Communes Model the “Great Transition”

By Pamela Boyce Simms

Intentional communities, especially communes, are the bushwhacking pathfinders for the rest of us social movement folk. Communes in any era are windows into the growing edge of society’s thinking. Communitarians dare to do, live, and demonstrate the deep cooperation that many want, but relatively few have the chops to try.

As a convener of a six-state Mid-Atlantic network of environmentalists it’s my pleasure to spend time visiting friends in intentional communities as I go about my work in the region. Ganas (NY), The Keep (DC), Twin Oaks (VA), and Acorn (VA) are

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Acorn Community Farm Sign

favorites. As a former retreatant in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, communitarian life nourishes and challenges me in helpful ways. As a resilience network organizer, I’m inspired by the relocalization of production and work toward self-reliance that communes model.

Like the Fellowship for Intentional Communities (FIC), and the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC), the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub (MATH) is about secession from the exploitive extractive growth-economy.

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Pamela Boyce Simms and Ira Wallace at Acorn

We build local, alternative ways for living together in community that are then supported by broad networks. We seek wholeness through cooperation. Environmentalists working toward the “Great Transition*” embrace anyone with the gumption to self-liberate from the corrosive mainstream matrix, wean their area from fossil fuel dependency, and move toward resilience. We work against the backdrop of climate change, resource depletion, and economic instability.

Wholeness through cooperation is what will get us through the eye of the needle of the Great Transition, the accelerating societal transformation which is in process. Communes already demonstrate just that. Irrespective of how diverse a group of people in a commune may be, they share an allegiance to the baseline value of sustained cooperation. Transition initiatives do not have that luxury.

Unlike intentional communities, Transition organizers deal with scattershot, heterogeneous populations in any given locality with a range of commitment levels to conscious living. As former FIC administrator Laird Schaub asserts, “before Transition initiatives can work, people need to learn how to simply get along. They’re starting from scratch. Transition initiatives die when they don’t get these necessary nutrients fast enough.

While “collaboration” and “cooperation” have become buzzwords, relatively few Americans—conditioned as we are in a competitive, top down, power-and-control culture—know what that looks like in practice. Authentic cooperation requires people to change deeply imprinted habit patterns that are continually reinforced by society.

Laurie Simons, documentary filmmaker and member of the GANAS community in Staten Island, NY, reflects on her personal transformation:

“I am used to being right. However, I’m finding that I’m no longer concerned about being right. I went from feeling threatened if not right, to asking for and welcoming input from others. By listening to others’ perspectives my ‘rightness’ is enriched…People bring ideas that I would never have thought of and I end up with something that is more effective and sensitive.”

Michael Johnson, a founding member of GANAS notes that,

“The community began with the research question, ‘Why is it that communication breaks down and community operations so often revert to top down?’ Over the years we’ve created a culture of cooperation that permeates members all of the time; tapping into the cooperative aspects of their personalities.”

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Dinner preparation at The Keep in DC

The Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub (MATH) sees Income sharing communities as the epitome of New Economy principles—compassion in action that can usher in the “next system.” As per GPaul Blundell of the Point A Project, “In intentional community, more of our lives are of common interest. In egalitarian, income-sharing communities, your life IS the economy, and work is recast as cooperative work. So the material and financial aspects of your life and wellbeing are of public interest.”

No one has the movement-hotline to absolute truth. The Mid-Atlantic Transition and intentional communities movement can each learn volumes from the other about environmental resilience-building and cooperative living respectively. To that end, we are purposefully pursuing cross pollination.

The two movements work together to share lessons learned about egalitarian community building. Interchange between the two movements is happening in the zone where their missions overlap. That is, in the space where people summon the grit to live consciously and unplug from the dysfunction of the homogenized American norm. The FIC and FEC have joined the Spokescouncil of Egalitarian Resilience Networks, an “affinity circle” within the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub (MATH) constellation, to help spark the joint work of the two movements. The Spokescouncil is working to hold a “network of networks” accountable to the basic tenets of egalitarian process.

Accelerating climate change means that incessant “transitioning” is the new norm to which we’ll be adjusting for perpetuity. “Transition” connotes profound transformation. And that transformation begins from within.

Transition initiatives need to dig deep in order to cultivate trust-building, the PBS4scaffolding of long term collaboration.  MATH affirms communes as laboratories —concrete demonstrations—of the cooperative culture that sparks inner transformation.

Waxing strongest when times are toughest, the Transition and intentional communities movements offer wholeness in community as an alternative to demoralizing social fragmentation. True to form, these movements are doing what they do best—working together to overcome challenges. The Transition and intentional communities movements demonstrate that we are never out of options.

We are resilient.


*The Great Transition is a systemic framework for understanding how we might hospice outworn ways of living that no longer serve us and the Earth, and give birth to an emergent, more compassionate and resilient future. A broad spectrum of grassroots, citizen-led, community initiatives sustain the movement toward the Great Transition against the backdrop of climate change, resource depletion, and economic instability. Purposeful groups of friends and neighbors mitigate these converging global crises by engaging their communities in environmental education and actions that increase local self-reliance and resilience. They catalyze relocalization of economies and low carbon lifestyles by innovating, networking, collaborating, and replicating proven strategies, respecting the deep, fractal patterns of nature, and diverse cultures in their localities. “Transitioners” work with deliberation to create a fulfilling and inspiring local way of life that can withstand the shocks of rapidly shifting global systems.


Pamela Boyce Simms, KD2GUF, is a Convener of the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub and an Eco-Buddhist-Quaker environmental activist.

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Communes Model the “Great Transition”

2 thoughts on “Communes Model the “Great Transition”

  1. Wonderful thing to see this convergence. The focus here on “egalitarianism” strikes me as being a lot like the “ecovillage” identity. In the same way that any small group of people can plant a garden and install some solar collectors and call themselves an “ecovillage,” so can a group use consensus process and call themselves “egalitarian.” Cohousing is an example, as they are collective (sharing privately-owned property) yet not at all communal (sharing commonly-owned property). While there is mention of “income sharing” in the article, Ganas has both collective and communal levels of membership, and I suspect that as always the communal group is much smaller than the collective part of the community, which is reflected in cohousing being the fastest growing aspect of the intentional communities movement. I suppose that it would be a different group that would emphasize cohousing within the Transition movement, since the two tend to repel each other like two magnets. I certainly welcome this emphasis upon communalism and income-sharing because where ever cohousing is strong there is bias against communalism. Since the Fellowship for Intentional Community manages to bring together communal and collective wings of the intentional communities movement, perhaps all the bases are covered, and this initiative is needed for emphasizing communalism which otherwise, generally, and until now, collective cohousing has been overshadowing.

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  2. Not sure we should call ourselves but the time is now to get more people on board living together as tribes making smaller carbon foot prints for the kids and the kids’ kids and so on…. I just wish more humans understood anarchy and freedom. Perhaps we can’t get all that close to it (governments did impose real estate taxes on stolen land!) but we will try to get as close as we can: http://www.ic.org/directory/no-mans-land/

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