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Envisioning a hamlet economy: topology of sustainability and fulfilled ontogeny

The goal of this post is to outline a concrete framework for establishing a new economy based on rhizome structure that provides negative feedback against encroaching hierarchy, that ensures environmental sustainability, and that maximizes its compatibility with human ontogeny.

I will first outline my approach to the problem, then look at one historical example—how the lattice network of Tuscan hill towns created a topology that addressed its unique circumstances, then analyze the optimal theoretical topology of a modern rhizome economy, and finally discuss some real-world concerns for the conscious design and establishment of a new hamlet economy.

Part 1: Methodology

This post aims to take the theoretical structure of rhizome, and flesh-out how a real-world economy will be built upon that model. Rhizome, in short, is defined as a non-hierarchal network of self-sufficient but interacting nodes. Within the context of a hamlet-economy, defining the threshold of self-sufficiency is the key theoretical step. It would be unrealistic to suggest that each individual be totally self-sufficient—while perhaps possible, it would result in an unacceptably low standard of living, as well as lack the resiliency necessary to prevent the accretion of hierarchy. It would be equally unrealistic to place the threshold of self-sufficiency too high, for that would create uncontrollable dependencies internal to the economic structure that would trend, eventually, towards a kind of feudal hierarchy. The exact location of the threshold of self-sufficiency may vary, but it must be at the lowest level, under the circumstances, that can:

1) Leverage the de-facto division of labor without dividing the knowledge to perform that labor. This permits raising the potential standard of living above individualized self-sufficiency, without creating dependency on the knowledge of another that can lead to hierarchy and exploitation.


2) Provide adequate redundancy to absorb sufficient systemic shock. For example, if self-sufficiency is placed at a level of two-person groups, then in the face of a shock that incapacitates one person, the other must absorb the full shock. Similarly, because this model will be based partially on horticultural modes of production, it must have enough diversity that it can absorb failures of certain crops or resource production processes brought about by weather, disease, etc.

In this model, I have placed the threshold of self-sufficiency at the familial group level. This threshold leverages the existing, biological human tendencies toward kinship, and creates a basic rhizome node that consists of roughly 10-40 people, or about 4 extended, nuclear family units.

The mode of production for this model is a hybrid of horticulture, gathering and hunting, with emphasis on a highly diverse system of horticulture (based on permaculture, fukuoka, and forest-garden concepts) to maximize standard of living, but with continual maintenance of significant spare capacity (geographic space and knowledge) to both hunt and gather to act as an absorber of systemic shocks.

Finally, the issue of specialization and specialty production must be addressed, where each node, in addition to providing minimal self-sufficiency for themselves, also produces one or more specialized product to facilitate economic interaction with other nodes, as well as to leverage the communication and information processing capability of rhizome to organize economic interaction in a way that generates much higher standards of living than can each node on their own. This latticed economic interaction is the glue that holds together the rhizome structure, ultimately serving as the strongest defense against encroachment by hierarchy—a single node cannot likely hold out against expanding hierarchy, but a well connected rhizome society of nodes can.

Part 2: Topology Lessons from a Tuscan Hill Town

This discussion of nodes and lattice is all very theoretical—it can be difficult to envision how it would actually take shape in the “real world.” For that reason, an extant, historical model that illustrates many of these concepts is useful. Tuscan hill towns are an interesting example—certainly not a perfect example of rhizome, but they are a decent example of a networked economic topology that consisted of many relatively self-sufficient nodes. They are, as with all vernacular physical geography, a unique product of their circumstances: fertile terrain punctuated by rough forests and hills, Mediterranean climate, an ancestral fabric of small farms, and a disintegration of rule by outside powers that led to the many social, economic, and technical innovations of the Italian city-states. My personal favorite is Lucignano, a relatively small and insignificant hill town depicted below. I will use it as the model hill-town for purposes of this discussion, so take a moment to familiarize yourself:

Fig 1: Lucignano map

Figure 1: Here’s a map of Lucignano. Note the defensive arrangement of the housing and the patchwork of small fields.

Figure 2: Here’s an artist’s sketch of Lucignano…both the map and the sketch below depict the town in its modern form, which as far as I could tell hadn’t changed much in several centuries.

Figure 3: A picture Lucignano that I took from the Fortezza Medicea (see map above) where I stayed for a week in May of 2002.

I trust that you’ve enjoyed your brief virtual-tour of Lucignano…

It is interesting to note the impact of the continual wars between Florence, Siena, and other renaissance city-states in Italy on the architecture of the classic Italian hill town. Is this kind of inward-looking, defensive posture necessary in an envisioned future? Can a more open design, oriented to capture passive solar possibilities, be viable? What sizes of settlements are necessary—small familial farmhouse clusters, hamlet clusters of families oriented for convenience or defense, or trading or craft-industrial villages that produce local specialty products?

In the case of Lucignano, many or most farmers lived within the defensive walls and walked to their fields each day. Additionally, the degree of hierarchy—resulting from the high-level threshold for self-sufficiency (which was located at the level of the hill town—in this case over a thousand people)—was certainly not optimal. The specific architecture and economic structure will vary by climate, resources, level of defensive need, etc., but the basic network structure of the hill towns remains instructive: the hundreds of hill towns that dot the map of Tuscany formed a powerful and resilient network of localized economic interaction.

Today, this same region is demonstrating a resurgence of the very kind of sustainable, “fulfilled ontogeny” economy that is the goal of this model, even though it exists within a largely hierarchal and industrial society. The “Slow Food” movement was, in fact, initiated by the mayor of Greve-in-Chianti, one of the more famous hill towns of this region, and is now spreading around the world. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Tuscan hill town is an important symbol of the “good life” that may ultimately be achieved through this kind of rhizome economy—it is something that is desirable even within our modern culture, that can be readily understood, and that promises not “a return to the stone-age,” but a positive vision of “moving forward with an eye to the past” that is nearly universally preferable to the experiences of modernity. Since this can be such a difficult theoretical concept to sell, the ability to relate it to a well-known example is invaluable. There are certainly other examples, but within Western culture, this one may carry the most weight.

Part 2: The Optimal Topology of Rhizome and the Hamlet Economy

Rather than try to explain the optimal topology of a rhizome structure in words, I will try to more effectively illustrate this structure in the captions of the following graphics:

Figure 4: The above illustration is the theoretically optimal topology for a single rhizome node, representative here of a familial cluster.

Close and strong connections exist within the node, representing the connectivity inside the extended familial group. Outside links are variously looser and weaker connections, the closer connections with the local hamlet, and the distant connections creating inter-hamlet ties, and creating the “small-worlds” situation where weak and distant connections greatly enhance the overall efficiency of connectivity. The green region denotes the geographic space required by the node to achieve minimal food self-sufficiency.

Figure 5: The above illustration shows a hamlet, or a cluster of familial nodes.

The groupings in terms of 4:4:4 is not fixed, but merely a convenient way to convey a flexible structure. Close and strong connections exist within the hamlet, and variously looser and weaker connections reach outside, replicating in a fractal manner the same “small-worlds” theory as seen in individual nodes. The larger, lighter green region represents the geographic space required for “wildlife, hunting, and foraging,” or permaculture’s “Zone 5,” which is controlled “in trust” by the hamlet for their non-exclusive use, but available for their use as a reserve-bank should their horticultural scheme underperform.

Figure 6: The above illustration represents the broader landscape of a lattice-structure of clusters of rhizome nodes.

It represents a theoretical distribution, and demonstrates that there are no “super-hamlets,” towns, or villages—the landscape is “flat” at the hamlet level, because any accretion to a higher order settlement would open the door to hierarchy. Instead, more complexly coordinated functions are facilitated by temporary groupings, as shown in the next illustration.

Figure 7: The above illustration denotes the ability of transient connection, fairs, festivals, etc. to affect longer-distance, weak connectivity that greatly enhances the overall efficiency of the lattice’s communication and information processing capability.

Because more distant nodes are brought in contact with these occasional events (shown as dashed blue, red, or purple lines), the number of nodes that information or exchanges must transit to span large distances is greatly reduced (as illustrated by the black line transaction, where only two steps are necessary to bridge a distance that would otherwise require 8 steps in neighbor-to-neighbor transfer). These larger, weaker, and transient networks facilitate more complex activity and more specialized economic exchange without facilitating hierarchy.

For example, even if only one node in 50 actually breeds goats or brews beer, all 50 nodes will have easy access to these products through seasonal fairs, transient markets, etc. In theory, there is no limit to the technological or industrial complexity that can be handled by such transient groupings of a still “flat” rhizome lattice. This format prevents more complex projects (defense, highly specialized goods like metal working or glass, social richness) from acting as a catalyst to the creation of hierarchy.

Figure 8: The orderly geometric lattice structure must, in reality, be draped over the natural geography, to include terrain, climate, resource distribution, etc.—as illustrated above with regards to a simple topographical map.

While the theoretical and geometrically symmetrical lattice illustrated in Figure 6 provides easier initial conceptualization, the lattice illustrated in this figure is more realistic. In reality, several different “conceptual terrains” will each simultaneously impact the actual geospatial structure of the lattice. For example, physical terrain, difficulty of travel, resource concentrations, water availability, soil richness, etc. will all influence the layout.

Part 4: Reality, and the Implementation of a Hamlet Economy

Real-world implementation of this conceptual “hamlet-economy” requires efforts to guarantee resiliency, coping with the existing built landscape, and achieving coordination and standardization of this fractal pattern without a top-down hierarchy.

Rhizome lattice is great, in concept. However, if it does not demonstrate adequate resiliency, it will only last until the first major systemic shock—and systemic shocks have always and will continue to impact humanity, from weather, war, technology, famine, disease, etc. The hamlet-economy fosters resiliency by using long-time-horizon resource cultivation techniques, as well as planned redundancy in resource cultivation.

For example, the forest garden concept is illustrative: while all horticultural and agricultural schemes vary in annual return, failure of a forest garden scheme one year does not propagate failure in future years. With a forest garden, after establishment, large quantities of resources are stored and available for harvest to make up for shortfalls in other areas. Similarly, maintenance of spare capacity in foraging and hunting, used only minimally in years where horticulture produces well, provides a safety net for years when horticulture produces poorly. This built-in redundancy is critical to maintain the viability of horticulture—along with its normal benefit of increased standard of living—through years when horticulture performs poorly.

It is also important to recognize that the implementation of this kind of hamlet-economy will, in most circumstances, require adaptation of an existing landscape—in most cases a landscape that is not sustainable, that is hierarchal, and that is not compatible with human ontogeny. This introduces an artificiality, in the sense that the theoretical structure may be impacted by existing hierarchal infrastructure (like towns and highways). Perhaps the best way to circumvent this is to begin to “plant the seeds” of a hamlet economy in existing rural areas, and then expand into prior towns and cities as they become non-viable.

Finally, it is important to address the issue of enforcing this structural pattern without utilizing top-down, hierarchal means. One key tool in this effort will be the use of open-source arguments to explain and justify the reasoning behind adapting this pattern—such as, hopefully, this post. Another will be the use—perhaps in modernized format—of the traditional norm enforcement tool of myth. Stories explaining the pitfalls of straying from this basic structure will help to keep the core principles intact.

Finally, and I think most importantly, the success of this theoretical structure will depend on the ability of the pioneer implementers to demonstrate that it provides a better standard of living than other structures. If the average American could live the “good life” of living in a stereotypical Tuscan villa, and if they are shown how they, too, CAN have this lifestyle, then people will literally flock to this structure. Ultimately, this is a POSITIVE vision of the future—not a reversion to feudal serfdom, but a progression to a more egalitarian and human-compatible life…

Editorial Notes: Short Bio of Jeff Vail. See Jeff's website, Theory of Power for more articles and contact information. -BA

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