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The real challenge facing 'Back to the Earth' communities?

On Friday June 3rd 2016, the Simplicity Institute screened its newly produced film 'A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity'. The film is essentially a documentary of the Institute's attempts to create a simple living community along permaculture lines. Following a public invitation to participate a group of mostly fairly young people participated in this experimental community on a rural property in Gippsland. The project involved them growing and preparing their own food, and building the necessary infrastructure which included: houses for each other; a communal living area and kitchen in a large shed; vegetable patches; composting toilet systems, etc.


Obviously such a life requires possesion or development of a range of skills and a breadth of skills that individuals in 'developed' economies typically do not possess. The specialisation of work in such 'developed' societies tends to result in people having rather specific skills, and also perhaps excludes some basic skills that are quite important within an intentionally self-sufficient community. Nevertheless, it seems they managed fairly well in relation to sharing and developing skills in carpentry, vegetable growing, etc. But the experiment seems to have revealed one fundamental, essential skill that these people sometimes lacked, and which it seems is perhaps one that is extremely difficult to develop. That skill is the skill of living together. The skill of getting on, dealing with disagreements and making decisions in a way that does not lead to some people opting out of the experiment altogether. If we are to transition to any type of more humane economy then this is perhaps the key skill we need. The ability to live as a community in integrated, caring and selfless ways may turn out to be the most damaged part of our society as a result of the collective experiment in recent centuries with free-market ideals and the search for happiness through material wealth aided by technological development. And I would suggest that of all the changes necessary in our society, this is going to be the hardest - shaking off our perceptions of ourselves and our perceived entitlements.

Let us consider the difficulties that this small group encountered, and keep in mind that this group consisted of young, fairly fit adults; mostly single and childless. There was only one pre-school age child in the group. But real societies are not like this. Real societies have people who are sick, or invalid. They have many children - and with many children running around in a community which is effectively a combination of construction zone and working farm with sharp tools, and various other hazards then additional precautions need to taken. Things are not so easy, extra work is required - including cordoning off areas, being careful where tools etc are placed, keeping an eye out for children doing dangerous things or moving in dangerous areas. Effort levels and frustration levels are likely to rise. Blame for not keeping children under control, or blame for causes of any - ultimately inevitable - accidents will also introduce new elements of conflict.

And how caring and self-sacrificing are people prepared to be? What if some people are seen as 'not contributing'? Will some in our community look at nursing mothers, invalids, etc through the lens of Malcolm Turnbull's 'lifters and leaners'? Are we to continue to assess people's worth based on their economic contribution? Are we to continue to feel that we should all benefit 'fairly' (i.e according to immediate economic contribution) from the fruits of our collective labours? Because if so, such communities are going to encounter significant, and quite possibly fatal, difficulties. In fact, parenthood and children add incredible amounts of complexity to any community. Who is going to educate them? How? Often parents are very particular, and commonly somewhat inflexible, regarding what ideas and concepts their children should be exposed to and when. There are few other issues as emotionally charged as raising and educating children.

What if some members ask themselves questions along the lines of: why should I be supporting someone else's child? How can I get my own way (on one issue or another)? Now you may think that such thoughts would not arise, or at least not be serious enough to threaten the community. But we must remember that the system of inequalities and elites that we currently have did not arise out of nowhere - it arose in and out of human communities, and quite likely hidden behind this rise were thoughts similar to the above - maybe explicitly expressed, maybe not. What is to stop history repeating itself? If not immediately, almost certainly over time in the absence of express precautions.

It seems that anyone serious about living in such an intentional community - one with all the complexities of a real community - will need to not just re-learn traditional skills of simple production but seriously re-invent themselves. Such a re-invention will no doubt require a complete revision, and some discarding, of notions and ideologies as well as patterns of behaviour and thought. I would suggest that any such re-invention should include a new perception of ourselves - a perception that moves away from notions of selfish pleasure seeking; that moves away from short-term notions of 'fairness' in relation to the sharing of economic outputs, and more towards seeing ourselves as existing not to satisfy our own sefish desires, but as existing for the purpose of serving others. Such a 'service' self-perspective leads thoughts away from our own entitlements and expections of others and towards what more we can do to help others achieve their aims, how we can understand their expectations, and how we can help achieve those.

Watch the film on YouTube: A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity

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