By Steve Carrow: What would a wise community do?

Copied from un-Denial
unmasking denial: creator and destroyer

My premise is that at the global, nation-state, or even state level, the current hierarchical system is not capable of climbing down from overshoot, or anticipating and preparing for a lower energy, lower consumption future. Any efforts to prepare must be done at the personal, and then small, local level, where like minded people can coalesce and work as a cooperative community to make the needed transition in lifestyle.

Local self-reliance is foremost about the basics: food, water and shelter. There are abundant resources online and printed that range from the Foxfire Book series, which captured lore from Appalachian settlers, to the most up to date beans and bullets prepper website. Local self-reliance is not about saving the knowledge we humans have accumulated, or western culture (god forbid), and it is not even a solution. It is simply a greater than zero chance to get some humans through the bottleneck.

Collecting books is NOT enough. Sure, learn from others, to avoid newbie mistakes, but actual hands on doing is needed, even if the first step is just growing a tomato plant on your balcony or patio. Don’t be afraid of small failures. More is learned from mistakes than successes.

A short time frame response to collapse is the solitary prepper, for those with the means to do so. But a longer term and more resilient response to collapse and the coming new arrangement is a collective effort. Our forebearers survived the African veldt, and then went on to overrun the world, because of group cooperation. Any success at surviving the coming bottleneck will be a small, local, group effort. Think Dunbar’s number or smaller.

Cooperation is not an easy thing to accomplish, humans being a fractious, conniving species, with a hard-wired dark side permanently bound to our empathetic, benevolent side. Recall the back to the land hippie commune movement of the 60’s and 70’s, when environmental awareness and cultural turmoil drove many to try intentional communities. Virtually every one failed. In part due to ignorance of the earthly details of self-reliance and provisioning through human labor, but also due to governance and group cooperation dysfunction. Most intentional communities were ideology driven (Vietnam, civil rights, etc.), but few had long-term sustainability as their central purpose. And it’s damn hard work.

Somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 communes existed in the U.S. in the 1960s and ‘70s with about 75 in the small state of Vermont, making it one of the epicenters of the experiment.

Describing what a sustainable small community would look like is fairly straightforward for the physical needs dimensions of food, water, and shelter, however the social dimensions of hierarchy, communal agreements, security, and governance are the difficult puzzles to solve.

The Amish are an example of a culture that has chosen to be very intentional about what technology they adopt. In general, farming and practical avocations that provide the essentials for rural life are the center of their economy. The size of Amish communities is constrained by a reasonable trip by horse to conduct business and socializing. There is, however, a tradeoff. Their rigid social structure is paternal and religion based, but has shown staying power, with many examples of effective cooperation, such as barn raising. Full religious commitment, and submitting to rigid community rules, will not be acceptable to many modern humans.

That said, even Amish are not long term sustainable, but a model to consider as a step down from where we are, and a kind of “training wheels” for adjusting to the next step down towards living within the local carrying capacity.

Being set in their ways, Amish will likely suffer like everyone else when flexibility in fast changing conditions is required, but they will at least already have strong social connections and a tradition of group effort.

Before cooperating at the level of a barn raising or similar large group efforts, and after simply being a good neighbor, is the level where barter and more involved trading favors need to be navigated.

I am still trying to figure out barter, and trading more substantial favors with neighbors takes time to develop trust and some sort of shared value system that is not denominated in dollars.

How many eggs is a bale of hay worth? What if you have too many eggs right now, but will need the hay next winter. Maybe eggs are free in the spring, but quite dear in winter, when hens have stopped laying. This is just one example of the myriad components of a truly local economy.

How does one remember all these transactions to make sure you are being a fair trading partner? Money turns out to be real handy unless it gets too concentrated and unleashes the dysfunctional side of capitalism or is welded by the more sociopathic among us.

The point is, it will take time to achieve a sophisticated level of cooperation, and is not something that will go smoothly if it has to happen immediately after a crisis ends BAU.

All future self-reliant communities will consist of collections of self-reliant households. Therefore developing self-reliant skills is important for all possible futures. It is time to simplify, reduce consumption, and prioritize. As John Michael Greer has said for years, “collapse now and avoid the rush.” Work on becoming a potential positive contributor to a “collapse community” should one emerge.

Here is a little on my background and journey towards self-reliance.

I was raised on a farm in Indiana, and left the farm as many did during the Earl Butz era, to work as an engineer for the same company my entire career. I was a small cog in the industry that builds extractive infrastructure for oil companies. Sigh.

After becoming aware it took me a long time to get off the treadmill. I was very lucky to have a wife who shares my world view.

I am now doing what little I can to pay restitution for my past. We are transitioning 40 acres (17 hectares) to a permaculture based system with food plants that are native or fill the same ecological role. I am learning skills and taking incremental steps to becoming more self-reliant.

We have quite a large garden and grow about 30 types of vegetables. We dehydrate, can, freeze, and ferment, including hard cider! We seed save many vegetables, and are working on saving more.

We have planted a dozen apple trees, ten cherry trees, eight pear trees, six mulberry, and hundreds of hazelnut and chestnut trees. The hazels are now 11 years old and in full production, the chestnuts are slower and are just coming on.

Our wooded areas were pasture until about 30 years ago, so are in transition, mostly brush and brambles. We have cut in trails, and have planted oak and hard maple to speed succession a bit.

We heat with wood in a Russian furnace, which is a type of masonry stove. We are not yet off grid, and it will be a huge lifestyle change when that happens, but we have two PV arrays, and capture rain water off the pole barn for watering trees and the garden. A cistern for water storage is in the works. Many more projects are planned to increase self-reliance, and to be contributors to whatever local community emerges.

We are slowly engaging neighbors in joint efforts. We share the cost and upkeep of a small tractor with two neighbors. I own a cider press that I share with the neighbors. A neighbor had some logging done, but the tops and branches left by the loggers were more than he could ever get to, so he let me harvest firewood.

Here are some tips for increasing self-reliance that I have learned, in no particular order of importance:

  • Eat the elephant one bite at a time – it’s overwhelming to think about doing all the things needed to be maximally self-reliant, or to create a local community. Just do one small thing, then another, rinse and repeat. (Although a bit of urgency is warranted given world affairs.)
  • If at all possible, move to a place with access to land to grow food. However you slice it, getting out of urban centers and figuring out how to be part of growing food, or learning a craft, or both, will be better than collapsing in place.
  • Grow food with priority to calories like potatoes and beans, not lettuce; perennials like fruit trees; and chickens- just a couple layers will help with kitchen scraps and learning husbandry.
  • Preserve food- can it, dehydrate it, ferment it, and freeze it while you can.
  • Reduce energy use- by whatever means you can afford/accomplish.
  • Build redundancy- more than one way to get water, more than one way to heat the house, etc.
  • Learn to repair things- house, car, clothes, appliances, etc.
  • Make things- clothes, chicken coops, root cellar, flour, beer, etc.
  • Security- think about how you might protect yourself, or be part of a collective security arrangement. Depending on location and how things play out, increased violence is very likely.

I have scores of bookmarked sites about homesteading, gardening and permaculture, and three book shelves full in our library, but these tend to focus on improving the skills of an individual.

Here are a few resources relevent to building community strategies and skills that I have found useful:

  • I volunteer at a local folk school. It’s a good way to acquire skills, and maybe link up with like minded people.
  • A book I found helpful for imagining a transition path to self-reliance is Sharon Astyk’s Depletion and Abundance.
  • Chris Smaje has written extensively about what a small farm economy might look like, and his book A Small Farm Future argues for a reversal of urbanization back to individual farms, and identifies local governance issues that need to be worked out.
  • John Michael Greer in his book The Ecotechnic Future has a several chapters relevant to what a wise community might do, as does Eric Brende’s book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.
  • The Living Energy Farm has ideas for small scale community energy systems.
  • I do not follow the transition towns movement, as I hear little about them any more. They had quite the buzz for a while, but perhaps tried to do too much? Maybe someone here knows if transition towns offer any useful resources?

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