embodiment


I began a very strange journey with my series on civil culture, vs the culture of thuggery that continues taking over the world. (And no, by that I don’t mean Islam.)

In my last post, I originally included this paragraph:

I also don’t buy that people who criticize Islam are islamophobes any more than people who criticize Christianity are Christianophobes, or people who criticize Marxists are Marxophobes. That’s just plain old bullying. People’s thinking influences their behavior, and inasmuch as Islam inspires and encourages anti-social behavior, it ought to be criticized, as should any other religion or ideology. Islam is — in part — ideas, and no ideas ought to be beyond the pale when it comes to criticism. “Abusing” a religion may be offensive to some, but it’s abusing people that should draw opprobrium.

I ended up deleting it, because I wanted more time more to think it through. I do believe strongly that criticizing is overall a beneficial activity, and part of the necessary – even crucial – feedback loop that keeps human behavior within certain agreed-upon norms. In addition, we in the west, children of classical Greece which pioneered wide-ranging, intrepid exploration of abstractions, generally do not think any ideas ought to be shielded from challenges and outspokenness, and that the only kind of speech that should carry legal penalties is personal slander and direct physical endangerment (yelling “fire” in a crowded place, or telling an abused spouse “next time, I will kill you.”).

That line gets fuzzy when it comes to speech that vilifies people traditionally put-upon, and might contribute to their physical endangerment in the long run. We Americans have mostly held the line where angry verbal insults are not – apart from the most egregious exceptions — the province of the law. Europeans tend to side more with the “hate speech” paradigm due to some highly unpleasant historical events in the 20th century that relied heavily on hate-mongering propaganda.

I have sympathies for both sides. When push comes to shove, I defend free speech. But I am not insensible toward people who want to maintain a certain level of cultivated discourse, of civility in relationships. It’s been my own experience that when two married people begin to use brutal invective against each other, the good will within the relationship takes a big hit. So, similarly, within a society. To bring that back to the discussion of “insulting religion” – I feel that while to jeer at or to attempt to discredit people’s cherished religious artifacts should never be a legal issue, I see it nonetheless as an undertaking that sows division, and often leads the critics themselves to dishonesty, unnecessary vehemence, sectarianism, and just plain angry disrespect. Would you walk into a house where your neighbors have an altar to the elephant deity Ganesha, and because you disagree and feel offended, pie the statue? Clearly a dick move.

Ganesha

Why spend energy on denouncing other people’s holy writ, be it the Christian Bible, the Islamic Koran, or the Jewish Tanach? They are precious to other people, and even though you disagree with their estimation, why would you go out of your way to malign what others hold in such tender regard? This behavior becomes especially unproductive in view of the fact that denouncing other people’s holy writs makes absolutely no dent in their belief, and likely reinforces their stance under duress.

We live in a world plagued by ideologies that do mischief, no doubt about that. Cults, religions, and secular ideologies are all linked to grievous damage to human communities throughout history. But these same movements have borne good fruits too, depending on who was doing what to whom. It seems to me that it would advance the cause of “civilized civilization” if we got a grip on how to deal with ideologies in a way that defuses their malignant aspects while leaving the positives in place.

There is no question that our way of thinking influences our behavior. But true intentions are notoriously difficult to ascertain, especially when they are not your own but someone else’s. So why not focus on behavior instead? If a woman is murdered, does it makes sense to analyze whether the perp was inspired by a biblical passage, a sura, secular misogyny, or psychopathic entitlement? The behavior is what matters, and the harm lies squarely in the behavior. Anything less serves those who wish to obfuscate this basic and clear fact.

And so this is my prescription for those who wish to battle toxic ideologies: focus on the very human and fallible embodiment of the underlying script. Interpretations, and the behaviors they inspire, are never beyond the pale when it comes to critical questioning. However divinely-inspired the scriptures are held to be, their applications in the here-and-now are entirely and only human. No matter what Exodus 22:18 says, whether a heretic is tortured or killed depends on what the believer does with those and many other ideas. And once we abandon the war of words about the Koran, we can focus on what Muslims actually do with the writings and traditions they have inherited. It is this foundation I will use to explore, in future posts, some of our current cultural dilemmas.

old book

The house stands. Green food is here. I give, you give, all must give.
— from a Kepele spell

Many years ago, I was fortunate to discover Pascal’s Wager, and applied it to my own life. Now, in its original form, the bet is tainted by Monsieur Pascal’s own belief that God — the Creative Force — set things up so that humans who do not believe are tormented for eternity in a place called hell. A booby trap.  Suffice it to say that I never was one to paint God in vengeful dictator colors.

pascal's wager

But I was intrigued by the logic. What if, I thought, I make the bet my own? If I believe, and I am wrong, nothing happens after death, no gain. If, on the other hand, I believe, and this turning changes my life for the better, and possibly enables me to make connections to unseen forces and mysteries of the universe, I come out ahead.

Correspondingly, if I remain an unbeliever, and God does not exist, no loss in the next world. But, on the other hand, I miss out on a life that turns me away from the path of arid materialism and, possibly, cynical “nothing matters in the long run” orientation. This was a time when the strictly scientific, rationalist vision of the universe began to grate on my nerves, and I discovered I much prefer my world enchanted. Pascal helped me see that when it comes to beliefs which, at present, have no way of being proven one way or another, my intuitive preference could be a starting point for turning my life around. Decades later, I can confirm that the wager has more than paid off, though of course that rational escape hatch inspired by Pascal was only one element of my younger self’s transformation.

Nevertheless, it was with great amazement I came recently to understand that such a bet was commonly taken by our tribal forebears, who understood our needs and our psychology far better than the modernists who have been predicting the demise of religion for more than a hundred years now. My new insight was triggered by two books: Shamans, sorcerers and saints: a prehistory of religion, and Historical vines: Enga networks of exchange, ritual, and warfare in Papua New Guinea. Though the tomes are dense and slow reading, they are well worth the effort as they trace the deep history of religious/spiritual currents and practices. I will be referring to them in the future; they illuminate the problem of power and the paths away from Babylon.

Tribal people did not have ‘religion’ as we commonly understand it; they had cults. I searched for a better name since the word ‘cult’ has unpleasant connotations, but there are no other options. Perhaps it’s time to rescue it. The dictionary tells me that a cult is “a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols,” or “a system of religious veneration and devotion.” And that is exactly what tribes had. Their cults were always evolving and responding to the social needs of the present; they could do so because the cult’s direction and adaptation was fully in the hands of the local “users.” Indeed, it’s been said that cults were for them a powerful social technology that addressed ecological and other problems the tribe was facing in its cultural evolution. For example, in Papua New Guinea they used egalitarian, altruistic, unifying cults to balance the tribe’s induction into the increasingly inequitable and competitive “cult of MORE” which originated long before the coming of the whites.

Cults were concerned not with the afterlife but rather with effectiveness in this life. First, they were utilized to help assure the thriving of family, clan and tribe by “doing right” by the unseen forces and tribal ideals. Second, they provided a tool for dealing with problems in the here and now. In effect, the power these ceremonies unleashed enabled people to embody certain values and behaviors that were helpful in alleviating a crisis. For example, when a smouldering feud burst into flame and angry, vindictive feelings ran high, a Kepele cult ceremony might be organized that entailed building a ritual house by common effort, storytelling (related to cosmology, tribal origins, and legends), specific rituals, a feast, dancing, and a boys’ initiation ceremony. These shared, hallowed activities defused the tension and helped turn the tide of violence.  Cross-clan and cross-tribe cults like the Kepele opened up local clans to innovation from abroad and fostered amiable relations with distant neighbors while creating possibilities of new alliances for marriage and trade. And lifting people’s spirits and resetting their orientation in the world was a big part of the magic.

If I needed more persuasion to consider seriously the value of spiritual practices at this point, Brian Hayden’s argument from our biological heritage would be the next best thing. I quote at length below. But I confess that for the very first time, I appreciate fully the power of shared ritual, and mourn the magnitude of what we lost when religion was either hijacked by power brokers, or abandoned altogether.

We can look at our ancient human biological heritage in a new way — the aspects of our human emotional makeup that instinctively resonate within us. These include our natural reactions to rhythm, dance, song, drama, ritual, and all the myriad factors that tend to produce altered states of consciousness in us. These are not simply behaviors that we have learned because cultural traditions have taught us to enact them, with our minds serving as a blank canvas. I contend that these are all evolutionarily structured basic behavioral penchants, similar to the proclivity that human infants exhibit for learning and structuring language. All these factors — language, play, family closeness, kinship, ritual, rhythm, dance — probably played important adaptive roles in the early evolution of the human race. Cultural traditions may model the styles and the details, but the basic penchants undoubtedly stem from ecological adaptations. Not everyone may feel the pull of each factor equally strongly. Some people seem more sensitive to music, others to ritual, others to masks and drama. However, there are probably very few people who do not naturally feel some reaction to at least one of these factors. Recognizing these aspects of our human nature and our human heritage and valorizing them as the essence of what it means to be human is an important step in coming to terms with our contemporary religious experience.

Politicians, philosophers, scholars, scientists, and others have often expressed dismay that in this age of science and enlightenment, such large proportions of even the most modern populations continue to hold irrational, unverified superstitions or beliefs about the existence of a supernatural world, gods, ghosts, or spirits. For such people, science and modern social or political life should have eliminated the need for supernatural beliefs and ritual practices. But they have missed the point. Religion satisfies an inner craving for meaning, a feeling of wholeness or union with greater forces, and an inner satisfaction that comes only from ritual life, just as music and rhythms satisfy an inner emotional craving deep within our souls and minds for the trances, the ecstasies, and the profound experiences only they can produce. These are fundamental adaptations of our biological heritage. To argue that advances in science or politics have eliminated the need for religion is tantamount to arguing that science and politics have eliminated the need for music….

Rational thought on its own becomes pathologically self-serving and destructive of life. Einstein purportedly expressed a similar sentiment when he said that the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant; we have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

ritual

You are lost in a the middle of a dark primeval forest. A moonless night breathes all around you; soft rain is falling. You long to be somewhere safe, warm, and dry. A tiny keychain flashlight illuminates the immediate space — the rest is near-impenetrable blackness. Bogs, logs and wild hogs wait to trip you up. How do you find your way?

Your senses on edge, you look, listen, sniff the breezes. A faint gurgling of a nearby brook gives you initial direction. You take a step, then examine what’s around and ahead. You take another step. It occurs to you to follow the creek downstream. The next few steps reveal an impassable steep bank. A detour leads into a huge rocky scree. “How do I get back to the water?” You peer into the darkness for the flicker of a fire or a lit window…

We too are lost in the universe. And more ominously, we are lost in a human world collectively bent on omnicide. Apart from death, we have no sure destinations. Some of us cling to the illusion of control — they think they know where we must go, and how to get there. But more and more of us have taken a good look at the disastrous centuries of ending up in the wrong places, and we finally call the quest for control a big fat lie. We gather ourselves up and resolve to abandon the control-freak led stampede to the edge of the cliff. Now we need a way to move ahead that is anchored both in the honest admission that we are not in control, and in the pattern all other creatures use as they walk the paths of their lives.

Control insists on linearity, but life is complex. Do we dare to surrender to a visionary co-adaptive journey where each step is an evolutionary state that takes its shape from steps taken before? The process I see in my mind’s eye is a dynamic dance continually responding to itself. Each step illuminates the next step. At each moment in time, new circumstances emerge. Every step brings new insights, surprises, and unforeseen consequences. Each step is part of the ongoing cycles of mutual responsiveness; it accepts feedback from the current whole and passes on feedback in its turn. One state flows into another.

Unplanning is a spiral, dynamic, unpredictable process that begins with a hunch, and evolves from there. Dreaming, doing and becoming form one seamless flow. The initial inkling of a vision does not remain static, but glows a bit stronger with each step taken. The tentative first steps merely begin the process; they do not determine it. Modifications and adjustments are made at any point, as the need becomes apparent. And each new experience undergone changes us as we come to embody the life of the path.

The unplanning process requires of us that we gradually become the kind of people who know how to inhabit this unfolding future, who are able to reach a desired place, where-ever it turns out to be. Visioning, walking, and self-changing go hand in hand; behold, a pilgrimage. Wisdom is in flux, mutually situated and actively embodied. We come to be more and more the people whose path harmonizes with that which we hope for, and that which we hope for evolves right along with our continuous becoming.

The process itself changes people — as all experiential, experimental journeys do — and people come to gradually embody that which draws them on. We don’t know where we’ll end up, trusting the process to emerge each particular end-state as a surprise.

No imaginary picture of the future controls our conception of what must be done. What must be done arises from the needs, problems and possibilities of the living present. The direction emerges gradually from the felt vision, the doing, the becoming, step by step by step.

In our profession of architecture there is no conception, yet, of process itself as a budding, as a flowering, as an unpredictable, unquenchable unfolding through which the future grows from the present in a way that is dominated by the goodness of the moment.
— C. Alexander, The Nature of Order: the process of creating life

evolve1

Reality and power are so mutually incrusted that even to raise the question of dissolving power is to step off the edge of reality.
— John Holloway

I started this blog with a longing familiar to many: stop the world, I wanna get off! I had a dream, a dream to find a way out of Babylon, this accelerating nightmare that has us addicted and horrified, both. The standard argument for the impossibility of an exit is simple and persuasive. Even if you move to the fringes, Babylon finds you, either to destroy, or to engulf and devour. Same thing, different time line. As we speak, the last unknown tribes are being chased out of the Amazon jungle to be wiped out. There is no place to go.

Except, I refused to believe it. My gut told me that escape is possible; we were not looking at the problem with sufficient snake-eyes. So I kept searching, imagining, looking for just the right crack in the edifice of this civilization. Here is what I found.

Hakim Bey fired up people’s imaginations with his Temporary Autonomous Zones. His T.A.Z. is a “liberated area of land, time or imagination where one can be for something, not just against, and where new ways of being human together can be explored and experimented with.” He documents many past escapes. I just came across evidence that rural intellectuals in ancient China talked about, and tried to build into, those so-called “cracks in the system.” It saddens me to think that we know nothing else of them. Their efforts faded very long ago, and the Machine kept on grinding. Note to self: the crack must be persistent, durable.

Explorations of Amish attitudes, beliefs and lifestyle framed my search for a while. Since the Machine is an apt metaphor for the workings of Babylon, I felt that getting away from machines would be a good general direction; my feelings were strengthened by an introvert’s detestation of the increasingly deafening noise indiscriminate use of machines inflicts on most of us. Full of admiration for the famous Amish community-minded restraint when it comes to adopting new technologies, I located and romanced a very old-fashioned Mennonite group that welcomes Babylon’s escapees. Concurrently, I joined an online Mennonite community where a modified-Plain lifestyle was a reality for many. But when I found that I could be a full-fledged, outspoken member of that community only because I was taken for a man, I sobered up. Note to self: getting away from machines is good, but not as good as getting away from being dominated.

Nevertheless, “being Amish” provided a useful metaphor for my aim. I realized I wanted to be “out” as much, at least, as the Amish are out. I long to be part of another world that is palpable in its otherness.

Familiarity with Daniel Quinn’s and Andy Schmookler’s argument (viz the Parable of the Tribes) impressed upon me that going to the fringes was indeed a strategy, at best, to delay the inevitable. Fringe existence exposes one to marginalization and its accompanying vulnerabilities. The crack must defy the problem of power. (Problem of power in a nutshell: become Babylon, or be destroyed. Those who step outside it lose. Viz Aldous Huxley’s Island.)

John Holloway has spoken about spaces where a prefiguration of another world can be grown. He is among those who believe that for the underdog to grab power-over leads to yet another version of power-over. Not a path that leads to a brand new world, only more of the same. Here is how he puts it: “You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.” The crack must emerge from a new way of using power. Knocking off the old power hogs and installing our own brand new power hogs just won’t cut it.

In an interview, Holloway hints: “These cracks can be spatial (places where other social relations are generated), temporal (“Here, in this event, for the time that we are together, we are going to do things differently. We are going to open windows onto another world.”), or related to particular activities or resources (for example, cooperatives or activities that pursue a non-market logic with regard to water, software, education, etc.). The world, and each one of us, is full of these cracks.” And in a recent book, he states: “A crack is the perfectly ordinary creation of a space or moment in which we assert a different type of doing.” So ecovillages and monasteries, Burning Man or the Rainbow Gatherings, coops and land trusts, and many lesser alternative spaces provide refuge. But are they sufficiently and durably “outside”? Not in my experience.

My sense of them, despite all the clamor about degrowth, “new economies” and all the rest, is that they are not strong enough to be a countervailing force against the Machine. They are, to be sure, part of the answer, but by themselves, they will eventually be pushed to conform, just like most Christians or hippies were. The spaces opened up by them turned out not to be the radical and permanent exit they had once thought it was. They themselves carried Rome/Babylon with them wherever they went and infected all those spaces they newly inhabited. And the minions of the Machine have been many and well financed; they are sent out to co-opt or crush any alternative that shows significant success. One example is the so-called “sharable economy” which is turning into yet another way to monetize the remaining few assets of increasingly impoverished people (rent your home to passing strangers, spend your free time picking up passengers with your car, why dontcha). The space must robustly resist Babylonian contagion from seeping in. And it must be a realistic strategy to slow and stop the Machine: the new world we birth will share this “one and only planet” with Babylon, and so its runaway ruination must end.

James C. Scott talks about an important aspect of spaces successfully hidden for centuries from the depredations of empire: illegibility. When those in power cannot read you right, you are effectively hidden from view, obscured by being incomprehensible. The agents of empire always, always work hard to make newly encountered cultures legible: they send in missionaries, anthropologists and medical people to “study” and “help” these folks so they can be successfully dominated and exploited in due time. With new cultures within Babylon, the system sends friendly researchers, overeager NGOs offering to make you visible, and agents provocateurs. The crack must be hard to penetrate by and illegible to the PTB.

I tried eco-village living, and while I loved many aspects of it, especially the face-to-face, walkable community, I was shocked how “hijacked by Babylon” the relationships were. For all the efforts to clean up process, our process has not been cleaned up. A new kind of social relationship must be the molten core of the new world. Nevertheless, there is great relief one experiences in an ecovillage — or an old-fashioned village — out on the fringes, despite the fact that the Machine still intrudes from the distance and Babylon is never altogether absent within. Distance from Babylon, just like distance from machines, is part of the path to sanity, at least in my view of it.

From complexity thinking I learned about emergence from tiny local beginnings. So finally, the obvious: the way out must be in our power to find, not something to petition the power brokers to bring about (as though they could or would!). It must be doable from each person, from the grassroots, outward. A tall order, ey?

There is yet another space. Having glimpsed this terra incognita, I am on the cusp of walking away into the world that emerges when at least two people, who have each cultivated the attitudes, skills and forms of thinking that allow power sharing, come to connect. This space only comes into being when human beings relate in a new way — the power-sharing way — and form a new sort of relationship. It is born when two or more people are both willing and able to leave power games behind, and their radical communion opens up a portal into what Riane Eisler, somewhat ruefully, calls “partnership.”

Suddenly, we are in another world, a world of our co-making, emergent, brand new, uncolonized by any outside powers, yet to be explored, ready to be nurtured. Here is the ember of another reality, waiting to be stoked into flames. A world of mutuality where we together create customs and culture all our own, without the constant interference of power hoarders. And since the foundation, indeed the be all and end all, of Babylon — this particular civilization — is domination, once you step out of domination, you are out of Babylon.

 

two women

When was the last time you expressed gratitude for gravity?
— Ethan Hughes

In early September, before I went to Dancing Rabbit, I spent two weeks at Possibility Alliance, or as they are now calling the farm itself, the Still Waters Sanctuary. Possibility Alliance is more of a name for the entire project which includes the farm, the Superheroes Rides, the new permaculture school next door, and a support network of similar communities elsewhere.

The farm is located in north-central Missouri, about 3 miles from the nearest small town with a train station (and 40 minutes’ ride from Dancing Rabbit). The college town of Kirksville is only 13 miles north. The land itself is slightly rolling, mostly deciduous woods and old exhausted pastures, a couple of ponds. This is an agricultural area and many of the neighbors are Amish. It all began with an 80 acre farm and a rundown Amish house which has been partially renovated.

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There is an outdoor kitchen made of cob, a large barn, and a nearly finished tiny cob house for the founders, Sarah and Ethan Hughes, and their two small daughters. Another house, a straw-bale duplex built on durable osage orange stilts, is about midway in development. More land has been added since. Friends of Possibility Alliance have also been buying land and building in the neighborhood.

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Along with me, three other visitors came: soft-spoken Nathan from Chicago, a musician and shaman in training, irrepressible Danny from Florida on a train tour of communities, and Corey, a raconteur and jack of all trades from St. Louis who showed up unannounced in his 1951 truck. Six adult residents were living on the farm: Sarah and Ethan, Ariel, Mark, Dan and Phoenix; many day visitors dropped in all the time. There is a large flock of chickens and several ducks and geese. A small herd of goats provides milk for the delectable goat cheese we were lucky to nibble on almost every day. A cow with a calf was being milked as well, and two draft horses helped with the big chores. A couple of barn cats and a working dog complete the picture.

corey's truck

Gardens are fenced and the chickens run free. First impression is a farming idyll: happy scratching hens, ducks in the pond, many fruit trees and grapevines surrounding the house, and a friendly bustle as everyone goes about their farm chores. The day begins at 6 am with the ringing of the bell (luckily, I slept the sleep of the exhausted and I never heard it except once). The first bell calls people to sit in silence; yoga follows. Breakfast bell rings at 7:45, a quick check-in after breakfast divvies up the chores, then work until another bell rings. Lunch, a bit of a siesta (or a consensus meeting, or a discussion) and more work until the dinner bell. Some chores don’t go by the clock, and those who care for the animals are often out till dark. Several times during the day, the ‘bell of mindfulness’ peals slowly, calling everyone to stop work, become aware of the surroundings, and bring one’s consciousness into the now. ‘Noble silence’ reigns in the house on Thursday nights. Mayhap this is a version of the new monasticism?

The farm runs on the gift economy. Only about $9,000 per year covers all expenses. A 20% portion of incoming donations are passed on to other communities. They only have three monthly bills to pay (phone, water and bulk food), and minimal yearly property taxes. No visitor is charged for the stay. All workshops — even permaculture classes — are offered on donation basis; no one is turned away. Each person who joins the community is expected to give all their assets away. One builds social capital instead of financial capital, while “looking for a way to live so that all life can thrive.” The detailed vision (more here) is inspired by Gandhi and Lanza del Vasto.

There is no electricity; I kept groping for light switches the first week I was there. Home-made beeswax tapers light the inside of the house. Running water, provided by the county, is supplemented by stored roof run-off. No cell phones or fossil fuels are allowed on the farm, and people who wish to smoke or drink can take it out on the road. Computer use is discouraged even off-farm. The otherwise peaceful and dark nights are marred by trains passing less than half a mile away at all hours, shaking the earth and honking like mad; as one train disappears over the sonic horizon, another one rumbles in. Bicycles are the main conveyance; no one owns a car.

candle making

My day started with fowl liberation. I got up before 7 to open the door of the chicken coop, and stood there transfixed with astonishment and delight as the feathery avalanche poured out, running, flying, and squawking. A new day, woo-hoo! Enough infectious joy to turn this night owl into a morning person. And for a few days I also went with Phoenix to assist with evening milking, tucking the goats in with some night fodder. The days are intense, and everyone works very hard. When chores are done, there are meetings and workshops to attend, or events to host. That Friday, we had visitors from a nearby old folks home and put on a show for them. The following day was Harvest Festival. It started as a country-craft show — candle dipping, bread baking, cider pressing, bicycle-powered flour grinding, bow making — and evolved into a pleasant neighborly hangout. Kids having fun, helping with crafts or running off to explore. Grown-ups standing around, chatting, making leisurely connections, reluctant to leave. Over a hundred people attended. The other Saturday was filled with workshops: morning and evening devoted to the study of coherence counseling, and that afternoon Ethan gave a spirited presentation on beekeeping to about 10 people who had signed up. On Sunday mornings, the farm hosts a Quaker meeting.

horse rides

flour grinding

The food was very good, and plentiful. Though one of the gardens died this year because of the drought, the remaining four gardens provided much of our food, and sadly, we also ate one of the ducks, and a rooster. Diet’s omnivorous, though heavy on the side of fresh produce. Some of the meals were extra yummy and downright creative. Ariel’s eggplant zakuski (a garlicky chutney) was out of this world, and so were Mark’s fresh breads and Dan’s fluffy eggy frittata! One notable dinner included a sumptuous lasagna, goat cheese with lime liqueur, and old fashioned apple pie. Our hosts took turns cooking in the outdoor kitchen equipped with three rocket stoves, 3 solar ovens, and an earth oven. A summer kitchen is essential in this climate. It was — with the exception of one day — hellaciously hot, and frequent leaps into the nearby pond let me live another day. (My little LED alarm clock melted in the heat.)

solar racks

As you can see, there is much to admire here, and much to love. Being part of a subsistence farm again after a lifetime away was, for me, a dream come true. I learned so much! Cheese and candle making, cooking on rocket stoves, solar apple drying, chicken care… and last not least restorative circles, wellbeing meetings and gratitude rituals. The parting ceremony, where each person leaving stands inside the circle while the others take turns showering them with appreciation, truly touched my heart. Internal organization runs smoothly, and unlike in most intentional communities, there is an emphasis on external politics: protests attended, bike coops and school gardens started. Service to the larger community — such as their give-away plant nursery in the spring — is an ongoing practice. You want radical? This place is radical.

coop door

Hygiene was atrocious. Thick, maddening swarms of flies were everywhere, on the food as it was being made, as it was being served. And this with the stinky composting privy a stone’s throw away. Dirty rags are used to wipe kitchen surfaces with vinegar water, people don’t necessarily wash hands, er, when they should, I saw food served after getting dropped on the ground, water for washing dishes came off the roof, and at Friday night shabbat dinners people drink from the same wine cup and feed each other bits of bread, regardless of their own state of health. During the first week, several people came down with vomity queazies. My bad turn came the following week when I caught a nasty intestinal bug — or should I say, an E. coli caught me? — that refused to leave even after I went home, would not respond to any home remedies, and finally necessitated a course of two antibiotics. And I brought Corey’s cold home with me as well.

But it wouldn’t be accurate just to say I came down with the runs. What happened? Well, ten days into my stay I collapsed. My sickness was one part of it, and so was exhaustion from unaccustomed work and the heat. What bore down the heaviest, though, was the relentlessness of the life. Relentless physical work. Relentless commitments. Relentless socialization. Relentless overscheduling (even music nights were scheduled!). Relentless gregariousness, relentless ‘people everywhere,’ all the time. The life of the PA farm is one long self-imposed crisis — a crisis caused by too few people, with too few resources, running a working farm, hosting hordes of visitors (some 1,500 a year) and trying to fulfill a vastly ambitious and demanding vision that never quits. It was like being on a treadmill, albeit different from the one we know in Babylon. One of the younger residents was suffering from severe fatigue and debilitating body pains, after two years of this onslaught. The misery of no solitude, no privacy. The stress of always running according to the bell. Never a chance to reflect. All bread labor, no head labor; ouch!

And there was another increasing burden weighing me down: cognitive dissonance. The vision, and the reality on the ground were, in some instances, pretty far apart. Feedback, so prominently stressed in our welcoming tour, was actually not welcome. People were exhausted and overwhelmed and last thing they wanted was us visitors speaking up and adding to their heavy load. Our initiative was not appreciated, and was sometimes flat-out shot down. As far as I could ascertain, there was no financial transparency and overall accountability. The place is in private ownership, not a land trust; the other members are not vested and in effect work for room and board. And permaculture is about working smart, not hard, right? Yet with so few people and such a hectic pace, living beings inevitably suffer, and not just humans. Many of the farm’s young trees and bushes were distressed or dying from neglect, lacking mulch and extra care in a dry year.

I came to find out, specifically, how an IC farm might be successfully run while each person chooses freely, out of affinity and love, their own daily occupations. I had so resonated with that part of the vision which stresses self-chosen activities that bring joy! Much is made of this in Ethan’s talk; he tells of some young people on a day visit who chose to fish instead of working. When they later gloated over getting off so easy, they were praised for feeding the community. Alas, reality tells another story. When my work diverged even a tiny bit from the assigned tasks, I was reprimanded in no uncertain terms.

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Watching Ethan go about his business took me back in my mind’s eye to the days of tribal Big Men, those high-energy, gregarious, expansive, driven, attention-seeking, talented, hard-working, visionary movers and shakers. Ethan is all that and more; an amazing person to know. He could talk an auctioneer under the table, loves to perform for an audience, gives highly articulate and inspiring speeches and presentations, and wields the knack of persuading people to make radical life changes. A consummate alliance builder, his presence is felt everywhere on the farm and among those drawn to closer affiliation with the Experiment.

But Big Men are also dangerous people whose larger-than-life downsides can threaten the long-term well being of the community they serve. Their overweening ambition, domineering and intimidating presence, power-hogging, stealing other people’s limelight, hype-mongering exaggerations, and relentless people-driving will alienate people and damage the very values they profess to uphold. They too easily slip into letting their ambition override their caring for the mundane needs of the community. Their quest for tight control and their compulsion to dominate every group event dampens spontaneity and blocks felicitous emergence.

The people at the farm live in far harsher conditions than are necessitated by their chosen subsistence lifestyle. I believe this is because pursuing PR-worthy outside goals has been more important than paying attention to everyday human needs. For example, the wash is done in a tub of water with a bar of soap and a washboard. Please. You might as well dig a posthole with a spoon. There are well designed and effective Amish washers available; one of them would have made a nice addition when the second baby was born last spring. It seems to me that sending money to the poor of St. Louis while ignoring the needs of the Poor Clares and Francises on the farm is a misallocation of resources, and something Diana Leafe Christian once called ‘visionary abuse’: “when dynamic, energetic, visionary founders, burning with a spiritual, environmental, or social-justice mission, work grueling hours in primitive, cramped, uncomfortable, or health-risking conditions, and happily expect all members, interns, and apprentices to do the same.

amish washing machine with wringer

The Possibility Alliance farm is exploring the edges of the ‘known world’ not only while bravely and cheerfully inventing an experimental, low-impact neo-Amish lifestyle, but also regarding power. Will the other members rise into greater power themselves to counterbalance the excesses of their leading man? Can they find a good mix of checks and balances regarding someone so clearly gifted and valuable, yet so equally clearly out of control? Next year, the farm community is finally taking a sabbatical from the extreme busyness and visitor overwhelm of the past five seasons. Whether they succeed in slowing down and reorienting will be of much interest beyond the boundaries of the farm. I am certain that the issue of the right balance of leeway/restraint of dominant individuals is something highly applicable to other intentional communities as well as to mainstream society. And so Possibility Alliance may yet pioneer a reconnection with an ancient path our ancestors lost in the far reaches of the Neolithic.

PA (from another site)

Direct action is when you just go and dig your own well [when water is privatized]. Direct action is a matter of acting as if you were already free.
— David Graeber

After describing the Dancing Rabbit community as it appeared to us visitors, I offer a few additional observations and musings. (Floating your mouse over pictures will show the descriptive text.)

Using the body as it’s meant to be used

I loved being physical, always walking and outside every day, all the time. People are in motion; it is impossible to be sedentary. Everything takes more effort at DR; I was noticing how even small differences require more “work” — like peeing outside. It adds up to greater fitness, a more limber body, one motion at a time. When did Babylon switch from helping us past some drudgery to pushing us toward exertion-free life? The two are very different; one is helpful, the other… not so much.

State of the land

pond from afar

It was only after living at DR that I finally grokked the scope of land damage in the Midwest. The reason that their county provides tapwater to all residents is that water — in this humid part of the country! — is hard to find and of poor quality. Rains are lost to runoff instead of soaking into the topsoil and staying there — because little topsoil is left. The USDA program pays farmers to keep the land fallow, but that only prevents further major degradation through plowing; it neither stops the erosion nor does it help the land regenerate.

DR has been trying for years to restore several acres of tall grass prairie. They have repeatedly burned and reseeded the area; Jack from Red Earth was critical of this approach. Regenerating prairie without the grazers may be a tedious exercise in never-ending human management.

Fruit trees in DR are thriving. They have a tree committee that cares for them, and lets the people know when fruit is ready to pick, and how much each person can take. But the seedling trees that had been planted far out on the land have suffered from the drought, and many are dead despite the mulch and plastic shields for protection from the elements.

DR land

Old fashioned resilience

One day, as I was coming back home, I saw my “landlords” butchering roosters next to the cob house. It did me good to see April — a young woman of lovely delicate features whom I can easily see in my mind’s eye surrounded by the blandishments of Babylon — running around covered in blood and guts, showing the DIY spirit of recapturing the old skills that permeates DR. I tried to talk them into cooking the chicken feet too — no luck there yet (I keep trying).

Haley, a budding farmer from Montana, kept a couple of sheep this past summer, and after the Mennonites came from Rutledge to butcher them on the land, she proceeded to stretch the skins on a wooden frame, and to tan them with brains and egg yolks. I felt then like I was witnessing another American revolution: people falling in love with the old self-reliant ways, and throwing themselves enthusiastically into relearning them.

Creep of the loud, the lit, and the oblivious

While DR is still mostly dark, there is progressive evidence of more and more outdoor lights. The Rabbits seem particularly fond of strings of Christmas lights which they happily festoon here and there, on houses or inside. While Babylon wages war on the night, in DR it is rather a slow creep, where light trespass from big windows goes unheeded, electricity use no longer has to be restrained, and outside flood lights are making their appearance. On the level of noise, it is still a peaceful place — except for the trains which rumble and honk not too far away at all hours. The small wind turbines create a constant, soft hum overhead.

There is concern among the Rabbits that now the community is on the grid, the former hard-wired limits — like having to attend to electricity usage — are disappearing, and there seems to be a slippery slope in the direction of more gadgetry, inching toward the mainstream. It occurs to me that the big problem with running water and electricity is not that we have it, but that the mode of delivery allows us — even encourages us — to be oblivious not only to wastage, but also to the overcomplex, hidden, vulnerable and damaging cycles that make such delivery possible, and to the subtle effects of all this on the community.

Politics

Most of the focus at DR naturally goes toward internal politics: learning about consensus, practicing it, and running the community via the 6-monthly planning process, the monthly plenaries and the committee structure that supports them. External politics does exist but not in a regional sense; the Rabbits see themselves as playing an important role of enlightening outsiders and showing that more energy-sustainable communities do not have to be “primitive” but can have all sorts of modern amenities and even luxuries. There are some connections to the tiny town of Rutledge and to the area Mennonites, but it does not seem to be important enough to work it into the governance structure of DR. Surely creating a larger, regional alliance will turn out to be crucial once economic localization kicks in earnest?

As of late, metapolitics has been given prominence by a campaign of some members who have pushed for greater power-equalization. Several workshops with outside facilitation have been organized to deal with “power dynamics” and people reported to me they feel it’s already helping. We visitors were not allowed into the power dynamics workshop going on one weekend, so I have no details as yet. But my sense is that the Rabbits are ahead of many communities by giving this issue the attention it surely deserves, and growing the skills needed.

Hygiene

The DR settlement is really one huge construction site, but there is quite a bit of an effort to keep things reasonably tidy. And every Sunday morning, people pitch in with cleaning the community house. Hygiene? Well, I came to DR already sick with an obstinate intestinal bug I had caught at Possibility Alliance, so I was pretty sensitive to the passage of germs. I had also caught a cold at PA which I had taken home with me, and that actually turned out to be a good thing, because that same virus was making its rounds at DR when I got there, and I was blissfully immune. The truth is, a community of people living with so much contact with one another is one big party for the germs. And holding hands before eating does not help. I countered with lots of handwashing but that means little if you are forced to hold hands even when an infection is passing through the community, and the utensils are handled by everyone as people line up for food.

When we visited Sandhill for a two-community potluck, one of the people there was just at that blubbering and zizzing height of his cold; this did not keep him from mingling with the large group, nor from holding hands in the circle and sneezing around the food-laden table. That night, I reached my limit: gross-out! As for cleanliness, there was a real effort, but with so many people using the facilities, and life being so indoor/outdoor permeable, it’s a struggle to keep things clean. Don’t expect the kind of clean to which we are accustomed in the outside world. Overall, though, cleanliness was not a major problem for me at DR. It might be for someone who is a real neatnik.

Sandhill

One afternoon we walked to the Sandhill community, three miles away. The land there has a different feel; plenty of woods, almost park-like in places, and real orchards; extensive gardens and well cared for fields are covered by sorghum straw in the fall. Sustainability at Sandhill has not focused on the use of fossil fuels; the main effort has gone into eking out a good living out of the land. They have a large motorized set-up for extracting and boiling down sorghum syrup, and sell it to the other communities in the area, as well as to the outside market. It turns out that sorghum production in Missouri has dwindled as small farms have dwindled; Sandhill serves the market for old-fashioned organic foods.

This peaceful community houses 7 permanent residents in three different buildings. Work exchangers come in the summer, many volunteers come during the sorghum season. They also grow potatoes, wheat, corn and soybeans in quantity. Residents share their income; two people work off the farm intermittently, and the rest of the income comes from produce. In addition, they run the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. Sandhill’s woods provide some building material for DR, and wild persimmons add exotic flavor to tasty pies. Sandhill has a strong commitment to the land, and the signs of it are everywhere. A lovely well-run place.

sandhill

harvesting sorgum at sandhill

Red Earth

Red Earth Farms, a direct neighbor of DR, split the land into 7 homesteads; one of them is still available. I was told that the Red Earth people broke off from DR because they wanted to run homesteads without having to go to meetings all the time.

red earth

I recall most the establishment of our excellent tour guide, Jack, whose family until recently lived in a very large tent, and who is still finishing the house. It was obvious that he had started with the commitment to make a living off the land, and he is familiar with running livestock over the pastures to improve the soil. He showed us an electric-fenced paddock where most of the animals were, clustered together with two dogs to protect them at all times. They were nibbling down a very overgrown and neglected area next to a wash; once they were done — the goats eating poison ivy and creepers, the pig rooting out weed roots, and the rest grazing down the overgrowth so that fresh grasses can grow — he would move them over to the next area to be regenerated. The undulating, green land was a pleasure to behold. The difference between carefully grazed land and ungrazed at Red Earth (or DR) stands in stark relief: green, lush grasses vs dead weeds with grass clumps trying to poke through.

red earth2

Village design

The Rabbits say that they are modeled on the European village. This is only accurate in the sense that the dwellings are all clustered together. I think it would be truer to say they are modeled on early 20th century American suburbia. Small houses close by, a shed, and a bit of land to play with, walkable and community-minded; it reminded me of the “garden city” utopias of that time. Originally, the idea was to have themed neighborhoods, but this would have encouraged sprawl on the land and so was abandoned. I very much regretted this; I wondered aloud if a more primitivist (low gadget) neighborhood would be welcome, and was told this is not really doable. There is a trend, however, toward clusters of small houses around a courtyard, with a shared kitchen and dietary preferences.

The community of Red Earth Farms was created next door by dissidents of this vision — they wanted to permaculture-farm according to personal initiative, without having to wait for endless meetings to ok every step. So they sliced the land up, American style, into several disjointed parcels. Each lessee presents a proposal to the community which is then attached to the lease, and after that, each family does its own thing.

In contrast, the European villages I know begin not with the dream of a house, but with the commitment to make a living from the land. A village starts with the ‘homesteading mind’ — with commitment to soil and landbase and critters, integrating humans into the land’s ecology. The early settlers created adjacent homesteads with the houses very close together, while each holding stretches back in a narrow strip where the utility buildings, gardens and orchards are located. Small fields separated by hedges and grassy margins follow. There are two patterns that predominate in central Europe: the ribbon pattern, and the circular ray pattern.

ribbon village

radial village

I wonder: if the settlers of Red Earth Farms had been aware of the radial pattern, would they have been interested in creating a hamlet centered roughly in the middle, with each homestead raying out? When we did the Red Earth tour, Jack was stumped by my question as to why they did not build close together. My impression was that they were simply unacquainted with the possibility, and so did what Americans do. One of my fellow visitors commented that perhaps they wanted more privacy from each other. I just don’t know, and see it as an opportunity missed: they could have had the neighborliness of a hamlet along with homestead independence.

The DR land use planning committee has a design for the town, and future road loops for more neighborhoods. A new community house, much larger, will be at the center, plus a game field. They expect to accommodate maybe 300 people on the current land. If growth continues, more land will be bought. The development surrounding the community house will be dense, with shops, and people living upstairs above them.

Early design flaws?

Several chicken flocks live contained in small (fairly cramped) chicken-tractor type of coops. People’s house gardens are unprotected; complaints have blocked free ranging chickens. You either have to confine the chickens, or fence in the gardens; an issue that is difficult to correct later on. In European villages, chickens range freely on each fenced homestead; being close to living quarters and stables — as well as being within the village proper — protects them from predators. (Free ranging chickens on isolated homesteads are far more vulnerable.)

Early DR settlers were drawn there primarily for the natural building experience. And natural building itself was motivated by the desire to provide highly affordable shelter accessible to anyone, using site and nearby materials. This vision seems to be fading at DR, as tiny cheap houses are largely non-existent, and overpriced houses proliferate. Not only does this seem to counter the original vision, but it also buttresses the stratification of DR society: the division into those who can afford fairly fancy buildings, and those who can’t, and end up tenting it or living in very uncomfortable conditions in other makeshift shelters. The situation is complicated by the skilled builders’ pressure to make “good wages.” This might be a “type 1 design error”; bringing Babylon’s economic system with you wherever you go.

A few customs

DR has very sensible pet rules, where one cat or dog can be added to the community per so many people. Cats need to be kept indoors during the nesting season. Everyone shows kindness to the few dogs and cats running around.

Men cook. All the time. Yey!

The Rabbits are heavily invested in promoting good relationships. A conflict resolution committee has the power to insist on mediation when a conflict develops and begins to affect the community at large. Reflective listening is taught (listening without putting your own story on it). The other tools they use are as follows: restorative circles, NVC, and doing your own personal work which can take many forms and is aided through workshops, support groups and private practitioners offering their services.

Holidays? Halloween is big at DR, with a procession going from house to house, and each house they visit does a skit or a ride or some other surprise. Thanksgiving means a huge community meal. Solstice is celebrated by some, privately. Christmas is ignored.

The people at DR are friendly and helpful. Part of the reason for the friendliness is that visitors are wooed, seen as the source of future growth. And partly, it is truly a neighborly place, where everyone walks everywhere, children run in kidpacks, safe and off to their kid adventures, and everybody makes frequent contact with others. We were of course cautioned to respect people’s privacy and not to assume they necessarily want to talk to us at that particular time, or have their pics taken.

DR does not have any community work requirements, apart from being expected to serve on at least one committee. Large community-wide projects needing people’s time are announced as needed, and people get paid for the hours given.

Sharon’s and Dennis’ house

I will close by telling you about a magical house being built by an older couple at DR. The house’s “bones” are made of round logs and wood & peg joinery, and large chunks of urbanite serve as the foundation. The roof, covered by a plastic membrane, will some day sprout a vegetable garden. Walls of straw bale and plaster will complete the structure. My amazement came from the way they are building — it reminded me of the way cathedrals were once built, one large stone, one massive beam at a time, with hand tools and lots of patience. A timeless way of building; each piece placed just right is a joy. When I first saw it, I was thinking “true dedication,” but those are not the right words. This is more than a building philosophy; it is a certain way of life embodied. Craftsmen unhurried in the flow of generations. I stood before that rising house humbled and awed.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

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Everything here is a little bit harder.
— a Rabbit

From each community I have visited, something wonderful’s stuck in my mind. In Earthaven, daffodils blooming at every fork in the road and the lovely floor mosaic in the community house. At Possibility Alliance, the clear pond with its happy flock of ducks and geese and cat-tails all around, and funky cob outdoor kitchen. At Dancing Rabbit, the enormity and clarity of the night sky, and the endless buckets of humanure that travel from the community house to the composting ground (a good good thing! :-)).

I spent two weeks last month at the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, which finds itself on a large old farm far from just about anywhere, in the area known as NEMO (North Eastern Missouri). The land itself is mostly rolling pasture, with some trees and woods along the creeks and washes. Walking the land is easy on the paths mown in the tall grass and weeds. Next door is the Red Earth Farms, an offshoot of DR. And three miles down the road is another small, older community, Sandhill.

The Rabbits run a very well organized visitors program. The six of us newbies would meet every day for a check-in, and to attend some workshop or work party. The group itself was multifarious: an LA man working in the film industry, retooling himself as an alternative builder, wanting out. A woman touring U.S. communities, freshly come from a large Hare Krishna ashram/cow sanctuary in West Virginia where she had been learning farming. A Canadian with Old Colony (very old fashioned) Mennonite background who knitted her way through our DR days. A musician from North Carolina who used to run a nightclub, realized that he had thrown out one drunk too many in his life, and time had come for a radical turnaround. And an intrepid man from Boston looking to start an ecovillage in New England came to explore both DR and Possibility Alliance.

Our workshops covered the history of DR and took us on several tours of the land, the main community kitchen and its rules, and the houses. We learned about consensus, permaculture, land use planning for DR’s future expansion, a bit about how DR gets things done, the various coops, and about the alternative building and energy at DR. DR builders are moving somewhat away from natural building and into green building which goes up faster and doesn’t grow mold. They use propane and county water, are on the grid for electricity, and produce enough from wind turbines and solar panels to sell back to the grid. One rather notable workshop dealt with “inner sustainability” and learning to navigate relationships and conflict at DR. We discussed various techniques for inner work, from Coherence Counseling to Naka Ima/Heart of Now and Zegg Forums, and co-counseling was demonstrated.

One night we were treated to a Q & A session where many Rabbits came to offer answers to our questions; they all stress that each person’s answer is partial and particular, and we were always encouraged to gather a number of points of view. We participated in the WIP (“week in preview”) session on Sunday where announcements are made for the coming week, people schedule car trips, and in general everyone coordinates their activities as needed. We also hauled dirt to someone’s future green roof, learned to make joinery pegs the old fashioned way on a shaving horse, planted garlic, and some people helped with a new round house going up made of pallets, clay-straw, cob, and natural plasters. We were also treated to delightful tours of the neighbor eco-communities.

A particularly interesting workshop was on DR’s internal currency. It’s called ELMs, is entirely computerized, practical, and unique, and run by two volunteers. Converting into dollars 1:1, it is widely used, and the community pays those who work on its behalf in ELMs. About $40,000 worth changes hands every month, increasing fast. How do people make a living in DR? Well, there are those who live off their trust funds or pensions, a few run computer businesses, and others go off-farm for seasonal jobs (for example, a cruise ship job, sheep farm job, soil testing for area farmers, and the like). The community does provide some limited flow of money to those who live there and decide to provide child care or building and maintenance services. DR itself offers several part-time accounting and high-level coordination jobs.

The car coop serves this community of 70+ with three biodiesel cars. On one hand, this is part of the glue that helps the community stick together. It is however fairly expensive to pay per mile into the coop, and some people hang onto their own cars so they can work off-farm or visit relatives. This is creating considerable tension at the moment, and will be the subject of a large (and contentious) community meeting this month. I am expecting that the strict standard will be somewhat relaxed, but at the same time, it presents a difficult issue to the Rabbits because the commitment to shared biodiesel cars is one of the founding principles of DR. The tiny town of Rutledge is 3 miles away and people do bicycle or walk there, and to the organic dairy nearby.

One of the amazing things about DR is the richness of the cultural life there. I often wondered… how come the typical small town in America feels so dead, with very little going on, esp. for young people, whereas DR is just brimming with events and gatherings? Every night, there was something of interest: potlucks, a concert, support groups, self-growth workshops, men’s and women’s groups, singing and healing circles, yoga, parties, movie nights… or simply informal gatherings in the community house to share stories or to make music. A true cultural oasis.

The food, on the other hand, was often dreadful. We circulated among the various community kitchens which are run as coops into which people pay a monthly fee, and share the chores of cooking and keeping the place stocked and modestly clean. Veganism seems to be the prevalent ethos even though most of the people there are not vegan. I guess it’s cheap to feed people that way. To give you the flavor of it, one day for lunch we got some tasteless split peas with carrots, millet, and popcorn. Ugh. There were meals that were tasty, but they were more of an exception to the rule, and when Thursdays came, many of us converged on the Mercantile to wolf down handmade pizza. (The Mercantile is a straw-bale B&B inn and a shop/bar.) The community kitchens range from modern kitchens all the way to outdoor open sheds where cooking is done on hand-crafted rocket stoves.

Most of the current settlers at DR are quite young, and the turnover is considerable. Many people go for the experience, not to settle there. This may shift as DR keeps on growing. The community is really one big laboratory for building methods, community design, relationships, co-governance, and now, finally, gearing up for restorative agriculture. I attended the ag committee meeting, and it turns out that most of the early settlers came here for the natural building opportunity (no zoning laws). The ag lands have lain fallow for 15 years, harvesting a government subsidy that helped DR pay off its land mortgage. Now 19 acres have been removed from that program, and the ag committee is busy setting up some basic guidelines for farming. The land itself is very degraded: I was told that much of the topsoil blew away in the 30s, followed by bad farming practices, and now there is only about an inch of topsoil overlying clay. People who garden have had to resort to importing soil from elsewhere for their raised beds. Given the vegan ethos of the community, regeneration of soil via rotational grazing is regarded with suspicion, but a go-ahead has been given for a small herd of goats and sheep, beginning next year.

Well. I am just bursting with more stories from the stay, and the post is getting lengthy. I think I will tell you two more things, and then tuck in. I have enough memories and reflections for another post or two! The thing that completely caught me off guard and unprepared was this: DR is inhabited mainly by extroverts who have taken over. It was hard for me to bear, all the compulsive socializing, the fast talking without pauses, the loudness and ruckus attending gatherings, the obligatory hand-holding circles, the many meetings, and the lack of sociable silence. The extroverts are aware their ways are hard for introverts to live with — that is, intellectually, they are aware. Behavior-wise, they seem oblivious. The extrovert culture has at its roots an assumption — a sense of entitlement, even — that introverts adapt and assimilate. In the sense that the outside culture is driven by extrovert values and needs, the Rabbits have brought Babylon in with them (says this much put-upon grumpy introvert).

I did not camp out as my mateys did, but rented one of the more notable structures at DR; a tiny cob house named Gobcobatron, built as a spiral and very lovely and enjoyable for a brief stay (see its pic below). High on charm, it is also mostly unlivable, having no insulation in the walls or the roof. One afternoon when I dozed off without covering myself, I woke up chilled to the bone even though it was warmish outside: the massive earthen walls just suck the heat out of the living body. Evenings, I put a little stove to good use. The house was a quiet and calming retreat for me from all the bustle of the community. Its owners have learned some important lessons and are now living in a partially finished straw-bale house built on stilts to insulate it from the damp ground.

I am very grateful for everything these brave pioneers so whole-heartedly and generously shared with us visitors. All hail the hard-working, merry Dancing Rabbits!

If we believe in the fundamental goodness of man, we are doomed.
— Dr. Robert Hare

We may as well start with some very bad news, and get it out of the way. We humans are naturally violent, acquisitive, greedy, negligent, aggressive, destructive, petty, mean, self-centered, and sometimes abysmally foolish. And now for the very good news: it’s also in our nature to be peaceful, giving, generous, caring, gentle, creative, broad-minded, kind, altruistic, and sometimes profoundly wise. We are domineering, yet we long for equality.

Mother Culture of the so-called progressive worldview vigorously disagrees. As a reaction to the often-knee jerk blaming of human nature for the failings of civilization, many of us moderns bought the other side of the coin. Haven’t we been told by the various gurus of enlightened 21st century thinking that human nature is “basically good”? Like some anxiety management self-help circle, we indulge in endless mutual assurances that I am ok and you are ok. But the façade of “goodness” crumbles rather quickly under the critical gaze of those who lose faith in the ready blandishments. “There are more and more factors beginning to push us out of the comfortable pew where we mostly once worshiped our species, our ‘leaders’, our civilization, our perception of unlimited human capacity and entitlement and manifest destiny.” Indeed. And along with the worship of our species goes the often uncritical defense of the species’ nature. These particular worshipers fish around for evidence that our primate cousins are gentle giants, that our paleolithic ancestors lived non-violent lives, that hunting and omnivory was really somehow imposed upon us mild-mannered fruit-eaters, and that human aggression is really learned — not innate — and can be erased with another kind of learning.

When people argue on behalf of benevolent human nature, the argument often takes this informal shape: It is quite evident that most of us behave in fairly innocuous ways most of the time. But look at all the horrible things people have done – now a list of genocides, tortures, and other ghastly deeds emerges – that is not us, is it? The Hitlers of this world are caused by… culture, stress, poor upbringing, perhaps even innate pathologies. But that’s not us! See, most humans are basically good. Such an argument is based on a fallacy. It’s not either/or: either we are basically good, or we are genocidal maniacs and perverts. There is a third possibility: that we are both good and bad in fundamental common measure. And this point of view, called by some social scientists “the ambivalence model of human nature” is the keystone of my own understanding. I used to believe otherwise. I once defended vigorously the “basically good” point of view. But events in my own life — in my own behavior! — eventually prompted me to take a harder look.

I now accept a different argument. This one is rooted in the evidence of primitive tribes. Their profound egalitarianism, radical sharing, steady emphasis on social harmony, and the rarity of serious armed conflict rightly astounds the modern mind. But it would be a romantic misdirection to claim that greed, violence or power abuse is absent among them. Studies clearly indicate that hiding one’s kill from others, shirking common work, eagerness to inflict severe damage on neighbors, and upstartism has been documented time and again even among remote or newly contacted tribes. Significant levels of violence — mostly among males competing for females, and in skirmishes between bands — have been recorded in most primitive societies.

What is the evidence from our far-ancient ancestors and other primates? An erectus find displays the remains of a human being who had been scalped and his eyes gouged out. There is evidence of interhuman violence, including human sacrifice, in cave art and Upper Paleolithic remains. And a massacre from about 12,000 years ago shows half of a small settlement dispatched by human weapons. Chimpanzees have been observed to terrorize and kill other chimps. It has finally been understood that intraspecific violence is common among animals, including our closest primate relatives. We are no different.

It is the propensity for killing that allows both chimps and humans to be such good hunters. Bonobos were said by eager romanticizers a while back “to have lost the desire to kill.” But careful study shows bonobo females organizing themselves into precise, coordinated, swift and deadly hunting bands as they go after monkeys. It is hard to believe we would have evolved into fierce predators had there been no biological basis for it.

And then there is cannibalism. Well documented among the erectus, Neanderthals, and sapiens, it presents a picture of our nature many of us would prefer not to know. But the evidence cannot be ignored. Both long-ago ancestors and more recent tribal peoples hunted fellow humans as prey. Eating one’s fellows out of dire hunger, reproductive reasons, and cage confinement is not uncommon in the animal kingdom. But gastronomic cannibalism, the hunting of one’s own kind in plentiful times for food is far more unusual. We stand in the company of bull frogs, scorpions, king cobras, sharks, and our primate cousins, the common chimps. Isn’t that alone something to gag on?

Benevolent, us?! Trees are benevolent beings. We are not. Besides, any animal species has it in their power to wreak a lot of damage on earth by overbreeding, overtrampling, overkilling and overconsuming. This is true from bacteria all the way to mammals. It is true of us.

The dark and light nature of our species was vividly portrayed by that classic of a film, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Dr. Jekyll, a noble humanitarian, develops an elixir that — he hopes — will improve upon human nature. He tests his potion on himself and morphs into the hairy, coarse, nasty Mr. Hyde who goes off on a rampage. The story ends badly. To be rid of Hyde, the world must be rid of Jekyll. The Jekyll/Hyde metaphor is a powerful reminder of the underlying light-and-shadow that lives in ambivalent, dappled symbiosis in all of us.

Where once humans were blamed for the imperfection of civilization, turning it upside down blames civilization for the imperfection of humans. “It is the psychotic demands of civilization that have created these very troubling forms of social disintegration along with the weakness that haunts individuals in their complicit acquiescence, in their enslavement to these urban walls and the psychopathologies they generate.” Human evils are symptoms of stress-related mental illness caused by our culture. If that is true — and the project of Enlightenment has believed it to be so — then all we need is shucking off the burden, healing, and plenty of freedom. More freedom! How sweet it rang in the French revolution. How sweet the sound in all the propaganda for modernity. But if human nature is dark and light, then more freedom for Jekyll will always and inevitably lead to more freedom for Hyde… and that seems like a singularly bad idea.

First you act, then you know. – Coert Visser

We make the path by walking. Not so much by talking about it. And herein lies one of the major pitfalls of human decision making: we gather into groups of talking heads and hash out ideas. Then we vote or use some other abstraction-based process to narrow the choices, and hope that this will lead us in the right direction. But it is often a real struggle to get anywhere, and the results? Lackluster.

Social insects do it differently. They use a process called quorum sensing. What happens when ants need to move their home after a crack in the ground, or bees need to choose their new hive after swarming? Scouts go out looking for likely sites, laying down pheromone trails in areas that seem promising. Then they go back and communicate their excitement to their nest sibs. But not just any old way: excited ants are quicker to communicate and excited bees dance longer directional dances. Then other scouts go out, lay down more pheromones (thus highlighting the more popular trails), return and communicate. More and more scouts come to the most the promising sites and report back. At some point, the community senses a quorum, and the ants or bees move en masse. Much of the time (90% or so!), they pick out the best possible site through following this simple pattern that does not require either leaders or top-down oversight; freely undertaken, non-managed choices of unsophisticated agents add up to a very intelligent decision. But it’s not just insects… fish do it, wildebeest do it, and so do dolphins.

This day in French Polynesia, a group of about 25 spinner dolphins is sleeping behind the barrier reef protecting Moorea’s lagoon from the open sea. Like all dolphins, they remain conscious during sleep, resting only the hearing parts of their brains while relying on their sight to identify predators. In this state, they move as stealthily as ghosts, surfacing quietly, breathing low. But by the late afternoon the school begins to awaken and the dolphins pick up speed, with individuals bursting through the surface to perform the dramatic aerial leaps and spins for which the species is named.

Then almost as quickly as they awoke, the dolphins slow down again. The spinners have entered the phase of their day Norris and colleagues dubbed “zigzag swimming,” with the group oscillating between sleep and wakefulness, as some individuals wish to awaken and others wish to lounge abed in the lagoon a while longer. [Impending is the group’s choice to go feed in the open sea.] It’s no easy decision. At stake are their lives. By leaving the lagoon the spinners face real danger. To catch fish they must venture offshore and dive alone or in mother-calf pairs to depths of 1,000 feet or more in the nighttime sea. They will be hunting alongside many larger predators, including sharks hunting them.

Underwater, the split in intentions is … obvious. When the group is persuaded to sleep, the dolphins fall silent. When the group is urged to awaken, the sea explodes with the whistles, clicks, quacks, moos, baahs, barks, and squawks of their varied calls. In short order, these sounds are accompanied by an artillery barrage of dull booms and hissing bubble trains: the percussion of belly flops and back flops at the surface. Like howling wolves and cawing crows the spinners are consolidating their intentions, using zigzag swimming to cast and recast their votes until consensus is reached [or, more likely, until a quorum is sensed].

Quorum sensing has fascinating applications in computing and in medicine. For example, it is pointing a way out of the impasse created by antibiotics. The “massacre them all” approach only breeds nastier, more resistant superbacteria. Disruption of bacterial quorum sensing simply slows down the foe and gives the body’s immune system more time to use normal defense mechanisms to deal with the invader.

What exactly are the key components of ant and bee quorum sensing? I have gathered as many as I could find.

  • individual initiative in going out and evaluating (freedom, randomness)
  • a considerable variety of possible solutions is examined
  • each individual is aware of a variety of criteria for evaluating the sites (which may differ from individual to individual somewhat)
  • individual actions lay down pheromone markers upon which the next-comers build; pheromone trails grow stronger as more ants come to investigate
  • each individual signals to others (direction, qualities of the site, enthusiasm)
  • each scouts communicates their information and enthusiasm in full, then “shuts up” and new scouts coming in continue the process; individual ants build onto what others had done before them
  • a threshold or quorum is recognized by all (some means for assessing the numbers involved is needed)
  • when quorum is reached, a commonly-understood response follows
  • there is no leader in this process (it’s self-organized and decentralized)
  • the critters do not aim for clarity in what they communicate; if they are confused or unenthusiastic, they convey that… the clarity will emerge in time from their combined efforts

Rules of thumb: take action, explore; do what you understand as best; leave a marker or sign; communicate your enthusiasm; know a quorum when you see one. Diversity of options and free competition among them lead to a superior solution.

Quorum sensing is one pattern of swarm intelligence. There are others yet simpler; for example, sometimes communicating with others is not even necessary. Interacting with the environment and leaving signals for others to act upon is enough (think Wikipedia). I am but nicking the surface, hoping to leave some scratch marks for others to follow.

Useful search terms:
Swarm intelligence
Swarm theory
Smart mob
Collective intelligence
Stigmergy [sign + work]
Group genius
Emergent swarm
Signaling [or signalling]
Wisdom of the crowd
Co-swarming

Readings (the most glowing reviews on Amazon are for Seeley’s book):
Thomas Seeley: Honeybee Democracy
James Surowiecki: Wisdom of Crowds
Peter Miller: The Smart Swarm
Alex Pentland: Honest Signals


Well then. How may all this apply to human groups? I don’t know yet, but I have a bee in my bonnet. A swarm of insights has descended upon me that I am abuzz to share. So please bear with me as I dole out the honey. (Help… where is that anti-venom?)

Truth to tell, I was struck speechless by the realization that these ants are freer than us humans. (Ants?! 😮 Ouch.) They are free to go out and act as they see fit, free to explore any option they find interesting, and to tell about it to the group. And they are free to wait until a deep sense of rightness emerges that propels the entire nest to action. Unlike humans, they are never faced with a contrived decision to obey.

I do not like being forced to go along with group decisions that go counter to my own deep sense anymore than I like green eggs and ham. Sitting in meetings imposing decisions on each other, with people expected to fall into line once the decision is hammered out… is that really what we want, or is it something we have put up with for way too long? Instead of an OODA loop, we have the hum-drum reality of OODO: observe-orient-decide-obey. Given the underlying expectation of having to toe the line, no wonder humans find group decision making unpleasant, anxiety-producing, manipulative, and full of miserable compromises.

I want what the ants have! (Did I actually say that?) I want to be able to listen with care what others have to say and to observe their actions. Then I want to be able to act within freedom, in my own turn. Isn’t that where true dignity lies? I have a new personal manifesto: the loyalty that I owe to the group does not consist of obeying its rules. It consists of opening up to the information flowing my way, allowing it to change me, then acting in freedom as I best see fit.

Then, get this: the ants actually do stuff! Wha? They do not sit around debating things in the abstract?! Their eventual smart choices emerge out of iterative cycles of doings. They throw themselves into an exuberant exploration of possibilities. Just think about it. Don’t we only find out about real decisions by doing in the human world as well? People talk and think and imagine – but making final decisions out of this material makes little sense. Only when the decision is embodied and acted out, it becomes the sort of decision you can hang your hat on. The rest are just dreams, wishes and other ephemera. True-blue resolve must be embodied rather than just thunk.

When I stayed at Earthaven, there was in place a sturdy consensus, hammered out in meetings and supported by the eco-village culture, regarding care for the land. But when several young people clear-cut a whole section of the forest, leaving not a tree or bush standing, and what’s worse, leaving the banks of the adjacent creek bare and vulnerable to run-off, that consensus proved false in the face of the contingencies of debt and the need to get the most yield out of the area (intended for a pasture flanked by fruit trees). And this in the face of a state law specifying creek bank protection! The community looked the other way while the young men mowed down those woods. Theoretical agreements carry very little weight when the chips are flying.

It is not enough to discuss ideas and then choose one of them. If the doings of each individual are the material from which an intelligent decision of the group emerges, then people must be free to do. Theoretical agreement does NOT tell us what people will want to do once the chips are down, and actions are required. It does NOT tell us what people will do when they have to apply their ideas in the real world, and real world feedback kicks in. It does NOT tell us what people will do once they get out of that armchair, and their cherished ideas turn difficult in practice, or have unforeseen consequences, or just plain feel disagreeable when realized. It does NOT tell us what we will pick when all our faculties are engaged, not only the rational. There is a great variety of things that are agreeable to think… but not agreeable to do.

Emergent decision making has a number of advantages listed in the literature as robustness, flexibility, low-energy, decentralization and self-organization. But it occurs to me that there are others: emergent decision making is honest; a group or company can create phony “paper decisions” that sound good but merely mask the actual reality within, but people aware of emergent decisions will look beyond such facades. Second, emergent choice does not lend itself to be sabotaged by top-down leadership because it “happens on its own” and any tinkering turns it into something else. And the freedom of each agent to act as they see fit subverts tendencies to groupthink. “Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions. A group won’t be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do.

Emergent decision making leads to novel, creative, unpredictable results. There is no trauma so often attendant contrived decisions, which makes it possible to revisit the issues as often as necessary. And finally, emergent, embodied choices are highly persuasive where mere ideas are not: research has shown that people are more apt to imitate behaviors they have seen several other people do already. There is quorum sensing somewhere in there…

Have you heard of the Estonian country-wide clean up party? The elements are all there: autonomous signaling, visible mapping of the signals, and finally the emergent quorum that brought 50,000 people out to clean up all the illegal garbage dumps and piles that had accumulated throughout the countryside. In one day. Nearly 4% of the entire population showed up. Bloody amazing.

To me – and I accept that this is an unusual and unpopular viewpoint – the real issue is that we are behaving like a bunch of undignified, narrow-minded twats.

A powerful and growing agreement exists among people hacking away at the current impasse that we must begin with building circles of increasingly powerful community. Yet, tension keeps recurring between those who call for education toward growing awareness and for sharing those awakenings with others a la women’s consciousness raising groups of yore, and those who bank on relocalizer groups working to bring about small practical changes into their lives, villages and towns. And then there are those who argue that such small changes can lead to political quietism on the one hand and on the other, that practical localization achievements can be swept away by the Powers that Be in an instant if they so choose, and therefore localization and personal changes are not enough. What if all are right? It’s not either/or. I want to weave these three points of view together and take a good look at the emergent pattern.

The red pill club
Vast are the multitudes these days who have seen past the curtain. Just this morning, sitting at the local java joint, the conversation turned to the state of the country. So I looked toward the guy doing most of the talking, and popped the question. Why is it that America is unable to go after all those criminal banksters and fraud-peddling financiers, full well knowing we wuz robbed? He got it on the first try: “Because those people who caused the problems and those who are supposed to fix them are in bed together.” “So,” I say, “it’s kinda like the mob used to do it? At first he looks startled, then responds, “Exactly; you put key people on your payroll, one way or another.”

Like a diamond, awareness has many facets, but it is clear to the core: the colorful ever-shifting overlay of spectacle designed to distract us has lost its coherence, and the increasingly ugly reality is visible to any who pause to look. To switch metaphors, we’ve awakened finding ourselves wading in bullshit and humanure up to our knees. Within the deeper layers – and there are always deeper layers – there is of course far more than that: understanding that the crises of our age are intimately bound with the underlying structure of our civilization, for example. Or that the touted “efficiency” of the industrial machine is a lie, that this machine is grossly inefficient and destructive – but the measuring sticks used are meant to obscure that inconvenient reality. Or, closer to the vest, the realization that our touted “food security” is practically non-existent, embedded as it is in an agricultural system rooted in ridiculously wasteful practices and propped up by artifice (subsidies and legislated favoritism).

My most recent awakenings have to do with a deeply perceived need to segue to a more “whole,” unfragmented, undomesticated form of thinking and indeed inhabiting my world, and tinkering with what it means to embody what I care about. The other day, I heard a click when someone pointed out that after America’s Founders crafted the rather inspired Constitution, having worked a bit too hard to make sure that the new American government was tilted toward the elites, their successors contrived successfully to convince the increasingly educated and aware “middling sorts” that this is Freedom. No need for Jefferson’s “revolution every 50 years,” folks! Just think positive thoughts, recite the Pledge and the heroic industrialists, CEOs and other bigwigs will take care of everything in this best of all possible worlds! Now even this bamboozle is unraveling in the very heart of conservative America. These days on the internet, every week seems to bring another small piece of the large puzzle.

How well have we done with the job of ‘awareness’? While incremental gains have been made over the last 200 years and more, I would say that the last 10 years have made a huge difference. Significant levels of awareness are no longer the province of a few intellectuals or rebels. The ‘tuning in’ of the 60s, pushed underground, joining with other streams, has morphed into something much deeper and far more pervasive. In particular, the last two years have seen a mass awakening. People now know. Not intellectually, I mean. We know in our bones. Millions and millions of us, right, left and center. In part, we know because of the internet. We finally have a way to talk with one another, help each other find useful information, reinforce our best sense of what is going on, and cross-check with others firsthand. And in part we know because of the ongoing visible decay of the old ways of living and growing impotence of the old ways of thinking. We also have the elites to thank: the economic unraveling and their increasingly brazen and obvious plunder is doing wonders to shake people from their slumber all around the world. And in the U.S., the end of unemployment checks for millions this November will force yet another layer of reckoning.

When my book club recently read Orwell’s Animal Farm, I worried that these mostly older and not at all radical ladies would have a hard time relating. Yet the discussion was the liveliest we’ve had in a while, and it didn’t take long for bubbles of anger at what is happening in America to percolate to the surface. Our oldest and most conservative member actually went into an angry riff sharply informed by Orwell’s insights! I went away that day thinking that the underpinnings of ‘American reality’ have finally shifted; it is the lack of social permission to speak up that holds people back. In our group, Orwell’s book provided a temporary safe space to talk about such “unmentionables.” With each bump on the stairway of the long descent, more people will find their voice. So I’ll go out on a limb and say, when it comes to ‘awareness,’ well done, boyz and grrlz! Well done. Call me a crazy prophet: I say from here on out, awareness will gather into a wave as all exponential processes do.

Path of resilience
I have called it a contagion, because the people who are bit by this bug are altered by it and get in gear to make changes that are far more than skin deep. But I hope it is more of a path than a fortunate kind of popular craze. Everybody understands resilience. Now I am not saying that the majority is willing, as yet, to get off the dependent couch. But my impression is that for those with their native “species’ intelligence” intact, resilience makes a ton of sense. It does not matter one bit if we have huge disasters ahead or not, nor whether all resilience pioneers become dubious about the project of modernity. All folks are pilgrims on the path of resilience who recognize that human life is precarious, and always has been, and that living as pathetic domesticated sheeple who just keep consuming, get fleeced and amused, and have their wastes taken to a pretend-place called “away” is neither a worthy human existence nor one that bodes well in a downturn. And there are always downturns on this planet. Resilience appeals to sensible people of all persuasions and worldviews. It is an idea – and praxis — whose time has come. The last 100 years have been a blip of an exemption for many of us, a dubious opportunity not to have to deal with the nitty-gritty of life and each other. Here is our chance to apply what we have learned from this strange experiment and move on to something saner.

As one commenter responding to a Jensen article recently said about the resilience vanguard: They grow gardens, share the bounty with each other, learn to compost, save and share seeds, share information about the evils of industrial food and offer strategies to counteract that. As they learn about sustainable food production, their interests spread toward other related things. Canning and preserving. Reusing and recycling unwanted items from the home. Buying sustainable products of all kinds. Learning to sew. Making their own music. Raising chickens. Installing solar power. Riding bikes and walking more. Jensen poo-poohs this stuff but it’s the seeds from which the future will grow. Every time I attend the annual seed exchange or visit the local food exchange I feel optimistic. Every time I eat home grown produce, plant seeds my friends saved, and otherwise avoid voting for industrial culture with my wallet, I hope I am making a little bit of a difference. I’d go blow up a dam but then I’d be forced to eat industrial food and wash with industrial soap in prison.

How are we doing on the side of resilience? It appears to me that the needed knowledge is largely in place. All those people who began to build alternative houses from local materials, making their on-site energy, rediscovering subsistence agriculture or foraging or herbal medicines or home birthing or greywater systems, creating pockets of independence from the totality, have done well. Some of the extensive mainstream know-how and gadgets can be adapted to resilient ways of living with relative ease. There is much alternative, appropriate technology out there that can be brought in as needed, and John Michael Greer is apparently sparking a revival and intensification of this work. Appropriate tech even appeals to folks of a cornucopian persuasion who nevertheless recognize the follies of what passes today for “smart” technology and science. It’s a damn shame that so many ingenious inventions of the past that were simple to understand and easy to make, and required little energy to run, have been swept away by the relentless march of modernity. Some can be recovered, and this is a worthy task. Some can be bettered by those among us with the sort of understandings that apply modern magic to a very unmodern task: the day to day practical living of the sort that brings humble creaturely joy, makes deep personal sense, and helps communities (both human and ‘natural’) thrive.

So. We have a large knowledge base to draw on, and great many people in all walks of life are making it their business to reskill and retool. All you appropriate and convivial tool inventors and recreators, all you new agrarians and off-gridders, all you folks daring to leave clueless urbanity behind and jump into a whole new-old way of living, you have done us proud. Working with so little, in your back yards, garages and fields, dedicated to relearn ancestral ways when most of the culture pushed you hard in the opposite direction, you kept going. You kept going through the years when hope flickered small and these very practical tasks seemed like the only thing that a person could do to keep the flame alive! The coming generations are catching the bug anew now, learning food from the ground up, turning suburban backyards into oases of fruit trees and vegetable gardens, and getting reacquainted with the underlying natural patterns of waste, water, living soil webs, sun and wind, and how we humans can flow with the planet, rather than push against. Creating robust and stable local economies is a task that awaits the next wave of daring trailblazers. What a profound sense of relief: resilience is back. Blessings for all on this ancient path!

In each other we trust?
Facing a disturbing and heartbreakingly difficult future, it seems obvious that people of goodwill must come to pull for one another in ways unprecedented since the last ice age. Everything we hope for, everything the future could be, depends on our capacity to recreate the conditions needed for interpersonal trust. Yet so far, this work has remained in the shadow. Efforts of note include experiments with public deliberation, creation of open spaces, compassionate communication, sociocratic governance and open source collaboration. We’ve but scratched the surface. For example, while amazon and ebay have their trust metrics, this craft has not informed our lives yet. Instead, the culture of hate thrives in the words of doomers, leftwingers and rightwingers, scientists and layfolk, the religious and the atheistic; it has infested all public spaces. Just say something unpopular in an impassioned forum and all the rude trolls will come out of the woodwork while most of the participants aid and abet the abuse by doing nothing. A lot of otherwise aware, educated and with-it folks have no idea how to get along with people who disagree with them. Go into a forum like that, and it’s war. The hate culture crosses all boundaries. James Howard Kunstler gets regularly abused by anti-semitic emailers, but he himself lashes out brutally against southerners, rednecks, the tatooed, teabaggers and others who in his view are beyond the pale. How can lefties, who are unable to talk about their rightwing neighbors without spewing fury and contempt, press in good faith for ending American wars abroad? How about ending the wars fought on our front porches first?!

People who do not trust one another end up hiding from each other within lies, hypocrisy and isolation. They will have few inner resources for the radical collaboration at the center of humanity’s livable future, and keep on running away from community despite their deep needs and earnest convictions. I say it’s time to get serious about setting aside the fear and suspicion that have driven us to the anonymity of cities and impersonal institutions. Can we summon the strength to turn away from the absurd political spectacle and toward each other, and grow a culture of trust from the grassroots? From this trust, a new kind of politics can finally emerge.

Once we get excellent at working together, only then can we set our sights on the huge, formidable challenges of whole regions cooperating to reshape large-scale economic and power patterns, and to begin the work of planetary healing. You are urging us all to sweep away the current malignant order of things? My first question would be, when was the last time you called your opponent a douchebag of a fucktard? When was the last time you smothered him or her under 16 tons of condescension? Yesterday? Back to the starting point, I’m afraid. How the heck could we accomplish what we dream about without being able to — in our sleep! — listen with empathy, give and receive honest feedback, gather into groups without posturing and terminal boredom, internalize effective accountability without someone cracking the whip of authority, stop deferring to power-hogs, and make collaborative work so enjoyable people will flock to it rather than run in the opposite direction?! What will it take to learn to listen to people across ideological divides, diffuse long-standing animosities, and begin to work with them on projects of crucial import to us all? We need everyday visionaries in all walks of life pioneering the same sort of alchemy and “green wizardry” that Greer is promoting, but in the fields of trust that have lain fallow too long. Everything else hinges upon this. Intractable human problems become in principle approachable if we get down to getting along.

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