The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Hippie Daydream

April 10th, 2008 · No Comments · intentional communities

I’m still dwelling on the intentional community thing. Folks have been suggesting known ICs to investigate, and I appreciate that. One of my comments asked what time frame I had in mind for ‘moving off the grid’, but I never responded because I haven’t considered that question. I think I would go as soon as I was reasonably prepared to do so, but whether things come together in a month or a decade is unknown to me.

Part of the reason this scale is, as of yet, not useful to me is that I’m still grappling with structural and process issues that I know will make my life a living hell if I don’t address. The reason I know these will be problems is because they are part of my problem today: housing, diet, and debt.

Housing: My house is like most houses in my neighborhood — small, poorly insulated, and cheaply built. The actual land my house is on should have been preserved as flood retaining fields, as its shifting clays are terror on the foundations and underground pipes. I think houses should have super-thick insulation, inlaid with pipes in the walls and floors for heating and cooling. The house should be large enough to comfortably live and sleep in, with a large kitchen and a spacious den.

Super thick walls and a giant kitchen are expensive investments to make — unless the benefits are shared by several families, it’s wasteful for each family to make full investments and yet only benefit from some percentage of total use. Building housing such that several families share a common, large kitchen allows for each family to benefit from economies of scale in both the purchase and the creation of food. If the whole house is superinsulated and very nearly self-regulating, the inhabitants could also share in reduced living expenses and increased comfort.

Similar arguments can be made regarding diet or debt relief — investments made today to improve our situations could better be shared among a group of people. But as highlighted by the recent clamor over the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints in Eldorado, there is a wide range of possible political and social structures that could successfully administrate an intentional community. I think everyone agrees that pooling resources makes economic sense. Getting everyone to agree to a political and social structure beyond ad-hoc volunteerism threatens to be a monumental task.

Some form of tiered investment system appears to be popular, such that a person’s investment into the community is reflected in the economic benefits they accrue. Some may fully vested within the community — any money they make is collected into a group fund, but any need they have is met — while others may simply rent living space and pay for their meals.

Experience says that there needs to be a steady hand guiding the community, someone who can dictate what work is done by the community and by whom, and who can admit or refuse people based on labor needs of the community. Classically, this is the dictator, although a consensus-driven, representative form of management is likely a better compromise between efficiency and social harmony. But then we must ask whether this representation is drawn from the largest investors or the most popular or the strongest. If it’s a really small group, everyone can participate, but as the size of a community grows above a few hundred, representatives are needed to shorten the lines of communication.

Speaking of size: how large of a population must one start with in order to ensure a good ‘planting’ of the colony? How many more people should one plan to attract? At what size should the group eject a colony of its own? In my mind, a group of 20-30 people would occupy a 6-family house, and would be responsible for some produce gardens (and perhaps, livestock). The community itself could consist of a ring of such houses, planning for up to 24, with community buildings in the middle and farming and grazing land surrounding the community. Over 700 people could probably live quite comfortably on 200+ acres, with good administration and some weather luck.

But I don’t know 700 people. My immediate family — my wife, kid, parents, siblings, their siblings — are nowhere close to filling up a 30-person house. There’s a hundred people on my friends list on LJ and forty on my Linked In page, with minimal overlap and duplication. Even if I could induce all of them to join — would I want them to? I think that my best efforts to rope in friends and family to join in on such an adventure would only net enough people to fill a single house. I just don’t know if that’s enough people to build a ‘sustainable’ community.

Presuming that I could attract 200+ people to fill in 6-10 houses, wouldn’t some kind of consistent ideology would be required in order to knit the community together? If you didn’t insist on establishing this context at the beginning, wouldn’t your community always be in danger of schism over ideological principles? Or is this a danger always present?

More soon…