* * * Communitarian Lifeways * * *
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Voluntary Simplicity, the poetic alternative to consumer culture.
Samuel Alexander, editor. 2009. Stead & Daughters Ltd. 439 pages.
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Liberation through simplification and localization.
This is a relatively new idea. It runs counter to the progressive-development ideology of Western civilization which has led, over centuries and millennia, to the construction of an awesomely complex Technosphere that no one seems to control or fully understand. With its runaway dynamic, the Technosphere has grown to the point of enveloping the ecosphere and dominating culture. What had been considered a great and hopeful achievement is enclosing and oppressing us.
With his volume, Voluntary Simplicity, Samuel Alexander has assembled an array of vital essays that address this predicament and, thus, hold the key to our liberation.
It Takes A Neighborhood
In the last Green Horizon issue, Barbara Chasin and Richard Franke described the benefits and challenges of a certain kind of lifestyle transformation. They reside at the EcoVillage at Ithaca, NY (EVI) which is one of the most fully realized manifestations of the movement to consciously create more responsible and more satisfying lifeways. It was founded on the principle that, in order to “save the planet,” we’ll need to re-learn how to live more lightly, more simply, and more locally.
Ecovillages can model the kind of ecological and communitarian “best practices” that show the way forward toward the general greening of society. Yes, it takes a “village” (a collective of some kind), because downscaling and simplifying are not easily done personally, in isolation. A green lifestyle can be fostered by — almost requires — the compensations and reinforcements of community life. Goals: give up stuff, gain social enrichment; share resources and share experiences.
EVI is cognizant of the issue of appropriate scale for such a transformation and has concluded: it takes a neighborhood. The settlement has grown since its inception in 1996, but rather than just expanding by adding units, they’ve added clustered-housing neighborhoods that each have their own Common House, culture, place, and identity. Two of the neighborhoods have thirty units, one has forty units. At that scale — clusters of about eighty or ninety residents — all members of a neighborhood are able to know and, to some extent, support each other. Face-to-face interaction and interdependence come naturally.
The latter are key. They’re what is missing in our current mass-society reality. For most of human history, until just a few hundred years ago, the norm was to live within a social environment of local concentric circles. The nuclear family was embedded within supportive extended family or clan. The domain of experience for most people, even after the rise of the state, remained grounded primarily within the village or parish; secondarily within a territory or a county or a province. “Above” that loomed the often-feared realm of the impersonal Authorities — reigning, taxing, and conscripting from the seat of a remote duchy, kingdom, state, or empire.
Trajectories of growth and centralization have resulted in the state enveloping the village as the Technosphere has enveloped the ecosphere. The industrial state is now ubiquitous in our lives. Comprised of two wings — governmental and corporate — it holds just about all the power, has a monopoly on force, manipulates the economy, employs a majority of the working population, and produces the toxic “cornucopia” that placates the mass of consumers. It has usurped so many functions and resources that the intermediate social layers between it and the family have withered. The norm now is that the nuclear family — or the living-alone single individual — is atomized, dependent upon state or corporate institutions, and (due to hypermobility) tends to be rootless, confronting the complexity of the modern Leviathan with little in the way of local support. People try to establish mutual-interest or mutual-aid networks, but stable, reliable, face-to-face community has become a rarity.
Within this problematic context of life, effective politics also withers. Beyond a certain scale, representative democracy is mostly a sham, controlled by the plutocracy. The amorphous mass of “we the people” is subject to the vagaries of the globalized economy and geopolitics.
More, Bigger, Farther, Faster
For us typical modern citizens, politics is conducted by “them.” It’s the realm of the power elites. It’s remote. And we don’t have time for it, anyway. We seem to be always working.
The latter fact is, rightfully, a source of consternation. After all, productivity has gone up by a factor of five over the last hundred years. Theoretically we should able to sustain the same standard of consumption working eight hours a week instead of forty. Yet household hours of work have actually gone up over that period of time. Why? Because we’re encouraged by advertising and mass marketing to feel we “need” to consume more and more.
Expansive consumption is stressing us (and the planet) for no discernible gain in quality of life. Instead of enjoying the leisure that enhanced purchasing power could yield, we’re using the fruits of productivity increases to obtain More. Large, expensively-furnished and expensively-maintained housing used to be the province of the affluent. Now many of us feel that we need (and, thus, try to afford) such. A hundred years ago only the One Percent who derived from, or aspired to, aristocratic lineage sent their children to college. Less than half of the population completed a high school education. Now a majority feels compelled to try to achieve some kind of post-secondary credentialing. As a consequence, the number of educational institutions has expanded by a factor of twenty.
People now spend more money on recreation and pastimes. We dine out more often and clamor for near-constant entertainment or stimulation (when we’re not working!). We drive around and fly around more. We try to “stay in touch” with more people over greater distances. We buy a lot of machines, appliances and gadgets. Only recently have we started to recognize that the result of the continual striving for more, bigger, farther, and faster is debt, congestion, over-stimulation, and enervation.
Voluntary Simplicity: The poetic alternative to consumer culture is an anthology containing important essays by many of the outstanding theorists of the greening/downscaling movement. They all agree that industrial growth is yielding little but human spiritual impoverishment. And they all advocate shifting onto an alternative pathway that will lead in the direction of simplification and localization.
The simplification movement, which traces its roots back to the anti-industrialist presentiments of the nineteenth century (vide Ruskin, Morris, the Transcendentalists), has recently been emerging from the margins. It involves a whole bunch of “de’s” . . . de-growth, de-centralization, de-industrialization, and, of course, de-militarization.
As might be expected, several essays in this compilation cite Ivan Illich’s writings of forty years ago. A forerunner of the current movement, Illich said that a cultivation of communitarian self-reliance could result in a beneficial de-institutionalization of society (including de-schooling). Rather than a burdensome affluenza, we could aspire to a “convivial” post-industrial economy scaled for a participatory form of democracy.
The bioregional concept emerged in the wake of Illich’s major writings. Samuel Alexander: “While there would still be some limited space for global trade in a post-growth economy, most production would seek, by default, to use local resources from the bioregion to meet mostly local needs, thereby shortening the links between production and consumption.” He argues that we would gain more than we would lose by localizing economic relations and, among affluent populations, lowering consumption standards. In fact, we really wouldn’t lose much of significance — there can be a fully adequate division of labor and ample human resources for a flourishing cultural expression within a bioregion.
We don’t all have to live in ecovillages. A bioregional polity might be made up of some urban centers and multiple townships, in addition to many villages. The key toward fostering ecological responsibility and participatory democracy is that cities, towns, and villages should be comprised of functional and supportive neighborhoods small enough to be informed by a communitarian ethos.
“Greening” is Rejuvenation
Mass society breeds alienation, anomie, inequality and compulsive consumption. Rejuvenation of community life will require downscaling and a renewal of commitment to place. We’d be happier moving around less, re-prioritizing access to extended family, and reviving our neighborhoods. The essays in Alexander’s Voluntary Simplicity tell us how. They elucidate how social interaction and interdependence can be fostered by providing common space, eating some meals together, empowering cooperative decision-making, sharing maintenance responsibilities, and cultivating local traditions of celebration.
We need to be thinking in terms of neighborhood-oriented sustenance of life activities. Such would go far toward relieving the current stresses on the nuclear family. The “greening” process can be a source of liberation if we conceive of it broadly — including, but going beyond, environmental remediation. This means we need to be talking about new ideas and new alternatives that, altogether, envision a deeply transformative way for us to live on the earth.
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Addendum: Ten Theses on the Human Condition and the Primacy of Ecology
1. Our civilizational trajectories are leading us in the direction of hypertrophy, overshoot, and collapse.
2. Having great powers of imagination and creativity, human beings have a tendency to go too far. “Too far” by what standard? relative to what criteria? Relative to natural, normal and healthy ecological limits and balances.
3. Humans excel at instrumental/technological innovation for the accomplishment of envisioned goals. One distinctively “instrumental” thing we do is channel the energy flow of the life force.
4. Many people have a near-mystical conception of something basic and universal. It’s associated with a sense of the sacred. Monotheists call it God. Transcendentalists might call it Nature. Animists might call it the Spiritual Force. It could be thought of as a general flow — a life force, the source of our vitalization — though its essence is likely beyond our comprehension.
5. Nature’s myriad individual organisms are each just a current, temporary manifestation of the life force. What we’re constantly witnessing is an exuberant efflorescence. With each newly born, hatched, or sprouted organism there’s a renewal. Then there’s a natural and inherent waning of energy after the prime of life, a process of devitalization that ultimately results in the death of the individual organism, the inevitable ending point of that discrete manifestation of the life force.
6. Human beings have a tendency toward over-control of the life force. We’ve found that we can channel it for our instrumental ends. We’ve mastered the art of using it for our advantage — akin to how we control water coming through a hose. We regulate, inhibit, channel, pare, and mold it. Much of the theorizing about human psychology revolves around how we suppress, repress, or express the flow of “psychic energy” . . . the latter being just another way of conceiving of the life force itself.
7. Animals seem to have fewer psychological issues than do human beings. Animals don’t seem to get bored in the way that humans do, perhaps because the natural state is thoroughly in touch with and synched into the flow of the life force.
8. Moreover, the lives of “mere animals” are directed by the flow of the life force; while humans are inclined to try to take control (Daniel Quinn talks about “Takers” in his book, Ishmael). We’re inclined to resist simply “going with the flow.” Highly conscious, we find the state of nature frightening, disconcerting. We “rise above it” and “handle it” when we regulate, control, inhibit, channel, pare, and mold the life force. For protection we create a cocoon of culture. But there are consequences in doing so. We get out of touch. We lose our grounding. We are less sensuously synched-in than are the animals, and so we’re more prone to boredom, dissatisfaction, and restlessness. We seek stimulation to compensate for being out of touch. We take control and then we want . . . More. We tend to lose appreciation for natural limits and balances, for ecological health and sanity. We go too far and we build too much. Thus have we arrived at a point of generalized hypertrophy.
9. There is an alternative, more sanguine, narrative. Marxists claim that the hypertrophy (and attendant inequality) results from an exploitation-based, profit-driven, growth-lusting private ownership system. It could be ameliorated through socializing the means of production (thus eliminating the profit/growth imperative). They say that the deep ecological perspective is deficient to the extent that it fails to address the social dimension of the problem. They have a point, but their solution is simplistic, as implementation attempts have shown. Also, their belief that history is “progressing” — with socialism constituting the “highest stage” — is misguided. They need to recognize that we’ve lost more than we’ve gained from their touted progress and development. In addition to losing our ecological grounding, we’ve lost our social grounding in community. Until such is re-established, no alternative economic system will save us.
10. Approaching a point of civilizational crisis, what’s needed is a thorough re-thinking of who we are and where we’ve been going. The gods seemed to have tried an experiment with human beings: Can a creature deal with the anxiety that results from such a high degree of consciousness of inherent vulnerability, frustration, infirmity, and mortality? Our reaction has been to strive for control and mastery in an attempt to alleviate the anxiety. But it’s a folly to believe that we can “master nature through development.” The actual consequence has been alienation and loss of grounding. Under the auspices of the ideology of development we’ve just been stressing ourselves and stressing the planet. So we need to go in a profoundly different direction — in a sense, re-learning how to relax into the stream and “go with the flow” of the life force — toward re-establishing a healthy relationship with nature. Edward Goldsmith said what’s needed now is a “Great U-Turn.” It would liberate us, gradually putting an end to the over-control, the alienation, and the developmentalist folly. Samuel Alexander frames it in terms of simplification and localization.
(this article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Green Horizon Magazine)