Essay Community

Living Communally

Homo Sapiens were tribal hunter-gatherers on the African plains, not so long ago in evolutionary terms. We lived that way for hundreds of millennia up to the beginning of so-called civilisation about 10,000 years ago when we saw the first domestication of plants and animals, leading to the demise of nomadic hunter-gathering and the first settlements. It was at that point that our uniquely evolved intelligence diverted the evolutionary arc of our species away from its integral place within the balanced ecosystem that was the thriving, living planet.

After domestication came the specialisation of tasks and division of labour, then the rise of hierarchy, political control, abuse of power, oppression of the weak by the strong, and so on. Ever since, we have been a dysfunctional species with a distorted worldview—separated from, and exploitative of, nature and each other. Yet, we mostly continued to live interdependently in villages and towns, even cities, right up until the industrial revolution some 300 years ago. I believe that the pervading malaise of alienation and maladjustment that afflicts humans today is primarily due to the demise of that very thing—interdependency. Our essential nature as humans is still tribal yet all semblance of that level of mutuality has been lost.

Of course, we can never go back to how it was before, except perhaps in remnant indigenous tribes, of which the Maasai are a good example. In the film, Down to Earth, Mokompo Ole Simel, a tribal elder from the Loita Hills, Kenya says, “We don’t carry fear. As a people, we are happy, despite having few material things. We are happy because of our relationships, our close social ties, and our unity. Love binds us together.” For those of the rest of us who recognise the need, gathering in neo-tribes, a word coined by Maffesoli (1995), is an obvious alternative to individualistic mainstream lifestyle options. Professor Helen Jarvis of Newcastle University sees renewed interest in communalism as one expression of neo-tribalism. She notes “a groundswell of common yearning for connectedness and for a sort of radical alternative,” and a “recognition that lifestyles of the past are permanently broken.”

Preeminent types of contemporary neo-tribe include co-housing neighborhoods and ecovillages. Both are intentional communities, i.e., groupings of like-minded souls who reside together for some shared purpose or intention. In the case of co-housing, the purpose is mostly to build close relationships of mutuality and social support. Many also strive to achieve low-carbon lifestyles. Ecovillages seek the same, but with the added aspiration to establish integrated sustainable settlements. Due to their different objectives, these community types tend to choose different locations—the former favour urban environments and the latter, rural settings.

I have lived in the ecovillage of Findhorn, North Scotland, for 15 years. I relocated here from subtropical Australia in order to participate in what has been recognised as one of the most successful such projects anywhere in the world. We are also well known as a spiritual community, which marries well with our ecological aspirations, our spirituality being based on intimate co-creation with nature. The ecovillage proper comprises some 250 residents living in what was once a humble caravan park. Now almost 60 years old, The Park has become a cutting edge example of a (mostly) self-sufficient, full-featured ecological settlement. A wider community of some 400 members live in the surrounding region and participate fully in the social, cultural, and spiritual life of the community. Currently of course, community life is curtailed due to Covid-19 related constraints. And yet, the bonds of love and mutuality are being keenly maintained via Zoom and other innovative means.

Youth, planting at Findhorn

What this means for me personally, apart from appreciating being part of such an inspiring project, is that it enables me to live a zero-carbon life, at least while I remain on site. (If I travel, that is a different story, of course.) And since I hardly ever need to go off site, that brings me tremendous joy and peace of mind. Living in Findhorn enables closer alignment between my environmentalist values and my lifestyle, which for me, is crucial to my well-being.

As a long-time communal dweller, I know in my bones, mind, and heart, that a nurturing extended family of mostly unrelated individuals is the ideal social grouping for the human species. Shared living offers our best chance of fulfilling individual and collective potential for creativity, intelligence, compassion, and love—all those wonderful human attributes that sadly, for the most part, remain unfulfilled. Furthermore, a socially cohesive such group has the potential to be a profound milieu for the socialisation of both children and adults. And an appropriately sized group, thus socialised, has the opportunity to create a truly civil society, one that nurtures grassroots action around shared interests, purpose, and values.

Marx decreed, “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs,” referring to an individual’s role in the collective and the fair distribution of goods, services, and capital. To me, the phrase also carries a deeper meaning—that at some fundamental level, we are all equal as human beings and deserve to be treated with the same dignity, respect, and natural justice. And this is where politics comes in. The role of government at all levels, I believe, should simply be to restore what I see as the natural order of things, i.e., that every individual and every species occupies its rightful place and fulfills its integral role in a viable, sustainable (eco)system of systems. Given that our society has become so out of whack, redressing the situation can only be slow and incremental. But redress it we must, else things will continue to unravel, and we will steadily decline as a species until we eventually wipe ourselves out.

About Graham Meltzer

Graham Meltzer has been a builder, architect, educator, researcher, author, photographer, and conference organiser. He has lived a total of 30 years in intentional communities including the last 15 in the spiritual ecovillage at Findhorn. His doctorate, based on cohousing, considered the link between communal living and environmental praxis. Graham is a humanist and Marxist who eschewed privatised mainstream options in favour of more socialised and egalitarian ones. He has published books on cohousing, love and sexuality, the Findhorn community, and most recently, a memoir titled, A Meaningful Life.

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