Monday, August 11, 2008

The Meaning of Community

Over the past hundred years Americans have come to have very different values than our ancestors. Our foremothers and fathers valued prudence, frugality, patience, humility, community, cooperation. (These sound very boring, don't they?) People didn't live very well if they didn't contribute to the community. No one was able to survive "on their own". From the Native American tribes of the past to the Amish communities today, people took care of their own. Not just families, but whole communities.

Instead of working to accumulate money and things, our ancestors worked to accumulate goodwill, favors, and support of the community. Instead of the cycle of making money ---> spending money, our great-great-grandmothers lived in the cycle of giving support ----> getting support. Our ancestors knew they would be taken care of when they needed it, just the way that we have confidence that we'll get a paycheck from our employer every two weeks.

So it made sense to our ancestors to spend a large part of their time helping others. The more they helped others, the more they would be helped. Every act of charity - helping a new mother care for her little ones, helping a sister through labor, helping with a barn raising, bringing in the harvest with a neighbor, or dropping off a hot meal for an elderly aunt - these were as good as putting money in the bank. Of course, it was probably never articulated that way. It was just how it was, and the more you helped, the more successful you were.

A strong, caring community was actually even better than a paycheck or a bank account, because the whole fabric of the community would have to be destroyed before any one person was not taken care of. In our present-day monetary system, we're on our own. Our comforts, even our very existence, hinge on the vagaries of the global financial system. A serious illness, a job loss, a bad car wreck - any one of these things can send us into bankruptcy, poverty, despair. So, unlike our ancestors, we are filled with uncertainty about our futures. We are never safe, because no amount of money can ever really be enough to protect us.

Sadly, the security that came with a strong community has all but disappeared. Only a few remnants of that ethic persist - baby showers, wedding showers, baking food for your sister-in-law when she's just had a child. Even the core activities of the family - caring for the little ones, educating the kids, looking after elderly parents - has been outsourced.

"Community" - the community we've lost - is often cited as a way to get through peak oil and climate change. How would having a community help us confront these issues?
  • Teamwork. Working together on projects for the common good, like putting in a garden.
  • Pooling money to make group investments, like a canning kitchen or solar power for a community center.
  • Sharing. Not everyone needs to buy a new product when tools and goods can be passed around.
  • Leveraging knowledge. Gardening, preserving, mending, and fixing knowledge can be transmitted from the knowledgeable people to the rest of the community.
  • Protecting the vulnerable. Caring for the ill, and elderly, and helping single parents.
  • Giving us a feeling of belonging. People will make sacrifices for the group when they know they are being held accountable for results, and when they know that their sacrifices count. (Ask any drill sergeant).
  • Civic amenities. Services like police, firefighting, community theater, parks.
  • Status symbol reduction. When everyone knows each other, and knows our real characters, will SUV's, Rolexes and diamond rings really be necessary?
  • Crime reduction. Anonymity is the enabler of crime. When people know each other, and keep track of each other, alert each other to strangers, watch out for suspicious activity, and hold each other accountable, crime can be reduced.

What do you think? What are other ways that building community would help us transition through peak oil to a better future?


Tara said...

All of that, plus good old fashioned moral support! Big problems can seem smaller. Many hands make light work. I can only speculate on this, but it seems like there would also be greater potential for more stable, long-lasting romantic relationships. Partly for the reasons you've already mentioned, and because dating would most likely involve people you already knew quite well. Seems as though one could make a somewhat more informed choice. ;-)

Lewru said...

I've been thinking about this post quite a bit because it really got me on the subject of pioneers and what a really, just bad idea that was. Sure someone had to explore...but two people and maybe some kids going off into the wilderness against weather, animal, and man??? How stupefyingly beat-your-chest male is that? How Western? How odd... Now bring a group of people, okay. But having grown up in OK and always being told about pioneer families in reverential tones - it's just so much "fierce individualism," Great White Hunter-ethic mumbo-jumbo. And the pioneer women, who literally had to try to do it ALL by themselves, they aged hard and died young. Give me a tribe any day.

Tara said...

I have actually stayed in the Pioneer Woman guesthouse in Ponca City. :)

And that has nothing to do with anything.

Alison said...

Like you, I've been pondering the role of community, thinking about how good it feels to have something to give and to receive something in return. I read a book a while back, the name escapes me right now, that talked about the differences between tribal and hierarchical society. Apparently there are geographical basis for which type of society developed in which location. Historically tribal societies existed where the population was geographically isolated in some way and could not grow beyond a certain group size.

What do you think about the role of allotments in growing community? I'd appreciate a post on my blog if you have something to say on this.

Hausfrau said...

Hi Alison, thanks for visiting! I haven't thought much about allotments. I will read your post and ponder!