jump ship once they move far enough up the ladder to attract the interests of more traditional power sources of the center, leaving the religious agenda playing second fiddle.

I'm not totally convinced that corporations had even more unrestricted power a hundred years ago than they do now – most certainly that power was of a very different character, thanks to changes in society and technology. Their use of power now may be less overt, but they are probably more effective in manipulating people.

Successful organizations will be seen as a threat to the center, which will respond as you have described in past postings. They will also attract those who will see them as vehicles for their own advancement.

The corporations and government like us to be isolated. Isolated, frightened, passive people are much easier to manipulate and sell things to. So once again, the most important thing one one can do is to shut off the propaganda stream (mainly the TV), and go outside and do something. It may not reduce your commute, but it will free up time and stimulate brain activity, and you may even meet a neighbor.

straker said...

"My hypothesis is that politicians and professionals use television to subdue a populace that might otherwise find value in organizing."

Why does every argument have to culminate into a conspiracy theory? Did it ever occur to you that people might naturally gravitate towards TV as a form of entertainment? No, it has to be part of some Machiavellian plot.

Seaweed Shark said...


I appreciate your post and agree with almost every word.

Presumably you refrained from discussing minority religious movements -- quite a number of which have also adopted what you call the standard secret society template, for a reason.

You did not seem to be offering an explanation for the decline of communitarian groups during the 20th centuury. My suggestion is that the decline corresponded to the breakdown of local business systems, as they were replaced by national systems ruled from afar. The guy running the local factory might have been a corrupt bigot, but at least he was part of the local system, not living 3000 miles away. Steinbeck practically opens "The Grapes of Wrath" with precisely that point. John O'Hara's "Gibbsville" stories provide a picture of that earlier time -- when a businessman traveling from Pittsburgh to Philadephia had to negotiate a genuinely foreign social and economic scene, and needed to arrange for entry into the appropriate clubs, lodges or other cliques. People carried letters of introduction for a reason, well into the last century. I don't like to think of myself as old, but even I recall when a traveler would actually hear different music on the radio in different cities.

So, was the development of a grand national business market for the United States (let alone the world) a good thing? To me that's a troubling question, because asserting that it wasn't -- that local is better -- actually puts one on the same side of the fence as state's-rights separatists and some other sketchy people. There is no firm boundary line between a communitarian group, a militant armed separatist group and a millenarian religious cult. These things aren't necessarily the panacea for all the tough times we have had.

All the best,

s.e.ciaglaski said...

Dear JMG,

My observations of late political strategies, both successful and unsuccessful, i.e. moving goods and or services into private markets, or attempting to keep them public, such as healthcare, lead me to believe that a large portion of our problems come directly from the pseudo free-market system active in the U.S. today and the arbitrary rates set by the federal reserve staff, not necessarily the representative democracy that rules us.

The almighty dollar, at the heart of the system, has largely outshone charitable deeds, and replaced the value of honor and dignity with networth. That is to say that the perceived value of the dollar through the display of its power. The pyramid that we citizens support is perpetuated, or enlarged by our desires to stand closer to the top than our neighbors, instead of helping our neighbors grasp a foothold, too.

Am I wrong to believe that the no-hold-barred version of the Free Market economy has ushered in the "fend for yourself" mentality among consumers, who would wittingly trample their peers (to death) for a better spot in the wal-mart check-out line, and business owners who trash the credit and, in some cases, the lives of their very own investors, showing absolutely no remorse when quarterly bonuses come around?

Your latest post suggests that our current state is the result of our own laziness, combined perhaps, with paranoia and competition.

"... if people were willing to invest time, energy, and commitment into such organizations, we'd likely already have them."

I also believe that representative democracy can work - just as soon as Americans will complain about not having a voice in the political arena, they will go home and be fed poll results through the tube! Their voice then reduced to a television rating and whammo! abstractions aplenty, and the only voices heard are those broadcasted on FOX news.

So naive are us young folks who haven't yet uncovered the placebo of progress, which is by all means a majority in the U.S. (probably among the baby boomers, too), and apparently the most represented. For this will be my argument, that current representative democracy could be viewed as exceedingly functional - by looking at the population being represented: greedy, lawless, individualistic. Please note that a majority only requires 51% of the vote (or a clever hand inside the diebold) ; to qualify, I would never make a generalization so rash as to accuse 300,000,000+ people of greed and lawlessness.

I am always very excited to read your blog, as I feel each time I do, I am acquiring fractions of your knowledge and wisdom.

My question to you is: If you were the newly appointed skipper of an irreparably damaged ship, floating into deeper waters, what would you do? Flotsam and Jetsam the cursed vessel or put all hands on deck to remove water by the bucket-full, and weather the long descent, in hopes of finding a shoreline on the horizon?

I know you cannot definitively answer some of my questions but I appreciate any insight you are willing to offer, towards any of them. I am a 20 year old male residing in Michigan, and an infrequent attendee of our local Transition Town meetings (as frequently the meetings are diluted with the type of headstrong criticism that points fingers to blame with but lifts not a finger when the time comes to manifest change.)

Thanks for your time,

Scott Ciaglaski

DIYer said...

Yet another splendid essay, JMG. I only have a few rambling remarks about it...

I just read Sharon Astyk's response, btw. And I was going to say something about the superficiality of "online communities" and how I can count on one hand the RL encounters I've had with online friends, with fingers left over. I've lost touch with some of them since, BTW. But I see that this has been discussed.

What I do see, and I'm pretty sure you do too, is a sort of inverted synergy about to become apparent. In much the same way oil depletion will reduce greenhouse emissions, our economic collapse will soon reduce the degree to which our industrial society occupies all of everyone's time. The nonfunctional nuclear family of Sharon's critique is about to become an extended family against the ardent wishes of its members.

Or put another way, the bloom is beginning to fade from the rose of rugged individualism.

eeyores enigma said...

I for one would like to see you acknowledge and analyse the SUPERSYSTEM under which all of what you write about takes place.

The abhorrent system which;
Elicits the worst behavior mankind is capable of.
Makes all the "right things" that need to be done uneconomical and therefore impossible.
Decides who lives and who dies.
Monopolizes mankinds thoughts and actions making it nearly impossible to understand the issues yet alone pull together and act.


I know you all think that money is just a benign background issue simply a means of exchange but IMO it is everything.

I'm not talking about "...the love of money...root of all evil." stuff either. That totally misrepresents the current status of this system. I would say rather, "... the power over life and death is money is the root of all evil"

Iconoclast421 said...

I dont see what the big deal is about UFO supposedly looking like stealth aircraft from the same era. If you were an alien with advanced technologies, how hard would it be to make your spacecraft look like whatever you wanted? Probably not very difficult, compared to actually travelling beyond the speed of light. So logically you would make your ship look like the most advanced form of terrestrial craft. And they of course would very easily find out what is our most advanced craft. This theme is evident throughout current and past culture, and is used extensively by the military. It is a very basic doctrine. Even the movie Avatar recycles the same idea. I dont get why you'd make such a big deal about it. If aliens are here they are going to be deeply connected to our culture, in ways we cannot even comprehend. Indeed they would know us better than we know ourselves. They would very easily be able to move about us without being detected. I believe that what we consider to be UFOs, the real unidentified ones anyway, are simply their attempt at long-term acclimation.

I am curious, how do you "rationalize" what happened in LA in 1942? (The "Battle of LA".) Do you simply dismiss that too?

DIYer said...

In another random burst of brain activity, I was trying to think of other examples... minorities, gays, feminists, and various religious sects have organized for their common good. The successful ones seem to become attached to one or the other of the major political parties as a faction.

Then I remembered one of the most effective organizations around ... you have admitted to being a member ... radio amateurs. Single issue, focused, and global.

Laura said...

I think the explosion of media is a mixed bag. Entirely passive forms of entertainment, like television, are indeed leading to reduced community involvements. But there are also communities springing up around various forms of entertainment -- fan clubs, discussion boards, crafting clubs, computer game guilds, etc. So, I suggest that media doesn't always diminish community -- it has also redirected community efforts, usually to something more banal than previous. And before somebody tells me that crafting clubs do too have a survival-oriented purpose, how useful is scrapbooking really? And how many knitting club members make thick, warm sweaters, as opposed to cute dishcloths and lacy, frilly scarves? And how many quilts does one household need?

Ricardo Rolo said...

Well, I guess that bringing my own experience ( that is far from the american one ) might help here, as I live in a country that had during centuries a "frontier" line of thought...

First of all, people forget that you can only can afford to be individualistic if you have a strong State behind... otherwise you need to cooperate even to survive. For some reason the english law invented the outlaw figure ... On the other hand the State has all the interest in the world in breaking any community effort ( I've seen with my eyes too much cases of police taking down small urban farms or playgrounds due to some guy in the city hall deciding that you can't farm there... right beside some mushroom-paced growth building :( ), especially if just only slightly directed to some kind of political change ( and all is political in some sense )

But in the recent century the entity that made most of the adversity to communitary effort in here were the unions and do-gooders in generally. And that because all of the projects made by those do-gooders ( cooperatives for example ) ended in the plight of time, effort and sometimes even material tools to little-or-not related efforts and the treatment of volunteers as employees by the directions, sometimes with a discret ( or not so much ) hand of the political forces behind. And nothing vacinates people more against communitarian efforts that seeing a well intended effort being taken over by forces as shadowy as those... that explains why most of the people in my country that have less than 30-35 are extremely adverse to communitary efforts: they passed all their childhood hearing stories of some broken cooperative or of being time-exploited by the red cross direction ...

This made that the only strong remain of the communitary life that my country had is the fire departements ( that, unlike in other countries, are almost exclusively composed of volunteers in here , and, related to that, they are high in the consideration of the common folk, to the point that people prefer to call them than the hospitals to get help ) and even there the governement is forcing the directions to nominate members of the police, military police or even of the army to the high spots. And as other poster said above, communitary habits can be lost and they will need to be resurrected sooner or later to

John Michael Greer said...

Yes, I thought this one would hit a nerve. I'm going to break with my usual habit and not respond to everyone, partly because I have a bunch of other demands on my writing time just at this moment, and partly because nearly everything I'd say has either already been said by one or another of the commenters below, or belongs to next week's post.

The one exception I'll make is to Scott Ciaglaski, who asked: "If you were the newly appointed skipper of an irreparably damaged ship, floating into deeper waters, what would you do? Flotsam and Jetsam the cursed vessel or put all hands on deck to remove water by the bucket-full, and weather the long descent, in hopes of finding a shoreline on the horizon?"

We know a fair amount about the waters we're in, because many other ships have foundered here before. We also know, at this point, that even if I sound the alarm and try to get all hands on deck, most of the passengers and crew won't respond -- a majority of them don't believe there's a problem, and most of those who do recognize that the water rising belowdecks isn't a sign of forward progress are convinced that it's more important to criticize the shipbuilder and bicker over what a perfect ship would be like than it is to get to work on necessary, humdrum steps like manning the bilge pumps.

That being the case, the ship is going to sink, and most of the people on board -- especially those who aren't willing to take any action -- are going to drown. The question then becomes simply one of how many people are willing to take constructive action: to help hand out life jackets and get life boats loaded and in the water, if it comes to that; to do short term repairs to keep the ship above water as long as possible, if that turns out to be an option.

Since it's hard to know how many people will show up to help, it's crucial to start with things that even one individual can do with good results, like putting on a life jacket; but it's also crucial to try to suggest larger projects, on the off chance that enough people become excited by them to go to work and accomplish them.

Since I'm not the captain of the ship, but simply one voice among many offering suggestions in a very difficult time, all these points are even more true -- and if you glance back over the archives of the Report, you'll see the strategy sketched out above in action.

evan said...

eeyores enigma,
I completely agree. I have recently started attending transition town meetings here in my town (Louisville, KY). I have noticed that there is basically nothing in the handbook about our monetary system... local currencies are advocated but I think people need to understand the current system so that they can really see what kind of power we are dealing with. Without understanding the monetary system I don't see how people can have a clear view of the power structures in existence. I tried to intiate a conversation about money at the last meeting and it didn't seem to register.

anyone with tips engaging people on this front? These people are receptive to "fringe" theories about oil so surely it is possible. Bucky Fuller's book, Critical Path has some really good stuff, I might try peddling it to some people.

Murdoch said...

Yet it wasn't some conspiracy of corporate minions who brought about that state of affairs; what happened, by and large, was that most Americans dropped out of the party system, and the professionals filled the resulting void.--JMG

I think that what happened is that political campaigns became more and more expensive, and people who could supply the funds crowded out the local organizations. Why organize a bunch of fractious locals when you can sway a winning majority with hot-button issue advertising? And the locals don't want what the corporate funders want.

Here in Jackson Heights, Queens, NYC, the Democratic Party is very corporate friendly. It hates primaries, preferring to appoint people to office in mid-term so they can run as incumbents in the next election. Our friend, Danny Dromm, has been active in the party, serving as district leader, and has been planning to run for city council. A gay fourth-grade school teacher in his day job (he came out years ago when the right-wing attacked a diversity curriculum in the NYC schools), he's established two political clubs along the way: the Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club of Queens and the New Visions Democratic Club. Both meet monthly, with envelope stuffing parties in between. Both have fifty or more active members (overlapping); New Visions can draw a couple of hundred to special meetings.

But the 80-yr-old city council incumbent decided to run for a third term when our billionaire mayor overturned a term-limits rule, and the party naturally supported the incumbent because, as one insider explained, she was head of two important committees (i.e., in position to massage important interests). Danny ran anyway, with the help of the Working Families Party, an organization that supports progressive candidates by listing them on a separate ballot in the voting booth -- you can vote for X either as a Democrat or a WFP candidate.) Danny had the troops, WFP provided a staff and electoral savvy, and we won. The party found itself without volunteers in our district, and couldn't afford the advertising to sway such a minor race. (And the incumbent had long since stopped catering to mere constituents.)

Now, of course, Danny is the toast of the Party, and his inauguration was marked by speeches from the US senator and the US congressman (head of the Queens Democrats). But the Working Families Party is having to endure several harassing investigations and possible indictments -- they won several races against the establishment and are becoming too effective.

So the good guys organize and win a few, just as the money runs out. We'll see what happens next. But it seems to me that the will to organize isn't lacking. As cities and corporate agriculture have expanded and the old communities have dissipated, the mechanics of organizing have become difficult, and are made as difficult as possible by funded interests that don't want them to succeed.

How to counter? The right-wing agenda in the US is planned, funded, and carried out by paid professionals. The progressive agenda is in the hands of scattered individuals whose attempts to organize are ignored, distorted, or demonized in the media that most rely on for information. Perhaps that shouldn't have stopped us, but until the rise of the Internet, we stumbled in the mists of fantasy generated by the powers-that-be. (Along the way, we allowed public schools, intended to give citizens background needed to contribute to government, to be perverted into vocational schools to train clerks and consumers.) It's very late in the game, but maybe, just maybe, we can get our progressive act together before the final whistle blows. (According to the likes of Kunstler, we'll soon be living and acting locally whether we want to or not.)

Evan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin said...

Your remarks about UFO enthusiasts remind me of something Terence McKenna said about that crowd. Having attended a UFO conference, and seen there many disparate groups with incompatible claims of fantastic experiences rubbing shoulders with one another, and yet expressing no disagreement and holding no debate among themselves, he realized that the question to ask them was not was not "Why do you believe in extraterrestrials?" but rather "Why do you believe that you believe in extraterrestrials?" It seems to have been a matter of entering a realm not of truth-seeking but of mutually suspended disbelief.

I think the obstacles to building community and taking constructive action in the United States are more formidable than apathy and laziness. Powerful forces of alienation exist in American society. Robert Anton Wilson observed that several decades ago group hatred became once again fashionable, so long as the target group is the "right" group to hate, as permitted by whatever happens to be the current consensus of opinion. Dmitry Orlov also has pointed out that America has many groups within the wider culture that have an overdeveloped sense of identity in contradistinction to the rest of the population. All of this militates against constructive community action, though the second case could perhaps be turned to advantage at least for some people.

jagged ben said...

Thanks for this post. As someone with a mid-level leadership in a grassroots organization, I can't tell you how tiring it can be to hear people talk about change but not do anything else about it. I do think that perhaps you are ignoring a bit of a recent burst of organizing activity (anti-war, environmental), but that's hard to quantify. Thanks also for giving a shout-out (however begrudging) to the Transition Town movement, the only people who are actually organizing (inter)nationally in response to peak oil, at least AFIAK.

Ana's Daughter said...

Wow; lot of teal deers in the comments this week.

@eatclosetohome: since JMG is too busy to respond to every comment and I'm also a Granger, I wanted to address your question about non-mainstream religions. My experience is that the Grange as an organization is fairly OK with non-mainstream religions. The Seventh Degree is a speculative recreation (based on what was known in the 1860s) of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Furthermore, in most fraternal lodges the presiding officer sits at the head of the room, but in the Grange the head of the room is occupied by "the three Graces" --- Flora, Pomona, and Ceres. You can do the math on that one. ;)

The ability of individual Grange members to handle non-mainstream religions can be another matter, though. Many Grangers are Christians pretty much by default, and some of them are sufficiently inclined to fundamentalism that they refuse to take the "pagan" Seventh Degree. As a practitioner of a non-mainstream religion myself, I've never had any problems in the Grange, and I've attended meetings at several Granges (including my own) which have a number of non-Christian members, but then I also have encountered fellow Grangers with whom I would not dream of either mentioning religion or acknowledging my actual beliefs if asked.

DeadBeat Dad said...

JMG closed with:
“….but in the world that is taking shape around us, the alternative for a great many of us may be much worse. I plan to talk about that in next week's post.”

We already live in a police state. I think most 20th C. nations have this character to some degree. This will only get much worse.

I think one of the most dangerous and ominous aspects in America is the fractured families in America…at least 25% of children with no dad in their lives.

I know JMG doesn’t believe in conspiracies, but do you think that circumstance results only from feminism, out-of-control bureaucrats and ravenous divorce lawyers? There’s a lot more behind this devastating phenomenon.

Think about how easy the propaganda and brainwashing will be over a young person without a family network, and one or both parents were missing in the kids’ development.

It’s time to push back hard. Step up guys, your children are counting on you. Don’t get pushed out of your kids lives. Is a government which destroys your relationship to your own kin a government worth defending?

John Michael Greer said...

Well, I managed to excavate myself a little further than expected, so have time for a few responses to those who asked specific questions.

G, television's a drug, no question. The question that interests me is why any given drug becomes popular, or pandemic, in a particular society.

Thai Up, one of the things that happens very often in the declining years of a civilization is that the bulk of the people withdraw from participation in society, in favor of one or another kind of private world. It's often a religion, though it doesn't have to be. Toynbee talks about the emergence of an "internal proletariat," which consists of all those people who live in a civilization but no longer share its values or invest any of their emotional energy in it. My guess is that TV, and other electronic drugs, help foster that.

Hector, my ideas for building community would fill a couple of posts all by themselves. Yes, those posts are on the way.

Bilbo, that's an excellent analogy.

Eatclosetohome, my experience closely parallels that of Ana's Daughter. Too many Christians, in Granges and elsewhere, forget that not everybody belongs to their religion.

Vera, the reason organizing stopped working is that people stopped doing it. If you refuse to take the medicine, don't blame it for not curing the illness. Nor will you ever get any kind of community to happen if you insist that it has to "blow your socks off." It's exactly the insistence that we have to be entertained by the things we do that keeps so many good things from happening.

John Michael Greer said...

Eeyore, I get about one email a week insisting that I ought to acknowledge that their particular hobgoblin is the One Big Issue. If I thought it was the issue that mattered, I would already have said so. 'Nuf said.

Iconoclast, the same logic could be used to insist that the world is full of pink unicorns, who are very good at disguising themselves as other things. There's no evidence that we're being visited by aliens, and plenty of evidence -- you can read it in my book if you're interested -- that the UFO mythology has other sources.

Deadbeat Dad, we don't live in a police state. If we lived in a police state, you would have been dragged out of bed at 3 am by armed thugs and vanished into the night, and your remains would be found in a mass grave a decade from now. You, and other Americans who have gotten into the habit of using that rhetoric, insult people who do have to endure such things by claiming to be among them. Enough!

John Michael Greer said...

Justin, I nearly missed your question -- my apologies. I don't wear my Druid hat often in this forum, and while I appreciate the suggestion, it's been my experience that the only context in which a Druid has much luck building community is among other Druids. Mind you, we're working at it, using a lot of old tools and some new ones as well, but I don't think anything we've got is a panacea for the failure of community in society as a whole.

When Rome came unglued, a minority religious movement turned out to be the one group in Classical society that was able to rebuild a communal life in the face of almost universal cynicism and individualism. That group, the Christian church, ended up defining the future of the western world. One or more groups are going to do the same thing in the future ahead of us. Which group will it be? I don't think that's decided yet, but it will be a group.

Dwig said...

I've been silent on this blog for a while -- too much going on in my little world -- but this post definitely deserves some comments, and has gotten lots. (52 comments in about a day! Is that a record? In any case, the post clearly hit home to many readers).

I was a non-joiner myself for most of my life, but I've been increasingly pushing my comfort zone in recent years by joining some community organizations; first my local neighborhood council, and recently, a nascent Transition Initiative in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. Creating social capital is a crucial part of both endeavors. (John Michael, I'd very much like to see you and Rob Hopkins discuss your serious doubts, and how they are or aren't being addressed by the many and various initiatives. One of the main aspects that appeals to me about the Transition approach is the centrality of learning.)

Many of the commenters offered explanations for the decline of social capital that Putnam writes about. It'd be nice if they'd read Section III of Bowling Alone, where he gives a list of plausible suspects and, like a detective, looks for both positive and negative evidence for each. That section is a good study example of social science in action, and not surprisingly (to me, at least), the result is a combination of factors, not a single "villain".

Another useful part of the book is his brief discussion of the rise of social capital in the first half of the 1900s. In considering the question of how we're to re-grow the needed social capital, it's useful to consider how we (well, our ancestors) did it 100 years ago. John Michael, would you like to elaborate on that from your historical studies?

Finally, I'm going to advertise (yet again) my own focus in community. As the post mentions, there's costs of several kinds to creating and maintaining community. There's also a variety of dysfunctions that communities are susceptible to. I have a start at a site intended to explore the structure and dynamics of community, and especially the factors that contribute to the health or sickness of communities. It's there, and I welcome visitors, and more especially collaborators. (I must admit that I haven't updated it for some time now; I think I need some social capital to energize me.)

das monde said...

Cooperation or community building is a good call, even if the uphill slope is steeper than it normally should be. Biggest inequalities between haves and havenots come from cooperation gaps.

But appearances of relative futility are more daunting than just apathetic conformity. Particularly financial imperatives (to pay off debts, or for social promotion as it is now) keep people very busy. Fundraising is so much easier for the other side, more interested in people believing in the sanctity of selfishness.

If the Granger example was that effective, it invited the big interests to adopt. By now their adaptation looks pretty systematic and thorough. TV addiction and other raw powers of idleness look pretty selectively organized. We should have patience of gradual counter-adaptation as well. If the dominance of narrowly responsible elites depends on us not doing any cooperation, it is clear then what to start doing.

By the way, I'm visiting US (Wisconsin) in March. Does that offer a chance of more immediate huddle?

Don said...

John, I know you said you might not be able to respond to all the posts here, but I wondered whether you might make some comments in reply to Sharon Astyk's friendly critique of this post.

Sharon basically says that the reason most of us Americans don't work at building community is because after spending so much of our time as cogs in the industrial wheel, we're simply too darn tired and have too little time to devote to community-building. Indeed, that has been my own experience.

Any thoughts of your own here?

Trebor Resro said...

Astroturfing comes to mind.

porge said...

Eeyore's enigma,

agree, agree, agree.

Money is the Big Lie. The finely crafted simulacra known as the media has convinced us that money is more important than even water.
This illusion is rapidly breaking down and we do, as the ancient Chinese proverb (curse) purports, live in interesting times.
Have you ever heard of the Zeitgeist Movement?
In my view these guys have it absolutely correct up to the technotopian vision for the future.........but i am not sure that it has to be as gloomy and doomy as many others here and elsewhere on the web.
We may have more resources, including energy, left than is assumed by the semi-informed.
As far as I know there has never been a complete and comprehensive inventory of all the earth's resources and an attempt to devise the best and most efficient way of utilizing them.
I am not trying to change your opinions as I know from TOD you won't be swayed by anything except facts. Just throwing it out there.

vera said...

Great tale, Murdoch! And it illustrates well the cluelessness most of us have about the ways of power. Those that have the most power and most wealth will find the means to harass and hamstring those who by dint of hard work manage to carve out a place. Of course, if that fails, there are many other strategies. Cooptation being one of them.

JMG: I did not suggest we need to be entertained. I suggested that building community connections needs to be enjoyable and inspiring. And in fact, I would go as far as to say, if creating bonds with other folks is not enjoyable and inspiring, you are actually doing something else.

You say: “the reason organizing stopped working is that people stopped doing it”. So are you actually saying that the earlier Americans were so dumb and blind that – while they had this effective and working tool – they simply just walked away from it?! It could not possibly be true that they walked away from it for a good reason?

Jen said...

I enjoy reading your essays; they have helped me wean myself off the Chicken Little websites and craft a more practical and calm response to these troubled times.

A few years ago, with the birth of our second child, my partner and I went consciously looking for more community. We went down several dead-end paths, found some useful but limited social organizations and finally found the answer that meets our needs.

We now live in a cohousing community where we enjoy a large degree of privacy in our own home and we participate fully in the responsibilities and privileges of our common facilities and structure. We have the option of eating common meals together five nights a week (plus the usual potlucks and parties). We trade childcare, organize work parties, use consensus to make group decisions, and craft a budget that includes our annual weekend retreat as well as the insurance, water/sewer, and property tax. Our children know each of the adults in the 30 households by name and are recognized and cared for in return. We are usually politically and socially active in the larger community as well, to varying degrees depending on the individual.

This is just to point out one example of viable community building in today's world. I find that physical proximity matters a lot, and the tradeoffs (no full autonomy, time commitments) are worth it.

There are cohousing communities all over the world (the Danish concept was first popularized in the US by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett in the early 1980s). A lot more information can be found at

cyndi said...

I live in a co-housing community, and it's true that the time, energy, and emotional commitments are great, BUT it is doable for those who want to create a new way of living. I don't see a new powerdown culture being forged without community as the glue that holds it all together. There is tremendous advantage to like minded groups of individuals learning to live and work together, because these groups can accomplish amazing things. They are not without problems, BUT it takes a tremendous amount of faith to create a new culture and community can provide a safe haven in taking these leaps of faith.

Thardiust said...

The Costs of Community reminds me of a poem I read today.


On the surface of the world right now there is
war and violence and things seem dark.
But calmly and quietly, at the same time,
something else is happening underground
An inner revolution is taking place
and certain individuals are being called to a higher light.
It is a silent revolution.
From the inside out. From the ground up.
This is a Global operation.
A Spiritual Conspiracy.
There are sleeper cells in every nation on the planet.
You wont see us on the T.V.
You wont read about us in the newspaper
You wont hear about us on the radio
We don't seek any glory
We don't wear any uniform
We come in all shapes and sizes, colors and styles
Most of us work anonymously
We are quietly working behind the scenes
in every country and culture of the world
Cities big and small, mountains and valleys,
in farms and villages, tribes and remote islands
You could pass by one of us on the street
and not even notice
We go undercover
We remain behind the scenes
It is of no concern to us who takes the final credit
But simply that the work gets done
Occasionally we spot each other in the street
We give a quiet nod and continue on our way
During the day many of us pretend we have normal jobs
But behind the false storefront at night
is where the real work takes a place
Some call us the Conscious Army
We are slowly creating a new world
with the power of our minds and hearts
We follow, with passion and joy
Our orders come from the Central Spiritual Intelligence
We are dropping soft, secret love bombs when no one is looking
Poems ~ Hugs ~ Music ~ Photography ~ Movies ~ Kind words ~
Smiles ~ Meditation and prayer ~ Dance ~ Social activism ~ Websites
Blogs ~ Random acts of kindness…
We each express ourselves in our own unique ways
with our own unique gifts and talents
Be the change you want to see in the world
That is the motto that fills our hearts
We know it is the only way real transformation takes place
We know that quietly and humbly we have the
power of all the oceans combined
Our work is slow and meticulous
Like the formation of mountains
It is not even visible at first glance
And yet with it entire tectonic plates
shall be moved in the centuries to come
Love is the new religion of the 21st century
You don't have to be a highly educated person
Or have any exceptional knowledge to understand it
It comes from the intelligence of the heart
Embedded in the timeless evolutionary pulse of all human beings
Be the change you want to see in the world
Nobody else can do it for you
We are now recruiting
Perhaps you will join us
Or already have.
All are welcome
The door is open

~ author unknown

I have no idea who wrote SPIRITUAL CONSPIRACY but, your post on Thursday and that poem kind of parallel how the French and many South American countries go out on the street ,almost daily, to protest their failing governments.
In the end though, I agree with your assumption that every day people taking action, in the shadows of an eroding bureaucracy, can achieve a smoother landing easier whenever an empire's rotting power cores send it into decline than by pressuring their representatives directly. I've also noticed, Most protests or lobbies, especially modern ones, tend to be pretty useless because of political inertia that's been building up for quite some time in the U.S.A's political system and many in bureaucracies abroad.

DickLawrence said...

Since I came to JMG's column this week via TheOilDrum, via Energy Bulletin, I had a chance to read Sharon Astyk's reaction to this article. She puts a lot of blame on "the system" of work nowadays that takes up so much of everyone's time that they have no time and energy for anything else, including local community organizing.

Yet go back 100 years in the U.S.: more than half the population was farmers, and one thing I know for sure about working a small farm 100 years ago is that it was a damn hard way to make a living - not just in the intensity of labor, but in the time commitment. Yet these same folks built community organizations including the Grange networks and local political movements. They worked at least 50-60 hour weeks but built and sustained Grange activities and local groups in their small available spare time.

Commenter "G" is onto an important point; we can validate it by answering the question "How do working folks actually spend their time?" Take away TV, Internet, radio, and driving to work and suddenly most people would find a lot of spare time they never thought they had.

Plus, they would start talking again to the only people they see on a regular basis: their neighbors and people in the nearest small town. The sense of community begins there.

Dick Lawrence

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, I'll be discussing that next week.

Das Monde, I'd welcome a chance to sit and talk, but Wisconsin's better than 700 miles from here.

Don, I'll try to make time to respond to her there. The short form is that 100 years ago, most people worked 50 to 60 hours a week, plus a great deal of additional labor in the household economy. Somehow they found time for community -- so lack of time isn't the problem.

Trebor, that's one of the things that's become possible due to the vacuum I mentioned.

Porge, I'm not going to get into the whole Zeitgeist business here. Gah.

Vera, the process by which most Americans abandoned a process that was costly, difficult, and effective for a variety of gambits that promised to be much easier and cheaper, but turned out not to work, is well worth studying -- not least because it has plenty of lessons for the present and future. Still, if you're going to insist on the sort of disparaging caricatures you've used in your comment, I'm not sure the conversation will be more than wasted breath.

Jen and Cyndi, I certainly don't dismiss cohousing as an option; nor, for that matter, the handful of communes that survived the wreck of the Seventies. There are certainly working options out there.

Thardiust, have you ever read Marilyn Ferguson's The Aquarian Conspiracy, or Charles Reich's The Greening of America? Your poet is far from the first to have these ideas.

Dick, exactly!

Richard said...

I believe there is another factor involved in the decline of community that hasn't been addressed yet. If you've ever read "Our Stolen Future" by Theo Colborn, or any of a number of other sources about environmental pollution, we are under a constant barrage of toxins of our own making. They have already been shown to affect the behavior and social structure of animals, including neglecting basic tasks.

Is it such a stretch to conclude the same effects are happening in human society, and since they are so widespread we don't notice because what would have been aberrant is now the new normal, and it's come upon us like the slowly boiling frog. Yes, we've greatly reduced many infections diseases and extended the average lifespan with ever more technologies, but so many of them just allow people to live much longer in weakened or unhealthy states.

Thus I agree with those posters here who recognize that people who worked long hours 100 years ago still had time for community. TV and media are certainly a factor, but I don't think they explain everything. I think Sharon Astyk is right that most people are simply too tired to get involved after their work, because most people are sick, even if they consider themselves healthy. The same or even lesser amounts of work is more stressful to people now because their bodies have to contend with all the toxic stress from the environment. TV addiction may partially be a side effect of this because wathing TV takes very little physical or mental energy compared to community building.

This of course does not bode well for us during the long descent, and is a reason I lean towards a harder crash in this country than historical precedents indicate, even if it takes longer for us to get to that point than some poorer countries. It's just that I think far fewer modern people will be able to handle the rough conditions than those of historical collapsing civilizations.

Of course, after industrial society is no more, the toxicity of the environment will decline too, but it will take many generations to get back to normal.

I think this possibility doesn't get mentioned very often because it's particularly disconcerting to people, at least that's the response I get. Especially if you mention that the worst damage happens to people in the womb or in infancy.

Theo Tiefwald said...

Since you mentioned Putnam's book BOWLING ALONE, you will notice that he wrote in that book that nations and areas which are very racially/ethnically diverse are some of the most disconnected communities which are plagued by low levels of trust which degrades communal ties; for a quick summary of his research read - - to sum it up:

"Low trust with high diversity not only affects ethnic groups, but is also associated with:

* Lower confidence in local government, local leaders and the local news media.
* Lower political efficacy – that is, confidence in one's own influence.
* Lower frequency of registering to vote, but more interest and knowledge about politics and more participation in protest marches and social reform groups.
* Less expectation that others will cooperate to solve dilemmas of collective action (e.g., voluntary conservation to ease a water or energy shortage).
* Less likelihood of working on a community project.
* Less likelihood of giving to charity or volunteering.
* Fewer close friends and confidants.
* Less happiness and lower perceived quality of life.
* More time spent watching television and more agreement that "television is my most important form of entertainment".

So as the USA and other Western nations become more and more ethnically/racially diverse, we can expect them to become EVEN LESS community-oriented in the coming decades.

Also, communities which are strong are first and foremost organic, especially communities bound by family, ethnic group, town, province, region, etc. In a USA which is increasingly rootless (people constantly moving around, unknown neighbors, loose family connections, etc), a nation full of increasingly isolated and ethnically-unconnected people who live in anonymous mass-urban areas and/or disconnected suburbia, the problem is clearly that it is VERY difficult to form viable organic communities in these very non-organic and unnatural settings.

Altoid Addict said...

I think cohousing makes a lot of sense, especially in terms of resource use and costs (bulk food, heating bills, etc). The main difficulty that I've seen is getting co-ops and other communities started. In the co-op I live at, we're having problems keeping the rooms filled. It's a wonderful community, but we'd be more stable if we had about 5 more people living here. And when you're trying to get everything working internally, it's hard to have time to connect with the outside community. Especially when the members who put the most effort into things get frustrated and move out every few years.

Still, I'm hopeful, and I think we'll be at least somewhat prepared for the gradual end of the Industrial Age. Especially since it's the Rust Belt. We're a bit more used to getting by with less than the rest of the country, I'd say.

hawlkeye said...

When more than 90 per cent of our food comes from thousands of miles away, it's bound to warp our wills as much as Warcraft.

Among the things that bond true communities, surely the food supply is most important. Absent a dependable, local food supply, there's no hope for any community, because everyone has left to find food. What power exists without a pantry?

Yet securing food-supply infrastructures (water, topsoil, seeds, nursery stock, tools) isn't always near the top of the list of today's community-building groups' priorities. The complacency engendered by 24-hour supermarkets is insidious. Even our local Grange is right now little more than a social club with a building, and thank God we've salvaged that much; hopefully it can become a hub to help re-populate ourselves with food-growers, as we unpopulate ourselves with screen-droids.

My strategy is to employ a three-word formula for community-building: Feed One Another. Grab a hoe and let's talk about it while we work...

Ariel55 said...

Dear JMG,

After some thought on your thought provoking thread, if I had a million dollars, I would be inclined to make you "Captain" by giving you your own radio program. I love your uncommon commen sense!
Thanks for the post, as always. Best wishes.

Bob Kincaid said...

I've never read your postings before, but if this is indicative of the usual quality, I'll be back. My head is spinning with things I recognize, things I don't and what happens at the intersections.

One of the things that occured to me is the political town meeting model of New England villages, in which is practiced the closest thing this country has to direct democracy. Does that model fit within "community" as you define it?

Regardless of one's opinion of them, are the modern "megachurches" attempts at community that have anything to offer this discussion?

Is there a size limit to "community?" If so, what is it?

Finally, I think I need to get my hands on that Gary Snyder book mentioned along the way.

LynnHarding said...

When I "left home" to go to work I abandoned a sink full of dirty dishes and the clothes compost for an office full of friends who were engaged in a common enterprise. I hated to go home at night. For isolated farmers and overworked lonely housewives a meeting is a night out.
During the latter part of the 20th century all organizations worked hard to produce "mission statements" and to make employees feel engaged in a common and important enterprise. Maybe we all have a yearning for a community that has recently been fulfilled in the workplace. Looks like that is about over for many of us!

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, an interesting issue. I wonder how the effects of toxic stress nowadays compare to the effects of widespread malnutrition, which also has its strongest effect on intelligence and health when it's experienced prenatally or in childhood, and which was very common in the 19th century.

Theo, you can build community in such settings, but Putnam's right in that it requires a special effort. It's one of the things the old fraternal lodges once did fairly well, and with their decline to near-extinction, no new social technology for managing such problems has emerged.

Addict, the problems you mention are pretty much standard -- best of luck in managing them! I think you're right about the rust belt, for what it's worth -- that's one of the reasons why I moved there.

Hawlkeye, your formula is one of the better responses I've seen yet. Am I right in assuming that you're a member of your local Grange? Excellent! Do some research into the ways the Grange responded to the last Great Depression; you may find some helpful tips.

Ariel, thank you!

Bob, welcome to the blog! The town meeting is a solid example of democracy at work: local, prosaic, and functional. I don't deal much with megachurches, so can't comment on them directly; my impression is that they're more the spiritual equivalent of big box stores, offering a standardized product to a mass market, but that's merely a first impression.

Lynn, that's an interesting perspective. I can't say I felt the same way in the days when I was working for wages, but then I was down in the minimum-wage economy, where the only common purpose is finding some way to make enough to pay the bills.

John Michael Greer said...

Vera (offlist), at this point you're just flamebaiting. Give it a rest.

Martin said...

I'm a German in a hurry, but...

For some time I'm thinking about founding an epireligious quasimonastic order to save the world. Not that Me wants to be the founder (no need for a new Benedict of Nursia!). Nope, it should be a self-evident self-organisation.

HeapSort said:

>> If someone were to start an organization that had any hope of taking on a life of its own, it would need a few things.

1. A clearly stated spiritual (human and moral) purpose.

(...) <<

Well, this century serves exactly this, a completely new spiritual/moral challenge to Homo S "Sapiens": Impending climate catastrophe, overpopulation etc. - dwarfing the holocausts of last century. (Plus, for the very compassionate c21st Bodhisattva: the destruction of millions of years of Life's hard evolutionary work - the 6th Great Extinction.) Etc. etc. pp.!

There are 2 inevitable ethic conclusions for the aspiring Homo Eusapiens:

1.) Live carbon negative. (Not just neutral - we need to repair the climate system or at least provide a tool for that to the survivors. The tool exists and is known as Terra Preta.)
2.) Do not procreate

So, this looks like a parody of the classic monastic vows: Poverty and chastity. But neither is necessary. I got 3 corollaries to the above, one being: Have maximum fun with it (to attract more novices). The 5 conclusions and some tech details are developed here:

cu later,

Cathy McGuire said...

A really important topic, and some really good points made. This is such a huge topic that it's hard to comment except partially -- but I still applaud the effort to bring it up/air it out -- the more we explore it, perhaps the more connections are made. Bilbo's comments about denial resonate with me -- we have to make the problem(s) conscious before we can make effective changes.

As someone who lived in a suburban co-housing community for 5 years, and who now lives alone in a rural area, I have some strong feelings about community. ;-) I also have some insights that come from actually living in one.

I agree with BrightSpark that the professionalization of things has affected community - we were sold that "efficiencies of scale" solution by Big Bidness and wrongly applied it to everything. So, many people see "work groups" as mere stubborn Luddite-ism, rather than a chance to force relationships that feed us on a deep level.

And Joel's comment about "not trusting authority" as part of the problem is also true - but I would postulate an underlying psychological cause for some of that: one day in a cohousing group meeting, I opened with the suggestion, "Share with us one positive thing you learned from your parents." -- out of 21 people there, NOT ONE had a positive thing to say about their parents!! (the age range was 30's-60's) And, not at all surprisingly, this group would/could not accept the authority of committes, nor leave anything to be handled by another person -- they weren't just suspicious of authority, they were phobic! A "KP Chart" of duties was considered "shaming" (someone's childhood trauma!), hence no tasks were able to be alloted and done.

Oh, yes - and I agree with Thai Up on the pernicious aspect of TV -- this cohousing group seemed to be having trouble finding time for each other -- until a projection TV/DVD player was installed in the common house! Suddenly they all found "community" in sitting the the dark, staring at a screen... And too, too many of my friends seem to be hooked on various shows - as I was, too, until I gave up my tv and stopped going to movies -- it felt like a veil had lifted from my life! (not all media is bad, but as a society, we are overindulging!)

It became a nightmare situation for me... and after the community of 23 households went through 4 divorces and 1 suicide in 5 years (not to mention at least 20 households who came/went), I left, vowing never to use the word "community" again! Okay, in four years, I've healed a bit... but I still totally distrust the intentions of those who want to create artificial communities (meaning, ones not based on work task, shared avocation, political task or religious beliefs) -- hence I live alone in the country, and will see what natural community (if any) comes out of shared surroundings. But I'm not giving up on relating and gathering with people (even if I dont' want to use the hated "c" word for a while longer) -- I think the problem with Vera's suggestion of totally dropping out is that you then get what the others (who are still working for what they want) decide you will get! I'm not willing to be that passive. So I still work for a 501(c)3 organization, and I still gather with folks in order to be helpful to my surroundings.

And sadly, I agree with those who commented that it will take forced circumstances (ie: catastrophe or slow decline into dearth) to create communities that are willing to make commitments. Some of them may be virtual communities (I spent last year helping on the fluwiki site), but I still have hopes that when people see that helping each other has real survival value, it will happen.

Chad said...

Community or not to community that is the question. The American dream seems to be in stark contrast to the message that these living Elders offer -

The Mamas’ work is performed at what they call ‘sacred sites’. These are the places where they have direct contact with the “spiritual parents”, who they describe as the Mothers and Fathers of all living things. These are aspects and personifications of aluna. Now the most important sites are themselves being destroyed.

The most vital of these places are the eizuamas, extremely delicate locations high in the Sierra Nevada which they believe most immediately connect with specific parts of the life-energy underlying nature. The manipulation of this communication involves engaging with precisely placed stones, tiny offerings and small precious beads, tumas, which unfortunately now have some commercial value. The eizuamas are out of bounds to visitors and are protected by hereditary lineages of Mamas whose lives are intimately bound up with the sites – the “spirit of the place” is expressed directly to them. Now the eizuamas are being destroyed.

At the core of the Mamas’ understanding of the world is their belief that the mountain itself and its sacred sites are living and fully conscious as are other key parts of the planet. They are now certain that if we cannot be brought to understand this, then everything is doomed as we shut down the life-energy of the world.

wylde otse said...

This is already a 'virtual community'. It remains to be seen what comes of it. (according to one of my heros, Lewis Thomas, ' The Lives of a Cell'...when critical mass is reached, something astounding can happen.)

DocFont said...

If there was a need to build a community based on a desire to do something positive, you would already be doing it. This seems analogous to going to a doctor after you are sick. You do it when you have to, and only until you can get back to your regularly scheduled life. How do you motivate people to form a community as a defense against a negative rather than as a positive change?

The first requirement is a leader.

Machiavelli stated in The Living Thoughts of Machiavelli, "But we must assume, as a general rule, that it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy (or community) is well constituted, or it's old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect."

Where are the leaders? There are 3 principles a small elite use to control the masses. 1 Let no leaders arise. 2 Do not let the people know they are in chains. In Rome it was bread and circuses, today it is the entertainment industry. A clue to when the elite realize they are losing control, nudity on broadcast TV and drugs will be legalized. 3 Let those who discover they are in chains know there is no other choice except to stay in the system. This is the reason the Branch Davidians and Ruby Ridge are lumped together even though the situations are completely different. Summed up, "Wether alone or as part of a group, you will not be allowed to drop out of the system."

Once there is a leader, the second requirement is an incentive. As JMG has explained, it does not have to be a monetary incentive but it does have to supply needs and desires of the participants. Put another way, in currently existing communities you can earn an income, pay half or more in taxes and buy a lifestyle; or, come up with a plan that creates a community that can build a lifestyle.

In the 1990's I created a plan and wrote the rough draft of a novel around it. I had watched all the end of the world as we know it movies and read the survivalist book series. All of them skip the part about how communities form or band together. Like in the movie The Postman, it mentions how the world falls apart but afterwards the communities just exist.

I was/am a survivalist. I put together what I had learned from 25 years of research. A plan has to bring together the factors of most people are not motivated until their lives fall apart financially. When they are in financial hardship, they have no money to change thier circumstances. Any plan has to contribute to the current economy or the powers that be will be happy to crack down on it.

I have been reading your blog with fascination for about a year. I hope to be more of a contributor in the future.


Oliver said...

Interesting topic!

It's funny, because I did read an article about the New World Order, Spengler and Tonybee and a back-to-basic approach.

Here is the part:

"A Universal State does not necessarily mean progress into an omnipotent super-institution with totalitarian control, but it can also mean a step back to old traditions. Consequently, the end of this civilization would bring many of us back to a rural or urban lifestyle. An empire with community traits. Population would decline and a revitalization of faith would be initiated. Spengler’s winter will turn into a new spring."


Auer said...

the following site's intro and entire webpage are almost essential follow-up reading to this post...great ideas all around

Simon said...

A lot of interesting things said in this thread but noone's seemed to touch on motivation. Dissatisfaction, annoyance and the general feeling that I/we could do things better aren't urgent enough to drive people through the fissive tendencies that all have mentioned. They're trivial, if not neurotic, plaintiveness.

Further, the successful examples that Michael cited were all, in some way, fighting for their livelihoods and, in many cases, pride as human beings. And even more salient, they all had already a shared identity: farmers, American blacks, female voters.

What are the existing shared identities that might be the precipitating factors for the crystallization of "community"? What immediate, existential threat is underneath these, your pardon, whinings that could give the emotional punch, the feeling of existential threat, that might power that crystallization and transcend the apparent safety and comfort of our individualized lives?

marielar said...

JMG wrote:
Communities need regular inputs of time and effort from their members, or they collapse into mass societies of isolated individuals – roughly speaking, what we've got now. Communities also need subtler inputs: a sense of commitment, of shared purpose, of emotional connection, of trust.

Absolutely! It is refreshing to see some common sense approach to the community debate. I was born and lived most of my life in small rural communities, some pretty isolated. There is little money to go around and volunteering is how anything gets done, from manning the fire department to run the farmer market. When I read about intentional community, I find the ideas promoted too lofty and not pragmatic. They run counter to what makes most small towns, country people tick. The authors are mostly urban, liberal people who have little clue on how and why rural communities function the way they do. Their visions are too utopian to stand the test of reality and they build up expectations that have little to do with functional communities. People associate all kind of fuzzy feelings with the concept of community. They imagine a big bonfire and people singing along. That is a very, very small piece of the whole picture. First and foremost, being part of a small community is shared work and abiding by a set of common, mostly unwritten rules. The best tips come from Hutterite, Amish or Mennonite communities. A community is based on long term, enlightened self-interest and shared values. You cooperate and put the time in it because it benefits everybody, including you. This means doing a bunch of things, which, while not very pleasant, needs to be done: municipal park cleanup day, sponsor the local baseball team, clean and cook for the Fire Hall fundraising etc...One of the previous posters wrote:
"if we go about it in unfun, unrewarding, uninspiring ways, people will go back to screen watching'"
Well, that will hold true as long as people can pay for pizza delivery while there is still pizza delivery and the tax base can maintain essential services and social safety net. IMO, hunger due to the lack of foresight is not a fun place to be. With the agricultural system as brittle as it is, we are not that far away from some serious food shortages and steep climb in prices. The communities which do not start building some good habits of self-reliance and resilience will be in serious troubles. In a small farming community, you don’t buy the 4-H cookies because it is fun or inspiring. It’s a cultural imperative. You do it because it’s the neighbor's kids who sell them. And if you don’t, good luck next time you need to borrow a hay wagon. And you find time to participate in community choirs because that is the way to get respect and acceptance. And trust me, they know if you did not attend the bottle drive for the Church. They know if you hired the local carpenter or the out-of-town guy. It may seems mundane to deliver calendars for the community centre, but that is the glue that hold everything toguether. My granny was considered a pillar of the community not only because she was the president of the old age club, but because she was not considering herself above making sandwiches for the weekly meetings and cleaning the room after. While there is no big book where your community "deposits" are compared to your community "withdrawals", the locals take notes and it wont take long before you get labeled either freeloader or cooperator. And freeloaders don’t last unless they can afford to pay for everything because they can’t rely on the informal network. At best they are tolerated. The common values are enforced by being treated as a social outcast by the rest of the community. If nobody pulls in your driveway for the local fundraisers, you are in troubles.

Jason said...

See response from Rob Hopkins here:

John Michael Greer said...

Flori, the time for a new Benedict of Nursia won't be for a couple of centuries yet, though one will definitely be needed by then. In the meantime, though, monasticism of some sort -- epi- or otherwise -- is a solid way to build community and I'm delighted to see it being explored in creative ways, by you and others.

Cathy, thanks for sharing your experience. I wish that sort of thing wasn't as common as it is.

Chad, thanks for the story and the link.

Otse, well, we'll see.

DocFont, welcome to the forum! I'm not at all sure that a leader is what's most needed -- though I'd hate to try to win an argument against Machiavelli! If the incentive is strong enough an organizing structure (which may be a leader, or a core group, or some other principle) will emerge in response to it.

Oliver, most interesting. I'm glad to see somebody else exploring the cyclic historians.

Auer, thanks for the link.

Simon, your crystal ball is in good working order, I see. I plan on discussing these issues in a forthcoming post. (And don't apologize for saying "whining" -- a huge amount of what passes for protest these days among middle class white Americans is hard to describe in any other terms.)

Marielar, thank you! You've made several of the points I wanted to make, and done it in a much clearer and more concise way, too.

Jason, yep -- already read it. It's a good response, and I'll be addressing it in this week's post.

jagged ben said...

John, I just want to congratulate you again on starting a conversation which has managed to draw in Sharon, Rob, and Dmitry. I think its been great for the community. ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Ben, thank you! I plan on throwing some gasoline -- no, wait, make that sustainably produced ethanol ;-) -- on the fire with tomorrow's post.

Permavegan said...

Hi John, and thanks (following Ben) for initiating such an intriguing discussion. I have just added my own perspective to the discussion here, which I hope you will find time to check out. Otherwise, I look forward to the upcoming ethanol-on-the-fire demonstration!

Pangolin said...

I am going to arrive at the party late and offer a third perspective on cohousing; this one from northern California. My extended family occupies three households in this "community." (quotes justified in context) I was divorced out so I have grudges to bear but they may be valid.

Cohousing is unable to deal with changes in financial or marital circumstances well. ownership is ultimately bound to individuals or more precisely, individually held mortgages, your association with the project will last precisely as long as you can fend of the banks demands for influxes of cash. Should there be marital strife one possibly both members are of the disrupted marriage are ejected.

A "community that ejects it's member members this easily isn't really valid. It's reduced to a paid entertainment similar to renting space on a barstool. You're everyone's buddy until you stop buying.

Steve in Colorado said...

An interesting thread, thanks JMG for bringing it to life.

There is one point that struck me as I read the various theories on the cause for this decline in community based organizations which I did not see mentioned, so here goes:

While all the potential causes mentioned (lack of time, strong social trends/myths towards individualism, etc, etc) seem to play some part in the decline, none alone rises as a clear primary cause. I think the reason for this may be that the primary cause is hidden in subtle shift in the fabric of our society. Let me try to explain.

Permaculture has a concept that animals/plants/things/structures which serve more than one function are more resilient. This is true because their utility gets reinforced through multiple channels. And it is equally true for a creature in an ecosystem as well as a physical tool in a workshop.

The tool or creature in this case is social interaction time and the web it creates. In an earlier day, people tended to interact more with eachother, partially because they wanted to, partially because they had to. But regardless of the reasons there was more social interaction. That increased level social interaction was a tool if you will, which enabled many other forms of social organization and communication, even if it those other ends were unintended/indirect outcomes. That talking while on the bus, or chatting during lunch break (instead of running errands), the meeting at the Masonic Lodge was enabling multiple levels of communication. Creating a higher level of social connectivity. A self-reinforcing network. Communication which was done because it was necessary to the individuals and groups, not just idle gossip to fill time.

I would contend that it is that increased level of social connectivity and need for social interaction that formed a subtle basis which supported that era's ability to create and sustain these social institutions (as well as many others). That is why people 60 years ago, who worked longer and generally harder hours than most people today, still could find time to go to Grange meetings and the like. Those meetings were necessary to their lives. Because much of the prerequisite communication for these meetings was done invisibly within the social fabric of the day, the amount of work required was less than today. And those meetings also served other communication needs.

So the TV, the lone commute in the car, the internet, and the hundred of other isolating changes in our society all have had a hand in lowering this level of social interaction. None alone is "the culprit," but together this subtle web of social interaction has shrunk to a shadow of its previous self. To the point where now, a new meeting is a lot more work. Because the social network basis between the people involved is largely non-existant and needs to be rebuilt, and the meeting is serving a single need (or perhaps no needs), instead of multiple needs.

The key then (if this line of thought has merit) is to rejuvenate the social web; it will build on itself. Once there is a real perceived need people will attend the meetings, which in turn will make future meetings easier, and so on.

Meg said...

To answer our host's (rhetorical) question, as to why use of a particular drug would become pandemic: if you put lab rats together in a big cage with lots of toys, and give them drug-infused water to drink, they'll try it once and then avoid the stuff like the plague ever after. For them, being stoned interferes with playing and mating and doing what rats do. If you put lab rats alone in barren cages, you will not be able to refill the bottles of drug-water fast enough. For them, it soothes the discomfort of unsatisfied needs and frustrated impulses.

The only people I know who don't spend the majority of their leisure time in front of a screen, are the ones who live within literal shouting distance of more than one close friend, and have extremely short commutes. If you spend several hours a day traveling, and it requires further travel and much advance planning to spend time with friends, you will probably be alone a lot, with the box that shows big close-up pictures of talking faces. For this reason, I am very keen on the idea of mixed-use neighborhoods.

Flori: You've been reading Neal Stephenson's 'Anathem', haven't you? If not, you should - it's focused on an 'epireligious quasimonastic order' apparently designed to preserve knowledge through societal collapses.

Florifulgurator said...

Meg: No, I haven't read Stephenson. Now I will look for it. What I read was Hermann Hesse's Glasperlenspiel :-)

Michael Gersten said...

You say that the best way to bring about change (heck, you make it sound like the only way) is to organize into a group.

I'm not being a troll. I'm asking a serious question: How?

I think that most of us simply do not know how to go about bringing about the change we want to see. Yes, I know the old saying, "Be the change you want to see in the world" -- and that's a start. But what's step two?

I've been thinking about, and planning a blog about the changes that I wanted to see for years. The recent Citizens United court case actually got me to start my blog; that's step 1: Write it down, put it out there.

But what's step 2? What's the next step for organizing?

Some of us are part of large communities, and have lots of people to talk to; by talking within those groups, and sharing what you are passionate about, and what you believe in, you can find people who have enough of a similar view to join you. But how do you grow beyond that initial kernel? And what do you do if you are not part of a large community, and do not have people that you can talk to to get that initial group started?

Rowan and Willy said...

Thank you for validating my experience! For years I searched for intentional community but have reluctantly come to the conclusion that it isn't a great experience in western culture because of the lack of sufficient ability to prioritise the greater good over personal wants.