The Changing Patterns Of Community

A cultural history from tribes to cities .. and beyond

One of the articles in Being A Planetary Villager (IC#1)
Originally published in Winter 1983 on page 33
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

AS WE REFOCUS our attention on community life, it is clear that, for many of us, much has been lost. Even in rural areas within the U.S., current community life is generally a fragmented shadow of what it used to be. In our knowledge of community, we have become as children – lacking in experience and out of touch with tradition. This can be a great handicap, but, paradoxically, we can also turn it into a great asset. It can become an asset if we realize that because we are not immersed in any strong traditions of community life, we are thereby freer to draw on the experience of many different cultural traditions. We can use our freedom from the immediate past to allow us to reconnect with a much larger past. We can stretch ourselves to be planetary in time, as well as outwardly in space and inwardly in spirit. At first glance this may seem little more than a naive hope, a brave face put on a bad situation, but the historical record suggests otherwise [20 , 22 – see bibliography], Time and again, significant cultural innovations have come, not from the already strongly established cultures, but from the fresh starts.

Yet there is no guarantee that we will successfully turn our ignorance into such an asset. History is also littered with "fresh starts" that plunged ahead with naive self- confidence to repeat a well worn unsuccessful pattern of the past. The key to making it work can perhaps be seen in the way that most of the major conceptual advances in the sciences have come from students and recent graduates [12] – still young enough to be uncommitted to an established position, yet also actively drawing on the experience and insight that others have to offer. Of course, there were always many who studied while only a few had major insights. The extra element that these few seem to have contributed is a sense of vision and inspiration that enabled them to synthesize and go beyond the raw material of their studies.

With this motivation, I’d like to share with you my perceptions of some of the characteristics of the major types of human communities, and the key lessons that their long history has to offer to us now, as we work on building a positive viable community life as part of a humane sustainable culture. In this article I can only make a beginning on this vast subject, and I hope others will add to this in future issues of IN CONTEXT.

Tribes and Bands

Most of humanity’s time here on this planet, more than 99% of it, has been spent in groups of hunters and gatherers. Most of what we know about this way of life comes, however, not from the distant past, but from groups (like some Native Americans) who have continued with this way up into recent times. From the work of anthropologists, from the traditional knowledge of these groups, and from the little bit that can be gathered about the life of much earlier groups, we can gain a partial picture of their life. While there was a lot of cultural diversity, there were also some major common threads.

  • Mostly mobile If you are to hunt and gather, you must go to where the food is. For most groups this meant frequent moves, although in some particularly rich habitats (like the American Pacific Northwest coast) a settled life was possible. Those who moved did not just wander aimlessly, but rather made a yearly circuit through a traditional territory. Bands generally knew quite clearly what were the boundaries of their own and their neighbors’ territories.

  • Attuned to the land Because these people lived on what the local environment provided, they became minutely knowledgeable about the local ecology, knowing the locales, habits, and potential human uses from large numbers of plants and animals. This knowledge often went beyond the immediately utilitarian to an understanding of complex ecological interrelationships such as food chains and the role of trees in building soil fertility. Nor was their relationship just intellectual; they felt a part of the natural world and morally committed to help maintain its health and fertility.

  • "Wealth" non-material One obvious consequence of being mobile was that material possessions were more of a burden than a bonus. Instead, knowledge, visions, songs and other such "transportable" items were considered the important possessions. The wealthy were those who were so skilled and knowledgeable (often of the supernatural as well as the natural) that they could live well while carrying a minimum of tools.

  • The original affluent society Although we might imagine their lives to be extremely hard, the data suggests the opposite [18]. Even though most of the last remaining bands of hunters and gatherers (and so those for which we have good anthropological data) lived in harsh desert climates, they generally spent no more than 4 to 6 hours a day providing for themselves. This doesn’t mean that there were no times of shortage and hardship, but most of the time the living was fairly easy, and with no means of storage and few possessions to make or maintain, "sufficient unto the day was the subsistence thereof".

  • Direct interpersonal knowledge Groups differed in the degree to which they had internal rankings and statuses, some being more egalitarian than others, but in all cases, because they were small groups, everyone knew everyone else as a whole human being and not just through one role. Bands were typically in the range of 6 to 20 people, with tribes being self-acknowledged collections of bands. This fullness of knowledge might grow thin in the larger tribes, but there was little that could be hidden in the band.

  • Each group a world unto itself These bands and tribes usually knew about other neighboring groups but often had little to do with them. The contact they did have involved raids, a little bit of trading, and occasionally ritual gift exchanges.

  • Emphasis on the cyclic side of time Living a life in which the changes from year to year were minor compared to the changes of the seasons and day to night, they viewed time as a constant cyclic context in which events occurred, without our sense of the progression of history. The exception to this is that they usually had myths that referred back to a "beginning of time" when heroic or godlike figures established the pattern of things and taught the people. Wisdom was from the past, to be maintained and rediscovered, but not built upon, in the present.

  • Each could experience the heroic Balancing this reverence for the past was usually an encouragement for at least the males (though often both sexes, each in their own way) to rediscover within themselves qualities of the "Great Ones" from the past. Rites of passage and initiation often involved a personal re-enactment of the heroic, creative, transformative cycle (the pattern of withdrawal, facing and overcoming a critical challenge, and return that occurs in stories, myths and lives throughout the world). I want to emphasize that here "heroic" refers to inner strengths rather than spectacular feats. It is not competitive but available to all. A good example of this is the "vision quests" of the Plains Indians, in which a man or woman seeking greater wisdom would, after proper preparation, spend three days and nights alone in some holy place, seeking a vision. The full cycle of the experience was not considered complete until that person returned with their "gift" of insight and shared it with the band or tribe. As well as I can gather, spending ritual time alone in nature was a common practice in these cultures.

It is easy (and traditional) to either romanticize these cultures as noble and wise or shun them as brutish and savage. In fact they were (from our 20th century perspective) both. None of these can serve as a true model for us now. Our situation is too different (hunting and gathering can’t support a population of 4.5 billion), and their lives had limitations that we need not accept. Yet in this group are examples of time-tested "sustainable cultures" from which there is much we could learn, especially about the ways they successfully passed well developed environment protecting and respecting values on from generation to generation.

The Pre-urban Village

Historically, the next step beyond the wandering band was the settled band, or village. While this type of life is closely associated with the development of agriculture, there were also hunting and gathering groups (especially coastal fishermen) who were villagers. The transition from wandering between camps to staying at one camp probably developed gradually, and as you might expect, there is a lot of similarity between early village cultures and their wandering kin. Nevertheless, there were changes.

  • A step up in size Some villages were as small as bands, but often they were larger, having as many as a few hundred residents.

  • More material wealth As people stayed in one place, they started to acquire more things, although the nonmaterial, like ritual songs, remained important. For some groups, the workload was similar to that of the hunters and gatherers, and no particular surplus was produced. However, where storage was used, and especially where the practice of giving extravagant feasts to gain status developed, more was produced and the workload drifted heavier 18 With this, of course, also came some comforts (like better shelter), and the ability to survive lean times through stored food.

  • Initiation becomes more social Especially with a shift in focus from hunting to agriculture, the re-enactment of the heroic cycle changed. Instead of the individual alone in nature, we now find the group facing their crisis in the human setting of the kiva. This is not to say that hunters and gatherers did not have some group initiations or that villagers did not have personal ritual trials but as well as I can tell, the emphasis seems to shift. The value of bonding to the group takes precedence over the courage to stand alone.

  • A greater emphasis on the feminine I use this term with caution, but the shift from wandering to settled life, and especially to agriculture involved a corresponding shift in values and experience away from the swift, explorative, agile strength and exuberance of the hunter to the quieter, rhythmic, locally focused nurturing of plants, animals, and people.

The Coming of the Citadel

The domestication of plants and animals had a major effect on the role of the hunter. These new techniques produced considerably more food on the same amount of land than occurred naturally, and this decreased the importance of hunting as a food source, domesticated land that had been the home of wild game, and increased the human population density. The "hunter" thus had to either become a farmer or herder, or develop a new relationship with the society. In the transition to agriculture, obviously most became farmers or herders, but there were a significant few who didn’t. Early stories from Mesopotamia indicate that some hunters developed a specialized role as protectors for the agricultural villagers, keeping marauding animals away from children, cattle, and crops [16] How this relationship first developed isn’t clear, but Mumford speculates that in that early cross roads of cultures, hunting cultures may have come into already agricultural areas, found the comforts and wealth of the village appealing, but not the daily field work required to produce these. On the other hand, many tribal groups had some internal specialization, and as populations increased, this probably grew more pronounced. In any case, what developed was a pattern of hunters’ camps (often fortified) sprinkled in amongst the agricultural villages. The implications of having these two different types of communities living as neighbors were profound.

  • The great protection racket begins However the process began, the hunter soon either became the local chieftain or accentuated that existing tribal role, and turned his attention from the protection of the villagers to their exploitation and control. No doubt he continued to fight off wild beasts (now his competing predators), and offered some protection from the raids of other warlords, and no doubt tribal loyalties, religious sanctions, and personal charisma played a role, but the price exacted for these services was high. In a pattern that has continued during much of the past 8000 years, a small group of warrior "nobles" came to dominate a larger group of "their peasants".

  • The villager es second class Of course, there was a lot of variation in this pattern, with some villages going on much as before, others genuinely prospering due to the added protection, while some suffered under great oppression. Yet wherever the citadel appeared (and after it the city), the villager learned to work harder, to show deference, to be submissive.

  • Village ritual shifts from the heroic to fertility As part of the consciousness of deference, the village mythos no longer encourages its youth to develop their inner strength. Rites of passage become community fertility celebrations – feasts -, rather than processes of personal growth. Those with strong natures had to go beyond the village to find expression.

  • The living challenge the authority of the past Tradition is still powerful, but a important change has come with young chieftains fording it over village elders.

It is easy (from our 20th century perspective) to fall into seeing these early chieftains as "bad guys", but I don’t mean to make that kind of historical judgment. My intention, rather, is to emphasize that the shift to agriculture upset the ancient hunting and gathering balance by moving in the direction of a more settled, security-oriented existence. In so doing it neither integrated nor transformed the energy of the hunter, but merely suppressed and/or avoided it. Such deeply rooted human energies don’t easily disappear, and the result was that before long (in a historical sense) those energies returned with a vengeance. The lesson I take from this is that we need to be careful, in attempting to develop a sustainable culture, to integrate the full range of human nature, and that we need to be watchful against the easy tendency to avoid or ignore those aspects that seem to be difficult or unpleasant.

The Preindustrial City

In spite of its cultural impact, the citadel was still just another type of village – usually no larger than a few hundred people and often including many farmers as residents. It was the seed, but it had to grow before it became that genuinely new pattern of community we call the city. The earliest cities for which we have archaeological evidence developed about 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia – places like Eridu and Ur [19]. These were followed during the next few thousand years with similar developments in Egypt, India, the Mediterranean, China, and eventually, Central America. With the exception of medieval towns in Europe, these early cities developed a theme that has been played and replayed throughout the world up until the coming of the industrial urbanism.

  • A third step up in size Just as the village grew to be 10 to 20 times the size of the band, so too the early cities seem to have been about 10 to 20 times the size of a good sized village, that is, they had a population of around 5,000 to 10,000 [19] – what today we might call a modest sized town. Of course, in time early cities grew well beyond this size – Rome is estimated to have had as many as 300,000 – yet still the scale is small compared to present urban patterns.

  • Administrative center These early cities are all based on organization and exploitation of the surrounding territory, partly through force, partly through religious and political loyalties, and occasionally through trade. At the center of the city is the center of political power – usually the residence of the king (who is also often the high priest) and his supporting elite of warriors, priests, and scribes. The temples are there, and the grain, which is the major real wealth, is stored in the temple granaries. It is from here that the literate elite directs such things as large irrigation projects and expeditions of conquest. Occasionally, as in Greece and perhaps the early cities of Sumer, village democracy manages to live on for a while in the city, but the predominant pattern is one of kingship and hierarchy.

  • Distribution center While there is some production within the city, most of its basic wealth is carried in from the countryside and from conquest. The elite redistributes this wealth for its own purposes, such as maintaining armies and artisans. Thus from the beginning, the city has been the place to go to "get a good job", or at least to get a share of the bread and circuses. It is the place where wealth is concentrated and where surplus can be found.

  • Birthplace of many, many new occupations The city both permits and requires an extensive division of labor. Moving out from the center, we find the shops and quarters of builders, smiths, jewelers, potters, and soldiers. Further out come the laborers and farmers. Different areas in the city came to specialize in particular occupations, often dominated by particular ethnic groups. Thus the city was subdivided into districts and neighborhoods.

  • Greater material achievements The concentration and coordination of large groups of people made possible large scale projects, from irrigation canals to pyramids, and accelerated the pace of innovation. The material output of society became greater in quantity and diversity. It is easy to take for granted, but most of humanity’s technical, artistic, intellectual, and social achievements have come through city based cultures.

  • Heavier work loads To some extent, this higher output came through more efficient techniques and tools, such as irrigation and the plow. Yet much of the increase came from working harder and longer. The relaxed agricultural villager of the pre-urban era is gradually transformed into the laborer, struggling from dawn to dusk just to stay alive.

  • Permitted life in a human structured environment Villages were always so small that you were easily aware of the surrounding presence of nature, but cities, especially as they grew, pushed back that presence. Before long, it became possible for a city dweller to spend essentially all of his life inside the city. Nature could become a foreign land, heard about and glimpsed, but not known through experience. The "real world" became the city with its buildings, fashions, politics, and people.

  • Made human relationships more abstract From the point of view of the band or the early village, the world had two basic groups of people – those in the same band or village and "the others" (with whom there were few dealings). There were different groupings, like clans, but most of the people that one had to deal with were part of one’s own group, and known as fairly whole people. The coming of the city changed all that by requiring relationships with people outside of the immediate group, and through the division of labor, creating many different groups and classes. Relationships became fragmented and based on role and status.

  • Restricted the heroic experience to a small elite The leaders of cities were expected to be brave, daring, wise, and generally god-like. They were supposed to be a breed apart, exceptional in every way. To maintain this claim and their position, they had to 1 ) prove themselves and 2) make sure the common people didn’t develop their own strengths. In the process, the image of the "heroic" changed, and became more outward, more like superman. So the monuments and stories praise the great feats and conquests of the kings, while the peasants and artisans are continually reminded, both subtly and brutally, that submissiveness and loyalty are the highest and safest virtues. These values were reflected in religion with the dominance of male, power-oriented gods.

The city and the type of society that goes with it have evoked strong reactions, pro and con, throughout all of its history. It has been the site and the support for some of the finest of humanity’s achievements, and likewise for some of our most brutal, terrible, and degrading behaviors. Its great gift has been to open up a whole new range and scale of human activities, analogous to introducing trees into an ecosystem that had only grasses before. Its great defect has been that it generally functioned as a parasite to the world around it.

The Civilized Countryside

We can’t expect to get a clear understanding of the city and civilization without also considering "the world around it". Until recently, much of that world was not under the control of "central authorities". Even in Europe and Asia, it took many thousands of years for the "civilized world" to grow to be anything more than a beachhead in an otherwise wild territory. What we need to consider here is life in that beachhead, between the city walls and the wild frontier.

  • The form varies People of the countryside lived in many different ways. At some times and in some places, the life was village based with more or less independent farmers, while other areas were dominated by huge estates worked by slaves or serfs. Towns (small centers of political control with some commerce) were sometimes also sprinkled throughout, while in other situations a military outpost, the citadel again, served the same function.

  • The bulk of the population It is easy for us (who live in an urbanized world and were raised on histories that focused on cities) to lose sight of the fact that until the coming of industrialization, no society had more than 20% of its population in cities, and usually only a few percent[19].

  • The source of most wealth The wealth of preindustrial civilization was mostly quite basic: grain, meat and other food stuffs, horses and oxen for power, wood and stone for building materials, metal for tools and weapons, and cloth. Not only was the countryside the source of the raw materials, but it was also the place where much of the rudimentary processing went on.

  • Heavy work load Some civilizations were more efficient at this than others, but the general goal of the conquering city was to extract as much wealth as possible from its territory. The people of the countryside, at the bottom of the power pyramid, bore the brunt of the work load.

  • Indrawn, but affected by the outside In self protection and in keeping with their neolithic traditions, rural communities tended to do all they could to insulate themselves from the outside world, psychologically as well as otherwise. Yet they could no longer be a world apart. From taxation and plunder to tools and religions, the activity of the city was a constant, though generally unwelcome, factor in their lives.

  • Thoroughly second class The patterns that began with the coming of the citadel now reign in full force. The divisions of class and rank are so ingrained that it is hard to imagine any other way of life. The peasant is expected to be submissive, and usually is, and there is no cultural support, as there was with the vision quest, for the development in common people of an independent sense of judgment, vision, and selfhood. Thus suppressed, life in rural communities is often cautious unimaginative, and filled with petty bickerings.

One of the challenges we face in trying to envision "planetary villages" is that our images of village life are strongly colored by the peasant cultures of feudal and city- dominated societies. Clearly, we don’t want to go down a road that just leads back to serfdom. We need to ask, what would truly free and classless village life be like?

City, Empire, and Nation

I have been describing the preindustrial city as a fairly constant type, and in many ways it was. Yet there were also important changes with time, especially in the overall relationships within the society. We began with the village and its people whose sense of "us" and territory was very local. This developed into both the citadel and the city, which kept the sense of "us" local, but expanded their sense of "our" territory. Those out in the controlled territory did not, for a long time, identify with their controllers, but as empires grew and became mature, the ruling elite came to stretch its sense of "home" over the whole territory.

In post-Roman medieval Europe this change went so far that the ruling elite was no longer city-based, but was rather a geographically distributed network of rural warriors. This formed the seed, along with common language and customs, for the idea of the nation as distinct from the city- empire (like Rome) or the politically fragmented cultural region (like ancient Greece). The common people also gradually enlarged the groups they identified with, but it was not until the last few centuries that nationalism had much strength. (The rise of nationalism illustrates that people can, in a historically short time, change their sense of the larger group to which they belong. The enlargement of "us" to the whole planet may proceed as rapidly.)

The Town and Monastery

There remain two important preindustrial patterns of community that need to be considered. As empires grew in size, there had to be a bridge between the central city and the countryside. Early towns served primarily as administrative and military outposts and secondarily as trading centers. In large empires, these provincial "towns" were often good sized cities. Even when these outposts were themselves ancient, older than the empire that controlled them, the flow of initiative and leadership was all from the top down, from the central city to its outpost. Life in these outposts, while slower paced, was basically like that in the central city.

The major exception to this pattern was the medieval commercial town. The medieval feudal system, as a rural/citadel based political system, neither needed the town as an outpost nor permitted the town to grow dominant over the countryside. Thus the only roles left were commerce and manufacturing. Since these activities were not central to the politics and life of this agricultural society, much of the leadership and initiative for building and guiding these towns came from the townspeople – the merchants and craftsmen.

The second major pattern is the monastery, which develops out of the universal religions like Buddhism and Christianity. These religions, by being open to the common people, provided a socially supported avenue for personal development, for the heroic quest, and they also encouraged fellowship in that quest. Given the lack of opportunity for personal growth in these civilizations, it is not surprising that large numbers opted for this religious route. Those who wanted to devote themselves totally to that quest in the company of others of like mind formed what were probably the first major intentional communities. Many were remarkably successful (at least materially), and some had a strong, positive, stimulative effect on the surrounding society.

Yet these monastic orders were never true alternative cultures because they did not raise their own children. Instead, they selectively drew in their membership from the surrounding society. By so doing they avoided having to deal with the full range of human nature that birth presents us with and all of the growth stages through which children go. A true culture doesn’t have that option, and because these issues are crucial to an effective culture, the monastic tradition (in spite of all its successes) is a limited and misleading model for a humane sustainable culture.

The Industrial City

Starting about 200 years ago another profound shift took place – first in Britain, then in Western Europe and North America – that has radically changed the patterns of community in both the city and the countryside. This shift, of course, is the industrial revolution, and the modern metropolis is its most characteristic home.

  • Based on a new source of wealth The basic strategy of civilization has always been to find some distributed resource and gather it into the city. Traditionally, that resource was the agricultural surplus of the countryside. The industrial revolution didn’t change the strategy, but it made mineral resources, especially fossil fuels, much more important than they had been. This meant, among other things, that it was now the land itself, rather than the people working the land, that needed to be conquered and controlled.

  • Productive as well as controlling Grain, as it came into the traditional city, was very close to being directly usable. Iron ore, on the other hand, requires a great deal of processing before it can be used. Growing, as it did, out of a European tradition with those medieval towns in the background, the industrial metropolis was more strongly oriented towards commerce and manufacturing than the traditional city. This new city is still oriented towards control, but now banking, advertising, and corporate decision making have been added to military force. Also, because the political unit of industrialism is the nation rather than the city, individual cities do not see themselves as "the center" in the same way traditional ones did.

  • Larger in population and area Traditional cities contained at most a few hundred thousand people, while many of today’s metropolitan areas contain tens of millions, on the order of 100 times larger. This change has been made possible by modern transportation and communications. It is supported by the enormous wealth unlocked through the tapping of fossil fuels and minerals.

  • A larger percent of the total population Even more significant than the growth of individual cities is the major shift in population from rural to urban ‘9. From less than 20%, and often only a few percent, the urban population of mature industrialized nations now is typically in the range of 70% to 80%. This change has been driven by both the wealth of the cities and the mechanization of agriculture.

  • Changed land use patterns The city center remains a point of power, but it is now more commercial power, with banks and corporate headquarters, rather than religious or political power. At the same time, residential and work areas are separated, so that the elite who work in the city center often now live on the city edge. Workers of all types live separate from their work places, and manufacturing, commercial, and residential areas are distributed throughout the city like a patchwork quilt. The old occupation based neighborhood, often combining work and living in the same buildings, is gone.

  • High social and occupational mobility The rapid pace of technological change has brought with it the need for frequent occupational changes, first from one generation to the next and then within one lifetime. The result has been to de-emphasize (but not eliminate) the old inherited occupational and class systems. With this has come a significant increase in personal freedom and a decline in the attitude of subservience.

  • Fragmented relationships We can classify social relationships into five major types: a) relative b) co-worker c) friend c) neighbor d) co-member (in a voluntary organization like a church). In traditional villages and traditional neighborhoods, often your neighbor or friend was also your co-worker, co-member, and even your relative – these different roles were just part of an overall human relationship. In addition, the other members of your immediate family shared in these relationships. In the modern metropolis, the situation is just the opposite. While there may be some overlap, often each type of relationship involves a different group of people, and each member of the family, especially the different generations, relate to different groups of people, so that, for example, parents often hardly know the parents of their children’s friends.

  • The heroic cycle unfulfilled The increased personal freedom and opportunity for self development would seem to open the door for a rediscovery by common people of the heroic, creative cycle that was so important to the cultural strength of hunting and gathering groups. To some extent this has happened, but remember that the cycle was not complete until the individual returned with his or her "gift" and shared it with the community. Having no unified human scale community to return to, and being raised on the external "superman" heroic images of civilization, the modern person has usually turned his or her questing energy towards self-aggrandizement, turning the resulting uncompleted heroic cycles into an unsatisfying competitive struggle.

Although both are called cities, the modern metropolis (and the society that goes with it) is as different from the pre-industrial city as that was from the village.

The Industrial Countryside

From the point of view of an ancient city-state empire, the world was divided into three zones: the city, the controlled countryside, and the lands beyond the frontier. This last zone might be land controlled by other empires or wild areas under no central control. It was available for raids and conquest, but it was not a reliable source of wealth. Industrial society has three similar zones: urban areas, the countryside within the national boundaries, and the rest of the world, but changes in the internal politics of nations, the importance of commerce, and the ease of transportation and communications have shifted the relationships among these three. The "internal" countryside has become, culturally, just an extension of the city. Its people watch the same TV shows, vote for the same politicians, and are protected by the same laws. This is not to say that the land is not exploited, but the people are treated no differently than they would be in the city, which, in spite of problems, is a lot better than the peasants of a few thousand years ago. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that that kind of treatment has disappeared. It has just moved farther away. It is as if the "city wall" has expanded to become the national boundary. Yet beyond the "city wall", whether it be South America, Afghanistan, or Vietnam; Poland or the Philippines; violent or quiet, the old exploitation and oppression that is the heritage of 5,500 years of civilization still goes on.

The Non-exploitive Tradition

People have sought alternatives to this heritage for a long time. Throughout this long history there have been bright spots, democratic city-states and just kings, religious orders and communes, all trying, in one way or another, to develop and live a life of mutual respect and fairness. Few of these attempts have been long-lived, and many of them have succumbed to exploiting some "outgroup" to support their internal experiment. Yet there have been real successes, and along with the rise in industrialism has come a growing pressure towards finding a non-exploitative basis for human life.

  • National revolutions We may not usually think of the French, American, or Russian Revolutions as attempts at building intentional communities, yet they most definitely were. During that period in history, face to face communities in each of these cultures still had a lot of vitality. The "community problem" was at the national level, and each revolution was a conscious attempt to establish a new society based on what were perceived as fairer values. Each has managed to be long-lived, although each has also violated its own values in the way it has exploited others. Other national and anti-colonial revolutions have followed a similar pattern.

  • The small community Intentional face to face communities also have a long history that grows stronger during the last two hundred years. Monastic communities are early examples, and many of the early American settlements were religious intentional communities. This tradition has continued in America through the 1 9th century and up to the present day. Elsewhere in the world are many other examples, from the kibbutzim of Israel to communities like Auroville in India. While most attempts have not survived more than a few years, there are nevertheless a large number of communities that have been both economically and morally successful for many years. These have usually had some strong internal bond, often religious, and have often had some sense of a common work or service. Yet even these have had trouble surviving beyond the first generation or two. Those that have, like the Amish, tend to have strong and restrictive religious beliefs that make them unappealing as models for the general culture.

There is much in this non-exploitive tradition from which we can draw both inspiration and specific useful information and techniques, yet there is no example in this tradition of an effective, durable, humane sustainable culture applicable to our present situation. What we need to build is likely to be as new as the city was 5,500 years ago or as the industrial metropolis was 100 years ago.

The Challenge For Civilization

During its 5,500 years, the pattern of civilization has always been based on a center and a surrounding territory. With the passage of time the "center" has grown in size from the city to the nation, and the "territory" has come to include mineral wealth under the ground as well as surface land, but the basic pattern remains. In addition, the most vibrant times for the center have come when its territory was expanding so that new, fresh resources could be obtained. As long as there was more territory beyond the beachhead of civilization, the pattern kept working even though specific centers came and went.

But now this strategy has run into a problem. There is no more geographic frontier, no more fresh uncivilized lands to conquer, not even any major areas that have not been explored for mineral wealth. The easy stuff has all been skimmed. Civilization, or perhaps I should say we, now face a challenge and a choice. We can either try to maintain the old strategy or develop a new one. If we want to maintain the old strategy we must either find a new source of concentratable wealth or we must shrink the "city wall" so that there are fewer people receiving the benefits of being at the center. There may be many possible new strategies, but the one that is receiving the most attention involves placing equal value on the quality of life everywhere – in effect expanding the "city wall" to include the whole planet so that there ceases to be the division of center and surroundings.

These options are presently being widely discussed and explored. One good summary of them is by Gary Coates in his book, The Resettling of America [2], He divides current images of the future into four directions based on whether they are optimistic or pessimistic, centralized or decentralized. The "new source of wealth" option he calls the superindustrial image (optimistic-centralized). It assumes that we can profitably tap the "high frontier" of space which is seen as an infinite source of energy and materials. The "shrunken city wall" option Coates describes as hyperindustrial (pessimistic-centralized) – a "1984" police state of gradual decline and general repression. The "expanded city wall" option he refers to as metaindustrial (optimistic-decentralized). It would attempt to develop a broadly distributed high quality of life by making more efficient on-site use of the major forms of distributed wealth: sunshine, vegetation, and human intelligence. The last option, the preindustrial, would involve the kind of massive collapse suggested by the Limits To Growth [14] study and a complete breakdown of the social order.

Of these four, the one that most closely fits the image of a humane sustainable culture as described in this issue is the metaindustrial option. It assumes that we are at a major historical turning point, a basic shift in strategy, and that just as the development of agriculture led (in an historically short time) to the development of the new social institution of the city, so too the developments of the past few hundred years are leading us to the new social institutions of a decentralized planetary culture.

Yet this doesn’t mean that the other options have nothing to say to us. The pessimistic options highlight challenges and dangers we need to guard against, and the superindustrial option gives form to a powerful human longing. If we were to ignore or deny it, might we not run the risk of repeating the pattern of the neolithic village that failed to adequately integrate the energy of the hunter? These four images of the future, regardless of their practical accuracy, are powerful mythic images that reflect deeply held hopes and fears. If we are to build an effective humane sustainable culture we need to address and transform all the fears and give room for all the hopes that these images span. In doing this, communities undoubtedly have an important role to play.

The Challenge For Community

Just as a well developed, mature ecosystem has organisms of many different sizes, from microbes to whales, so too an efficient culture needs many different sizes of human groupings – individual, household, working group, village, city, region, etc.. In our present industrial society the emphasis has been on the individual and household at one end and large corporate and governmental organizations at the other. This has permitted the kind of high mobility appropriate to a rapidly changing "pioneer" cuIture, but it is also grossly wasteful of both human and material resources. To overcome this waste, we need to strengthen the middle levels – what we have here been calling community. Yet in doing this we need to avoid simply reversing the present situation and overemphasizing community. Our goal needs to be balance, not the domination of one level over another. Closely related to this, we need to somehow avoid the self-centeredness and narrow-mindedness that have plagued small communities throughout history.

How small communities might be part of and serve a humane sustainable culture and how these problems might be avoided is the subject of the next section.


1. Alexander, Christopher et al., A Pattern Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

2. Coates, Gary J., Resettling America (Andover: Brick House Publishing Co., 1981).

3. Dube, S. C., Indian Village (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1955).

4. Fremon, Suzanne & Wilson, Morrow (eds), Rural America (New York: The H.W. Wilson Co., 1976).

5. Goldschmidt, Walter, Exploring The Ways Of Mankind (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960).

6. Gore, W. J., and Hodapp, L. C. (eds), Change in the Small Community (New York: Friendship Press, 1967).

7. Hall, Edward T., Beyond Culture (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1976).

8. Halpern, J. M., The Changing Village Community (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967).

9. Holloway, Mark, Heavens On Earth (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1966).

10. Kanter, Rosabeth M., Commitment And Community (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1972).

11. Keller, Suzanne, The Urban Neighborhood (New York: Random House, Inc., 1968).

12. Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

13. Mead, Margaret (ed), Cooperation and Competition Among Primitive Peoples (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961).

14. Meadows, Donella H., et al., The Limits To Growth (New York: Universe Books, 1972).

15. Muir, Richard, The English Village (New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1980).

16. Mumford, Lewis, The City In History (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1961).

17. Roberts, Bryan, Cities of Peasants (London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1978).

18. Sahlins, Marshall, Stone Age Economics (Aldine Publishing Co., 200 Saw Mill River Road, Hawthorne, NY 10532,1972).

19. Scientific American, Cities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966).

20. Stavrianos, L. S., The Promise Of The Coming Dark Age (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1976).

21. Thompson, William Irwin, Darkness and Scattered Light (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1978).

22. Toynbee, Arnold J., A Study Of History, abridged by D. C. Somervell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947).

23. Vidich, A. J., and Bensman, J., Small Town In Mass Society (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1960).

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