Monday, March 03, 2008

Implementing Rhizome at the Personal Level

This fourth essay in a five-part series, The Problem of Growth, examines practical steps to implement rhizome at the personal level. In the last installment, I argued for the theoretical requirements of rhizome. Rhizome begins at the personal level, with a conscious attempt to understand anthropological processes, to build minimal self-sufficiency, and to engage in “small-worlds” networks. This installment will outline my ideas for implementing this theory at the personal level in an incremental and practicable way. This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive list of ideas, but rather a starting point for discussion:


In the 21st Century, I think it will become clear that water is our most critical resource. We’ll move past our reliance on oil and fossil fuels—more by the necessity of resorting to dramatically lower consumption of localized energy—but we can’t move beyond our need for water. There is no substitute, so efficiency of use and efficacy of collection are our only options. In parts of the world, water is not a pressing concern. However, due to the fundamental and non-substitutable need for water everywhere, creating a consistent and resilient water supply should be a top priority everywhere. Climate change, or even just periodic extreme drought such as has recently hit the Atlanta area, may suddenly endanger water supplies that today may be considered a “sure thing.” How does the individual do this? I think that four elements are crucial: efficient use, resilient collection systems, purification, and sufficient storage.

Efficient use is the best way to maximize any available water supply, and the means to achieve this are varied: composting (no-flush) toilets, low-flow shower heads, mulching in the garden, etc. Greywater systems (also spelled "graywater," various spellings seem popular, so search on both) that reuse domestic water use in the garden are another critical way to improve efficiency.

Resilient collection systems are also critical. Rainwater harvesting is the best way to meet individual minimal self-sufficiency—dependence on a shared aquifer, on a municipal supply system, or on a riparian source makes your water supply dependent on the actions of others. Rainwater falling on your property is not (at least arguably not) dependent on others, and it can provide enough water to meet minimal needs of a house and garden in even the most parched regions with sufficient planning and storage. There are many excellent resources on rainwater harvesting, but I think Brad Lancaster’s series is the best—buy it, read it, and implement his ideas.

While dirty water may be fine for gardens, water purification may be necessary for drinking. Even if an existing water supply doesn’t require purification, the knowledge and ability to purify enough water for personal use with a solar still or via some other method enhances resiliency in the face of unforeseen events.

Storage is also critical. Rain, fortunately, does not fall continuously—it comes in very erratic and unpredictable doses. Conventional wisdom would have said that long-term storage wasn’t necessary in the Atlanta area because rain falls so regularly all year round that storage of only a few months supply would suffice. Recent events proved this wrong. Other areas depend on short, annual monsoon seasons for the vast majority of their rain (such as Arizona). Here, storage of at least one year’s water supply is a threshold for self-sufficiency, and more is desirable. Significant droughts and erratic rainfall mean the more storage the better—if you don’t have enough storage to deal with a drought that halves rainfall for two straight years, then you are forced back to dependency in such an event at exactly the worst time, when everyone else is also facing scarcity. Where to store water? The options here are also varied—cisterns are an obvious source for drinking water, as are ponds where it is a realistic option, but storage in the ground via swales and mulch is a key part of ensuring the water supply to a garden.


If you have enough water and land, it should be possible to grow enough food to provide for minimal self-sufficiency. While many people consider this both unrealistic and extreme, I think it is neither. Even staunchly “establishment” thinkers such as the former chief of Global Strategy for Morgan Stanley advise exactly this path in light of the uncertainty facing humanity. There are several excellent approaches to creating individual food self-sufficiency: Permaculture (see Bill Mollison’s "Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual"), Masanobu Fukuoka’s “Natural Way of Farming” (see book of the same name), Hart’s “Food Forests,” and John Jeavons’ “Biointensive Method” (see "How to Grow More Vegetables"). Some combination and modification of these ideas will work in your circumstances. It is possible to grow enough calories to meet an individual’s requirements in only a few thousand square feet of raised beds—a possibility on even smaller suburban lots, and I have written about the ability to provide a culinarily satisfying diet on as little as 1/3 acre per person.

An additional consideration here is the need to make food supplies resilient in the face of unknown events. I have written about exactly this topic in “Creating Resiliency in Horticulture”, which basically advises to hedge failure of one type of food production with others that are unlikely to fail simultaneously—e.g. balance vegetable gardens with tree-crop production, mix animal production with the availability of reserve rangeland, or include a reserve of land for gathering wild foods. In Crete, after World War II, while massive starvation was wreaking Greece, the locals reverted to harvesting nutritious greens from surrounding forests to survive. The right mix to achieve food resiliency will vary everywhere—the key is to consciously consider and address the issue for your situation.

Shelter, Heating, & Cooling

Shelter should be designed to reduce or eliminate outside energy inputs for heating and cooling. This is possible even in the most extreme climates. Shelter should also be designed to eliminate reliance on building or maintenance materials that can’t be provided in a local and sustainable fashion. I realize that this is a challenge—but our architectural choices speak just as loudly about our real lifestyle as our food choices. Often, studying the architectural choices of pre-industrial people living in your region, or in a climatically similar region, provides great insight into locally appropriate architectural approaches. Passive solar heating and cooling is possible, with the right design, in virtually any climate—something that I have written about elsewhere.


I’m not going to advocate that individuals set up their own private, defensible bunker stocked with long rifles, claymore mines, and cases of ammunition. If that’s your thing, great. I do think that owning one or more guns may be a good idea for several reasons—defense being only one (hunting, good store of value, etc.). Let’s face facts: if you get to the point that you need to use, or threaten to use a lethal weapon to defend yourself, you’re A) already in serious trouble, and B) have probably made some avoidable mistakes along the way. The single best form of defense that is available to the individual is to ensure that your community is largely self-sufficient, and is composed of individuals who are largely self-sufficient. The entirety of part five of this series will address exactly that topic. Hopefully, America will never get to the point where lethal force must be used to protect your garden, but let’s face it, large parts of the world are already there. In either case, the single best defense is a community composed of connected but individually self-reliant individuals—this is rhizome. If your neighbors don’t need to raid your garden or “borrow” your possessions, then any outside threat to the community is a galvanizing force. More on this next time.

For now, aside from building a resilient community, there are a few things that individuals can do to defend their resiliency. First, don’t stand out. Hakim Bey’s notion of the permanent autonomous zone depends largely on staying “off the map.” How this manifests in individual circumstances will vary wildly. Second, ensure that your base of self-sufficiency is broad and minimally portable. At the risk of seeming like some wild-eyed “Mad Max” doom-monger, brigands can much more easily cart off wealth in the form of sheep or bags of cracked corn than they can in the form of almond trees, bee hives, or a well-stocked pond. Just think through how you achieve your self-sufficiency, and how vulnerable the entire system is to a single shock, a single thief, etc. You don’t have to believe that there will ever be roaming bands of brigands to consider this strategy—it applies equally well to floods, fire, drought, pestilence, climate change, hyperinflation, etc. My article “Creating Resiliency in Horticulture” also addresses this point.

Medicine, Entertainment, & Education

You don’t need to know how to remove your own appendix or perform open heart surgery. You don’t need to become a Tony-award caliber actor to perform for your neighbors. You don’t need to get a doctorate in every conceivable field for the education of your children. But if you understand basic first aid, if you can hold a conversation or tell a story, if you have a small but broad library of non-fiction and reference books, you’re a step ahead. Can you cook a good meal and entertain your friends? Look, human quality of life depends on more than just the ability to meet basic caloric and temperature requirements. The idea of rhizome is not to create a bunch of people scraping by with the bare necessities. Having enough food is great—you could probably buy enough beans right now to last you the next 10 years, but I don’t want to live that way. Most Americans depend on our economy to provide us a notion of quality of life—eating out, watching movies, buying cheap consumables. Minimal self-sufficiency means that we need the ability to provide these quality of life elements on our own. This probably sounds ridiculous to people in the third world who already do this—or to the lucky few in the “West” who have regular family meals, who enjoy quality home cooking, who can carry on enlightening and entertaining conversations for hours, who can just relax and enjoy the simplicity of sitting in the garden. It may sound silly to some, but for others this will be the single, most challenging dependency to eliminate. Again—dependency is the key. I’m not saying that you can never watch E! or go out to Applebee’s. What I am saying is that if you are so dependent on this method of achieving “quality of life” that you will enter the hierarchal system on its terms to access it, you have not achieved minimal self-sufficiency.

Production for Exchange

Finally, beyond minimal self sufficiency, the individual node should have the capability to produce some surplus for exchange because this allows access to additional quality-of-life creating products and services beyond what a single node can realistically provide entirely for itself. This is the point where minimal self-sufficiency doesn’t require isolationism. It is neither possible nor desirable for an individual or family node to provide absolutely everything desired for an optimal quality of life. While minimal self-sufficiency is essential, it is not essential to produce independently every food product, every tool, every type of entertainment, every service that you will want. Once minimal self-sufficiency is achieved, the ability to exchange a surplus product on a discretionary basis allows the individual node to access the myriad of wants—but not needs—that improve quality of life. This surplus product may be a food item—maybe you have 30 chickens and exchange the extra dozen or two eggs that you don’t consumer on a daily basis. Maybe you make wine, olive oil, baked bread, or canned vegetables. Maybe you provide a service—medicine, childcare & education, massage, who knows? The possibilities are endless, but the concept is important.

Practical Considerations in Implementing Rhizome at the Personal Level

Rhizome isn’t an all or nothing proposition—it is possible, and probably both necessary and desirable, to take incremental, consistent steps toward rhizome. Learn how to do more with less. Work to consciously integrate the principles of rhizome into every aspect of your daily life—think about your choices in consumption, then make medium and long-term plans to take bigger steps towards the full realization of rhizome.

And, perhaps most of all, rhizome does not demand, or even endorse, a “bunker mentality.” The single greatest step that an individual can take toward rhizome is to become an active participant in the creation of rhizome in the immediate, local community. That, of course, is the subject of the next, and final, installment in this series.

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Dan Bartlett said...

Just after I read this I went through some old links and found this one; Japan's sustainable society in the Edo period. It's interesting to note that besides the overall trend of growth-or-death within competing empires, these little bubbles of sustainability can rise to the surface. I don't know how long this society would have lasted if wars/politics hadn't intervened, but they certainly seemed to have started down the right path, even under hierarchal management.

Jeff Vail said...

I'm certainly no specialist in Japanese history, but I am currently reading a book on Ando Shoeki (per a previous recommendation in comments) that touches on Japan during this period. Interestingly, while the articles you link to seem to support that urban Japan implemented many principles of sustainability, there were great problems in the mode of agricultural production. Per Shoeki (I haven't checked other sources here), the Japanese peasantry were so bound into a semi-feudal system of producing surplus for taxation that they had no ability to create resiliency for themselves, and they were forced to direct all their resources into the creation of a few select "taxable" crops, preventing them from farming in sync with nature. The result was a rather unsustainable demand for short-term yield at any cost, and frequent significant famines that seemed to wipe out 5-20% of the peasantry every decade or so. The system was so rigid (and, I'd argue, therefore also unsustainable) that local lords could not, or would not, reduce the tax levy on crops when they knew that the result would be large scale starvation.

So I'm not sure if Japan in the Edo period was really sustainable, selectively sustainable, or just forced to find new ways to adapt to living right at the edge of the ability of their environment and political system to support its size. Shoeki's commentary certainly suggests to me that Edo Japan was a great example of hierarchy out of control, marginalizing the individual in order to squeeze out any last potential for growth and expansion, and running head-first into Tainter's notion of diminishing aggregate returns (after marginal returns have already turned negative).

Theo_musher said...

I just want to say, I enjoyed this installment, most of all. Rhizome seems pretty down to earth, and pretty darn American, actually!

I think the people in the "homesteading" movement are actually sympathetic to rhizome, independant of studying it the way you have.

I wonder just what it is exactly that prevented America from being more rhizome like?

Corporate Capitalism?

Rhizome just sees like a vision of small town frontier America.

Hans Noeldner said...

Hi Jeff:
Thanks very much for this series and your other writing. Your insights give me hope!

Wondering whether you are familiar with Ivan Illich's "Toward a History of Needs". I have found it to be so astonishingly rich and filling that I cannot handle reading more than bits at a time; then I need to stop and digest it for a few weeks.

Do you envision sophisticated mechanical components like ball bearings and standardized elements like screw threads fitting in rhizome systems? On the face of it these strike me as very hierarchical, but they sure do come in handy for that wonderfully efficient machine the bicycle.

Anonymous said...

Hello Jeff,
I am a long-time reader and proponent of many of the topics you cover. I am also a resident of Atlanta, which you've mentioned in this post. I am commenting to mention a few different issues: one, that here the drought problem, although not covered in any way by local media or addressed by government, is already driving people to extremes. My home has been broken into and looted twice in the past three months, and this shows no signs of easing in any way. The police and governing bodies frown heavily on self-sustainablilty and seem to view it in direct connection with terrorism, and I have been repeatedly harrassed and monitored(very openly, in fact) by police. This has not slowed a small number of us on a path to self-sufficency, but I am curious as to your thoughts on maintaining privacy and autonomy with the threat of physical as well as psychological opposition by local law enforcement. Your ideas are a wonderful help and encouragement, but you have seemed to glaze over methods of survival during a transition period, such as is undoubtedly just over the horizon.
If you find yourself somewhere near Atlanta, there are quiet a few young readers of your blog that I am associated with who are in the process of implementing some of your ideas and would love to sit down with you and discuss ideas/practical solutions.
The second thing I wanted to mention was in reference to the sustainable housing section of this post, and to add my interest in this particular topic has recently led me to the idea of reusing decomissioned inter-modal shipping containers as modular housing. This has been implemented in Container City of London as well as by a local Atlanta organization called Global Peace Containers who use the overwhelming surplus of these crates to build schools, clinics, and other infastructure for struggling communities in Africa and South America.
Again, please keep up the great work, it is not only interesting but vital to some of your reader's future survival, and thank you kindly from us here in ATL for what you're doing.

Dwig said...

I've been following the development of your Rhizome model with considerable interest, in part because I think it might dovetail nicely with a project that I've begun: the idea is to create a "living document" exploring the nature of community, what makes communities successful or not, what problems they encounter and how do they resolve them, etc. Like you, I'm motivated by the feeling that strong communities will be an essential part of any successful response to the multiple crises bearing down on us. While you seem to be mostly focusing on the "external" aspects of rhizome communities, my project is intended to address the "internal" aspects. (Apologies if this is a mischaracterization of your work.)

Here is an early, skeletal version of this work -- I invite you to look it over, and if you're interested, let me know what you think. Also, if you know of others who might find this interesting, feel free to pass on the invitation.

My intent is for this to become a collaborative, growing document that can address both the theory and practice of community. To this end, I'm inviting a variety of people who might be interested in collaborating on an effort like this.

Jeff Vail said...

Hi Charles-

I think you highlight a very important and difficult point--if necessary steps toward self-sufficiency also create a situation where you stand out from your neighbors, how do you address the host of problems that will inevitably arise when you also stand out as the only one not starving/freezing/paying through the nose for "basics"?? I still like Hakim Bey's approach to this best--essentially stay off the map and take up some cover that doesn't give the appearance of sustainability (one of his examples was a "summer camp" that was composed of mostly counselors...). That's probably very realistic if you're in a truly rural location, but probably not a realistic approach if you're in essentially suburban or urban America, controlled by zoning and covenants and under the prying eyes of neighbors and police. What to do? Again, I think the specific solution has to be *your* specific solution, but I think two general paths (not exclusive) present themselves: 1) reach out to the community to make them happy that you're becoming more sustainable and trying to join you, and 2) disguise your sustainability.

On the outreach front, it could be valid in your circumstances to go directly to local law enforcement (perhaps a peak oil briefing, and how you are working to help ensure law and order, national security, all that), all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum of just blending in and trying to "look normal" so they ignore you completely. Giving an acceptable--if possibly also fake--tinge to your activities could help. Possibly anything from flying the flag at your well-signed "Victory Gardens to support the troops", to taking on the cover of a church group (Christian, of course) to better shroud yourselves in what the police will recognize as constitutionally protected actions? I'd be happy to brainstorm with you on specifics to your situation (email me), but I think these general prongs of outreach and concealment are a good taking-off point...

CookTing said...

Great idea(s), and you're a very eloquent writer! I'd suggest you turn this into a book, though (hey, a free eBook would be nice, but you could probably get the "real" thing published and make a few bucks for your effort). IMO, a blog is great for developing the idea and getting a conversation started, but, as an occasional visitor, I just walked in at "This fourth essay in a five-part series..." .... I'd like to read more about this "rhizome" theory from start to finish!

Jeff Vail said...


I think your draft on community is very interesting. I agree with your note on Dollo's Law--I don't think we can or should return to a carbon copy of past low-energy lifestyles, but I do think that these previous iterations hold many lessons for us. If I can contribute anything on the theory side, it would be the suggestion that a strong community alone is not enough--community of sufficient size, if not composed of smaller nodes that are themselves minimally self-sufficient, risks descending into a hierarchal, totalitarian form of organization. I think that community can make it for some time merely on the wisdom of a current group of leaders and their shared desire to avoid this fate, but for an egalitarian form of organization to last, reliably, more than a generation or so requires minimal self-sufficiency of very small (extended family) nodes. Well, at least I'm increasingly convinced of that... I'll keep tabs on your wiki page, and certainly let me know when there are updates.

Jeff Vail said...


I've updated the "Problem of Growth" page with a bit of a new introduction, and links to all five essays. Someday this may become another book, who knows--for now I'm still exploring these ideas. My biggest issue with my previous book, "A Theory of Power," was its static nature--I wish I had the time to make a major update, or to write a new book, but for now I'm just focusing on getting a blog post out once a week! If you're interested, "A Theory of Power" is available for free here:

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