Every debate has its blind spots and the one about community in peak oil circles is no exception. It is fascinating to see how little discussion there is about what is, after all, the most basic community in all human society : family. There are, of course, good reasons for that. Few among us have any sympathy for the family values crowd, a species unfortunately every bit as widespread and nefarious on this side of the Atlantic as on the other one and we certainly don’t want to be put in the same basket as they. This is however unfortunate, for, no matter how polluted it is by religious non-issues, the family question and its evolution is of the foremost importance if we want to make sense of the post-peak world.
Contrary to what common wisdom says, traditional families are quite diversified. In fact, aside from the fact children are reared by at least one of their biological parents as normal people are not supposed to sleep with their sisters or mothers – the key word being “normal”, a concept which obviously excluded Pharaohs and Incas. In many cultures, the main masculine figure in the family is not the father but the maternal uncle, for instance. One – the Mosuo of south China – does not have any concept of marriage. As she comes of age, a girl is given a private room where she can invite “partners”. While most women have only one at any given time, they can change partner as often as they want without any further formality and nothing prevents them from having several lovers at the same time.
The Mosuo live in extended families, but those only include the maternal line. Biological fathers, even though they are generally known, are not members of the family and play little part in the education of their children. Those are reared by their mother, their aunts, their uncles and, of course by the matriarch, who is the real head of any Mosuo family. This system is quite recent, and was created and ruthlessly enforced by a now-gone nobility which wanted to make sure commoners could not marry up. This however does seem to be every bit as functional as the western nuclear family – itself a recent phenomenon – which fundamentalists and Lacanian psychoanalysts are so fond of.
What is almost universal, however, is the public, socially integrated nature of the family. No matter how weird its form, the family is almost everywhere an economic and politic unit. As Cristopher Lasch pointed out, the idea of the family being a private place removed from the economic world is a fairly recent innovation. It appeared in Victorian England, among the upper class, and slowly spread outward and downward during the last two centuries until it became the norm at least in the developed world.
It is no coincidence that this idea appeared in the cradle of the industrial revolution. In the preindustrial world, families could hardly afford to keep one of their members idle. It was only after colonization, and then industrialization has created enough surplus that families were progressively removed from the economic sphere. It was a long process, marked by the generalization of mandatory schooling, the gradual emergence of childhood as a distinct part of life and the replacement of family workshops by factories. It was completed only after WWII when domestic economy was marginalized. It was not always a bad thing – generalized education certainly wasn’t – but it certainly did not lead to an improved self-reliance.
This retreat from the productive world appeared, of course, in the law, as family became, legally speaking less and less a social and economic institution and more and more a private association of private individuals. The last step in France was the creation of the PACS, a kind of civil union, aimed at homosexuals, but open to heterosexuals. It is steadily gaining ground in the general population and is probably bound to replace marriage at some point of the future. Unlike marriage, however, the PACS is a contract. It is far less protective and can be dissolved far more easily. The financial solidarity between the partners is limited to the goods they have specifically bought together and of course, there is no alimony.
This evolution has been made possible, however, only by industrialization and the ready availability of highly concentrated energy sources. They allowed to build the layers of social complexity – corporations, state bureaucracies, logistic and education networks – the economic and social functions of family were basically outsourced to. As fossil fuels dwindle away, there will be less and less resource to support this complexity and it will progressively fade away.
Families will then be bound to assume again the social and economic role which was theirs in preindustrial times. In a way, this has already begun, as relatively well-off parents often help, at least here, their struggling children, and this very effective solidarity has been a major factor in cushioning the effects of the crisis. As an ever greater part of the population slides into poverty, the role of families in keeping the society together, materially as well as morally, will increase correspondingly.
This will be a slow process, of course, and it is likely to be restricted to the struggling middle classes at first, the rich clinging to the private haven model almost to the bitter end. There is no reason why the end result should be identical to the preindustrial extended family and gay marriage – or some variation of the PACS – and divorce could – and should – definitely be a part of the equation. Those existed in the past even if they were not common. Divorce was a recognized – and effective – right for women in early Islam and there definitely were same-sex unions in China and Rome, not to speak of the long established “third sex” tradition in the Pacific.
What definitely won’t be a part of the equation is the Victorian idea of the family as a private place, only dedicated to marital – and sometimes parental – love, and without any responsibility toward the community. As one of the building blocks of any community, it will have to become fully integrated into it, with all the limitations this implies. This means, for instance, that its dissolution, even though it must remain possible, will have to be more carefully considered than in today’s society, not because divorce is wrong, but because the break up of an household will have far reaching consequences for the community it is a part of.
But now, being an ecologist is about understanding limitations.