Critical Mass

by Raven Glomus

When I was compiling the responses to the questions about communal size for last Friday’s post, I started thinking about the issue of how small was too small and the brittleness of very small communities.

This is not just a theoretical issue for me.  Common Threads, the commune in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that I helped start in the nineteen nineties and loved dearly, broke up when membership dropped down to four adults and then one of the founders decided to leave.  And Cotyledon, my most recent attempt at building a commune, was ended by mutual consent, but my primary reason for deciding this was that it had never grown, in terms of primary members, beyond the three of us, through our more than four years of working on it.

The crew of Cotyledon

As I said on Friday, I don’t think of three people as being a community.  You need at least four adult members with, hopefully, some of them not being in relationship.  And it needs to be real, full time members.  Two adults (generally a couple) with any number of interns, visitors, guests, wwoofers, etc, does not make a community.  The FEC recently (in our Assembly last December) decided to require full FEC member communes to “Have, at minimum, five adult full members who have been in the community a minimum of six months, understand the community systems, and have access to equal participation in the community’s processes.”

I think that four people can be a nice intimate community, but as I said with Common Threads, having only four members makes you very susceptible to falling apart.  Skyhouse was an income sharing community at the Dancing Rabbit ecovillage in Missouri that lasted seventeen years.  It was a small, close group of four folks, but when two of them (a couple) decided to leave and another person also decided to depart (to attend school in another state), it left Tony to decide whether to try to rebuild it from scratch or give up and focus on the ecovillage as a whole.  (I talked with several people about this, including Tony.)  Apparently he tried once and couldn’t duplicate the lovely little commune that they had and, having a lot of responsibilities for Dancing Rabbit as a whole, decided to turn the building into a simple housing unit.  It was a story that resonated with me, given how Common Threads ended.

The Skyhouse building at Dancing Rabbit

So, my question is, what constitutes ‘critical mass’?  While I don’t think that any community is “too big to fail” (although it would take a lot to bring down Twin Oaks–which recently had been bemoaning dropping down to less than seventy folks, which is still bigger than almost any other of the FEC member communes), I think that there is safety in numbers.  (Acorn at one point was down to six members and at another down to two, but they had Twin Oaks nearby to support them until their numbers could be built back up.)  Kat Kinkade, who I will have to admit I admire a lot since she helped start three communes, all of which are still around and doing well, apparently said that she believed in growing communities rapidly, to quickly get past the brittle period.

As I think about it, I would say I think that seven is a minimum number for safety.  Four and five are the fragile numbers–lose one or two people and it feels like it’s over–and often is.  Six might work but it feels too close to four or five.  So I am going to say seven, but I would also say that having nine or ten feels even stronger.

Until recently at Glomus we were six or seven folks (we lost one in the last few months), but we’ve recently gotten three new members (okay, they are saying that they are seasonal, but they are all communal veterans and they feel committed) and the difference for me is large.  It definitely feels more like a thriving community with nine people actively involved here.  

The current line up at Glomus

Having seven or even ten folks doesn’t guarantee that you won’t fall apart, but it certainly makes it less likely.


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Critical Mass

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