Thursday, October 25, 2007

Money and Community, part 1

Where is the life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T.S Eliot

Often, when I discuss intentional self-sufficient community with those who are unfamiliar with the concept, one of the first questions that people have is: how can I earn a living and pay for the outside things I want? How can I afford to travel to visit extended family, for medical care or education, for purchasing the things our community does not create (eyeglasses, certain types of clothing, etc)? These are legitimate concerns, for in this culture, money is the major medium of exchange. Most of us are not very good at bartering, hitching rides, or creating energy for ourselves in other ways.

The answer is simple: because permaculture focuses on maximizing yield and increasing surplus in any system, our community will create a surplus to the degree that we apply permaculture design correctly. We have several cooperative businesses going now – we understand the importance of economics.

However, in our process, we are also redefining economics, bringing that subject back to its roots – in the derivation of the word from the ancient Greek oikonomia which means “care and management of the household.” The modern dictionary definition of economics, however is: “the science that deals with the production, consumption and distribution of wealth.” Hmm, how did this word evolve so as to eliminate or ignore the core meaning – care of the household?

Mark Anielski, in his book “The Economy of Happiness,” (which is one of our core books), explains it thus: “Aristotle made an important distinction between oikonomia/economy and chrematistics…[which] comes from the Greek meaning the art of money-making; with the root chrema meaning money, riches or something useful.

“Ecological economist Herman Daly and theologian John Cobb Jr. define chrematistics as ‘the branch of political economy relating to the manipulation of property and wealth so as to maximize short-term monetary exchange value to the owner.; In stark contrast Daly and Cobb define oikonomia as ‘the management of the household so as to increase its use value to all members of the household over the long run.’ Daly and Cobb draw these distinctions:

“Oikonomia differs from chrematistics in three ways. First it takes the long-run rather than the short-run view. Second, it considers costs and benefits to the whole community, not just to the parties to the transaction. Third, it focuses on concrete use value and the limited accumulation thereof, rather on abstract exchange value and its impetus toward unlimited accumulation. Use value is concrete: it has a physical dimension and a need that can be objectively satisfied. .. By contrast, exchange value is totally abstract: it has no physical dimension or any naturally satiable need to limit its accumulation. Unlimited accumulation is the goal of the chrematist and is evidence of Aristotle of the unnaturalness of the activity. True wealth is limited by the satisfaction of the concrete need for which it was designed. For oikonomia, there is such a thing as enough. For chrematistics, more is always better’

“….chrematistics is really modern capitalism: the hedonistic accumulation of riches or material wealth without any moral or ethical limiters on sufficiency or a sense of what constitutes a virtuous a chrematistic world, sustainability, sufficiency or even flourishing are unacceptable destinations for progress. Without understanding the very nature of the chrematistic system we live in and the nature of money and its creation in this system, the pursuit of sustainability as an objective will remain an impossible dream.”

A few years ago, I visited a Native American educator at the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation, and when he saw me looking around at his very modest home, though I knew he was quite wealthy with land (owning thousands of acres), he told me, “The Lakota do not have a goal of accumulating and displaying material wealth. We are more focused on spiritual things. Our goal for material ownership is that what we have is adequate for our needs.”

This word stuck with me: adequate. I started looking at my own life in terms of that word, and really thinking about what that meant for me personally. I had accumulated a luxury home, many toys to go with it, and large amounts of material goods to fill its cavernous closets, drawers and shelves. I started divesting myself of these things, and found that in fact, what was adequate and comfortable to me was to own a fraction of the things I had accumulated. I moved into a much smaller home and now own about 1/10th of the material things I used to own, and I don’t miss any of them! The important material things to me were things that demonstrably increased my quality of life – books, musical equipment, nice artwork, comfortable working and living furniture, a few key kitchen supplies to prepare and store food, gardening tools. I started sharing books with like minded community members, tools with neighbors and lo, I needed even less things. And guess what? I have more time to do the things I love, because I am not taking care of things I don't need or use.

So, what is wrong with accumulating wealth, if one likes that game? It’s a game, after all, it’s not about the money. It’s about winning the game. That’s why Donald Trump plays it, and why many multi-millionaires are always trying to be bigger and better. Nothing stays the same – if you stop accumulating, you start losing.

There is enough truth to this idea to make it stick. However, there is a gaping logic hole in this viewpoint, and that is this: Whatever you take, comes from somewhere. The Donald Trump viewpoint assumes there is unlimited resources on the planet and therefore, there is no harm in taking as many of them as you can lay your hands on (either that, or the resources that exist, including other people and living things, are not as important as Donald Trump, which is also a possible viewpoint, one would have to ask him).

If one spoke about one’s bank account or the neighbor’s apples in these terms, most people would consider that pretty irresponsible or even criminal, but on a planetary level, it is completely acceptable. Maybe this is because the planet is so large, that people can’t conceive there is a possible end to the resources.

But if one actually examines this premise, it turns out to be far from true. There is plenty of documentation to illustrate that the planet is running out of resources – for instance, we are using up the Ogallala Aquifer and other major water sources so fast that the earth is collapsing at points where the internal pressure has been compromised. In some areas the Ogallala aquifer, which irrigates a huge portion of our cropland, is already compromised to the degree that it cannot be used any longer for irrigation.

Our forests, soils, waterways and oceans are all being depleted of resources faster than we are replacing them.
(there are many more resources on the ‘net that provide the facts, including google Earth satellite photos that show the rate of desertification, forest depletion, ocean dead zones, erosion, etc, so you can observe it for yourself, just use google to do your own search)

Regardless of what people may believe about the earth having unlimited resources, the statistics show quite a different picture. Thus, until that changes, it is simply an irresponsible and ignorant viewpoint to operate as if material wealth accumulation is an unlimited game which does not adversely affect others or the ability of future generations to survive.

Which brings me to the definition of sustainability that we have adopted, from the Pachamama Alliance ( “The ability of the current generation to meet its needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do so.”

This is something it would do all economists well to take into consideration when calculating value, wealth, economic indicators, etc. “The Economics of Happiness” offers a model of how these calculations can be done. Measuring one’s ecological footprint is one indicator that each of us as individuals can do – this is a measurement of how many resources you are using individually, giving one an idea of what one would need to do personally to replace those resources for future generations.
(this gives some general data about footprints)
(This is a quiz that gives you your personal ecological usage measurement)

When I went over these concepts with my home-schooled 15 year old son, unlike some economists I’ve talked to, he had no problem understanding the math, and became quite outraged. He said, “Why mom? Why leave us kids with this mess to clean up and not enough resources to clean it? Do parents hate their children? Why did you have me if this is what you’re offering?” Needless to say, this was quite a visceral addition to the motivation I already had to reduce my consumption and take better care of the land and resources around me – and to really find out what sustainability means, not on a glib level, but really. For me personally, for my family, for my groups, for all living things on this planet, human and non-human.

True economy involves much more than money and its uses. For the sake of our children, please, we need to pull out those calculators and start crunching the real numbers, now.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Intentional community

A healthy social life is found only, when in the mirror of each soul the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the whole community the virtue of each one is living

Rudolf Steiner

"In the shelter of each other, the people live."

Trying to start a self-sufficient intentional community can be an interesting game sometimes. Really, it’s interesting all the time, but angles of interest change as the process evolves - there are always new surprises.

We are a bunch of artists and dreamers, planning on creating a sustainable community using permaculture principles (permaculture means permanent culture or permanent agriculture, and is a systems design science that allows one to create sustainable human systems that don’t deplete resources of other human systems or ecosystems).

Artists and dreamers vs the hard realities of self sufficiency - growing our own food, creating our own energy, building our own shelters – hm, sound like a recipe for disaster? Well, maybe. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of citified poets getting their fingernails dirty by using a backhoe to reverse stream bed erosion. But one might be amazed at the poetry that can be composed while doing such tasks, while our happy and productive chickens and alpaca roam free in our sylvan food forest and our straw bale homes await, warm and inviting at the end of the day.

Alas, we are not yet there, and our poetry is written while sitting at our desks, in our city apartments, our wasteful refrigerators filled with food that too often arrived there via the use of a truly and obscenely amazing amount of fossil fuel, our forced air heat purring, we flail away on our high speed computers, with our gas guzzling cars sitting patiently in the garage.

Many of my acquaintences, except for the most dedicatedly serious dreamers, have at least hinted that they couldn’t see how I was going to get from here to there, and why would I even want to try? I was going to end up working sixteen hour days just to eat! (Though with permaculture techniques, we plan on ending up spending less time producing our own food than we do paying for and shopping for it now, and it will be fresh and organic.) We were going to have weird crawly things in the straw bale and wouldn’t it burn down if a spark hit it? (Well, I guess the imagery brings back 15th century thatch with lice and puppies leaking from it, even though straw bale housing is not only incredibly energy efficient, inexpensive and comfortable, but is also extremely fire resistant, earthquake proof and aesthetic, clean and bug free, once you finish it with adobe or like material.)

Of course, there is work involved in setting up a community like this. You have to research where you want to move, figure out your resources, and work out the financing and the logistics of arriving and setting everything up. Additionally, because we are doing this as a group, not just a single family or individual, we have to create an appropriate legal and social structure for the community, so people can come and go if they want, but we have some control over what type of person we end up living with so intimately. We have had to research the best ways of providing all of our own food and energy, truly sustainable shelters (which means checking out building codes first and exploring non-traditional building methods), and controlling our water use so as to maintain the level of water available on our property, rather than cavalierly depleting the aquifer supply like there is no tomorrow, literally, as is happening all over this country and many others.

Not only do we plan to live light and ethically on the land, but we want to do so in a way that provides aesthetics, camaraderie, community support and other quality of life factors to our members far beyond what most neighborhoods have ever even thought about. Our community structure will allow people to get off the economic hamster wheel of mortgage and debt, permanently, while experiencing abundance in many ways, freeing themselves for the truly important pursuits in life – things like self-fulfillment, healthy and fulfilling relationships, aesthetics, and pursuit of their deepest dreams and goals. Oh, yes, and a bit of fun and games as well :-)

The vision we’ve created of this community is so exciting and viscerally attractive that most people, once we thoroughly explain it to them, want to live in such a place. Many of them prefer that we create it for them, so they can arrive, put their feet up on the couch and sip their freshly blended mango coolers while writing poetry. Hey, we want to do that too! But there are a couple of things that need to be done first….

One barrier is this: most people are too busy running madly around the hamster wheel, buying stuff and then paying off the debt, to spend any time or energy figuring out how to get off of it, regardless of how miserable it might make them feel (well, that’s the idea, right?). If someone offers them a nice, dainty little stepstool to walk off and try something different, maybe they will consider it. What they may not understand is that the reason they feel stressed, and “too busy” to do anything about it is because of the nature of the hamster wheel. It is, at its core, debilitating to the spirit. It makes you want a vacation, to go out on the weekend and “relax”, and try to forget where you are – on a hamster wheel. It is one step up from having a chain around your neck, but then again, maybe not. A slave at least knows that he is a slave.

Ay, and there’s the rub. That is why we find ourselves in a hamster wheel culture in the first place – because we became too stressed out to notice why we were stressed out or do anything about it, and we were waiting for someone else to hand us the stepstool to escape, and oops, they never did….

There is a possibility that they never will. Which is why we’re willing to do the work of building our own. And you know, you are always more likely to get exactly what you want if you do it yourself rather than leaving it up to governments, multinational corporations, authorities and other relatively disinterested parties.

It helps when one is a visionary dreamer – envisioning assists the acquiring process. But if one is also willing and able to take steps to reach one’s dream, then you have a powerhouse! The good news is, anybody has the capacity to become a powerhouse. And it has to do with creating that stepstool gradiently. Find one thing you can change to improve your life, that will give you more freedom to pursue what is truly important to you. And then find the next thing, and the next. If you just put one step in front of the other and keep doing that, you actually do arrive, eventually.

One of the major goals of our community is to create an environment that is conducive to bringing out the best in people, that offers them what they most need spiritually, emotionally, physically, to achieve their deepest and truest goals – on all of life’s dynamics. Philosopher L Ron Hubbard breaks these down into eight expanding circles - the urge to survive and goals for self, for family, for groups, for all of mankind, for all living things, the universe itself, spirit, and one's relationship with infinity or the Supreme Being (however the individual wishes to define that for themselves - we are a non-denominational, inclusive community). One can compare the activities of any community to a very high quality of survival on each of these dynamics - what if a community based the majority of its actions and resources towards increasing that quality for the individuals within it?

Ay, but the second hero’s task, once one frees oneself from the hamster wheel long enough to look around and notice what one's options really are:

To create such a community in the first place, one must already be in a position, to some degree, of being able to manifest those goals within an environment that is not at all conducive to assisting one to do so. An environment, in fact, that is downright hostile to the idea in many, many ways.

And that is where the process gets very, very interesting.

This is what our current culture is and does in so many ways – it creates barriers, some of them extremely formidable, to reaching our deepest and most heartfelt goals. Future blogs will go into much more detail about exactly how it does that - though there is already plenty of info about that on the ‘net, the way we put it together is relatively rare. Some of it is so insidious it is very difficult to see, unless one happens to spot the curtain flapping and the little man inside, manipulating the controls. But the good news is that thoroughly understanding the mechanics of the manipulation alone can help free one from its influence.

One could ask how we allowed ourselves to get into such a position in the first place, and you know what? Each individual's personal spiritual path best provides those answers, but we are having to confront these truths about ourselves and how we got here, and rise above the situation, some way or other - as a group as well as individuals - in order to make this ideal community happen. We must create that community within ourselves, in disagreement with everything around us that is against it, first. And that experience alone, even if we were never to arrive at our land, is worth the journey.

We will share that journey with you in this blog. Welcome, and enjoy!

Our artist's cooperative

Our food forest web site

Articles on permaculture

Basic info on permaculture

Intentional communities web site - lots of resources!

Great resource for straw bale building

Explanation of eight dynamics