The most pressing crisis facing our society is not energy or economy or even environment but the loss of community. We have lost our sense of human association, indeed of our very humanity. For the first time in human history the very experience of community has been lost for most. We have not only lost it, we have forgotten it. It will have to be rediscovered. The underlying mission of Transition Centre is to promote the founding of new and self-sufficient communities.
When I talk to people considered local leaders about community they talk back to me in terms of politics, economics and architecture. Some speak of education. What about people, I ask? Really difficult question, they reply politely. It is, of course, relatively easy to deal with the abstract ideal of community, about cities, urban development, mega-church congregations, even a “community of nations.”
The soul of American civilization took root in small communities. Small towns and ethnic urban neighborhoods continued to serve as the wellspring of American society well into the twentieth century. Gone today, however, is “E pluribus Unum,” which translates as “out of many, one.”
The loss of community has been an inevitable consequence of the progress of industrial civilization. The reality is that we have lost touch with the very experience of community, with the feeling, the emotional energy, of authentic human contact. The simple fact is that our lives are no longer defined by primary human association, by the sense of deep, loving, compassionate, caring and sharing level of association. But it is not all dark. A lot of neighborhoods and a lot of faith communities are struggling to preserve their sense of community and their humanity. These are the points of light. But does it mean, if there are only points of light in the sky, that the sun has set on the full day of a healthy and vital human society that we all crave?
What is Community?
The word community is derived from the Latin “communis,” which means "common, public, shared by all or many". Communis comes from a combination of the Latin prefix “con,” which means "together" and “munis,” which has to do with performing services. Roman life centered on duty, on service to the community. Community is defined as: “A group of people having and serving each others common interests and goals.” These goals may include political, artistic, cultural, religious, national, ethnic or traditional interests. Community begins in all cases with a common purpose, a common set of values. Community, in fact, extends only to the limits of those commonly shared values.
Over the past century the literature on community has focused on what was being lost. One of the first to write definitively about the changes in community was German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936). He formulated two models of society, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.
Gemeinschaft, translated into English as “community,” describes an association in which individuals are oriented to each other in a way that is greater than their own self interest. They share common customs and a common belief system. These values and beliefs define appropriate behavior within the community which Tönnies called the "unity of will." They have moderate divisions of labor. They are defined by strong personal relationship. They are distinguished by a strong sense of loyalty to the group. They have relatively simple social institutions. They require little formal social control to maintain behaviorally norms. The orientation is emotional.
Gesellschaft, translated as “society,” describes collectives dominated by individual self interest and lack of shared values. Gesellschaft is characterized by extremes in the division of labor. Gesellschaft is “business.” In a business, workers, managers, and owners typically share very little in the way of values or beliefs, work not for the sake of craftsmanship but in exchange for wages, and lack a personal loyalty to the company they work for. So too the larger society. Relationships are formal rather than familial or kinship. Social cohesion derives from management of the complex enterprise. Social order is maintained by laws, rules, regulations and contracts. The orientation is rational.
American community sociologist Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) said: “The ideal society must be an organic whole, capable of being conceived directly, and requiring to be so conceived if it is to lay hold upon our imaginations.” He added: "Our life is all one human whole, and if we are to have any real knowledge of it we must see it as such. If we cut it up it dies in the process.''
Cooley developed the idea of the “primary group” which he defined in these terms: “I mean those characterized by intimate face-to-face association and cooperation. They are primary in several senses but chiefly in that they are fundamental in forming the social nature and ideals of individuals. The result of intimate association, psychologically, is a certain fusion of individualities in a common whole, so that one's very self, for many purposes at least, is the common life and purpose of the group. Perhaps the simplest way of describing this wholeness is by saying that it is a ‘we’.'' Like Tönnies, Cooley found the most important forms of the primary groups in the family, the play group of children, and the neighborhood. The primary group values the person. It is founded on an exchange of services. It emphasizes human warmth and sympathy in contrasted to the formal coldness, impersonality, and emotional isolation of utilitarian groups. He saw the mechanistic formalism of modern society as a source of social disorganization rather than progress.
Traditionally, community is something that comes out of people living and working closely together. Originally it was life in a village, later towns and urban neighborhoods. Community is founded upon virtues, modes of behavior (not abstract ideas) that include but are not limited to: Mutual good will, respect and tolerance, common standards and often a common background of experiences and memories that come out of long association. Members share in a common lot and help each other in an unselfish manner, just as members of a family do. This is not charity; it is common practice to share built around the idea of generosity: truly “to give is more blessed than to receive.” Communities are characterized by caring, fair play, courage, honesty, courtesy, mutual confidence, fraternity, kindliness and mutual planning, consensus building and working together toward common goals, with a sense of common responsibility. They are built on direct, intimate acquaintanceship and understanding.
Community is also about place. We are a product of the soil out of which our community grows. The loss of community has come with the loss of our sense of being in nature, of living within the cycle of seasons, of drawing our sustenance from the land. We have forgotten that we are a part of the natural order of things. Rebuilding community is largely about rebuilding our place on the land and within the natural ecosystem.
Human beings are born for community. We crave it. We cannot be said to be truly human except through relations with others, and the more authentic, rich and genuine that relationship is, the more we are human. Our capacity for language, hardwired into our brains, is part of our communal essence. It is the tool for human association. In the absence of community, in the absence of proper socialization, we are not even healthy. The original Greek meaning for the word “idiot” was “a totally private individual.” By that standard, today we have an “idiot” civilization. We are all in it, as one wry sage put it, alone.
Community nurtures the family. The finer human qualities of life, good manners, civility, consideration, helpfulness, are learned in childhood and they are learned through imitation. Refinement, dignity of bearing, and forbearance are passed down by example, from parents, from kin, from elders.
Some Things Community is Not
The traits of community do not originate in government, business, schools, art or science. These are each the products of communal association and not the cause. The proof of this claim is seen when communities fail. When they fail, civilization itself inevitably crumbles. Historians Gibbons, Spengler, Sorokin and Toynbee, among others, and more recently Joseph Tainter and Jared Diamond, have rendered very explicit accounts of the failures of great civilizations. It is perhaps more than coincidental that when civilizations fail, out of the ruins grow new villages, new communities, bearing the seeds of the next outgrowth of civilization.
Community is a concept that does not apply to groups that act together in an impersonal manner. Single purpose associations do not constitute community. It requires a cross-section of life. Churches and other associations, even if they develop a rich social life as well as religious or cultural activities may, but do not necessarily, form communities. A housing development is not a community. Even a retirement village may be anything but a community.
Industrial, urban civilization has changed the very structure of human relationship. After thousands of years of pastoral, agricultural existence, the course of the world has turned in the direction of impersonal mechanistic organization. The process is built into our schools. Social institutions may well suppress community and our essential humanity. True, progress has overcome much of the narrow superstitions and mindless taboos, intrusive and coercive patterns that stifled personal freedom and dignity through the ages, often depriving people of their humanity and manifest through disenfranchisement and in serfdom and slavery but there has been a heavy cost. As villages grow into towns and cities and rural people are displaced to cities, many of the conditions that fostered community and family are lost. What has come to be called “postmodern” society is actually hostile to values of any form.
The qualities of true community need not be lost. They are widely cherished and seek expression. It is possible that the conditions for their revival can be re-established. Many earnest community builders have been working hard to do so.
Community is no longer an accident of birth. It is no longer just growing close to each other. It is rather voluntary association based on shared interests. But, can we have community that no longer monopolizes the whole life of its members? Can we find intimate association that satisfies the craving for a sense of belonging but preserves individuality and autonomy of belief?
Community is above all participatory. It requires time and commitment. It involves a sense of moral obligation, of duty, of service to others. It is difficult to achieve such commitment without the powerful sense of motivation that comes out of religious conviction or other transformative experiences that define our lives.
The payoff of community is how it makes us feel. That payoff comes from a reciprocal exchange of good will. The expression “as we give so we receive” is self-evident only within a community. Community is health giving. In return it gives us self-esteem, confidence and courage.
The community must be self-governing. All members must have a voice. Each person should be able to freely and frankly express an opinion. Decisions must be made by consensus, and a unanimous consensus is vital. Once a decision is made the entire community marches to the same drummer. If it is the wrong beat the need to change it will quickly become apparent.
Beyond the function of coordinating or administering to the needs of the community, leaders have no special status. Indeed, if leaders see their role as anything other than a service they can endanger the community. Their entire function is to meet a clearly identified need as expeditiously as possible, in as detached a manner as possible. Where power concentrates the nature of the group is transformed, and when a single, charismatic, unchallengeable leader emerges the group loses its humanity.
The entire existence of the community is predicated upon nurturing human association. It requires not just an initial commitment but also a sustained effort. The hardest part will always be creating the core group, building the foundation of its primary relationship and launching it. Like a rocket headed for space it requires the generation of an awesome burst of energy that, sustained through an appropriate time, will establish it as a functioning, independent entity. The rocket seeks to break free from the earth. The community seeks also to break free, but from the chaotic wilderness of activity called urban industrial society.
A subtle attractive force is a factor in both cases. In the physical universe gravity is the universal attractor that holds the sun and the earth and the moon and the entire universe in perpetual connection. In the human, spiritual, realm the universal attractor is love. We must first love ourselves as worthy beings. Only then can we love each other. We must love the essence, that creative potential, which forms this universe. Unless we believe community is good, true and beautiful, and unless we believe community is one of the great purposes of life, we will not likely raise much above our material, market-driven existence. Enlightened men and women know there must be meaning and purpose in life. Community, more than any other force in human society, gives us that meaning and purpose. Community justifies our existence, encourages our growth and self-realization and brings out of a collective humanity the best that it is capable of, and even more, for we have little idea just what the true, ultimate potential of this thing we call human is capable of achieving.
Transition Centre holds community and economy as symbiotic. You can’t have one without the other and they must each be carefully nurtured to meet the needs of each other. The architecture we are developing unites community and economy into an integral ecosystem.