The Village And Beyond

Networks of villages may be the next major social form

One of the articles in Being A Planetary Villager (IC#1)
Originally published in Winter 1983 on page 54
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

WHAT DOES the village scale have to offer that makes it important to a sustainable culture? To answer this I’ll need to begin by clarifying what is meant by "village scale". So far we have been loosely referring to the population of a village as being on the order of a few hundred people. The general idea is that a village is small enough to be a socially cohesive unit, but a step larger in size than a household or working team. Christopher Alexander in his book, A Pattern Language cites anthropological evidence that effective participatory democratic self-government doesn’t work in groups larger than roughly 1000, and a more workable maximum figure may be 500. Not surprisingly, this is also the upper range for workable government assemblies – parliaments, the Senate and House, the UN general assembly, etc.. At the other end of the range, other anthropological evidence suggest that the optimum size for a working team is between 8 and 14 people. All this points to a range of from about 50 to 500 people as being the "village scale". My own sense of an optimum size for a village or neighborhood is a "team of teams" which is on the order of a few hundred people – right back where we started.

The contributions of this scale of community to a sustainable culture are personal, social and’ economic. The most direct personal benefit is that it can be a very satisfying human environment to live in. It is small enough so that you can know everyone else fairly well, have a real voice in whet the community does, and yet it is large enough to have real diversity, and offer and accomplish more than you could alone or as a household. It also encourages the development of certain strengths of character that are important for a healthy sustainable culture. If it is truly a community, with many overlapping relationships (co-worker, friend, neighbor, etc.), then it exerts an important pressure on its members to develop their personal integrity. If you can’t get away with playing one role here and another there, because it is the same people who see you as, for example, shopkeeper, neighbor and friend, then you have to learn to be a consistent person. In a related way, since the feedback loops are shorter in a small community, you can more quickly learn such timeless wisdom as honesty is the best policy. Of course this kind of social pressure can go too far, but within limits it is a very healthy stimulus toward the kind of personal responsibility that must be at the heart of a humane sustainable culture. In saying this I am repeating what Chris Roberts and Danaan Parry said earlier about the way that community life accelerates personal growth. It obviously affects children as well, and as such it can play an important role in passing values on from one generation to the next.

The economic benefit is directly related to the high level of trust that is possible at this scale. Because of this trust people share tools and resources, thus making more opportunities available to each member at a much lower cost than if each had to individually own each item. In a sustainable society where tools and related durable goods are both relatively expensive and designed for long life, the economic advantages of being part of such a self-trusting community may be very important. Likewise, people in these communities often help each other out in a kind of barter without formal accounting that adds considerably to the effective reserves of each. These social and economic benefits may well be the "hidden treasure" (like fossil fuels were for industrialism) that is waiting to be uncovered by the move toward a decentralized metaindustrial strategy.

Yet the village scale also traditionally has its problems. I would like to return to three of these areas of concern that were raised in the experience section: 1) avoiding narrowness and self-centeredness, 2) maintaining vitality and essential values from generation to generation, and 3) reconciling the "hunter" and the "nurturer". Let’s look more closely at each of these in turn.

As an antidote to the first problem, I would suggest experiences that broaden and those that deepen. Clearly, exposure to a wider world, through electronic media, through print, and especially through travel, can be a great help in broadening minds, yet by themselves they don’t seem to be enough. To knowledge we must add wisdom. We need perspective-giving experiences like the vision quest, a retreat at a religious center, a few days spent hiking in the mountains, or simply a few moments of quiet reflection. I expect that a healthy sustainable culture would be supportive of broadening and deepening experiences as a regular part of life for people of all ages.

I see the second problem as just the long term aspect of the first. Long-lived cultures, like many hunting and gathering societies, seem to maintain their vitality by providing each generation with essential broadening and deepening experiences as it is developing. I would particularly like to stress the importance of the heroic cycle with its universal pattern of leaving home, encountering and overcoming some challenge (which is often a metaphor for the challenge of developing your own personal integrity), and then returning and settling down with a much deeper appreciation of the starting point. A humane sustainable culture needs to encourage this kind of experience – especially for its teenagers and young adults – through travel, through student exchanges, through apprenticeships, through wilderness travel and programs like Outward Bound.

For the third question, I’d like to begin by reexamining just what is involved in what I have been calling "the energy of the hunter". (The village itself tends to be a nurture oriented environment, so the challenge of reconciliation is to find the right role for the hunter in relationship to the village and the culture as a whole.) The essence of the hunt is not in the killing of the game, but in the process of the hunt. This has two aspects, one more physical, the other more mental. The physical side involves the exuberance of the chase, the delight in exercising one’s physical prowess, and the rhythm of extreme exertion followed by rest and celebration. The mental side involves exploring and problem solving "on your feet" – using all your senses and all your cunning in a territory that you at best only partly know, and doing this for a purpose that you know is important for you and your community. There are many ways that people can have these experiences other than hunting, such as sports, some aspects of business, research, and war. I have a friend who was a Navy pilot in Viet Nam. He eventually came to oppose the war, but he once told me that he had to admit that flying combat missions was one of the most totally exhilarating things he had ever done.

Clearly the energy of the hunter has taken forms that are not appropriate for a humane sustainable culture, but that does not mean that it doesn’t have an important place in such a culture. To some extent the physical aspect of this energy can be expressed through sports, but for many people that is not enough – we want something more "real- life and meaningful". What I would suggest is that we need to reconceive especially the mental aspect as not the hunter but as the quester, the searcher, the explorer. There are many frontiers of knowledge and spirit waiting to be explored, but I expect that one of the most important new "forests" through which the new hunters will roam will be the world of other communities. The goal won’t be game, but information, human connections and resources. Thus the energy of the hunter will take the form of the networker – traveling both in space and along the electronic pathways to find and bring back the missing elements needed to provide a balanced life for the home community, risking the costs of exploring and knowing that what is sought may not be found. It is a game we can all play, and at some point in our lives most of us do. There is much more that needs to be said, explored, tried, and tested about each of these issues, but the point that I want to emphasize is that each is more easily dealt with, indeed seems to require, going out into the world beyond the village. The health and especially the sustainability of the small community require that it not be isolated from the world around it, but if it is open, it will in part be shaped by its relationship to that world. If all of that world is unsympathetic, then it will be very hard to develop the same kinds of cooperative relationships beyond the village that exist within it, yet the essence of being a planetary villager is that the world is not divided into an in- group and an out-group.

The more I reflect on this, the more it seems to me that the real deme for the new culture, the real seed for the new pattern of community is not the village but the network of villages. In a living culture, the interchange between communities and the relationships between them is as important as the pattern of relationships within a community. How can we really expect to move towards world peace if we are not actively building our skills and experience in intercommunity relationships? Of course the development of individual communities is an important part of this, indeed the part that requires most of our time and energy – but not all. If we focus too heavily on the individual community, and especially if we imagine that by itself it can be a laboratory for the new culture, then we run the risk of simply repeating the pattern that began with the neolithic village and has continued right up to some of today’s intentional communities. It is much better to see each community (intentional and otherwise) as a part of the laboratory and to realize that the juice won’t really start to flow until the parts are connected.

What then might the new pattern of community be like – the next step in the series of village, city, metropolis? I would suggest, in keeping with Christopher Alexander’s vision, that it will be clusters and networks of semiautonomous neighborhoods and villages – mostly self- reliant in terms of food and energy but interconnected in terms of information and cultural activities. Not that there haven’t been clusters and networks in the past, but our new communications technologies, our new levels of literacy, and perhaps even changes in values and consciousness, will make these clusters and networks qualitatively different with new social and cultural patterns and relationships. For the clusters of villages, I would expect that these will be predominantly of two levels – "teams of villages" (about 5,000 people), and "villages of villages" (about 100,000 people). This brings us back to Ron Jorgensen’s cities of consciousness but with an internal structure that is very different from today’s fragmented anonymous urban populations.

Obviously all this will take time to develop. After all, most of the urbanization that we see around us has been built over the last 50 to 100 years. For right now it is interesting to note that a number of the older intentional communities, such as Findhorn, Auroville, the Love Israel Family, and Ananda, are now developing as archipelagos rather than one big sprawl. It will be even more interesting to see what develops as these and other communities and groups build and strengthen broader network relationships with each other.

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