What Past and Present Communities Can Teach New Communities

by Raven MoonRaven

from Communities Magazine, Fall 2017


I was inspired to write this by a link I was sent to an article entitled “Utopia Inc.” It was subtitled: “Most utopian communities are, like most start-ups, short-lived. What makes the difference between failure and success?” (Find it at aeon.co/essays/like-start-ups-most-intentional-communities-fail-why.)

As someone who is interested in starting communities (and has started communities), I’m well aware of the precariousness of new communities. What can folks who are trying to start new communities learn from the communities of the past as well as those around now that have lasted?

First of all, as the author of the online article (Alexa Clay) points out, 90 percent or so of new communities fail—but that’s also true of business start-ups. Starting a new venture is always risky. However, as the author also points out, many of these communities weren’t very well put together to start with. She goes on to say that “intentional communities and utopias can serve as short-lived petri dishes for emergent culture.” This is very similar to my personal view of communities as laboratories for social change. In communities, we see what works and doesn’t work. So looking at other communities can help us decide to whether it makes sense to try something or not.

In looking at past communities, Ms. Clay talks about Fruitlands, which is my favorite example of how not to start a community. The founders (Amos Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane) mandated a very strict and rigid routine. The Wikipedia article on Fruitlands claims, “Diet was usually fruit and water; many vegetables—including carrots, beets, and potatoes—were forbidden because they showed a lower nature by growing downward.” There were no formal admission requirements or procedures to join the community and they attracted quite a few men (apparently Alcott’s and Lane’s wives were the only women) who do not seem to have been the most stable characters. I think that one of the biggest problems was (quoting Wikipedia again): “many of the men of the commune spent their days teaching or philosophizing instead of working in the field.” Fruitlands lasted only seven months. Given how it was structured, I’m surprised it lasted that long. But we now know that you can’t run a farm by discussing philosophy.

The author also talks about New Harmony and she points out that (not that different from Fruitlands), “Of its population of 800, only 140 were adept at working in local industry, and just 36 were skilled farmers. The community was far too open and indiscriminate in its invitation, allowing anyone to join, and attracting a lot of free-riders without the necessary skills or appetite for hard work.” New Harmony lasted two years.

When Alexa Clay looks at success stories, she points to spiritual communities such as the Shakers, Quakers, and Amish. One thing that I notice about all of them is a willingness to work hard.

One community that I’m surprised she doesn’t mention is Oneida, which lasted a

Oneida Community
A building at the Oneida Community between 1865 and 1875

good 30 years, and embraced a very communal structure and complex sexual structure in the 19th century, and, from something I read, was missed by many of its members after it was gone. Unsurprisingly, they had a good work ethic. (From Wikipedia: “All Community members were expected to work, each according to his or her abilities…. Community members rotated through the more unskilled jobs, working in the house, the fields, or the various industries.”)

A spiritual community that has lasted much longer is the Amana Colony, which was founded in 1859, and continued communally until 1932, when the community split into a spiritual “Church Society” and a for-profit company which continues to own much of the land. Again (from Wikipedia): “For eighty years, the Amana Colony maintained an almost completely self-sufficient local economy, importing very little from the industrializing American economy. The Amanians were able to achieve this independence and lifestyle by adhering to the specialized crafting and farming occupations that they had brought with them from Europe. Craftsmen passed their skills and techniques on from one generation to the next. They used hand, horse, wind, and water power, and made their own furniture, clothes, and other goods.” Amana refrigerators were a legacy of this community.

These communities come from what I think of the first wave of communes, that occurred during the 19th century, mostly between the 1840s and 1890s. The next major wave of community building occurred during the 1960s and early 1970s. Most of these communities are gone.

Ms. Clay does mention Findhorn, which began evolving in 1962 but was established as an official foundation in 1972. She quotes social entrepreneur Kate Sutherland who said: “It’s not utopia. It’s microcosm. Everything that’s in the outer world is there—marginalisation, addiction, poverty, sexual issues, power. Communities are just fractals of society.” However for Sutherland the difference between Findhorn and the rest of the planet boiled down to “good will and a clear commitment to waking up” or as she said, “People are willing to look at their stuff.”

However there are some other communities from the ’60s and ’70s that are still around. One of them is Twin Oaks, which is turning 50 this year, has almost 100 members who live very communally, and appears to be going strong. And, yes, they have a strong work ethic.

Twin Oaks hammocks and tofu, Oneida silverware, Amana refrigerators, Shaker furniture, Amish farming. Alexa Clay notes: “Perhaps the irony is that many of the administrative and managerial forces that individuals are running away from within mainstream society are exactly the organisational tools that would make intentional communities more resilient: that regardless of how much intentional communities with utopian aims seek to step to one side of worldly affairs, they succeed or fail for the very same pragmatic reasons that other human enterprises—notably businesses and start-ups—succeed or fail.”

But it’s not just about the willingness to work hard. It’s about building relationships, looking at your stuff (as Kate Sutherland said), and willingness to listen to each other. What amazes me, as someone trying to start community, is how many people still think just having a good idea is enough to build a community.

Unless we are willing to learn from other communities, both past and present, the failure rate of new communities isn’t going to decline.
Raven MoonRaven lives at the Ganas community in New York City and works with the Point A project  to start new egalitarian, income-sharing communities in the city. He also co-manages the Commune Life blog which focuses on the diversity of egalitarian, income-sharing communities.

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What Past and Present Communities Can Teach New Communities

Living Energy Farm, Where to From Here?

from the Living Energy Farm July/August 2017 Newsletter

Closing all of our building related permits gives us a moment to reflect and consider where we are going next. For the most part, we have done what we set out to do. We have built a small village that is extremely efficient, fairly cheap, and mostly operates without fossil fuel. The integrated solar systems we have connected to our main house and kitchen are working fantastically well. The farm has been developed to a point where it is economically viable, and we are doing good work growing open pollinated seeds. Our work is far from complete. The farm is not fully weaned off of gasoline machines just yet. Our cooking is still too reliant on firewood. But we are making progress on those fronts as well.
We are doing what we said we would do. We have created a model that we think is viable around the world, and we are looking for ways to spread that model. For us, the project has been both rewarding and, at times, fatiguing. Our “to do” list looks rather impossible at times. The reality is that, no matter how talented or dedicated a group of people may be, doing too many things means some projects are well executed and some are not.We are feeling the need to clarify and focus our project better.
rosa and pebbles
Rosa and Pebbles the Duck. Nobody else can catch them!
Given that most of our major construction is done (we may still want to build a greenhouse or other outbuildings), our need for cash flow is reduced. Our thinking currently is that we will, in the future, focus our project more around education, outreach, and technology development. We will be bringing back our weekend intensives, and making them into an in-depth sustainability training program. (Dates to be announced.) We will likely put less of our energy into growing seeds or developing businesses to support the on-site community. We feel like this course is the wisest in terms of maximizing our impact (and our own personal sustainability and happiness in the project). The financial numbers look like they are at least minimally adequate for this new strategy. With the completion of our main house, we are again putting some more work into looking for partnership opportunities with other organizations that might be able to take the LEF model to other locations. We would love to have help with spreading our sustainable model.
LEF’s Nickel-Iron Battery Project
There’s a lot of buzz about batteries these days. Given the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy, effective batteries are critical to providing power if we are going to live without coal and nuclear power. Industrial scale lithium-ion batteries are now coming online. These batteries could, potentially, have a big impact on the round-the-clock viability of renewable energy.
We regularly get people sending us advice about a newer, better battery. The recent article in International Permaculture has prompted some communications about something called LiFePO4 (lithium iron phosphate) batteries. The field of battery research and development is technical, complex, and expensive far beyond LEF’s meager resources. As far as we can tell, all of the lithium variant batteries degrade with each charge cycle (meaning they have a limited productive life) including the aforementioned industrial scale batteries. The LiFePO4 batteries are destroyed if the voltage drops too low, which presents a problem in climates where solar or wind resources are inconsistent. NiFe batteries, by comparison, have low energy density (the batteries are large for the amount of power they can store).  But they do not degrade on the charge cycle, nor are they damaged by full discharge. We have a 100 year old operational NiFe battery. The (now ancient) NiFe batteries made by Edison’s company are regularly cleaned out and used by modern NiFe enthusiasts. The bottom line is that none of the current lithium variant batteries have any hope of making it 100 years.
Even if they did, the rush to make better batteries risks becoming yet another attempt to address environmental problems from a supply-side approach. It is expensive, and ignores the root of the issue.  The root of the issue is our lifestyle, and how it is woven together with the industrial, political, and  military layers of our society. Even if industrial scale renewable energy systems succeed, they are so expensive and complex that the best we could hope for in decades to come is ever increasing class polarization: an elite class that lives supported by this complex infrastructure while the masses huddle around their smoky fires.
Approaching sustainability with social equity foremost in mind leads to other solutions. We stand by the low-density, homemade or village-made, NiFe batteries as the best option we have seen for providing cheap, durable, stationary, electricity storage for village use. Eddie has been continuing with his mason-jar NiFe project. He has increased the voltage and storage capacity of his units. Sometime this fall we will probably set some of these homemade batteries up at LEF and begin service testing them. Wish us luck.
solar tank
First stage of batch water heater construction, stripping and cleaning a water heater tank.

 

Living Energy Farm, Where to From Here?

Love of the Small

by Maximus

This video comes out of an ongoing conversation we are having at Cambia about minimalism and functionalism. The two ideas are not necessarily opposites, although sometimes a minimalist ethos can prevent things from being as functional as they could otherwise be. But is function always necessary? How much skill, and sophistication, and access to resources do we really need to live a good life? Perhaps, if we focus too much on function, we miss opportunities to connect with each other.

But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we build our community according to minimalist or functionalist principles. Either would be fine. What matters is that we take the time to really listen to each other, and develop robust empathy for each other’s values. That’s what community is all about.

Love of the Small

Bringing in the Harvest

from the Living Energy Farm July/August 2017 Newsletter

We expanded our seed production this year. As is always true, some crops have done better than others. We had a drought for most of the summer. Our DC-powered irrigation system kept the crops well watered, but drought made the wild animals even more hungry than usual.  As a result we suffered significant deer loss even in crops which the deer don’t usually eat, like watermelons. Even with such losses, overall the harvest looks good. In looking at LEF from a food-self sufficiency standpoint, we are making great progress in figuring out how to feed ourselves. Growing wheat has been really easy. We tried oats, and the rabbits devastated them, but we’ll try again. Our corn crop looks fantastic in spite of the drought. Our white potatoes and sweet potatoes are better than any we have ever grown at LEF, and we have a great crop of lima beans and peanuts.  The beans, potatoes, corn, peanuts, and wheat, along with lots of veggies, eggs from our corn-fed ducks and venison from our corn-fed deer, put us very close to feeding ourselves without any industrial food. We are more confident than ever that the question of “can small scale organic agriculture feed us” can be answered “Yes!,” at least given the resources and climate we have at LEF.
sunflowers and corn
Seeds crops, sunflowers and corn.
There are still a few things to figure out. We need to figure out how to harvest small grains and peanuts efficiently. We will continue to grow our orchards, and eventually wean ourselves off of store-bought fruit. We want to put in a nut orchard (mostly pecans and filberts) so we can grow more of our calories on trees, and maybe cooking oil too. We still haven’t found the right biofuel to run our tractors. And most importantly, we need to how it all fits together. Modern environmental notions are so focused on energy production that the critical issue of how energy fits in the bigger picture gets lost. We get lots of advice about biogas, pumped storage for electricity, all manner of energy production ideas. The critical question for us is not how we maximize energy production, but how energy fits in with our village economy. What if biogas is easy (it mostly is), but takes too much time or feedstock? What if woodgas works, but only with really good feedstock and expensive equipment? How large of a woodland would it take to provide biofuel (wood for woodgas or pines for turpentine) to support a food self-sufficient village? What is the cheapest, simplest way to sustain a village — forever?  Hopefully, we can answer some of these questions in the next few years.
winnowing misha
Winnowing homegrown grain with our very powerful direct drive DC fan.
LEF In the News (Again)
The magazine International Permaculture is one of the most detailed and extensive permaculture magazines in print. They recently did an article about LEF with a great photo spread. One either has to sign up for a free trial or buy a subscription to view the magazine. The article is an interview between Alexis and Simon Hursthouse. Simon lives in a traditional village in Hungary, where he is trying to blend modern permaculture ideas with traditional village and agricultural life.  The website is  https://www.permaculture.co.uk/
Now that we have all the permits complete for our main house, we are in a better position to pursue media attention, and thus to promote the LEF idea of wholistic sustainability. Starting around September 18, we will begin sending out press releases. Hopefully, we will have lots to report in the next newsletter.
Bringing in the Harvest

Late Summer Garden Update

by Sumner, from the East Wind blog,

The moderate summer is coming to an end and the height of the 2017 season is over. Although cooler than last year, this summer’s harvests were large and plentiful. The tomatoes are starting to wind down and the pepper’s are currently peaking. Honeybees buzz among the buckwheat while large carpenter bees dance around the smartweed.

EW LS1Richard and Andrea prepare beds for spinach planting. Rutabaga and lettuce in the foreground.

In the Lower Garden, seven piglets are being rotated through the former potato patch. They are fed anything spoiled in the field (the tomato, melon, and pepper patches are a couple steps away) and act as our kitchen’s garbage disposal, helping to reduce food waste. As the pigs are rotated through cover crops are planted behind them (sunn hemp earlier and rye and vetch later in the season). Sunn hemp is an excellent summer cover crop. Drought resistant, a powerful weed suppressant, and fast growing. It can reach ten feet tall within eight weeks and adds a bounty of organic matter to the soil after it is cut back.

EW LS2Mandar and Jaime have been managing the pigs in the garden. Sunn hemp can be seen in the foreground. In the background you can also see the hoophouse and the dairy cows in the pasture.

Just today we harvested all the dent corn. This corn has been carefully bred for suitability in our climate and soil by Richard for the past five years. Each year he saves seed from all good specimens. More seed is saved from the best specimens and fewer seeds are saved from the merely mediocre ears. Virginia White Gourd seed and Tennessee Red Cob varieties have been bred in at different times to augment desired traits. Richard aims to maintain a wide gene pool and is meticulous about selecting the kernels for saving himself each year. All the corn that is not saved is eaten. Richard, who regularly cooks community dinner once a week, enjoys making delicious corn tortillas from nixtamalized corn. Nixtamalization increases the nutritional value as well as gets rid of mycotoxins, among other benefits.

EW LS3PT holds one of the better dent corn ears.

EW LS4

One great joy of late summer is fresh watermelon on a daily basis. Just about everyday someone brings a watermelon in to the serving counter and cuts themselves a slice. Although many of the melons are massive they are typically all eaten up within the hour. The watermelon varieties grown this year were: Crimson Sweet, Shooting Star, Orangeglo, Ali Baba, Moon and Stars, Quetzoli, and Strawberry. All these different varieties mature and ripen in different ways. Richard has worked with them long enough to know all the small clues to use to only harvest the watermelons at their peak ripeness and is happy to teach anyone curious and willing to help with harvests.

EW LS5

Most of the fall crops are all in. Carrots, lettuce, spinach, kale (Lacinado, Vates, and Red Russian) and rutabaga outside and zucchini, cabbage, and tatsoi in the hoophouse. Carrots have been thinned and there looks to be a bounty for this winter and spring. Thank you to everyone who labors in the garden and a big thanks to Melissa, Anthony, and everyone else who held down the garden while Richard, PT, and Andrea were mountain climbing in Colorado!

EW LS6

EW LS7

 

Late Summer Garden Update

Gresham’s Law for Communes

by Paxus

There is a little known and not particularly important “law” in economics called Gresham’s Law.  It states that “bad money forces out good money”.  What it is referring to is important for coin collectors and sometimes for treasuries.  For example, in 1965, when they started issuing quarters which had copper cores in them, fairly quickly the all silver quarters disappeared.   Coin collectors and people predicting the increasing value of silver pulled them from the market.

Law1

There is a much more important principle in communes, which is parallel.  Bad communards force out good communards.   Unlike the economic law above, this can be an extremely important and tragic situation.  People who live in income sharing communities, with some regularity ask themselves, “Should I return to the mainstream?” While there are lots of good things about living in communes, the mainstream for different reasons always has some appeal to most communards.  It might be the night life, or the higher disposable income, or the greater privacy, or the social acceptance or a larger dating pool.  (Some of these problems can be solved by living in an urban commune.)

This means when there is a serious conflict between people in a community, many people, at least fleetingly, consider the option of leaving.  For some problematic members, the community is by far the best option.  The mainstream life was perhaps not treating them well, they had limited options, and the commune is satisfying all their needs.  For some talented members, Babylon is offering all kinds of treats and rewards for leaving the commune.  For some small number of especially problematic members, this can means that they can get what they want (the other person leaving) by just digging in and being assholes.

Conflict-photo

Communes hate to talk about this.  We are egalitarian, right?  We are all equal, right?  There are no good members and no bad members?

Bullshit.  We are egalitarian, certainly.  People have access to the same resources and people’s work is evaluated the same hour for hour.  But there are definitely “good members” who contribute to the community in lots of different ways: it might be their musical ability, or their ability to facilitate a meeting, or their marketing or plumbing skills.  They might simply make everyone happy when they are around.  There is certainly no “objectively good” member; it is a judgment call.  But talk to anyone who has spent time in a community and ask them if there are members who they were very sad to see leave, and they will confirm this for you because of the loss to the community when they departed.

Similarly, there are “bad” members.  And they can be bad for lots of different reasons.  They can be corrosive to the social fabric of the commune, they can be sexist or intolerant,  they can have under managed mental health problems which bleed out onto the community, or they can be pernicious gossips (something i am accused of occasionally). And they can just be assholes.

Hair-Pulling

 

This does not mean they should not live in the community.  It does not mean they should have any less access to our collective resources.   If we have selected them for membership, knowing these things about them then we have added them to our family and we need to be responsible for our choice.

But this dynamic is something to be aware of.  It is often the case that people come to Twin Oaks, for example, knowing that living at Twin Oaks would be very good for them.  Transformative, healing, giving them the chance that they always deserved.  And the right thing might be to reject them anyway.  Despite many people’s desires, we are not principally therapeutic communities.  And you need not have a mental health problem to benefit from being in one of these communes.  Often times living collectively, if done with an open heart and self-reflection can help cure you of being an asshole.  Because they are pointing it out to you, people are encouraging you to self-correct and play better with others.  [Commune life has not cured me of being a gossip. In fact, i am worse because there are so many strange and amazing people to talk about.]  It does not always work out this way but it can.

Communes need to ask themselves, “Is this person we are considering for membership good for us, collectively?”  If the answer is “no”, then it does not matter how good commune life might be for them, they should live somewhere else.    This does not mean everyone rejected from a community is a “bad person” hardly.  There are all kinds of reasons why it might not work for someone to be in a particular commune.

communefolks

But understanding the dynamics of Gresham’s Law of Communes is important to make sure that you don’t lose members who you really want to hold onto because they have other options when the person they are in conflict with might not.

 

 

 

 

 

Gresham’s Law for Communes