Humankind can never do the important work of re-designing our agricultural systems on a community scale with dysfunctional and alienated communities. This is the core wisdom of permaculture: permanent (i.e. stable) culture for permanent agriculture. But, we need to re-design these systems as soon as possible, because our unsustainable and unstable reality is catching up with us quickly and creating much suffering!
I’ve been thinking a lot about where this alienation and dysfunction comes from and how we can re-design our communities for authentic relationships (using permaculture design which is based in systems thinking). As well as having this disconnected feeling and yearning for closer relationships, many people also feel a need for more solitude, a need to get away from too many people! Of course, there are many aspects related to the design of our social communities that simultaneously influence groups and individuals. For this article, I’d like to focus on one aspect, the size of personal communities.
In this day and age of seven-plus billion people on spaceship Earth, with cities of millions, towns of tens of thousands, people with two thousand and more Facebook friends, tens of thousands of Twitter followers — among many other forums — our lives are designed around “more is better,” yet many people still feel that we lack meaningful relationships. A friend recently pointed me to Dunbar’s number “a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.” Dunbar, an Anthropologist, puts this number at about 150 for humans.
Thinking about this through a Permaculture lens brings some insightful ideas. The design principle “Use small and slow solutions” seems to align with Dunbar’s findings, as one consideration in designing an ethical, sustainable, and resilient community would be “Setting limits to population and consumption…” (as Bill Mollison defines the third ethical basis of permaculture, in “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual”). Thinking not in terms of Malthusianism and population remedies/catastrophes but more in terms of our relationships, is there a benefit to focusing on a smaller, more intimate, social community?
Though social media seems excellent for sending a message to (and creating a dialogue with) large numbers of people, a question many people (including myself) struggle with is: How can we use this technology appropriately, while still designing a social life where interpersonal relationships have an authenticity and depth — a closeness of human relationship in which we can form a cohesive social community with the capability of implementing group solutions to the triple threat of climate chaos, resource depletion/peak energy, and a precarious global financial system based on debt?
Maybe our human communities and social circles are just too big for authentic relationships? This seems to explain the dual problem of yearning for closer relationships because of alienation and still wanting to get away and have solitude. An appropriate analogy seems to me as follows: if you ever took a lecture-format class in an auditorium with hundreds of people on a subject versus studying the same material with a small group where you discuss, interact, and synthesize the material, a common experience is that the first scenario fails to engage most students, whereas the second more intimate scenario leaves everyone in the group yearning to delve deeper into the subject matter.
Embarrassingly, this relates to my experience with my elementary schooling in which our science class was instructed to do a leaf collection and label all the leaves. I was so disinterested that my responsible mom ended up dragging me out to fifty trees and basically did the entire assignment for me! But now, having gardened in small intimate groups as well as being a student of Permaculture and being part of close networks of permaculturists, I managed to discover an unending insatiable craving for all knowledge related to plants and a curiosity about everything that grows around me. How and why did I pass up that earlier opportunity! In a more intimate learning environment, I might not have wasted that valuable opportunity. This is just a small example of how the size and quality of a community might influence its members in certain respects.
In today’s world, our subject matter is the dying planet. Does people’s disinterestedness in this subject relate to the size of our alienating communities?
If it is true that size of community can directly relate to the quality of our relationships, how can we design our communities to result in successful outcomes and authentic relationships? (1) This question led me to various ways to structure the 150 people for Dunbar’s number. One breakdown is in four categories: kin/close friends of about five people, a super family of about 20 more, a clan of 25 more, and then a tribe of 100 more (total 150). As far as I’m concerned, we could see these as nested categories (e.g. each successive group also containing the former groups) or separate designations. But, a permaculture perspective seemed to call for something different than these stepped categories. So, taking the pattern of the spiral (coincidentally the same pattern used on the “small solutions” snail!), I decided to utilize the groups, but instead on a graduated, less fragmented, progression.
My goal was to first analyze my social community and then, secondly, create an ideal social network — one in which I could feel more connected and less alienated within. My analysis created a somewhat startling result for me: it was very difficult to fill in the “close friends” and “super family” in an honest way — I had to leave a gaping hole in the center. My definition for placing people along the scale was "people who you have frequent person-to-person contact with whom you:
- feel you can tell them anything,
- know you can count on them anytime, and
- those who listen to you and share with you" (strongest candidates closest to the center).
… and then people you have (or maybe have not) met in person, but whom you have some communication with, are placed furthest away from the center.
The biggest factor that kept most people out of the center of the spiral for me was the “frequent person-to-person contact” part, which is a huge factor in many of our transportation- and distance-centered lives. Living in the suburbs on the edge of a major city, it is common for me to see a close friend three times a month at most — and most people only once a month. Due to the nature of my work I see co-workers four to eight times a month (but there is very little planning or democratic design within the capitalist economy, i.e. many of us have little say in choosing our work situation). The “permaDunbar spiral”, as I call it, is a snapshot of a moment of your social life, as everyone’s relationships are constantly in flux, constantly changing.
So, how can the problem be the solution? The problem is having too many people. Maybe we need more communities, rather than one large community. I think that people re-localizing in lobular groups rather than huge monocultures (compare lobe-thinking in keyhole garden beds), and loosely but self-consciously and collectively designing their communities based on the “permaDunbar spiral” (“loosely” to allow for natural relations to develop and “self-consciously” to provide focus), could potentially be a practical model to follow in beginning this important community journey. At the very least, people being conscious of (“Observe and interact”) the relationships they are developing and how much energy they put into different parts of their personal spiral, and the yields that come from those energy inputs, can be insightful in analyzing the connectedness or disconnectedness of someone’s social experiences in our modern world.
- Take two copies of the permaDunbar spiral.
- Fill in one to analyze your current community. How big is it? Does it align with Dunbar’s number? Are there any insights revealed from your analysis? I suggest first listing all your social contacts / relationships on a separate piece of paper, then putting them on the graduated spiral.
- Fill in the second spiral to create the most ideal community that you could imagine. How does this relate to your current reality? What design principles could you utilize to reach this vision of your interpersonal relationships? How could we collectively organize and re-design for smaller communities and more stable relationships?
- This second spiral could be your support network in times of struggle and hardship. Bringing this from an individual level to a collective/community level, how can you work with others to foster a community like the one that you envision?
Feel free to share insights and thoughts from participating in this activity in the comments below!
- Compare Bill Wilson’s concept of Agraria or Tiny Villages as a way of re-designing smaller, more authentic, communities.