Monday, March 10, 2008

Implementing Rhizome at the Community Level

This final essay in this five-part series, The Problem of Growth, looks at implementing rhizome at a community level. Rhizome does not reject community structures in favor of a “bunker mentality,” but rather requires community structures that embrace and facilitate the principles of rhizome at both the personal and community level. Ultimately a rhizome community is composed of rhizome individual or family nodes—participants who do not depend on the community for their basic survival, nor participants who expect to benefit from the community without contribution. Rather, both the individual and the community choose to participate with each other as equals in a non-zero-sum fashion.

The results-based focus of the community is essentially the same as the individual, because the community consists of individuals who recognize the ability of the community to help them build resiliency and self-sufficiency in the provision of their basic needs, as well as the ability to access a broader network beyond the community.


The first thing that communities can do is to get out of the way of individuals’ attempts to create water self-sufficiency: remove zoning and ordinance hurdles that prevent people from practicing rainwater collection and storage, or that mandate people keep their front lawns watered. Communities can also address their storm water policies—many communities simply direct storm water into the ocean (see Los Angeles, for example), rather than effectively storing it in percolation ponds, or otherwise retaining it for community use. Communities can also facilitate the collection and sharing of water-collection and efficiency best practices, as well as help people to refine ideas from outside the community in a locally-appropriate manner. The possibilities are endless—as with virtually everything else here, the key is that the community recognize the issue and make a conscious effort to address it.


Again, communities should start by getting out of the way of individuals’ attempts to become food self-sufficient. This means eliminating zoning or ordinances that require lawns instead of vegetable gardens, that prevent the owning of small livestock such as chickens in suburban developments, and even (!) that mandate the planting of non-fruit bearing trees (on the theory that they’re messy if you forget to harvest them). But communities can also have a very proactive role in facilitating food self-sufficiency. Community gardens are a great place to start, especially where people live in high density housing that makes individual gardening impracticable. This has been done to great effect in urban areas in Venezuela, for instance. Communities can also foster knowledge and facilitate the sharing of best practices via lecture series, master gardener courses, local gardening extensions, community college courses, or community seek banks for locally appropriate species. Finally, communities should consider encouraging farmers markets to promote local surplus produce, to promote at least regional food self-sufficiency, and to kindle a public appreciation for the quality and value of fresh, seasonal, locally grown foods.

Shelter, Heating, & Cooling

I see the actual implementation of self-sufficient shelters as primarily an individual concern, though communities should certainly consider making communal structure, schools, etc. that conform to these standards. Most significantly, however, communities can work to get government out of the way of people who wish to do so individually. Get rid of zoning requirements that forbid solar installations, graywater, rainwater catchment, or small livestock, or that mandate set-backs and minimum numbers of parking spaces. Pass laws or ordinances that eliminate Home Owners’ Association rules prohibiting vegetable gardens, that mandate lawns, that prevent solar installations, etc. Many Colorado Home Owners' Associations (HOAs) used to ban the installation of solar panels, but Colorado recently passed a statute that prevents HOAs from banning solar—seems like a good idea to me. The Colorado law certainly isn't perfect, but it is an example of a very real step that a few people can take to work with their local or state government to help make your community more self-sufficient. If your HOA prevents you from installing solar hot water (or other solar), why not try to get the HOA to change its rules--there may be many other neighbors who want the same thing, and the more self-sufficient your immediate neighbors, the stronger your community, even if that community is "suburbia." If your HOA won't change, follow Colorado's example.


As with individual defense, I don’t advocate that a community take a bunker mentality and make preparations for a Hizb’Allah style defense of South Lebanon. I think that could work, and I’ve written about it here, but I think it is the second to worst outcome and something to be avoided if possible. In modern America, it seems obvious to me that it is fully possible for a rhizome community to operate within the umbrella of any current state government, as well as the federal government. However, there are other nations—take Colombia for example—where this is probably not possible. It seems like a very real possibility that the permissive environment America currently enjoys could look much more like Colombia at some point in the future. For that reason, this is an issue that must be taken up on a case-by-case basis by local communities. While I certainly wouldn’t advocate an armed militia patrolling the perimeter of the self-sufficiency conscious town of Willits, California (though some American communities effectively do this already), this kind of “extreme” action may well be a basic requirement for a small village in Colombia that is attempting to institute localized self-sufficiency and rhizome structure.

Medicine, Entertainment, & Education

Communities have a myriad of ways to provide for their own entertainment, without resorting to some canned cable-TV product. Also, communities can address the specialized knowledge problems—education and medicine, as well as gardening, and the theory of rhizome, by ensuring that these topics are covered in local school curriculums at all levels (public and private), by making these kinds of learning resources available via a community college, the local library, a lecture series, etc.

Exchange, Information Processing, and Interaction Beyond the Local Community

The possibilities here are numerous, and I'll just name a few possibilities for consideration: Community currency, community paper or blog, community development micro-loans, sponsoring seasonal fairs or festivals, etc. This is an area ripe for innovation and the sharing of best-practices...for additional ideas, see "Going Local" by Michael Schuman.

Practical Considerations in Implementing Rhizome at the Community Level

Just as with implementing rhizome at the individual level, rhizome is not an all-or-nothing proposition for communities. Any step that makes it easier for individuals to move toward rhizome is beneficial. Every community’s situation is different, and the number of ways to combine just the few suggestions provided here is nearly limitless. Customize, come up with new solutions, adapt or reject these ideas as you see fit, and share what works (best practices) and what doesn't with the world in an open-source manner—but more than anything else, think about how to bring your community closer to rhizome, and then act.

Addressing Free-Riders

Finally, every community must address the problem of free riders. Some people will want to benefit from the community without contributing anything at all. In most cases, normative pressures will suffice, and this is especially true of rhizome, where there isn’t a grand redistributive scheme that facilitates some people to leach indefinitely off the collected surplus. Still, the problem will arise, and there will always be a need and a place for charity, within rhizome and elsewhere. The most important factor in determining who is worthy of charity and who is a free-rider is the conscious articulation of the requirements for membership: the community gains strength by helping up its least self-sufficient members, but it should do so by helping them to fish, rather than repeatedly just giving them fish to eat. Rhizome communities need not be heartless—in fact, they shouldn’t be heartless, not just on moral grounds, but on selfish grounds of building a more resilient community—but they should exert normative pressures to demand participation roughly commensurate with capability.


I hope that this five-part series addressing the Problem of Growth has been useful. One of the cornerstones of my personal philosophy that growth is the greatest challenge facing humanity, and that shifting from a hierarchal to a rhizome form of social organization is our best chance to “solve” that problem. I also think that rhizome is valuable as it is a scale-free solution: I think that it can help to solve our international and national problems, but even if that fails it can certainly improve our individual situations. Ultimately, removing ourselves, one at a time, from being part of the cause of humanities problem cannot be a bad thing. As Ghandi said, “be the change that you wish to see in this world.” That seems particularly applicable to a scale-free solution!

Further Reading: See John Robb's post The Resilient Community for another take on this topic.

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piterburg said...


Manuel said...

Dear Jeff,
Deep thinking those 5 essays. It confirms me in some intuition about resilient human networks. New models are to be build in order to stick to the specifities of each community. They are in the world and outside at the same time, particular place where dialogue can be build with the future.
Any ideas why US citizens are so little interested in your views ? I'm French and eager to read your comments about that.

John Rogers said...

Hi, I only just came across your work, which is a valuable contribution to thinking about viable alternatives to the 'growth imperative'. One subject you only touch on is the growth imperative of money itself and our personal and community investment in its web. National money issued out of thin air by private banks and owed as a debt to them already creates a 'growth imperative' for every individual or every local or national government needing to service their debts. Adding interest to the equation literally 'compounds' the problem through 'compound interest'. We end up trashing the planet to please the insatiable God of Growth aka Money.

Over the last 25 years a global movement of activists has experimented with 'complementary' or 'community' currencies that operate at a local, regional or virtual level. There have been thousands of failures and a few brilliant successes. We are now processing the lessons from many of these experiments in order to design more robust and sustainable future systems. It is often said that this movement is at a similar stage to the Wright brothers and the early pioneers of flight. We are pioneering new forms of flying to the sustainable future with new designs of currency.

For comprehensive resources on this subject, take a look at my website I have just completed a Community Currency Design Manual, currently being trialled in North America and Europe. Get in touch through the website if you want to know more.

Best wishes for your work

John Rogers

Anonymous said...

Good morning Jeff ~

I have spent the last three days reading your essay(s) on growth... This has been something that has puzzled me for decades...

People ask; "What is the Meaning of Life?"

Perhaps, the better question to ask is; "What is our Purpose in Life?" Don't most humans find meaning once they find their purpose?

In today's world, the word "growth" has come to mean constant, unchecked, expansion of society... and for no other reason other than expansion for expansion's sake...

I equate it to cancer... cancer, as defined is..."A malignant tumor of potentially unlimited growth that expands locally by invasion and systemically by metastasis."

Cancer has no real PURPOSE other than to survive and to spread...does it? And, what happens when it goes unchecked? The body dies, and the cancer too ceases to exist...

Now compare this to what is happening to our Earth and to our societies.... Human "growth" is killing our Earth...and at the same time...humankind...

This phrase keeps running through my head late at night....

"Growth without purpose...innovation without substance...."

Many nights I lay awake and think about these things... I wonder if we were given a clean slate AND the knowledge of the above phrase (which I think of as a natural truth) - how do we NOT do this same thing over again?

How do we rebuild a society that embraces innovation with purpose and substance while not growing out of control like a cancer?

Perhaps your Rhizome concept is a start, a step in the right direction. But we have a lot of paradigms to over come first... such things as the ingrained Puritan mindset that we must ALWAYS be busy, productive...that laying in the grass looking at the clouds or the stars is laziness...and equating that with "evil"....

Yes, there is a need for a whole new paradigm.... I hope that this time we get it right...



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Robin Datta said...

There is a very great difference between society and community. Blurring the difference is an imperative of hierarchy to sustain itself.

I came to anarchy through Stefan Molyneux and it was clear to me from the outset that hierarchies depend on the threat of initiation of force to coerce compliance. Their interactions are mostly transactions, are vertical, and they permit, prescribe, proscribe, monitor and control horizontal interactions and transactions. Vertical interactions bind society together, while community coheres through horizontal interactions. Once one sees this gun, one cannot unsee it. And there can be no more than a charade of a dialog as long as any gun is a party to the conversation.

Acknowledgement of ownership of responsibility for one's actions extends to the beneficial and detrimental consequences of such actions in the physical world, and hence to property. Property is the improvements (or otherwise) effected on the physical world through one's actions.

A commons can be maintained socially (through hierarchy) or communally (through horizontal transactions and interactions), or a combination of both. When the hierarchy faded away in the Soviet collapse, the community survived. A commons without a society or community, such as the atmosphere or the hydrosphere, will be degraded apace. Attempts by sovereign hierarchies to organise like a community are difficult. And the formation of an über-hierarchy in the face of the forces of deglobalisation is moot.