I recently spent several weeks of solitude in the desolation wilderness writing about an idea I’ve been working on. Here are my notes from that trip.
Shared foundational assumptions
- First let’s assume David Harvey’s argument that communities are an urban process, not just a place. That process becomes an argument for how communities should be. If we leave communities alone and don’t plan them, then they become deeply unjust. We must therefore carefully articulate arguments about what kind of communities we want, or else we can not possibly get there.
- Let’s further assume Kate Raworth’s arguments about doughnut economics. Planetary boundaries exist; natural resources have limits. People should not be forced to live below a certain quality of life. Infinite unlimited growth is not possible and as a goal it creates harm while ignoring suffering and injustice. Focusing on improving quality of life and sustainability are better goals.
- First let’s start with a bit of context for this one. Capitalism is different from mercantilism. There is nothing inherently wrong with people buying and selling things; mercantilism is good. Capitalism is the hoarding of wealth by the rich based on exploiting the poor. Capitalism is an engine that creates inequality and harms. Capitalism is the reason for the lack of affordable housing, a problem it is not able to address. Neoliberalism is the argument that capitalism is somehow a cure for social problems rather than the cause of social problems. Modern capitalism and neoliberalism are inseparable because of neoclassical economics which forms the foundation of both philosophies. Neoclassical economics does not work. So let’s further assume we reject neoliberalism, capitalism, and neoclassical economics which are three ways of saying the same thing in this context.
- Systems thinking: a community is not just the community or even just the process. It is also its inputs and outputs. Close these loops! Within every challenge lies an opportunity. Turn waste into compost. Turn roofs into rainwater collectors. Turn solutions into tools for others to use to liberate themselves like we have.
What are the major problems we face in our communities today?
The lack of sufficient affordable housing is widespread and pervasive despite the fact that there are plenty of homes to house everyone. Affordable housing does not exist for most people, and can not exist under capitalism.
Poverty is widespread and pervasive and forms the foundation for most social problems because of strain and lack of access to vital resources like food, clean water, healthcare and education. Poverty is the result of a flawed system which combines two unjust circumstances: pay-to-live and lack-of-opportunity.
Hunger is widespread and pervasive despite the fact that we grow plenty of food to feed everyone and most food that is grown goes to waste rather than to feeding hungry people.
Along with hunger goes access to clean water; most people around the world and many people across America have no access to clean water, despite the fact that there is more than enough clean water for everyone. Instead of building pipelines to bring that water to those who need it, we build pipelines to bring oil from those same areas in order to further pollute the world instead of providing for the basic needs of the people.
The fact that so many people’s basic needs are not met by the system prevents those people from self-actualizing and reaching their full potential. The cost of this failure to society and individuals is incalculable.
What would be a better way of doing communities?
A good community is one that continuously develops itself as a sustainable city which meets the basic needs of all its members and provides them with the tools and resources they need to self-actualize and go on to do whatever they want to do with their lives. (Food, water, housing, electricity, internet access, healthcare)
A sustainable community meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. (Brundtland)
A good community is just by design, providing additional help to those who need it.
A good community is resilient, planning to survive the coming disasters in an uncertain future with a collapsing biosphere.
A good community is one where everyone strives to work fewer hours and consume less resources (electricity, water, food, etc). Well-being and quality of life become the objectives rather than infinitely-increasing productivity (GPD, fiscal growth, etc). Raworth and others call this concept de-growth.
A good community is one where the community owns the land together and makes careful decisions about its use, rather than giving land to capitalists who displace the poor and members of minority groups.
A good community is one where decision making is transparent and inclusive, requiring the consent of the people in the community.
A good community is one where community goals and priorities align closely with things like the sustainable development goals, the doughnut economics model, planned resiliency, arcology, and permaculture.
A good community uses domes, greenhouses, aquaculture, and other methods for producing the maximum amount of nutrient-dense food with the minimum amount of labor.
A good community works to spread its ideas by starting new communities elsewhere and sharing lessons learned.
What advantages would such a community have?
A community such as I have outlined would have many natural advantages. Perhaps the most significant is resiliency; the community would be able to survive unexpected disasters and stressors.
Such a community would be able to devote a significant portion of its time and resources to fulfilling its own needs and the needs of its neighbors.
One easy way to bring money in is by doing what Taos, Arcosanti, and Biosphere 2 have done; bring people to visit and learn about the results of the argument we are making. Have camping and events, bus people in from major cities, give tours and talks, and take other steps to spread the ideas that will change and improve communities everywhere.
Additionally there are a huge number of natural advantages and opportunities for producing goods and services which allow others to adopt similar positive change in their own communities. For example food, water, reusable containers, low-impact soaps and sustainable cleaning products, etc.
Closing loops for things like water and compost allows waste products to become valuable resources. Check out this longer post about that topic.
Another example of an opportunity is to sell the subsistence products such as vegetables and fruits which the community grows. This would also be a great way to connect and network with neighbors by hosting a farmers market or taking produce to external farmers markets.
What are some examples of similar communities that already exist?
Oneida was a utopian socialist commune which made a fortune producing and selling flatware for decades. You can still buy their flatware in most any department store.
Arcosanti is a proof of concept community from visionary architect Paolo Soleri whose goal was to fuse architecture with ecology, creating communities with integrated planning for their inputs, outputs, and fulfilling the needs of citizens. Arcosanti also famously makes unique, one-of-a-kind bronze wind bells which they sell both online and in-person.
Biosphere 2 is a long-term closed experiment in ecological systems research. It contains seven enclosed biomes full of plants, animals, and people working together to learn about how to be a good community in concert with its local ecology.
Taos Earthship Academy is a community of permaculture homesteads constructed from recycled materials with the intent of living sustainably and teaching others to duplicate their amazing results.
Faerie sanctuaries are the modern implementation of the radical faerie philosophy of queer ancom. There are countless examples spread all over the world of shared houses and small or large communities working on queer intentional communities which host events, produce their own food, and try to live sustainably.
Freedom Georgia Initiative is a community currently being built by a group of black families who wanted to create a safe place for black people. Together, 19 families purchased an entire town! They are building on a long history of black cooperatives doing similar work.
Farming communities in Bangladesh are turning the impacts of rising water and invasive species into an advantage. By collecting invasive floating plants like water hyacinth and lashing them together, they are able to build floating garden beds like their ancestors used. Crops are planted into the beds and then able to access the water below, all without any soil.
How do we get there?
The early steps for this kind of development might include the purchase of a large piece of semi-remote land. This land should get lots of sunlight and be at a high enough altitude to avoid rising sea levels and the smoke of burning forests. At the time of this writing, 400 acres in Nevada can be had for $30k-50k. High deserts are sort of perfect. It’s too easy to consume resources that are readily available. Choosing to locate away from flammable forests where closed systems or resource recycling become mandatory is a good step in the right direction.
Next, a nonprofit or similar entity should be created to allow the community to act together. The organizational structure should include as voting members everyone in community with provisions for incorporating new members as the population grows.
A land trust or similar legal framework should be created to ensure the ownership of the land remains with the community rather than any private entity. The entity constructed in the previous step should have the exclusive right to make decisions about the land through democratic processes.
I would highly recommend making every effort to insulate the overall legal entity from inevitable factionalism and internal political conflict by creating sub-units for different groups throughout the community. One useful model might be the way camps are assigned sections of land at black rock city by the larger organization. Decisions about which groups get to use the land go to the community and the larger organization while decisions about the way the land is used fall to the smaller organizations, with annual review by the larger community. This insulates the political issues of smaller camps from the decisions about placement by the larger community. It also prevents anyone from excluding anyone else from the city.