Community can mean many things. One of them refers to common interests—the Morris dancing community, the gay community, the Facebook community. These are reasonable understandings of community, but they fall outside the bounds of this entry, which explores community in the sense of living in the same place.

The character of such communities is varied, and many attempts have been made to devise a frame of reference for making sense of their differences. The best-known way of distinguishing between them was provided by Ferdinand Tönnies, who (in 1887) pointed to the difference between the internal bonding of Gemeinschaft (where cooperation by members of a group is shaped by a commitment to its values), and the external bonding of Gesellschaft, (where it is shaped by their belief that this happens to be a good way of advancing their self-interest). Studies of community have used this as a starting point ever since. In fact the question of what makes a community and what part shared values have to play in it can get rather dry and arcane, but we need to visit it, if only briefly. Before that, though, let us visit some of the real-life communities of the past and present. The history of the world could be told in terms of the history of community, but this selective observation will start in eighteenth century Manchester.C192

Community, some examples


Around that time, many communities came into being around the commitment to live in accordance with the teaching of the Bible (as they interpreted it). Generally they qualified as “communes”, in the sense that they held most of their property in common, and a famous example was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming (the Shakers). They began with meetings in Mother Ann Lee’s house in Manchester in 1772, where worship included ecstatic dancing, visions and trances, along with confession of sins, prophecy and a commitment to “perfectibility”. Neighbours’ and locals’ reaction to this turned out to be less than encouraging, so she and her followers moved to America, but there too she had trouble, involving violent mobs, which contributed to her early death in 1784. However, the first of many Shaker communities in the Northeastern United States did become established three years later, and by 1840 there was a membership of 6,000, which then gradually declined to its 2010 remnant of just three members in the Shakers’ last surviving community. Other religious communities of that time included three successful groups formed by German immigrants—The Harmony Society, Pennsylvania (1804–1904); Zoar in Ohio (1817–1898), and Amana in Iowa, (1843–1933). Then there was (among many others) Jerusalem in New York (1784–1821), the Seventh Day Adventists’ Snowhill in Pennsylvania (1800–1890), and Oneida, an American Perfectionist community (1848–1881) in upstate New York.C193

The religious communities were soon joined by others founded on a different philosophy—as models of socialism, trying out ways of living such as those of Charles Fourier (see “The Perfect Community” sidebar) and Robert Owen. Compared with the religious ones, these were short-lived. Yellow Springs lasted for six months in 1825; the Owenite New Harmony lasted from 1825–1827; Blue Spring, one year in 1826; the Order of Enoch from 1831–1834; and Utopia from 1847–1851. The North American Phalanx, founded on Fourierist principles in 1843, lasted for as much as thirteen years.C194

. . . according to Charles Fourier

Charles Fourier (1772–1837) proposed communes, or phalanstères, consisting of 1,620 people, a number derived by a rather complex calculation from the “fact” that there are twelve common passions, key combinations of which should be represented by one member of either sex. The phalanstères were large buildings in which the whole commune lived, cooperating for efficiency of output, with the richest on the top floors and the poorest at the bottom, with gardens. Instead of trade there would be subsistence, with the produce being divided harmoniously according to the capital, labour and talent each member contributed.C195

His vision, which was published in 1808, was influential. Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded his readers of it 65 years later in his essay, “English Traits” (1865):196

Under an ash-coloured sky, the fields have been combed and rolled till they appear to have been finished with a pencil instead of a plough. The long habitation of a powerful and ingenious race has turned every rood of land to its best use . . . so that England is a huge phalanstery, where all that man wants is provided within the precinct.C197


In the twentieth century, the emphasis shifted again, this time towards psychosocial health and healing, with foundations such as Synanon in Santa Monica, California (1958–1991), which specialised in drug rehabilitation, and “personal growth centers” such as the Lama Spiritual Home in New Mexico (1967– ). Variants have followed, such as Bowden House in the UK (2004– ), with the pragmatic and reasonable aim of “developing conscious and authentic community”.C198

Membership of a religious or socialist community was no easy ride, and one of the challenges was that prohibition on private property. In the Oneida community, for instance, all clothing was shared, as were sexual relations. Love affairs, on the other hand, were not allowed, since they were seen as a form of ownership, and members who fell in love were split up, with (at least) one of them being sent to another branch. Children, raised communally, were sent to live in the Children’s House shortly after weaning. Excessive parental affection was not allowed. Even “self-possession” was considered a sin, so no detail of one’s life or thoughts was considered too personal for public criticism.C199

For the Shakers, sexual relations were not permitted at all (they recruited by adopting orphans), and perfectibility—an aim which suggests a degree of uniformity, and which was widely shared by both the religious and the political communities—was to be sought in the smallest details of life. As one ex-Shaker described it,

Not a single action of life, whether spiritual or temporal—from the initiative of confession, to cleaning the habitation of Christ, to that of dressing the right side first, stepping first with the right foot as you ascend a flight of stairs, holding hands with the right-hand thumb and fingers above those of the left, kneeling and rising again with the right leg first, and harnessing first the right-hand beast—but has a rule for its perfect and strict performance.C200

And uniformity was represented in clothes: Charles Nordhoff, a sympathetic contemporary observer of the nineteenth century communities, reported that women’s clothes in the Amana community were made of dingy-coloured stuffs, including a black cap and a black shawl over the shoulders pinned across the breast: “This peculiar uniform adroitly conceals the marks of sex, and gives a singularly monotonous appearance.”C201

And yet . . . the members of a community of that period worked for not much more than three days a week, allowing for all the stoppages for Bible-reading and prayer. And could they even have been happy? Nordhoff, writing of the Amana community, gets close to deciding that they could:

The people of the Amana appeared to me a remarkably quiet, industrious and contented population; honest, of good repute among their neighbours, very kindly, and with religion so thoroughly and largely made a part of their lives that they may be called a religious people.C202

In view of what members of the religious communities had to endure, it is perhaps surprising that they lasted as long as they did. Maybe some of them were indeed happy: cooperation produces happiness; they had lots of music; they did not have the trouble of having to make decisions for themselves. And there are three other reasons why that may be particularly significant.

First, there was an intense focus on ritual, which has a powerfully cohesive effect: monastic communities, structured around ritual, and at least as austere as the Shakers and the Amana, sustained European culture through the Middle Ages.

Secondly, communities had a strong sense of practice—as, for instance, in the craftsmanship of the Shaker furniture, their elegant architecture, and their music. The Amana woollen mill supplied yarn and cloth, gloves, stockings and leather from the produce of some 26,000 acres. The Oneida community developed a thriving business (Oneida cutlery is still a recognised design). It had an intense emphasis on education and sent many of its members to universities. There was competence and commitment—although in some cases the manufacturing overwhelmed the religion: in 1881, Oneida became a joint-stock company “with communal overtones”.C203

Thirdly, the successful communities called on an existing grid. This is a key idea (it is one of the bits of theory we are coming to), and we will have a hard look at it. But first, let’s visit another kind of community.


Ecovillages [writes Jonathan Dawson] can be likened to yoghurt culture: small, dense and rich concentrations of activity whose aim is to transform the nature of that which surrounds them. . . . The types of applied research, demonstration and training that ecovillages are engaged in are precisely those that will be needed to navigate the rough waters ahead.C204

Ecovillages express an ideal of the spirit of the closing phase of the industrial era as clearly as the religious and socialist utopias expressed an ideal of its early years. First of all, in a break with the principle that the government is there to make the big decisions, they take direct local responsibility for the way they live. Along with a hinterland of supporters, teachers, students and visitors, they explore in a practical way the principle described in Lean Logic as presence. As Dawson puts it, they are “wresting back control over their own resources and ultimately their own destinies.”C205

They use that presence to develop ecological solutions. The principal aim is some variation on the theme of the closed-loop system, with self-reliance in energy, water, food, and materials. And integral to that is a commitment to healing the Earth—or at least the favoured patches of it over which ecovillages manage to sustain some degree of control—where possible, cooperating with others in their region. Auroville, in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, has restored the devastated land around it by careful water management and the planting of some two million trees. The Birse Community in Finzean in Aberdeenshire (though it wouldn’t see itself as an ecovillage) is restoring the Highland forest around itself. The Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, North Wales cooperates on energy and conservation projects in its “bioregion”, Ecodyfi. The Lammas community in Pembrokeshire has committed itself (as a condition of planning permission) to supplying 75 percent of its needs from permaculture on its land, with each of its nine households having the freedom to work out for themselves how to do that, with frequent meetings in their community centre to compare and consult.C206

To do all this calls for a high degree of cooperation also within the community, but not the intense community building which we saw in the religious Utopias. For ecovillages, the community itself may be only a means to an end (providing useful numbers of people), or it may be central to its purpose, but it is the task that defines the community: if the aim is to invent, demonstrate and teach environmental solutions, that will shape the way it works. And yet, when you’re there, the sense of being in a community, even if only as a visitor, tends to be at the front of the mind. You see the practical results—you gaze in admiration at the technology, at the reed-beds which (you suspect) are actually more technically sophisticated than you would guess by looking at them; you feel the fine Welsh rain—but what really matters is the tenacity of the people who have been making it happen since the first day of eccentric inspiration. This is a community that is not be distracted by a quest for perfectibility. There is practical work in hand; a lot of learning and unlearning to do.C207

And practical reality bears on ecovillages in another sense, too. Most aspiring ecovillages and community groups fail: they do not happen or they crash after a short time. The survival rate is about 1 in 10. Money, written agreements, vision, privacy, psychology, recruitment and exclusion, expectations, consensus-building, conflict resolution . . . all these make the practice of community building intensely demanding, a professional craft by any standards. Fortunately, we have guidance in the form of Diana Leafe Christian’s book, Creating a Life Together. Don’t even think of forming an ecovillage, or getting involved in one, without it.C208

. . . or without being aware of the scale and competence of the ecovillage movement worldwide. As the Global Ecovillage Network explains, it is not short of ambition: its vision of the future comprises no less than “a planet of diverse cultures of all life united in creating communities in harmony with each other and the Earth, while meeting the needs of this and future generations”. And it adds,

We are creating a sustainable future by identifying, assisting and coordinating the efforts of communities to acquire social, spiritual, economic and ecological harmony. We encourage a culture of mutual acceptance and respect, solidarity and love, open communications, cross-cultural outreach, and education by example.C209

This is now a large movement, with thousands of communities and millions of participants, forums for debate and information such as Wiser Earth, books inspired by the movement, such as Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest, and a proven record of rapid learning.C210


Local lean economies are slightly different from ecovillages in that they will often already exist as villages, or parishes, or as communities in the sense of people living near each other. There will no doubt be a great deal of reorganisation, forming and reforming in the turbulent transition into life after oil, and many people will find themselves living in new places with new neighbours. But there will not be—as there is with the ecovillage or the utopian community—the simple possibility of leaving if you don’t like it, or asking troublemakers to leave. We are not looking at intentional communities here, but at people and places that have community thrust upon them.

The implications of this are profound. At present, (while noting significant exceptions in the case of, for example, some inner city estates), most of us face no particular challenges to our freedoms and well-being from our local community. But the increased significance of localities in the future has its darker side. These will be communities we depend on, which we cannot easily leave, which will need to coordinate their actions in many aspects of their economic and social existence. Your community can be expected to experience scarcities; and as it becomes useful, rivalries and local conflicts, not just within, but between, communities could mature into contest for the resources on which lives depend. So, now for the theory.

A framework for thinking about community

The anthropologist Mary Douglas gives us a helpful frame of reference with her distinction between group and grid—two kinds of influence on the way in which communities and societies hold themselves together, and on the interactions between the people who live in them. We shall look at this first, before turning to two related ways of thinking about it.C211


Douglas argues that the social surroundings of an individual—her “social context”—consists of two dimensions. In communities with strong group, it is the group itself, rather than the wider setting of culture and expectations, that has the decisive influence on the individual’s options and behaviour. The person’s experience and social identity is substantially defined by the group to which she belongs.

In contrast with this, the rules of the grid are taken to exist already—that is, they are not specific to the local community, but a given; a fundamental set of assumptions of how things should be. In the presence of strong grid, rules, roles and behaviours are well-defined, even pre-defined.C212

These two dimensions are complementary, allowing combinations of each. This gives us four quadrants, as per the “Group and Grid” table:C213


Weak Strong
Grid Weak Fragmented individualism. There is freedom in principle, but little cooperation unless it just happens to be in someone else’s interests too. There is little or no social capital. The group overwhelms the individual, who has no access to lex—guiding principles and institutions, civility. There is more dissidence than conversation.
Strong Strong structures of social order, and a culture and ethic with substantial control on behaviour. A competent society with institutions able to cope, but too rigid for its own good. Strong group commitment, along with civility, manners and institutions, to solve problems. But personal freedom is scarce; there is rigidity which impairs resilience.


• In the presence of weak group and weak grid, we would expect to find little sense of status, distinct roles or specific obligations between individuals. This is consistent with the free, competitive market, but also with an interest in politicking and acquiring little groupings of allies, though they tend to be short-lived. If you fail in such a community, it is relatively unlikely that anyone is going to come to your aid.

Weak group and strong grid. Here the individual’s behaviour is largely ordained by key values, assumptions, classes, traditions and/or laws of the social system. The individual is quite isolated, and there is no sense of a group that can intervene, nor in which she can participate to write the rules which shape her life.C214

Strong group and weak grid. Now the individual is anything but isolated. The group is everywhere; she belongs within it. On the other hand, it may be so powerful that freedom is close to zero and—in the absence of a grid of principles which exist independently of the group—there may be little or nothing to be done to challenge the group’s authority. Conflicts remain unresolved, and are driven underground, and for the individual that doesn’t enjoy this there is little she can do other than take on the authorities, which could be dangerous. Or she could leave, which could also be difficult, not least because dissident tendencies are likely to be detected in advance, and that can lead to trouble.

Strong group and strong grid. The group is powerful and controlling, but it is also competent, for it can use the rules of the grid to respond to trouble, to address and deal with conflict, and to cooperate with other groups subject to the same rules. This range of options has at least the advantage of stability: strong group/strong grid has a longer life expectancy than the other combinations, but its rigidity limits its resilience.

These are scarcely attractive choices, and yet, if they are seen as extreme positions on the axes of a graph, never meant to be taken to the limit, things look more promising. We might think that the best place to be from the point of view of a community would be somewhere near the centre: the group is defined, but it is not oppressive; distinctive roles and a confident culture are in place, but not so strongly that the system loses its flexibility. This seems close to the grammar and moderation of an enduring community.C215


The grid-group analysis is telling, and is reflected in two other ways of looking at community:


1. Civility and enterprise

The political philosopher Michael Oakeshott pointed to the difference between two kinds of community: an “enterprise association”, and (a drastically different animal), the “civil association” (or “civil state”). Both of these are consistent with freedom.C216

An enterprise association has a mission. Its rules and constraints are instrumental, devised as a means of advancing its common purpose. Some members of the community may not like those rules, but there is a safety-check in the sense that anyone who wants to leave can do so. It is this sense of community-membership being voluntary that gives validity to the specific purposes and rules of such a community.

Now, that’s all right within a group or association—or “corporation”, to use Émile Durkheim’s word (Profession)—but if a state embarks on enterprise-building of this kind, there is trouble. It imposes instrumental legislation to achieve its purposes but the individual who does not like it can neither prevent it nor leave. Moreover, the enterprise state is a jealous animal; it is not inclined to tolerate enterprise communities, and it will try to destroy them unless their aims precisely conform to those of the state:

To the obedient will accrue a share in the profits of the enterprise. . . . The member of such a state enjoys the composure of the conscript assured of his dinner. His “freedom” is warm, compensated servility.C217

Civil association, on the other hand, is quite different from all this. It has no particular mission other than to conserve the manners, or civility—or “lex”, to use Oakeshott’s word—which enables a society to sustain and understand itself, to hold together, to maintain good order and protected freedoms. Lex is not about specific laws or processes; it is more the sense of being at home: Don knows what Sue is saying; he knows where she is coming from, he shares her grammar. It is possible to have a conversation. The two of them may have nothing else in common—they may not even like each other—but citizens in this sense share unchanging obligations of allegiance, civility and promise-keeping.C218

As a general principle, in every society held together by allegiance rather than by force, there needs to be (as John Stuart Mill writes):

. . . something which is settled, something permanent, and not to be called in question; something which, by general agreement, has a right to be where it is, and to be secure against disturbance.C219

This perspective on community is, of course, close to the distinction between group and grid. But here is the presumption (or aim, or hope) that the society or state in which a community lives is civil in Oakeshott’s sense. Civil society provides the enabling conditions of tolerance, freedom and an orderly grid within which the local community can develop its own character.


2. Civic virtue and civil society

This is a vision of society which is best explored with the help of a story or two from history. It starts with an extreme view: a vision of society as a body—citizens are its “members”, its arms and legs. The sixteenth century city of Geneva saw itself in this way, and its self-appointed physician was John Calvin, who wrote:

No member . . . derives benefit save from those things which proceed from the common profit of the body as a whole.C220

Members were minutely controlled. Privacy was regarded as antisocial and suspicious; every household lived under observation. Geneva became known as the “City of Glass”.C221 When a limb caused trouble, the solution was surgery, ranging from torture and scourging to execution. There was a dislike of children for their display of natural feelings, a disapproval of the notion that sex might be enjoyed. There was a high rate of clinical depression and suicide.C222

In the light of such grief, it is a little puzzling that Calvinism was so successful, and yet it was willingly adopted in North America and the Netherlands, and it inspired the eighteenth century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw nothing wrong with this instrument for placing us, corrupted as we are by civilisation, “under the supreme direction of the general will”.C223 Another person who saw merits in it was François Maximilien Joseph Isidore de Robespierre. He was noted for his immaculate, sleaze-free life, and for the trademark green coat for which Thomas Carlyle called him the “Sea-Green Incorruptible”. The other thing for which he was famous was his tireless dedication as a social surgeon, amputating the limbs that gave trouble during the phase of the French Revolution known as The Terror.C224

That, of course, was a crisis of civic virtue. For deep social solidarity in Western civilisation in a more enduring and normal form, perhaps medieval society will do. Closely integrated, it too saw itself as a body, but as part of the “Great Chain of Being” which stretched (as the poet James Thomson wrote at a later time) “from Infinite Perfection to the brink of dreary nothing”. Here the significance of every individual, animals included, lay in his, her or its participation in the wider order. Society and religion were so closely bonded that a modern historian has described the civil authority as “the police-department of the church”.C225

At the same time, there were cracks in this solidarity. The medieval period was also an age of heroes, of single combat in battle, of government on the basis of personal loyalty and courage, and a monastic system dedicated to (amongst other things) the cultivation of the individual’s mind and spirit. There was intense interest in the affections, in individual dispositions, in the discovery of the “inner man”—the great scholar, Abelard, was in looks, genius, charisma, ego, and (at least, until his castration) sex appeal, as individual as it is possible to be. But in its religion, its celebrations, its understanding of politics (despite the stresses and discords), its cosmology and its economics, this was a society which saw itself as a cohesive enterprise.C226

For a fuller expression of civic virtue in Western civilisation, though, we may have to look back as far as Classical Greece. It was civic virtue that underpinned the ordered society of the Greek city states for most of their history, and it was not seriously challenged until the century of Aristotle. Christianity’s interest in the destiny of individuals would have been incomprehensible to the earlier Classical Greeks. And yet, Greek mythology is not exactly free of personal ambition . . .C227

So there seems always to be some ambiguity in Western civilisation’s phases of social solidarity. In the great civilisations of the East, it appears to be different. Confucius’ Analects gives such detailed, exact instructions about behaviour—how to eat, how many times to bow, what to say to a guest, how to get into a carriage, how to lie in bed—that the image comes to mind of a whole society acting as a giant corps de ballet.C228 The Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu text, is a text of guidance, not to individuation and what we would see as character, but to achieving the ultimate in solidarity:

The man who, having abandoned all desires, lives free from longing, unpossessive and unegotistical, approaches peace. . . The man who depends upon nothing, who has given up attachment to the results of action, is perpetually satisfied, and even though engaged in action he does nothing whatsoever.C229

Civil society lies at the other extreme from this. Here we find the optimistic view of the individual, the benevolent heart, the capacity for friendship, and an enlightened self-interest which knows the value of cooperation.C230 This laid-back position suggests confidence that there are a lot of sensible people around and that, as Immanuel Kant summarised it, “Hard as it may sound, the problem of establishing [the just social order] is soluble even to a nation of devils, provided they have sense.”C231

Here, the moral and social order is created and sustained by individuals, who can substantially be left to get on with it. The law’s role leans towards the supportive—ensuring that the contracts and arrangements that are made between these sensible people are honoured, and underwriting the key principles of property rights and the trust between strangers on which the institutions of financial capital depend. This is an attractive idea of autonomous individuals binding society together in a network of promises, and it shows up in the contrast between the gradually-evolving English common law and the regulatory tradition in Europe, with its ultimate inheritance from Roman Law. One telling symptom of the English system’s long-standing dislike of control and interference is its substantial past freedom from the use of torture.C232

So money-making, too, has its rules. It needs that trust; it needs accuracy in keeping accounts, brilliance in engineering, a background of moral sentiments in a stable society, and good conduct by business towards all its stakeholders. Here was the philosophy of the hard-working Puritan (Needs and Wants)—its intentions often fell far short in practice, but it was the starting point for some clear thinking; not least a realisation of the link between individual freedom and individual responsibility. It produced, for example, the rules of good conduct in Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory (1673), which anticipate the employee- and consumer-protection legislation of a later time.

In summary, civic virtue does not simply maintain social cohesion; it is social cohesion: it is no more necessary to keep a community intact if it is defined by civic virtue than it is necessary to keep water wet. Civil society is much looser; the society is not of one mind, but it is held together by the threads of common purpose, reciprocities, common culture and enabling institutions.

The communities of the future will need them both.

Lessons for local lean economies?

Now to the key question: where will communities get their values from? There are two answers to this. The first, dominant one, which receives strong emphasis throughout Lean Logic, is that they will decide for themselves. They will respond to local circumstances and will find themselves pulled along by events, inventing and adopting diverse practices which would astonish if seen from the point of view of the global market economy and its metropolitan values. That is close to the essence of lean thinking: local people, neighbourhoods and communities will be much better placed to apply their competence and good sense than any received, large-scale, standard and imposed practice.

But what guidelines are there as to how far this is taken? In a world of completely local ethics, it is hard for a local critic to claim that anything that happens there is good and bad, desirable or not; all that can be said is that stuff happens. The author of Psalm 12 seems to be in this place:

Help me, oh Lord, for there is not one godly man left.

. . . and we see a modern version of this in Cormac McCarthy’s book (and the film) The Road, which chronicles the journey of a father and his young son through a post-apocalypse world in which no one encountered gives space for anything other than despair . . . until the very end, that is. We may be sceptical about what would have happened next, and how realistic it is—but something good happens. The boy, who would otherwise have survived in such a situation for no more than a few hours, meets a decent man, and then his family. And their dog. In the film, we see a kind smile from a stranger for the first time. The boy asks,

“How do I know you’re a good guy?”

“You don’t. You have to take a shot.”

What is missing in the destroyed world until that moment is values which transcend immediate circumstance—that is, a grid. What will the grid values of communities be? That is hard to say—but let’s look, briefly, at the story so far:

• For the more successful communities we visited, a grid of some sort was in place. The religious communities, for all their excesses, and an intense groupishness extending to the most intimate aspects of their lives, had a grid which provided some framework in terms of which they could conduct their lives. Local group rules were intensely intrusive, and unendurable to many, but the context was that of an established culture. There was music, ritual, and an affirmation of shared values such as those of the Sermon on the Mount. The commune’s rule book was not the only place in which they could get clarification as to what they were about.

• By contrast, that sense of duty—of the day being shaped by observance of shared tradition, of collectively-agreed and non-negotiable obligation—did not apply so successfully in the case of the political utopias, for whom their latest thinking, as diverse as the people in them, was their only guideline, and none of which lasted for more than a few years.

• The ecovillages do have a well-defined aim, and an inheritance of science and intention on which they can draw. It may not be enough in the long term, but a grid of some kind is in place.

• Michael Oakeshott’s lex is a slender grid—a weak defence against group tyranny, for he is not referring to any law in particular—but although lex (law) is not this or that law, its presence means that there is law in place: morality is not defined by your latest scheme or ideology. In Geneva we visited an “enterprise state” more extreme than anything that Oakeshott had in mind, and in sharp contrast to the “civil association” that he urges, with its generally-acknowledged rules, widely seen as just. While these do not necessarily articulate any particular policy, their existence means that there is some representation of manners and a shared grammar, as we saw in the civil society of the Enlightenment, shot through with a grid of protocols, rules and obligations.

Civility is not an abstraction. It looks you in the eye. It is located; it is home. As the psychologist Mary Pipher writes,

Communities are real places, chosen as objects of love, with particular landscapes, sounds, and smells and particular people who live there. Communities are about accountability, about what we can and should do for each other. People who live together have something that is fragile and easily destroyed by a lack of civility. Behaviour matters. Protocol is important. Relationships are not disposable. People are careful what they say in real communities because they will live with their words until they die of old age.

Connections have a way of making us morally accountable.C233

A healthy community, then, is a balance of group and grid. It has a strong identity and confidence that it can decide for itself, but a recognition of the obligations which it can’t change. It enjoys the enterprise of the group, and the manners and civility of the grid.

If the people of the future were able to live in a giant industrial economy, and to carry on living by trading in a healthy market economy, community building would still be a desirable thing to do. You can do without community, but only for a time, like holding your breath under water.

However, that option of business-as-usual is not available. In a context of energy and material deprivation and, more generally, of the climacteric, community—most especially in the sense of locally-competent cooperative groups—will be the only way forward. Community will need to be reinvented as the defining form of human society.


Related entries:

Lean Economy, Social Mobility, Groups and Group Sizes.


« Back to List of Entries
David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

2 Responses to “Community

  • I struggle to synthesize the many themes and concepts DF is trying to describe here. I am being practical: how would I apply this to an attempt to establish an intentional community, now it the beginning dark days of energy descent. We have just come through the covid pandemic with many conflicts of group/collective welfare vs individual/local autonomy, including automony of deciding to trust the authorities and their mass vaccination campaign. It’s not over and social cohesiveness and structures have been damaged. It is distinctly possible that the global campaign and justifying narrative (to save lives) was a cover for a different agenda, namely to prepare for the end of abundance, the end of the energy rich market economy dominated by western elites both individuals and classes. That too is nested, it seems to me, in a global civilization dominated by american interests for the last 50 years now coming to an end.

    My context is Ontario, Canada, neoliberal democracy, vassal state of the US hegemon, rich in resources and space, anglo in origin, now becoming swamped immigrants from diverse cultures, a refuge from the worst of climate disruption. Definitely not about to become ecologically responsible or responsive, therefore accentuating the worst consequences of growth economics while delaying their impact.

    My interest is to find where/how to construct a safe harbour for me, my family and friends, at least those with interest.

    • Hi Ian, yes, this entry is more focused on how communities have been and might be structured and held together – less on the practical details of establishing such. In that regard, as Fleming writes above, “Fortunately, we have guidance in the form of Diana Leafe Christian’s book, Creating a Life Together“.

      This is in fact a book that David also personally recommended to me, and which I found valuable in pulling together the various communities I have lived at and been involved with.

      Another good option is to visit already established or establishing intentional communities and see what you might be able to bring – and receive – in that context. While it’s focused on the U.S.A., that website also appears to feature a number of Canadian communities (and you may well know of other networks more focused on Canada through which you could explore possibilities).

Comment on this entry: