One of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it. As a people, wherever we have been, we have never really intended to be. The continent is said to have been discovered by an Italian who was on his way to India. The earliest explorers were looking for gold, which as, after an early streak of luck in Mexico, always somewhere farther on. Consquests, and foundings were incidental to this search - which did not, and could not, end until the continent was finally laid open in a orgy of goldseeking in the middle of the last century.
Once the unknown of geography was mapped, the industrial marketplace became the new frontier, and we continued, with largely the same motives and with increasing haste and anxiety, to displace ourselves - no longer with unity of direction, like a migrant flock, but like the refugees from a broken anthill. In our own time we have invaded foreign lands and the moon with the high toned patriotism of the conquistador and the same mix of fantasy and avarice.
That is too simply put. It is substantially true, however, as a description of the dominant tendency in American history. The temptation, once that has been said, is to ascend altogether into rhetoric and inveigh equally against all our forebears and all present holders of office. To be just, however, it is necessary to remember that there has been another tendency: the tendency to stay pu, to say ‘No farther, this is the place.’ So far, this has been the weaker tendency, less glamorous, certainly less successful.”
- Wendell Berry “The Unsettling of America”
Most of us are here where we are without substantial ability to change our circumstances in a deep material sense. I think this observation is true, but painful for many people - that is it is possible that we may move about, it is possible that we may change jobs. But we are on a gradual slide away from economic stability, away from a dream that growth could always continue or come back, away from the idea of giving our children better in the sense of material increase, and ultimately, towards the realization that we are staying where we are in the largest sense - the possibility of new frontiers has been erased.
For Americans, this may be the deepest of all psychological shifts. Wendell Berry wrote The Unsettling of America before I was born, articulating the tension, as he has so many times since, between the impulse to stop and stay, and the impulse to always go on to the next thing. The slow and painful realization that we are here where we are, and that the next thing may not represent a substantial shift in our fortunes, that the next move may not be to a better life but away from rising seas or away from too dire a situation, or that there may not be any move - that we may have chosen without choosing to stay, because we can no longer sell, and no longer afford to move, and we are here.
I know that many of my readers are not where they plan to be - others are in places that have a short term future, but may not have a long one. There are many particulars of migration and movement in our future - in fact, I suspect many of these movements may, in some degree, track a backwards path past the frontiers of each stage in America, as the new call becomes “Go East, Young Man - at least there’s water!” And yet, I think there is a larger truth here - that what we have now may be the most we can ever hope to pass down, that preserving what we’ve managed to retain is a project worth doing. Hence, of course, the idea of adapting in place for both those who have chosen something optimal and had their place thrust upon them. Hence my newest project - the idea that on some level, it is possible to organize people around the idea of staying here, wherever here may be, because we are here, slowly losing ground, but here, and the ground below us is at the root, what we have to sustain us.
Much of what I write about in terms of Adaptations, particularly for people living in densely populated areas, but really for all of us, involves enlisting the people around you. This is an enormously difficult job for most of us - partly because of the anomie of our culture, partly because we are not accustomed to community, partly simply because we have not had to - each of us could have a fossil fueled, private solution to needs once met collectively in most cases. And the tools we have to get our next door neighbors to work with us are not easy ones - some people do it, others find themselves saying “ok, I’m here, but I’m fundamentally alone, and I can only go so far that way.” Any hope of staying - and by this I mean in the largest sense - of turning our homes and nations wherever they may be, into places where the dominant narrative is overturned and we are enlisted into the vast project of making here livable, must begin with other people. How do you get them together?
I’ve written thoughts and solutions on this. But still, I think more than any other preparation, how to begin, how to move forward, how to get your neighbors, who may think climate change is bunk and have never heard of peak oil, to simply talk to you about what to do if the water stops flowing is hard, oh, hard. Taking on that problem, coming up with some kind of solution - and one that doesn’t require converting everyone to one perspective - this is a major project, and thus, the horns of my dilemma.
Despite the fact that I spend an awful lot of time reading things and talking to people that put the nail in the coffin of our present way of life; despite the fact that my job description has the word “doom” in it ;-), I mostly rather like my job. I meet interesting people, I learn new stuff, I get to have an impact and be useful to people - and I do most of it from my home. The boys can come up and perch on the bed when they have something to show me, I can whip down for a cup of tea, a chat with the husband and look in on the goats or start some pickles fermenting. I get to wear my pajamas all day and listen to turkeys peeping to one another while I type. Despite an ever-increasing number of very flattering invitations to come speak to other people, I usually only travel for more than a day or so a few times a year, so I’m mostly at home, which allows me to cook, preserve, garden, etc… around all the time I spend writing, reading, editing, etc… It has its downside - not much money, not enough sleep, no retirement plan, a certain measure of stress and psychological difficulty, but all in all, I certainly can’t complain, particularly when so many people have no work at all, much less work they can enjoy.
And because I mostly like my life so much, I’ve been very reluctant to change it. And that means that for the better part of two years, I’ve been struggling against an idea. Maybe you’ve had this experience - where on some level you know there’s something true or right about a choice, but for a whole host of reasons, you don’t want to think about it or acknowledge it.
For me, I’m not sure when the first internal arguments began - perhaps at the post-conference meeting of the 2007 Community Solutions Conference on Peak Oil where I argued that we needed a neighborhood, most immediate level response to our collective crisis than could be achieved at the municipal level. Or maybe it started when I wrote my essay “The Church Model for Environmental Groups” that argued that we needed to find new models for establishing groups to respond to our situation, ones with lower barriers to entry and more immediate responsiveness.
I have known for a long time that if we are to work on a community level, we’re going to have to use the old community and neighborhood organizing strategies, rather than a series of showings of End of Suburbia or How to Boil a Frog (don’t get me wrong, I really think very highly of these movies). That is, that we are going to have to be able to enlist people at very low levels of commonality, rather than at high levels of education about the future of the world if we’re to get enough bodies on the ground to do what is needed. And that these communities need to be built, well, yesterday.
I’ve been offering general strategies for building community all along, and for some people, it works, but I hear more and more than people need more - they need some way to get connected to their neighbors, to the people they will be working with as times get harder, but who don’t share their worldview. How do we set up a model that enables them to work together even if they don’t fully “get” all of our situation, or disagree? How do we get started now? These are the questions that keep me up at night. And I have some ideas, I just didn’t like most of them.
Now I’ve known for years that generally speaking, when someone proposes that we need to do things differently, the collective answer to that is “Great, you get right on that and let us know how it goes.” I knew this. And yet, I kept hoping that someone else would simply start some kind of neighborhood level model - after all, I’d done the really hard work, I’d written the essay, right ;-).
Looking backwards, I think my essays on Permaculture and Transition earlier this summer were in part an expression of my hopes that if I just did the hard work of pointing out the limitations of others ;-), someone would see the gaps in our knowledge, step up, fix them and I’d be completely off the hook. My sense that Transition and Permaculture has emerged as the only real, collective, wide scale and comprehensive response (there are lots of people working in particular areas, but few across the board) is something I still have. But again, the answer rose up “well, why don’t you model something else.” And internally came the response “But I really, really, really don’t want to even think about it, even if it is fundamentally unfair to criticize other people for work you are not willing to step up and do.”
Why was I so reluctant? Well, because organizing people and setting up models, administering groups and training people to enact models are all things I don’t want to do. I like writing from home in my pajamas. I have four kids, between 9 and 3 who need me - I don’t want to be out at meetings in Albany or off giving talks in Iowa all the time - but that’s what it takes to set something up like this. I hate administrative work. I don’t want to run an organization or set up a non-profit, and those things would be required if this was successful. I have ego enough to think that I could be successful - and I frankly, given the choice, I’d rather not be ;-). I want to stay in my comfort zone, I want to stay home and write. The problem is, now that I’ve written 3 books and am on to my fourth, I’m not sure that simply writing is the most important thing I can do (although there will be undoubtably plenty of that too.)
It was at the Pax Christi conference that I finally broke through the last of my resistance. Sitting in a conference room listening to Ernesto Cortez speak of community organizing and its history, I had one of those blinding flashes of insight that come to people now and again. It was simply this - we need a working model and tools for people to connect with their neighbors, even if the neighbors aren’t PO aware - we need more than advice on starting community, we need a structure - and that models for community organizing exist (I knew this, but again, denial is a happy place, so let’s just say I hadn’t let myself think it through). And then the second, much more painful flash of insight - if I honestly think that this is the next most important thing to do, then I have to do it. I spent the second day of the conference wandering about, making notes, and trying to talk myself out of this. I failed.
Coming home and telling my husband about it, I used the famous words that have gotten the poor guy into trouble so many times now - “Someone has to do it, so why not us?” That’s how we got into growing our own food, how I dragged him out to the farm. That’s how the Riot for Austerity got started, and how I justified leaving the kids with him so I could write this blog ;-). Eric knows he’s in trouble when I say that. To his enormous credit, other than some eye rolling and questions about how this might work (to which I as yet have absolutely no answers), he was supportive. I’m the one who is still whining about it (I promise, I’ll be done real soon now ;-)).
I started by cautiously talking to some people who knew what they were doing - to Rob Hopkins at Transition and to Pat Murphy at Community Solutions, both of whom have been doing this work already. I spoke to some other people, doing this at religious and community organizations, and talked about ways to link in existing organizations. My goal here is not to replace anything that we already have - in fact, I believe we’ll fail if we try to create all new structures. My goal then is to supplement what exists - to offer a community and neighborhood level model that can work as an adjunct to Transition, to the institutions doing this work, to use the tools that we’ve got as best we can.
I have to write the Adapting-In-Place book - that’s due in April - before I can seriously get started. What I’m hoping to do before then is to find a few people willing to try and put together model neighborhood groups, and try out different strategies and tools - help figure out what issues are best to organize around, how best to approach this in as inclusive a way as possible, how to offer responsive solutions now, etc… I’ve already got friends I plan to pick on in the Albany area to start something where they are ;-), and I’ve a few thoughts about other people who might try it out. I want to figure out how to get busy people who haven’t thought much about whether our societies can continue to show up and start working together - not just in places where there is a local charismatic leader or where the neighborhood was always cohesive, but everywhere.
Of course, I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m doing. This has never stopped me before, and I doubt it will this time. Before I became a farmer, the biggest single garden I’d had was a 8×8 balcony. I managed to contract to write 3, count ‘em, 3 books before a single piece of my writing had ever been published in a journal or magazine that paid its contributors. My whole personal history is of having no freaking idea what it is that I’m doing and doing it anyway. That’s not what scares me. I’m used to the idea that there simply is no adequate training for the work I’m doing. What scares me is what I do know.
And that’s that this is going to disrupt my life, involve going to a lot of meetings (generally speaking, I’d rather have teeth pulled - without anaesthesia), leaving the farm a lot, probably travelling more than I want. It is going to involve administrative detail work that I hate and probably (ugh) fund-raising. I’m going to have to stop wearing pajamas or barn boots so much and put on clothes that don’t have any stains on them and go ’round and talk to people. And worst of all, my failures are going to be a lot more public - no more privately screwing up in rough draft form. I hate that. And it is going to be a tough balancing act to work this around my family and their needs.
But, I also know that I personally believe that the municipal level is too large to get the numbers of people we need engaged. When you want to make change in a city, you go neighborhood by neighborhood, you get down directly in the community, at the block level if needed. You can’t rely on the 12 people who show up for the meetings - you have to go out and explain to people why they should come, and offer them a real reason. I say this not to criticize the municipal level work - that’s necessary too - someone has to run for city council, someone has to go to the waterworks, the aware people in a city need to get together and organize, as they do in Transition and various activist groups. But the city level is not all.
In World War II in the US, the implementation of emergency procedures and rationing was tried at the city level - but too many people were being missed, so block captains and neighborhood associations were brought in - as were existing organizations - the PTA, the women’s clubs, the garden clubs. All of these organizations were used to get down to the most personal level possible. Where communities were often suspicious of government or city workers coming to their neighborhoods, block captains and local neighborhood activists were especially important - someone like them, someone from an existing familiar organization was needed to help bring implementation about. It was astonishingly successful.
When community organizers need to get people together to respond to a problem or address an injustice, that work is not done at the level of the city, but at the level of the neighborhood - it takes door to door community work to reassure people that this is worth doing, to help people act in their own interest, to explain it as something more than a large scale political operation. It takes direct contact, often continued, responsive direct contact to move people.
And there’s so much we can’t even start unless we do this community work - I don’t necessarily mean getting everyone on board with preparing for the zombies ;-), I mean even sourcing food collectively, or identifying people who are going hungry in your neighborhood and how to reach them, convincing people to change the zoning laws or making basic disaster preparations to deal with water, sewage and fire safety. I don’t think it will be easy to get this going - but I think we have to try, because the municipal level, as important as it is, misses too many people.
Now you may have noticed that this post is long on my reluctance and on needs, but short on plans. At the moment, I don’t fully have one, other than to do some experimenting and to get my next book written quickly, so that I can turn my attention here. What I have are ideas and organizing principles, which I’ll put up in a post over the weekend. I’m still mulling it over, and I welcome input. And I have a name.
You see, the two things that move me most are Wendell Berry’s profound insistence that we do have in us, even here in America, a strain of thought to draw on that is about staying, about making the place you live in better, about committing to a piece of land and a set of people. Berry keeps reminding us of this, insisting that we see it in the overarching narrative of always moving for the better job, the bigger house, the next frontier, the final frontier. We do have a history to draw upon - and that matters. In A Nation of Farmers, Aaron and I wrote about the problem of history:
“The simple truth is that the glorification of our past makes us believe lies. Glorification of our State makes us accept unacceptable things. And yet, there is a United States worth believing in - moments in history in which competing forces of powerful and weak met and creating something decent, something worth treasuring and admiring. It never happened without resistance, but neither was the story always a narrative of good people and evil leaders - it sis far more complicated than that.
All of us were taught a state- and hero-centered history that erased too many ordinary contributions and focused our national pride on the wrong things. But we did have that teaching; we did learn that nationalism. Perhaps a large part of our projects is the unlearning of the untruths, but smashing idols isn’t enough - we need to give people who love their country a place to put that love, give those who derive hope and comfort from their sense of the past a past to attach themselves to.”
Jim Kunstler has articulated the dangers of the “psychology of previous investment” when applied to our driving culture - he observes that we become so attached to the things we have invested ourselves in that we go on preserving them long after such preservation has become destructive. But perhaps the psychology of previous investment can work for us, as well as against us, if we can articulate a past, a history, a something worth preserving and staying for. And that history of staying, thrust upon us now as it is, may be something to hold on to.
In tribute, then to Berry’s Unsettling of America, and his long call for re-settlement, I have come to think of our project in terms of Settlement. And this invokes something else worth invoking - the Settlement movement of the 19th and 20th century, conceived as a way to remediating class differences and integrating immigrants into a society, it called for ordinary people to live among the poor, like the poor, offering what they could to remediate their circumstances. Lillian Wald, Dorothy Day, Jane Addams - their focus on the idea of a settlement as a way to ease class conflict, to integrate rather than disintegrate, and at the most basic level, help people learn to stay where they were seems eminently relevant to us, as we move towards a world where most of us are poorer, less secure, moving off the frontier into a changing world. We must do it in community, we must work with people we once did not need, we must adjust our way of life - we must, ultimately, settle - in the sense of finding a home in places we thought we were only resting momentarily in, and settle, in the sense of finding a vision that accepts what is viable in a settled way of life, rather than the lost and destructive dominant discourse, and settle, in the sense of go out among people we did not choose, whose common ground is that they to, have entered the process of Settlement with us.