Friday, June 19, 2009

Pole shift?

In recent months there's been an sharp uptick in inquires from reporters, wondering if interest in community living is on the rise as a response to the current economic hard times. The quick answer is a resounding "Yes!"

FIC has experienced a 25% increase in web traffic over a year ago—now up to almost 2000 per day. Fully 75% of those visits are to our online Directory, which is the #1 source worldwide for finding out who's doing what and where, in the world of intentional communities. This is our bread and butter, and a lot of people are stopping by our Directory snack shop for a bite of sustenance.

A deeper question is how close are we as a society to major economic upheaval? Who knows. I first started thinking seriosuly about the possibility of major economic collapse as a college junior in 1970, when campuses were on strike in response to Nixon's Cambodian misadventure, as part of our failed strategy in Vietnam (styled
euphemistically as an "incursion"). Remember Kent State? I do, and I wondered that spring if colleges would be open for business again the following fall.

College classes did indeed resume that fall, and every fall since then. I've been listening to periodic predictions of catastrophic economic upheaval ever since: the OPEC oil emarbgo in 1973;
the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; the Battle in Seattle and WTO protest in 1999; The World Trade Center bombings in 2001, Now it's the sub-prime mortgage scandal, Peak Oil, and Transition Towns. I've been listening to forecasts of impending doom for nearly 40 years. Will it really happen this time? I don't know.

Yet I want to share a story that spurred me to write this blog. I had a phone conversation yesterday with Don Hollister—a long-term friend who was part of the collective that first conceived of Communities magazine in 1972. He lives in Yellow Springs OH and does organizing for the Democratic party. He's been a believer in community for decades and been touched by the writings of Arthur Morgan and his advocacy of Small Community as a foundamental building block of a healthy society.

Don and I were discussing FIC fundraising and he wondered if the rising interest in community living could be characterized as a sea change, analogous to the surges we experienced in 1965 and 1990. I admitted that it might be, but that it's often difficult to discern clear trends in the early stages of change (and I related my caution about predicting major upheaval after becoming inured to such forecasts the last fours decades).

Then Don realted that
his insurance agent was talking with him the other day and had asked him (apropos nothing that Don had said) if he'd seen the article on "Thrift and Shift" in the current issue of Yes! magazine—an alternative publication devoted to reporting on positive futures. It had got the agent to thinking about our cultural addiction to materialism and the need to get off the consumer merry-go-round. Don was impressed. He figured that if a life-long insurance agent in southwestern Ohio (Hint: this is not a hotbed of countercultural thinking and insurance agents as a class are not known for their forward-thinking attitudes about societal change) was starting to ask soul-searching questions about the meaning of life, that this might be a sign that the Humpty-Dumpty of consumption may be teetering atop a Berlin Wall with severe foundational cracks. And all of Madison Avenue's hoarse cries and admen may be unable to keep Humpty from being Dumptied. (Have I got enough matephors in there?)

While I can't be sure of what the immediate future will bring, I'm all together confident that community—and increased collaboration—will be the best response. It will be a good choice if the current recession is just a hiccup (and we're only talking about moving the flag pole 30 feet to the other side of the green); and it will be a great choice if it's much worse (and we're talking about a pole shift—civilzational change the likes of which no one alive has ever witnessed).

I figure if insurance agents in southwestern Ohio are talking, I'm listening.


Anonymous said...

In North west Ohio our insurance salesmen have abandoned society all together, forming feral packs of be-suited wildmen, armed with only their wits and reems and reems of low grade copy paper.


Killian, Hyun Sook and Conor said...

Hello Laird!

I've a thought or two on this topic. It's not just a matter of a shift, but a collapse, but not just economic, imo... at least so far. It all ties into currents of chaos, non-linear systems, cycles in social structures, complexity, resource depletion, EROEI, Peak Oil. Climate Change... etc.

While it is still young, there is a definite awareness growing that this ain't like before, and I think it's because of the incredible depth and breadth of issues we face and how they are all very, very interconnected. (There's that complexity!)

On the simplest level, the Laws of Thermodynamics rule our day-to-day existence. Current energy sources are severely constrained by the falling availability of crude oil. Energy per capita has been falling in the US for quite some time, and when energy falls, work falls. When work falls, less gets done, made, etc.

But as you say, there is more to it than that. GDP doesn't really describe life, does it? There are other metrics and research indicates affluence increases happiness significantly only when rising from subsistence to safe, fed and comfortable, right?

Would a steady-state economy get us there as a whole economy, or can only small groups make it work, keeping in mind Dunbar's Number?

A new paradigm is coming whether by addition or subtraction. As in the past, there is almost certainly a fall to come before the rebirth.

We haven't fallen as a society for almost two thousand years. I'd say we are overdue. Being so globally integrated - and the economic upheaval is illustrating this - virtually guarantees collapse of some sort or other. Too much complexity coupled with too little time to transition coupled with falling energy coupled with too large a population, too much force being applied to the environmental system... etc.

And that's why my wife and I hope to visit your farm soon. Whether with an existing community, or starting on our own, we know sustainable, integrated, egalitarian, small communities are the future.

Perhaps we'll see you soon.

Michael Olenick said...

Laird -- I build software to help debt lawyers: bankruptcy, foreclosure defense, etc... What I'm seeing -- and what my clients (lawyers are seeing -- is something they have never seen before.

Some have been practicing bankruptcy law for decades. Virtually all of them are very experienced because we're choosy about who we work with: they can never have worked at banks, must be advocates for people, etc...

Here's what different. People don't care. They're not walking into bankruptcy law offices saying "I'm bankrupt: help!" ... Instead they're walking in and asking "they can't throw me in jail if I just don't pay and kind of go live with friends somewhere, can they?" [the answer -- for those reading -- is unless it's taxes, child-support, alimony, or money you outright stole ... no].

I guess what I'm saying is that after all the other events you described people still bought into the system. Kent State happened and boomers returned to school because they wanted degrees to do well in life. 9/11 -- same thing; we wanted a normal world. WTO protests; most didn't notice.

But this isn't "sub-prime" -- it's collapse. The banks may be making money but the people feel like the system is broken; rigged to the rich. They're not buying in and looking for a way out ... for good. The groundswell may be not as immediate as the other events, but the pain is deeper; the wound to the fabric of materialism more profound.

Intentional communities are beginning to sound a whole lot better to a whole lot of people, and not just those who would have once been considered alternative or eccentric. It's that "regular" people are waking up and, like anybody who pops out of bed, they're groggy. But they are awake; the backlash against business as usual is coming for real this time, and it will be intense.