On the way out of this year’s life-giving Firefly Gathering a new friend asked potent questions we didn’t have time to answer:
How do we think our move towards creating a community in a rural area away from the city still can be a part of affecting significant change on all the major social issues of our time? In other words – are we hiding in the country taking care of ourselves while the world burns? How is what we’re doing part of anti-oppression work? How does it address the overwhelming increasing global suffering outside of our little forest?
I told our friend I’d write a blog post and send it on, and so here it is.
While I know in my heart there is no one right way to live or one right answer to any of this and that we need people working in all places in all ways for the healing of the world, I arrived at this lifestyle in part because it was the only answer I could personally come to believe in doing (with my limited knowledge, learned biases, blind spots, fears, loves, etc). For me with my limited perspective, this way of life is my best guess at an appropriate response.
The best way I can explain this guess is by approaching it both from the dimensions of gut feeling and of systems thinking.
Systems thinking is how, years ago, in response to the world pain I was feeling, I approached the question of what I could do seriously and I began to eliminate some guesses of how to do this. As I continued to explore hypotheses and learn more, my guess became more and more refined towards this one.
The paradox here is that while I use systems thinking to eliminate many approaches to world change for myself, I still respect anyone else’s choice to take any of those approaches and can believe in most of them pretty well. This is because I follow another systems thinking principle: that a healthy intelligent system (in this case, our collective response to the pain of the world) involves diverse inputs receiving and transmitting wisdom about different parts of the whole that they uniquely experience; in other words, other people know things I don’t and that’s wonderful. If I love you and trust you, I love you and trust you and I am so grateful you can see things I don’t and so contribute intelligence to the healing that I can’t.
I also struggle intensely with trying to have the ‘perfect’ answer in a way that I know is based largely in my own beloved neuroses. This is why I had to do a lot of consideration of all the possible ways people follow to make change and rule out the ones that didn’t work for me.
So then – please take my writing here as revealing my own personal thought process to guide myself and not as the one true or right answer. This is not meant to be persuasive. I really believe that part of the power of Permaculture is that a skillful practitioner guided by the more-than-human-world can apply it absolutely anywhere. There is no right way to live and there are endless ways to love the world and I am grateful for all my fellow beings doing whatever they do wherever they do it and loving however they love. We need all ways and every act to relieve suffering of even one being even for one moment matters completely.
Why I don’t want to live in the city
We were previously living in Durham. Community organizing and neighborhood-level power is one route I did see open as a potentially meaningful and effective way of creating change. For me this started to turn when I saw that if we were going to continue to live in the cities near us, we had one of two options: either to buy into an affordable neighborhood, or earn more income to live in an expensive one.
If we lived in a neighborhood we could afford, we could find no way not to contribute to gentrification. The towns near us are experiencing massive and rapid neighborhood-by-neighborhood gentrification, tripling of housing values, massive explosion of condos, and a rapid homogenization of race, class, and culture. Our attempts at creating community sometimes seemed to make it worse. I came to think, in my pain, of activists and artists like ourselves unwittingly serving as the first wave of development in affordable neighborhoods that would make them “safe” and “funky” for the second wave of condos and then the third wave of yet more luxury concept hotels (i.e., Durham).
Additionally, the kinds of community activism we tried over the years (gift economies, alternative currencies, barter networks, commons) were always interesting, meaningful, and led to some benefit, but never became an actual meaningful alternative to business-as-usual because none of us in the city needed to rely on them. They were something fun that some people chose to work with but did not ever reach the point of demonstrating a viable alternative to the industrial growth capitalism all of us in the city needed to rely on to pay our bills. I don’t think it’s impossible that they could and they may come to as things get harder in cities, but for now the commons in cities always seemed to serve as primarily an additional benevolent layer that never touched the root of the system devouring the world.
The second option – living in an expensive neighborhood that had already gone through this – meant we would have to work so much that we couldn’t afford to do anything but earn money, that we would have largely culturally homogeneous friends and neighbors who didn’t really need a commons to survive, and that, I suspect, we would be in some way become more and more servants of the industrial growth system that offered us the paychecks required to afford that more expensive way of life.
With an already gentrified neighborhood, if something needed to be done that wasn’t significantly financially rewarded by the system, we would not be able to do it and still pay our bills (& I think just about everything that needs to be done is not every going to be significantly financially rewarded by the system since most of what needs to be done would undo that same system).
As resource-scarcity and industrial automation increase, the jobs that will still be rewarded by the growth system will likely become increasingly and increasingly onerous in terms of both daily worker experience and the ways in which they contribute to the exploitation of people and planet.
With either option, city life still means relying on resources extracted from somewhere else. Most estimates of what resource base it takes to support a human being require more than a few acres even in a very simple lifestyle. Though I think urban forest farming has significant potential for city self-reliance in food production (with some major caveats for where the fertility comes from, since we don’t have horses making manure everywhere like the 19th century urban market gardens of Paris, or the minerals, since we’ve depleted them all in city soils), building materials, firewood for heating and cooking, energy for keeping houses cool that were designed around cheap oil availability and air conditioning, and all the energy required to maintain urban infrastructure that urban life is dependent on results in the taking of resources from some other ecosystem outside the city limits.
Finally – both Pickle and I came to believe in Intentional Community / collective ownership and living as a vital part of the puzzle.
To get to the root of our separate apartment, separate land, separate property, separate lives alienated culture and return to the interdependence of a village that is vital for an ecological life and to learn the tools of cooperation that can hold us together when our government enforced agreements begin to falter and economic stresses increase, we need to be able to live together.
My own experiences at Earthaven and Twin Oaks convinced me that a life lived as separately as most of us do in the cities is not how we were born to live. We were evolved to be intimate and relational beings. My experience at Living Energy Farm further taught me that most of the ecologically appropriate technologies we need to survive a post-oil world make the most sense at a small community scale. Owning enough land collectively in a community to meet our needs is extremely difficult.
Punk collective houses accomplish some of it but few of them can acquire long-term stability or meet their resource needs. Co-housing communities accomplish some of it but are usually totally unaffordable for most people and also don’t often meet their resource needs. Walkable friendly neighborhoods accomplish some of it but never get to that level of collective decision making or interdependence that is at the heart of true community.
When things get tough, we just go back to our own houses and so we never really have to learn to live with each other.
I do think it would be easier for us to live a lower carbon lifestyle in the city; in fact, we were living one (though I suspect we can long-term change this both by having a community around us to meet our needs and by practicing carbon sequestration via biochar creation, soil building, and forest management strategies). This is acceptable to me because my theory of change isn’t just about reducing my impact….
Why I don’t focus on reducing my impact
I can reduce my impact to zero (i.e., I can die) and nothing in the greater systems trend will change. Shocks to the system will happen, chaos will spread, things will fall apart, suffering will increase. Focusing on a single number makes us lose sight of so much. This is different from focusing on non-participation in systems of violence (e.g. extractive mega-corporations) which I think can make a difference if we make this non-participation choice available to others. Instead, I’ve come to believe in Permaculture’s philosophy that while reducing our footprint, we need to increase our handprint.
What My Gut and Heart Say About It
Doing what we’re doing feels absolutely right to me in my heart and gut. Relying on corporations that destroy people and planet doesn’t feel acceptable for me anymore. In the image of the product or food item I’m holding, I see the suffering embedded in its creation. Living close to the earth feels beautiful and life-giving. Living the way we’re living feels like I’m learning to let the planet speak through me. I know at the end of the day that it is right for who I am. I can find endless gratitude for the opportunity to serve life in this specific way. It works with my specific gifts and simultaneously heals my specific wounds so that I can continue to heal the wounds of the land and of others.
If You Do Want to Live in the City or Have to Live in the City
Your life in the city is still extremely precious and potent, and there is a magnificent Permaculture book arguing that we can and should focus Permaculture on cities and that the advantages of doing it there are as numerous as the advantages I think of for rural places. Here’s that book: Permaculture City
What I Do Focus On
Here is a fast vision of what I think we can do by living rural in this way.
We can actually come to collectively meet our own needs. Within our community, we can learn how to meet our own needs for food, water, shelter, medicine, fuel, fiber, fun, friendship, beauty, joy, purpose, and so on. The whole ‘means of production’ thing is so critical. Land is the only reliable ‘means of production.’ Everything else produces for a capitalist marketplace that may or may not need you tomorrow.
We can create an option that is actually accessible to people violently marginalized by the industrial growth system. Because the rural ecological life can be lived with far less dependence on earning money (land is cheaper, needs are simpler), the way of life we’re experimenting with can exist as a real viable option for people who are continually priced out of life in gentrifying cities or discriminated against in terms of well paying jobs. Arguing for a living wage is important, but creating a replicable way of life that is at its very root more affordable does both far more to create a stable dependable life for systemically marginalized people and more to slow and soften the eventual massive destructive impacts of climate change and market collapse that will almost inevitably follow the usual pattern of hitting those who are most already injured by the system the most.
The rural cooperative model offers the basic dignity of people meeting their own needs rather than trying to convince a racist, sexist, classist system to throw us a bone by not make the gross inequality even worse. Instead of focusing on petitioning corporate executives to create more jobs by decreasing their tax rates, we learn to rely on our own hearts and hands and those of our neighbors.
We can move to a renewable wood-based livelihood that can work for future generations. It is possible to meet our energy needs for a simple life but we need biomass to do it. Solar and wind at small scale will always struggle to meet our heating, cooking, and cooling needs. Using coppice agroforestry practices, we can do it without deforestation, but it still requires trees. A wood-based livelihood for all, incorporating these new understandings of coppice agroforestry and biochar production, could become a truly sustainable model for the future. We can additionally sequester carbon in the form of sustainably grown lumber for two-hundred year small homes rather than making disposable factory-made dwellings that fall apart in decades and become poison in the landfill. I can’t see any economy working in the future that isn’t based primarily on well managed trees, soil, and healthy aquatic systems as our primary renewable resource bases.
We can be a model for accessible low-tech distributed reduction of atmospheric CO2. Permaculturally managed land can offer a solution right here and right now that each of us can do to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into healthy soil to support life. Waiting for policymakers to do this or for high-tech solutions with unforseen consequences to solve it is likely to lead to catastrophe. When we work with land, we have a directly accessible route to reversing climate change (via a coppice -> biochar – > soil carbon – > coppice cycle) that also regenerates topsoil and provides us with food.
We can have time to do the work that needs to be done. Because buying land is cheaper than buying a house, we can, if we’re willing to live simply, support ourselves on very little money. This means that we have much more choice in what jobs we take and most importantly, free time to do what will never be called a job but needs to be done.
We can have a community. While neighborhoods are still sources of community for many, the difficulty of ownership for most and the fluxes in market prices and available jobs lead to frequent migrations in and out that disrupt forming community. Rural communities can potentially have much more stability by starting simple and staying simple. You can get people who really dig in deep to knowing place and each other. We can also buy enough land that people can live together and share ownership. Acquiring land in the city that allows many people to live together and meet their needs is almost impossible.
We can meaningfully participate in and support existing rural communities. If we feel a need to work to lift up populations of people who have disproportionately borne the brunt of the violence of the industrial growth economy, we will find those people everywhere in the country. Of course – if we approach this as being the heroes we’re going to cause a lot of problems and miss out on a precious opportunity to remember that we are the new people there and our job is to listen, care, and ask for help as often as we give it.
We can experiment. There is a great need to find lifeways that can work for this entirely new era we find ourselves in of 9 billion people, powerful extractive technologies, shredded remnants of ecological cultural lifeways available but growing in the margins. The rural areas can be a living experiment for cooperative living close to the earth in a way that cities, with their upheavals, lack of available experimentation space, and complicated overlapping political and economic interests, cannot. Permaculture experiments especially take years and even decades. It’s unlikely someone will suddenly build a highway or extend the city development plan through a rural Permaculture experiment sufficiently outside the city. It is also far easier to experiment with alternative dwellings, water systems, and energy systems in a rural area.
We can learn from earth how to live with earth and ourselves. The skills we need to survive without violent extractive corporations are almost lost in America – but beyond the physical skills of growing food without tractors, we also need to learn how to be basically OK with ourselves and to see like a mountain. Permaculture believes that nature is the greatest teacher of what is real and what works. Like Masanobu Fukuoka, we can take our philosophy to the soil and see if it works. If we approach earth systems with our delusions of separation, or our aggression or our greed, eventually those systems become depleted and we fail. All the layers of abstraction that the bizarre modern economy puts between us and reality fall away when we are in a forest itching and thirsty and wondering how to keep from giving up every single day. Living close to the earth, we live with the greatest teacher and lover we could ever ask for. Earth can teach us how to work on the root as it exists within our world and ourselves.
We can network. Urban activists and collectives can work in a potent synergy with rural cooperatives. The wisdom and unique resource bases of each can form a powerful link of mutual support. There are innumerable benefits to having radical rural collectives and radical urban collectives working hand-in-hand.
We can heal. Part of being alive now is acknowledging the traumatic upbringing most of us have experienced as part of the industrial growth system. Schools-as-prisons, prisons-as-prisons, constant messages from the media to be aggressive towards ourselves and fearful of everyone else; we are almost all deeply wounded inside. The pressure a lot of activists put on themselves is to see their own healing as something they don’t have time for or that is selfish; but without healing ourselves, we will eventually recreate the patterns we are trying to work to undo. Living rural gives us an opportunity to create a model of a non-violent world free from extractive and exploitative systems while simultaneously healing ourselves. The work for the world and the work for ourselves doesn’t have to be compartmentalized. In the forest, nothing does. Each day is born as a fertile question of what our lives is about and instead of facing it alone, we have the innumerable living beings of the land to walk with us as we make our guesses one moment at a time.
People aching with the pain of the world sell their city houses and leave the city. They buy land together and near each other in rural communities in which they absolutely listen to, respect, learn the history of, and humbly contribute to (and depend on).
These small rural collectives cooperate so that when one struggles, the others hold it up. Then the network weaves together in the form of collective decision making and economic power. Each part of the network contributes to a fund that helps people who cannot buy land but who want to live this way acquire it. Each person who buys land in this way agrees to certain ethics of earth care and people care.
The countryside becomes full of healed forests, rivers, and meadows where the seeds of a viable lifeway form. By the time the system starts going through greater collapse and the jobs begin evaporating, there are hundreds of thousands of people practicing Permaculture in the rural areas who know the formula of how to live lightly and live together. The next wave of people leaving the cities were anticipated and they are welcome.
The collective learning of all the nodes of this rural network means the livelihood they provide, while still very much living within the limits of the planet, is beautiful and joyful, simple and smart. The people welcomed into it suddenly discover a sense of purpose that being assigned as a random cog in a big corporate bureaucracy never provided. The wisdom they bring helps it all really come alive.
People have learned to grow food for a whole family on 1/4 acre with no loss of fertility. No one really needs much money anymore. A new culture of music, celebrations, and ritual emerges around these lifeways, guaranteeing the survival of it for a time through the changing future.
The hills and valleys sing with the joy of free beings willfully tending the wild.