Commusings: The Technology of Community by Jake Laub

Aug 30, 2021

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Hello Commune Community,

I am deeply grateful for my friendship with Jake, the author of today’s missive. Jake and I are entangled in a series of interwoven conversations focused on how to address the most pressing global problems. We’re at a strange inflection point in human history. The élan of the Enlightenment has propelled Western society for multiple generations. Its progeny – Science, Capitalism, and Liberal Democracy – nicked paradise from the pocket of God’s robe and, like Robin Hood, redistributed its pursuit to human individuals. 

When we take a meta-view of the human condition (and it’s important to open that aperture) we must acknowledge the great progress we have made since the days of the Black Plague in feudal Europe. But technology and free markets haven’t delivered Utopia as advertised. As we march inexorably toward 10 billion individuals, belching carbon as we go, we’re groping for solutions. Can we innovate ourselves out of this mess? Or must we return to regenerative, indigenous traditions? Most likely, the answer is both and neither.

This will be the subject not only of this missive but of future work as well. I am grateful to have Jake across the physical table and you across the digital one to jointly excavate the best ideas. 

Always here at [email protected] or follow me on IG @jeffkrasno.

In love, include me,
Jeff

P.S. If you are interested in writing a Commusings and thus participating in our ongoing conversation on the current and timeless, send us an email at [email protected]. We are eager to publish thoughtful, storytelling-driven essays from our community on future Sundays!

• • •

The Technology of Community

by Jake Laub

The time for our trip was running out, and hope was dimming by the day.  

I turned off the winding backcountry highway and we bounced down a gravel sidetrack, Julia peering out the window for property markers. A few minutes later, there it was: Another potential homestead. I slowed to a stop without bothering to pull over, the only car for miles. 

No doubt, the land was beautiful. Tall cedar and fir trees, rank on rank toward the sea. Moss rocks and all the trappings of a Pacific Northwest postcard. But really, what were we doing here? 

Were we really going to clear-cut a swathe of forest for a house and garden? Where would we work (or how would we not work)? And what about all those oh-so-recently revealed and only partially understood details like soil testing for septic systems and water rights?

As privileged thirty-somethings with a passion for the environment, we had made it this far on a hazy vision of homestead ecoliving. But clearly, it would take a trust fund or a 20-year vow of poverty, plus an engineering degree and a vast survivalist skillset (which maybe I could learn from YouTube videos?), to make this happen. And at what point is “living lightly” in the wilderness outweighed by an hour drive to basic amenities or taking the kids to school?

Clearly, our desire to escape the overwatered lawns of Los Angeles had taken a philosophical wrong turn. A few days later we slunk home, our naivete neatly revealed. 

• • •

A month ago I wrote a Commusings about what I’ve learned living in a pseudo-off-grid yurt on Commune property, though I didn’t mention the disaster of Project Extreme Homestead. In response to my essay, I received several long, thoughtful comments I’ll group under the subheading, “Free living isn’t free.”

Jamie is a mother of five who finds herself drawn taut between her desire to live as a mindful, regenerative homesteader and the reality of raising a family and paying the bills. To quote her email directly:

I have not yet fully fathomed how I will physically maintain my own spiritual balance, raise my children to be strong capable and spiritually in-tune, afford the things they need to learn to manage this world while mastering their own minds, and have the land to teach them to work in harmony with the earth ... oh if I could only afford solar panels, a home battery, and a Tesla vehicle ... how the li$t grow$... and the ego trap tightens its grip.

In other words, how can we possibly keep up with our own self-care, do right by the people who depend on us, and also save the earth — without a few million dollars? 

 Commenter Smooshie Smith was a bit blunter:

This article rings as hollow as that Netflix documentary about those two upper-class white men who eschewed their easily gotten corporate management jobs, wives and houses, in order to become consultants on minimalist living. It’s easy to live with almost nothing when you already had everything, and could easily get everything again if you wanted to.

Eco-sensitive living: The most pressing need of our society or #privilegedpeopleproblems? 

The future of the human race on planet earth (how bleak it is and what we can actually do about it) is a question that is emotional, technical, confusing, and complex. The vortex of that uncertainty has allowed the same power-over, materialist, globalist mindset that got us into this mess to also sell us the “fixes,” thus short-circuiting deeper reflection on fundamental solutions while alienating some and further marginalizing others. Greenwashed plastic is still plastic, and you probably have to pay a premium for it. So yeah, Smooshie, I can understand why you weren’t on board with my call to “be a lover of the earth.”

If I asked most Americans, “What are the top ways you personally can address our environmental crisis?” I would expect answers along the lines of: drive less, get an electric car, turn the heat down in your house, buy more efficient appliances, protest fracking, recycle or buy recycled products, go zero-waste, eat less meat, shop at the farmer’s market...

Indeed, free living isn’t free. All of those solutions ask for either a personal sacrifice, a purchase, or significant time expenditure. Some appeal to Puritanical self-denial, others to the narrative of science as savior. And many are actually good common eco-sense. Still, when I found myself at the end of line for Project Extreme Homestead, I realized I had been missing the forest for the trees.

We tend to think of ecological fixes in terms of technology and daily sacrifice, but if one’s ability to “eco-sacrifice” is really a test of privilege, and if clean technology here is still exporting toxic waste over there, is meaningful progress possible down that path? How far are we really going to get with free LED lightbulb replacements and million-dollar, AI-optimized, LEED-certified houses? And if you’re asking your friends to pick you up in their car because you got rid of yours, are you just being annoying? 

These also feel like marginal improvements. 10% here, 25% there. We want to live more luxuriant and meaningful lives. No one is going to sign up to papercut themselves into sustainability. 

Instead of looking only at personal or technical solutions, what if we could make a single social change that radically improved our ecological impact and made life better?

I believe that critical philosophical shift is so old and obvious that we overlook its simple power: living in community. 

(Another big answer is how we farm, but that’s a different essay.)

Permaculture author Paul Wheaton estimates that living in a community can reduce your eco-footprint by as much as 60%. And when I say “living in community,” I leave that wide open for interpretation as long as it involves networks of true mutual interdependence and not simply social clubs. Maybe it looks like moving to an intentional community, or co-buying a home, or sharing radically more resources and time with a close-knit group of neighbors.

Refocusing on cultivating a community in which deep levels of trust and communication allow for resource sharing is radical because it actually unwinds the narrative that the safest and fastest way to fulfill our needs is to go to the global marketplace. To own your own of everything. To trust solely in supply chains that stretch out into the distance (where after six degrees of separation you no longer feel responsible for the child labor or the wars over rare earth mineral extraction).

In a community, it’s easier to buy food bulk as well as cook and serve it more efficiently. You can share tools and appliances that otherwise only get occasional personal use. Even cars are often shared. Maintenance work and costs are divided among the group. Infrastructure is more efficient en masse, such as one boiler heating a dozen houses. Or if you’re in one house, you have to heat and cool radically less square footage per person.

Managing a decent-sized vegetable garden or livestock is a personal burden (don’t ever plan on leaving for more than a few days again), but shared responsibility for community food production is much more feasible, and if done with regenerative practices cuts out food transport costs and puts carbon back into the soil. 

Fast fashion becomes a trip to the communal closet. Children’s toys cycle from family to family or simply live in a community playroom. The list goes on. 

Plus, I’m going to assume you’ve chosen to live with people you think are pretty cool, and so instead of traveling for entertainment or going out, much of your social life has already come to you. In fact, that’s the whole point: instead of having to go out and get all the things you love, bring them under one roof.

Now is the part where you might look at me and say, “You’re crazy—I’m never going to share living space with other people!”

And I would respond, “If as humans we are built for anything, we are built for this. We simply have forgotten how.”

Instead of fixating on digital technologies to get out of this mess, why don’t we invest in social technologies that help us return to more communal living? With the former I’m hoping someone in a lab coat somewhere can save the world for me (and maybe I can buy their product) versus with the latter I’m investing in something I have direct control over that also makes me a more loving, compassionate person.

These technologies exist: non-violent communication and sociocracy (a form of communal governance) are two I am engaged with, but there are many others, bubbling up as this movement toward community gains momentum. Furthermore, these technologies are free, non-technical, and once learned, easily shareable.  

In functional medicine, a doctor analyzes a set of symptoms and instead of prescribing a pill for every symptom, asks what is the root cause that needs treatment. We are seeing many symptoms – from food deserts to desertified forests – but via long lines of causality, I believe many of them stem from our disconnection from one another. 

Up through the 19th century, most Americans lived in a multigenerational household; now the majority of elders are in for-profit facilities. Where we used to tell stories around the communal table, we now scroll together-but-alone on social media. The village harvest festival has become Coachella.

Even inside the environmental movement our economic system loves to break us into little independent pieces, because every transaction that once was woven into the fabric of community can be productized, monetized, and sold back to you. Sometimes that manifests as an advertisement for a new energy-efficient washing machine, but it can also sound like the clarion call to solve all the world’s problems on your own.

I realized I, too, had been captivated by this white picket fence version of environmentalism. 

So, in the wake of our failed Project Extreme Homestead, Julia and I shifted strategy and began looking for others willing to leap over the social norms, the lack of trust, and live together. Recently we joined a group of households forming a new “agri-village” north of Seattle. Collectively we have purchased 240 acres of farmland that was in danger of development, with the goal of building a small, walkable co-housing village while preserving the rest for farming. Thus it combines what I see as two big levers for meaningful change — community and regenerative agriculture. 

Ironically, though, I now find myself investing a lot less time in the garden and my natural building projects, and a lot more time talking and coordinating with community members on Zoom, honing those tools of social connection. It’s a reminder that the path to healing the world is not linear, and one of the most important things you can do is probe the unquestioned forces driving your life and discover for yourself what is your next best step. 

The scale of our environmental problems can paralyze us, and in the dark night of my soul I know that living in a small agri-village does not directly address global famine, environmental refugees, mass desertification, and catastrophes on a scale my brain simply cannot comprehend in a world careening toward 10 billion people.  

But if I allow a glimmer of hope into that dark night, it is that the state of the human condition is simply the aggregate of many billions of little decisions at a similarly incomprehensible scale. And the decisions that feel most honest to me (and my skill set) fall into regenerative community living. If there is any hope for us, it will be that we all find our authentic way to contribute to the world our hearts know is possible. And these authentic paths are and must be many. Science, medicine, agriculture, construction, education, finance … there is no vocation that exists outside the effort of healing the planet.

But for those of you who (like me) find yourself immersed in an individualistic culture, I would add: I don’t think we can expect the world to change if we don’t also change some fundamental qualities of how we live together. And the tools for harmonious co-living aren’t sold on Amazon, marketed as “compostable,” or dependent on your socio-economic status. 

They are as old as human history, and waiting for you to rediscover in your heart.

• • •

P.S. If you are interested in learning more about the co-housing community Julia and I are helping form, visit rootednw.org. We are actively looking for households and have some financial assistance available for those with experience and expertise in farming.

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