Communities, Political Empowerment, and Collective Self-Sufficiency

This one was published in Communities magazine.

As an activist concerned about climate change and environmental degradation, and peace and social justice, I’ve gone to countless demonstrations, spoken at many public hearings, had over a dozen op-eds and scores of letters to the editor published, and written hundreds of letters to “my” representatives. None of it, as far as I can see, has done any good.

So what’s an activist to do? I’ve come to think that any effort to challenge the entrenched power structure is doomed—they have amassed such power over the past 30 years that we really can’t win by electoral politics, by trying to influence officials, or even by massing in the streets (not without 10 times as many people as we’ve ever had). Instead, I believe our best course is to ignore that structure and focus on building alternatives ourselves.

We need alternative livelihoods, to assist middle-aged people being laid off as jobs are outsourced, and to provide young people an alternative to going deeply into debt for a college degree that likely won’t lead to a good job anyway. We need an alternative to paying taxes to the IRS, which funnels half of it into the Pentagon for hideously immoral purposes. We need alternatives to a way of life that comes with a huge carbon footprint and endless stress, that provides a decent income to the lucky but provides joy and meaning and satisfaction to almost nobody.

Now is the time to work toward finding ways to declare independence from corporations, to provide for our most basic needs ourselves—whether as individuals, families, or communities. Community makes it easier. It takes a lot of time to do for yourself what we in the “developed world” have gotten used to paying others to do—those others now usually faceless and distant corporations. Declaring independence from corporations means no longer being an employee; thus one has much more time…for growing food, harvesting rainwater, managing an independent power source, and so forth. Within a community, though, one doesn’t have to do everything.

Take my community, the Hickory Ridge Land Trust in West Virginia. Because the land was already paid for when my husband and I joined four years ago, we could get started with building a house at least a year sooner than if we’d had to save money to buy land as well as the building materials. To build a house, we needed a truck, which we still have. The Wilsons, the couple who were already here, need a truck sometimes—now they just use ours. I had some notion of a bicycle-powered washing machine, but they got a super-efficient one, so I just use theirs. They work in a bigger city during the week, so keeping animals would be problematic for them. But we have free-range chickens, so we keep them in eggs part of the year, and our dog patrols their garden some. Meanwhile, they bring us books from the bigger library. They have sandy soil, so I can get sweet potatoes from them.

We put in an off-grid photovoltaic system—my husband Don is an electronics whiz, and he figured out how to do this himself. When the Wilsons put in a grid-tied system the next year, he helped them, and I helped set the posts. There has been a time, in the darkest part of each of the three winters in which we’ve had our panels, in which we took a little power from the Wilsons’ grid-tie (only a total of about 21 kilowatt-hours, though). Then when the derecho came through a few months ago and knocked out power for millions, we were able to pay back a little, keeping the Wilsons’ freezer running without the need for a generator. So each couple benefits from the presence of the other—but it would be even better if we had people on the other two leaseholds. Maybe I could share a goat project with someone, for example.

What if more and more people gathered into communities, and built or retrofitted highly efficient housing? What if they began setting up power from solar panels and/or microhydro turbines or windmills, and arranged rainwater collection, greywater use, and composting toilets? If they grew increasing amounts of their own food? There would be:

  1. less financial support for corporations, and hence they’d have less power
  2. less money paid into the IRS and hence less governmental and military power
  3. less college debt
  4. less greenhouse gas emission, less resource use, less environmental harm
  5. a model for the surrounding communities of what is possible, i.e. that one can have one-tenth the income and one-tenth the carbon footprint without “freezing in the dark”
  6. protection for the inhabitants in the event of a breakdown, which looks increasingly likely
  7. more freedom for activists, supported by their communities.
  8. last but not least, satisfaction of the repressed hunger for community that I believe to be endemic in America, with its ethic of extreme individualism

And eventually, this alternate economic and social structure would make possible the creation of alternate institutions into which we could transfer the legitimacy we have drained from the oligarchy-controlled old ones. Notably, we could have some equivalent of the IRS, into which communities could pay a surplus to support useful activities like scientific and medical research, maintenance of the internet, and the rescue of climate refugees.

But this leads to the question of whether such a phenomenon, if sufficiently widespread to challenge the current power dynamic, would be tolerated. Exchanging seeds is already illegal in Europe; in the US, a sensible socialized healthcare system was eliminated from discussion but the Supreme Court ruled that citizens can be made to purchase health insurance. With this as precedent, what else can we be made to purchase? However, as of now it’s perfectly legal to pool resources to buy land and build efficient housing on it (especially in rural areas where zoning restrictions and building codes are not impediments), set up your own power sources, and grow much of your own food. It seems likely that even if measures are brought to bear to make this more difficult, those of us already thus situated will be free to maintain our independent lifestyles…and we will want to do what we can to assist others.

It’s also possible that societal breakdown caused by oil depletion, wars and conflicts, climate change, or some combination of these and other factors will create circumstances in which those of us set up to maintain our own food, water, and heat will be best situated for survival…and threats from the state can be forgotten. In such a scenario, being part of a community would be an enormous advantage. Of course, such a scenario might actually eliminate one of the biggest barriers to growth of self-sufficient communities: the need to buy back our land from the owning class.

A community working to continually reduce what it must purchase from outside (and to source that part locally) is thus best situated to survive catastrophe, to foster activism, to adapt to what may be a permanent recession, to do its part to reduce its environmental impact and to provide a local model for comfortable but low-impact living…as well as meeting the needs of its members for that deep home we all long for. Humans evolved in tribes and I believe we are happiest when part of a group of more than just a few people, with whom we have personal relationships and reciprocal obligations.

Updated: November 1, 2018 — 3:59 pm

The Author

Mary Wildfire

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