Act: Inspiration

Gathering in Groups as Society Falls Apart

November 14, 2019

A guest blog by Vicki Robin, best-selling co-author of Your Money or Your Life, author of Blessing the Hands That Feed Us, and member of the Deep Adaptation Forum.

“Everyone wants community. Unfortunately, it involves other people.” I used that line in lectures on frugal living when talking of the loneliness of consumerism and the benefits of sharing resources. We idealize the good old days of people helping people out. But can we live them, given who we have become?

Individualism is one of the many privileges of ‘the privileged’ in Western society. We have options and choices about where we live, with whom, of what genders, ages or races, whether we are child-free or have a brood, what we eat, what we believe, jobs we’ll accept, and on and on and on. As people look at civilizational breakdown in detail, though, they realize that to survive, other people might not be optional – joining a group, a farm, a small town might be necessary.

Survival is not a solo sport. If it happens, it will happen in community – intentional, multi-generational family, accidental – where we can share the work, grow food, trade, defend ourselves, socialize, learn, teach, repair. Civilization, it turns out, has a lot of services built in that will need to be maintained as long as possible or created anew… or done without.

How do we, who are so accustomed to individualism, enter into a new reality of living in concert with others? Not as a condiment but as a necessity. Not through idealistic eyes but as a sober process of surrendering attachment to the ego’s demands and entering a state of belonging to a people and a place.

I’ve lived in several communities and learned many lessons, surprising ones and hard ones. Here are some ideas for those of you contemplating moving to an existing rural community or forming your own, given your perspective of deep adaptation.

In short…People. Power. Process. Projects. And sex. These will arise in any group that bands together for mutual aid. Best to talk about this – early and often.

aerial view of rice fields with houses

Photo by Tom Fisk on

Diversity of perspectives bring depth and wisdom to choices

I lived for a number of years with a team of ten people who had a series of shared goals in a larger context of service to others. I used to describe it as a cross between a monastery and the crew of the Starship Enterprise.

We developed many rituals and lots of mottos (and plenty of shadow). One motto was: “People before Projects and Projects before People’s ‘stuff’.” In other words, our relationships were primary. If our projects turned our relationships into merely team functions and we failed to remember our humanity and care, we would stop and reset. But if our projects were stalled because people indulged in public reactivity (fighting, pouting, gossiping, rejection, etc), we would ask them to work it through within or with one another.

We also developed rituals and simple tools for staying current. At least once a week we’d ‘circle up’ for heart sharing, which is very much like council or a talking stick circle. We’d share dinner daily, a time to catch up. For many groups even this much time together is noxious, but if you are in surviving-together-mode, the need for coordination increases. We also had a bulletin board and a notebook in a central place for messages. These days you’d have a Facebook group – though consider that we may be back to 20th century tools in the future.

Proximity will surely stimulate sexual energies and interests. Sticking in monogamous couples or singles dating responsibly is often the safest, but it’s good to acknowledge that people may well develop powerful feelings for their not-mates. Unacknowledged sexual attractions are wrecking balls for communities. Good communication channels and practices can at least provide ways to process these often-destructive disturbances.

Who makes decisions, and how, can be unexamined and therefore slip towards unequal, sometimes unconscious, power-over. Some conscious groups try to reverse the privilege scale by having women and people of colour speak first and white men later. In council we talk about “be lean of expression” and to not speak again until everyone has spoken once – just two of the rules that help all feel heard and all contributions get made.

In my team we explored a number of personal development paths to become more conscious of ourselves and group dynamics. When we found the Enneagram, we realized that among the ten of us we embodied all nine of the personality-types it describes. The Enneagram is just one language to describe diversity of personalities. The Meyers Briggs framework sorts people out in a similar way along dimensions of introvert/ extrovert, thinking/ feeling, intuitive/ concrete, process oriented/ completion oriented. Organisations often use this tool to help workers get along with impossible others.

We chose to regard our archetypal personalities (or perspectives) as assets to our harmonious functioning and wise decision making. Faced with a choice, we’d have each person reflect briefly on the pros and cons and from this we would most often, with little discussion, hit on a choice with a “ring of rightness”. It wasn’t consensus per se. Sometimes there would be one perspective that captured all of us as right. Sometimes we’d scrap the whole thing. Sometimes we’d see that the idea was good but not ripe. Sometimes we defaulted to the “theory of the strong opinion” – that if one person was passionate and no one objected, they could act with support.

As individuals we often see others as competitors, allies for our cause, or irrelevant to our goals.

For communities with shared goals, such a diversity of perspectives in a container of love and respect is crucial. The goal could be anything from keeping the streets clean and the gardens tended to building a water wheel to generate power, to evolving spiritually while avoiding the cultic tendencies of all groups.

A diversity of talents held in a container of common purpose

Community survival is not the same as survival skills like fire building or hunting. Communities need a range of skills. Gardening, cooking, raising animals for food, fiber and fertility, foraging, turning dandelions (and beets and apples etc) into alcohol, natural building, natural medicine, composting waste, food preservation… and on and on. However, it also needs talents like mediators, meeting facilitators, priests or shamans of all sorts (for confession, for learning from mistakes, for healing from pain, for solace, and on and on), comedians, actors, artists, group game leaders, meditation (and other transformational) teachers, wise-elder leaders, and on and on…

People accustomed to ample space, time and independence will need to have gotten a grip on themselves, their reactivity, their shadow elements, their capacity for forgiveness and apology, and their ability to take a wider view of any circumstance. They will need true sobriety, not just from addictive substances but from any immaturity.

As you gather in a group, intentionally or improvisationally, beware that your current friend network or Facebook group may lack some crucial talents. Liking one another – when you all have separate lives – is no basis for joining forces to move together in anticipation of collapse. A talent inventory can help. If major talents are missing, people need to (joyfully hopefully) step up to learning. The quality of leadership is crucial as all this gets sorted out. Everyone can be a leader in being self-aware and in service to the group. Some are comfortable with holding and distributing power for the sake of the group. But leadership isn’t the same as wielding power.

How to join a village

As people realize how dependent cities are on the surrounding rural communities for food, environmental refugees might migrate. First, one or two early adopters. Then more. And more. You can’t just show up in town expecting open arms and hot meals. Rural communities stick together and take care of their own because that’s how they survive. Trust is earned. Your city ways (how you talk, the assumptions you make, your habits, your expertise) may strike folks as arrogant. You need to do things that people who belong do: show up for the small tasks of daily life, like volunteering in schools, churches, social service agencies. You go to the pancake breakfast and the fish fry. You usher at the local theatre. Or try out for a part. Or join the community choir.

Everything about deeply adapting to an unfolding collapse of modern society will grind away at your preferences and identities. If you think you might be one of the people who moves to a small town or onto a farm with a group of people here are some ways through which you can prepare yourself:

Starting to learn and practice Non-Violent Communication, or any process that teaches you to own your feelings, observing your projections, taming your demand that others change so you might continue to be comfortable, or manipulate and lie.

Joining a board or work on a project team to observe how you function in groups, how you judge others, how you offer your ideas, whether you talk a lot and over-talk others or hang back, your fears of being seen or looking stupid or doing more than your fair share.

Starting to learn some facilitation skills, like council, or active listening (“this is what I heard you say”), or organizing open space (where groups self-organize into interest groups) or consensus.

Starting to learn some coaching skills, how to ask questions and offer practices to others as they find their way. For example, friends and I developed a circle practice called Conversation Cafes that is now used globally.

Beginning or deepening a meditation practice that allows you to witness rather than identify with your thoughts, and to let go of stress, tightness and defensiveness though simply watching your breathing and tracking your thoughts and feelings without interacting with them.

Consider getting some therapy so you experience the beneficial effect of being listened to with warm awareness by someone who sides with you, not your inner critic.

These are suggestions for while the good times are still rolling. When the pressure is on and individuals find themselves in groups for survival – in collective households, in villages, on food lines, in camps – those who are mentally healthy, self-aware and skilled at working with others will be necessary for success. Frictions will arise. The skill is to work with them as they do. These are lessons from voluntary affiliations that can help us as we work to stay alive and keep our people well. To help, Diana Leafe Christian has written a wonderful book, Creating a Life Together, full of deep wisdom and practical advice. Much wisdom from the Eco-Village experiments worldwide has been captured in this excellent book by Karen Litfin, EcoVillages: Lessons for Sustainable Communities.

A final note…

Sh*t happens. As Robert Burnes said, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft a-gley:” People fall out of love. People have kids, need to move on, are banished, sink through quarrelling. At the end of the day, maturity is the bottom line. And humility. And good will.


Over to you:

Thank you Vicki, for fascinating reflections on this important issue, which is live for me and many people I speak to.  Have you got experience or advice for living in intentional communities? Please consider sharing this in the Community Action discussion group of the Deep Adaptation Forum. If you want to find or create a group on Deep Adaptation in your local area, start here


Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food, farming, belonging, and hope. Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition.” She has also been featured in hundreds of magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine, and the New York Times. She currently lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound and is active in her community on a range of social and environmental issues including affordable housing, local food, and community investing. For fun, she is a comedy improv actress, sings in a choir, gardens, and nurtures a diverse circle of friends.

Tags: building resilient communities, community conversations, Reskilling