I think it started for me just about the time I was wrapping up my lower division undergrad. I had been spending a great deal of time researching the way the social, environmental, and economic problems of the modern world impact people in marginalized communities. I was just going into a new upper division program in Queer Ethnic Studies and Urban Studies. (I’ve now wrapped those up as well.) At the beginning of covid, I built a fully self-contained solar-powered RV completely from scratch and I moved my academic career to the road. I traveled tens of thousands of miles to countless improvised and experimental communities searching for insights into better models for equitable urban systems and communities that can fulfill the Brundtland definition of sustainability, to meet everyone’s needs in the short-term without sacrificing their needs in the long-term. At some point along this journey of field research, I started asking my professors, “What is the name for the art and science of building a community that works well and meets the needs of its people in a sustainable way?” And not a single expert from Urban Studies, Sociology, Communication, etc could give me an answer.
I think the best advice I’ve heard in the years I’ve spent on this field research is from Paolo Lugari at the Gaviotas community, “social experiments cannot simply import solutions from temperate climates.” Appropriate technology is an idea from sustainable development where we look for solutions that fit the problem and try to apply them. The problem is that the site and situation of the problems often mean a solution that works well elsewhere can not work in the situation we are looking at. If we consider that groups of individuals are both infinitely divisible and infinitely overlapping, we start to see that social solutions work the same way. Creating a cohesive group which can effectively collaborate to meet their own basic needs in the short term without sacrificing their basic needs in the long-term requires and relies on several crucial factors.
First and foremost, the group must be appropriately sized. There is a great deal of interdisciplinary research around what’s called the Dunbar Number in anthropology, the maximum or optimal size of a group of humans which can form an effective, healthy, interdependent community. That research extends into neuroscience, scale economics, communication theory, and many other fields. The consensus across these fields is that these groups should be about 30-50 individuals. This is the limit of human interaction beyond which scale diseconomies emerge and conflict and tension begin to grow and escalate in groups.
Secondly, for a cohesive group to form, a clear shared purpose must exist. One common pitfall is overly broad and nonspecific shared purposes. For example, changing the world is not a clear, specific, achievable purpose around which a group can coalesce and work. Likewise while starting a business may be specific and achievable, it does not fulfill the basic needs of individuals for esteem, purpose, belonging, etc. I submit that the Brundtland definition of sustainability is an excellent example mission for such a group. If we work together to fulfill the basic needs of our 30-50 person group in the short-term while being careful not to sacrifice those needs in the long-term, we have a comprehensive framework for discussing our needs and collaborating to fulfill those needs in a sustainable way.
At that point, we have created a cohesive group which can effectively collaborate to meet our needs in a sustainable way indefinitely. We can layer more group agreements on top of this core shared purpose or work separately on individual projects while maintaining the core shared vision of what the purpose of the group is. Individuals will always have separate individual goals, and groups of individuals will always form subgroups with different ideas and purposes, and that’s fine. The most important thing is the fact that the overall group shares an ongoing commitment to effectively collaborate to meet the group’s basic needs in the short term without sacrificing their basic needs in the long-term.
One such subgroup’s purpose is fulfilling the infrastructure needs of the community. Not everyone in the group will want or need to build structures and install plumbing, electric, etc, and not everyone in the group needs to do these things. The need for infrastructure is contingent on the fundamental need of any cohesive and effective group having first the shared purpose of being an effective and sustainable community. It becomes the duty of individuals or subgroups to fulfill these and other contingent needs of the community.
One of the most fundamental aspects of building a community such as I have described here is that of community-ownership. Private property creates division and hierarchy, and eliminates the possibility for a healthy community to collaborate effectively. Such communities must be flexible and constantly open to change, compromise, and reorganization to meet emerging challenges and changing situations. These things become impossible when individuals build impermeable monoliths of ownership around themselves. Whether it’s the complete anarchy of Slab City or the communist farming communities of rural Tennessee, the best and most effective communities share a rejection of private property and embrace instead community ownership of the land and its buildings and infrastructure; collective ownership of the land, buildings, and infrastructure is just as fundamental as the collective ownership of the mission and shared purpose of the community which resides there. None of this is to say that personal property should not exist. Individuals have their own space, belongings, vehicles, etc, but any equity in the land, buildings and infrastructure must be shared by the community rather than owned separately by any individual or group of individuals other than the entire group itself.
Given all of this context, and given the countless examples I’ve seen and studied and visited across the continent this year, the only real examples I’ve seen or heard of where cohesive groups can effectively collaborate to meet their basic needs in the short term without sacrificing their basic needs in the long-term are permaculture subsistence farming communities focused on mutual aid. The Black Panthers talked about practicing “survival, pending revolution.” This is exactly what these communities are doing. Practicing permaculture means growing food using the most sustainable practices which will improve the land and yields over time. Mutual aid means setting an example for others who want to build similar communities, and then moving mountains to help them do it.
As a sociologist, I have paid careful attention to the racial, gender, and ethnic demographics of these communities I’ve visited. I’ve also interviewed countless marginalized people about their lived experience in these communities. Never once for example have I seen an example where a permaculture and mutual aid community failed to achieve proportional representation of people in marginalized communities. You would not believe the stories I’ve heard from black mothers living in permaculture and mutual aid communities about how this life has saved them and saved their families and freed them from wage slavery and empowered them to achieve their dreams of being artists and creating beauty in the world instead of working three jobs to barely break even while missing the childhoods of their children.
For many esoteric reasons primarily stemming from the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, there are countless small, queer, communist subsistence farms in rural Tennessee. These communities feed and house an enormous number of QTBIPOC people and empower them to be completely independent and live whatever kind of life they want to live, together with people like themselves.
It is very clear to me after the work I’ve done these past two years that the model of small-group permaculture and mutual aid communities is the best strategy we have for creating a future free from racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, through the strategy of “survival, pending revolution,” as originally popularized by the Black Panthers.
About a year ago, I spent a few weeks at one of my favorite communist permaculture farms in rural Tennessee. I was there at the same time as a conference for The People’s Project was being held. The topic was launching a new project called The Permaculture Mutual Aid Network. The goal of this project would be to fundraise to buy new lands and put them into land trust in order to build new communities where anyone can live for free. I had already seen enough to know that this was an incredible project which could really change people’s lives for the better.
I joined the project and spent much of this year fundraising primarily through social media. We raised $45,000 primarily in $5 and $10 donations in just a few weeks. We purchased a large parcel on a lake in Tennessee and put it into a land trust to establish permanent legal community ownership of the land. Then we held a two-week conference for anyone who wants to live there, to teach them the skills necessary to survive and thrive on the land and in community. We had about 150 people come for the conference, and a few dozen are still living on the land, building their initial buildings and infrastructure, and beginning the permaculture process. In the meantime, other communities are supplying them with food and materials to get them started (Mutual Aid). As I write this, I am about to get on a train to Florida, where the first people are arriving now, at the fourth such land we’ve bought to set up a new permaculture and mutual aid community.
We live in a collapsing society on a dying world. But before humans had society or even language, they had art and a shared purpose around meeting their basic needs together. Like fire pine seeds, we can sprout from the ashes of the old world, in the gardens of the permaculture communities. Each one of these communities is like a phoenix being reborn from the death throes of the old world. The challenge for me, in large part, has been bridging the gap. The people in the movement have a lack of access and knowledge about the many resources which are obscured from them in the ivory tower of academia and philanthropy. Too often, academia and philanthropy are about more academia and philanthropy rather than being about having an impact in the real world. They are so often divorced from the impact their knowledge and resources could otherwise have for communities like those I am talking about. There is broad distrust for academia and grant committees alike, and yet the potential for the old world’s institutions to facilitate a just transition to a better world can not be overstated.
I have spent much of the last two years building an Asimovian foundation or encyclopedia to help facilitate access to the kinds of knowledge and resources that can supercharge progress for these new permaculture and mutual aid communities by helping them stand on the shoulders of those who have come before rather than having to reinvent the wheel. Many of the infrastructure challenges these communities face can be greatly simplified by looking to examples like those at Gaviotas or Slab City or Short Mountain, and compiling and distributing the knowledge and resources to help communities do just that has become the major preoccupation of my life.
There have been countless film makers and production companies who have shown up to tell the world about the exciting work the Permaculture Mutual Aid Network is doing, and we also have a TV show in production. My hope is that these new works will help us reach even more people and inspire them to create similar communities focused on “survival, pending revolution” by effectively collaborating to meet their own basic needs in the short term without sacrificing their basic needs in the long-term. Given the tumults and chaos of the collapse of late-stage capitalism, I am constantly thankful to know that these communities already exist and continue to spread and grow, because I know that no matter what happens, I will be ok. I will have food to eat and a place to stay. And I want to do whatever I can to give that safety and security to everyone who needs it, particularly people in marginalized communities who need that safety and security most, starting with buying and setting up our fifth community and continuing to expand from there.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that there have been challenges along the way. About a year ago, we were accused of being a cult. These accusations went viral and prompted the first major documentary about the work we’re doing, from VICE. We were very happy to have VICE give us so much help in explaining the important work we’re doing, and showing that we really are just trying to give safety and security to those who need it and asking for nothing in return. It’s also often challenging to provide the kind of support people need. Many of those who need this kind of safety and security the most are bringing intense challenges with them. The problems these new communities face are the same problems every community has faced since time immemorial, and together we have overcome these challenges.
When I first started my Urban Studies program, I was very excited about Neighborhood Development Corporations like CCDC or TNDC because they perform a somewhat similar role in the urban setting. These organizations allow neighborhoods to collectively organize to seize housing inventory and develop and administer it ethically for those who need it most. They also provide support services such as therapy and job training for the people who need affordable housing. I think these types of organizations are very similar in many ways. I would love to see them move more towards radical discourses and away from the neoliberal model of appeasement and assimilation. The Mission currently has no NDC, but imagine if they had a powerful tenants union whose goal was to disrupt gentrification and seize control of the housing for the express purpose of excluding gentrifiers so they can preserve and develop the neighborhood for those who it has historically served. What a change we would see in San Francisco government from the neoliberal nightmare of far-right gentrification with a thin veneer of faux progressivism.
I think this movement has a lot to teach us, and a lot of these lessons need to be adapted to ameliorate and structurally repair the process of urbanism. The whole paradigm of right-wing capitalist urbanism is on fire, and from its ashes we can forge a new kind of urbanism where the equity goes to the people who live in the community rather than some rich people somewhere else. Together in this moment, we can leverage the tools and movements of today to convert both urban and rural neighborhoods from investment portfolios for the rich to communities for the people who actually live there.