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Natural Neighbours


Natural neighbours
Kirkpatrick Sale asks how we get from here to community.

Global economic forces are painting the world a drab and uniform shade of grey. A green economy would aim to re-build and re-value community, recognizing the critical importance of social capital and the basic green principle of local decision-making and local responsibility.

AT the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the ruling powers of Great Britain embarked on the most sustained effort to destroy community life ever undertaken. From l770 to 1830 some 3,280 enclosure bills were passed by which more than six million acres of commonly-held lands – open fields, meadows, wetlands, forests – were put into private hands for private gain. So by 1830 not a single county had more than three per cent of its land open to public use.

Villagers who had wrested livings from these common lands for centuries were, in an historical eye-blink, forced from the countryside to the city and its slums, doubling urban populations in just over 40 years.

George Sturt, an historian who knew English village life intimately, has written:

‘To the enclosure of the common more than to any other cause may be traced all the changes which have subsequently passed over the village. It was like knocking the keystone out of an arch... When the cottager was cut off from his resources... It was out of the question to obtain most of his supplies by his own handiwork: they had to be procured, ready-made, from some other source.’

That source, I need hardly say, was a shop. And behind that shop, the factory and the market system and a world ruled by capital and profit that found commonality and self-sufficiency and mutual-aid and barter and local economies anathema. Industrialism required consumers, atomized and needy, not stalwart village citizens.

Just as it was the aim of the industrial economy as it began to eviscerate community, so it has been in all the decades since. In fact, it has now pretty well decimated villages and small towns throughout the industrial North, disembowelled the larger cities and established a pattern of suburban sprawl that makes the achievement of anything approximating communitarian life well-nigh impossible. Oh, there’s plenty of talk about community: the idea is ever-resilient, probably because it reflects the single most natural form of human society, found in all cultures. It is a word that still retains some magic, some hint of how people are supposed to relate to each other, some suggestion of a world in which friendship and co-operation had some meaning.

But it is mostly talk. The actual thing, a few hundred people who live and work together, each known to the other, each in some measure dependent on the other, is scarce indeed in industrial society. Because of industrial society. This is important to understand right from the start. But the empowered community is in fact essential for any kind of green economy that values human responsibility, ecological harmony, democratic decision-making, economic self-reliance, fair distribution and the careful, sensitive use of the land and its resources.

However daunting such a prospect might seem there are models of several sorts, even in the heart of the modern world, that can serve as guides for ways to a community-based economy. In the US, the ones that come first to mind are several farm communities that make up the Old Order Amish, largely in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Based fixedly in religion, these communities have been able in significant ways to resist the industrial monoculture and keep some measure of the sodality, harmony and simplicity of the communitarian life. By having each farm self-sufficient in important respects and by refusing to accept many of the technologies of modernity, these communities remain largely free of the ebb and flow of the surrounding economy. It is exactly the insularity of these places, their deliberate distance from what the Amish tend to call ‘the other world’ that gives them their coherence.

Another model lies in attempts that have been made in the last few decades to establish communities of like-minded people opting to live together. These ‘intentional communities’ range from a few dozen people pooling resources and setting up a communal business to small villages where some services are communal but people work off-site; or land trusts where homes are individually owned and only the land is held in common.

None of these has yet achieved economic self-sufficiency or developed a textured communitarian culture. But the ways in which some intentional communities strive to work, produce and share co-operatively – and are conscious of their responsibility to the health of the land – are among the virtues any green community would emulate.

The difficulties that have beset intentional communities over the years, particularly those that consciously have tried to live within their bioregional resources and with a measure of economic independence, suggest just how arduous and chancy it is to go against the dominant economy. Particularly so when you begin with people only roughly united in a shared vision and without the centuries-old traditions of communal life.

That is what makes the establishment of green communities within a local economy so formidable a task. I am not arguing that it cannot be done. Because it must be done (and soon) if the industrial economy is not to choke off all human society and most of surface life along with it.

I am only warning that we must begin with the understanding that industrial culture is dead-set against it – and has been from the start.

Kirkpatrick Sale’s latest book is Rebels Against the Future. He has written widely on bioregionalism and is a regular contributor to the NI.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 278 magazine cover This article is from the April 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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