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Community, Belonging and the Polycrisis

April 6, 2023

Wherever I go and ask people what is missing from their lives,
the most common answer (if they are not impoverished or seriously ill)
is “community.”
— Charles Eisenstein

ChatGPT, the A.I. robot, often gets things badly wrong.1

It even makes wildly false statements rather routinely. But sometimes I find it useful to ask the bot a question as a very small part of my research process. Today, I’m glad I did. Oddly enough, it gave me the words I found difficult to articulate.

I asked:

Author and speaker, Charles Eisenstein, has said “Wherever I go and ask people what is missing from their lives, the most common answer (if they are not impoverished or seriously ill) is ‘community.’” And yet, in some sense, most people do live in what are called ‘communities’ — be it a village, town or city. It’s not so easy to conceptualize and make explicit what is missing in the lives of people, which is often called “community”. What is this missing element which so many complain about?

The bot said:

The missing element that people often refer to as “community” is a sense of belonging, connectedness, and shared purpose with the people around them. While people may live in the same physical location and interact with others on a daily basis, this does not necessarily translate to a feeling of community.

True community involves a deeper level of connection, where people feel a sense of belonging and are able to create meaningful relationships with others. This can be fostered through shared values, interests, goals, and a sense of mutual support and cooperation. In contrast, many people feel isolated, disconnected, and disengaged from those around them, which can lead to a sense of loneliness, anxiety, and even depression.

Moreover, modern society has emphasized individualism and self-sufficiency, which can create a culture where people prioritize their own needs over the needs of the community. This can make it difficult to foster a sense of shared purpose and to create the conditions necessary for community to thrive.

Overall, the missing element that people often refer to as “community” is a deeper sense of belonging, connectedness, and shared purpose with others in their environment. It requires a shift in values and priorities towards the collective good, as well as intentional efforts to foster relationships and build trust among community members.

I was delighted to discover, this morning, that my short essay, The Heinberg Pulse, had been republished at I had told the editors that they could feel free to republish any of my writings at The R-Word at any time without need for permission in each case. And there it was, the second (third, fourth?) one to be republished without my request. While The Heinberg Pulse is largely about the crucial importance of understanding the near term energy cost of energy transition, it also advocates for a way of framing climate activism which is far, far outside of the predominant framing provided by activist communities and organizations, generally. In this article, I advocated for a vastly increased role for organizing at what I called “the neighborhood scale”. And I did so because I believe the neighborhood scale is the most crucially important scale for enacting prefigurative politics. But if you read about the practices of prefigurative politics, it turns out that this mode of political organizing mostly amounts to building (or nurturing) community in the sense of the word ChatGPT provided above. But even this sense of belonging in community is more narrow than the one I have in mind. The sense of belonging in community I think we all deeply need now weaves human beings in—integrates us—with the other-than-human world, such that our neighbors are not just our fellow humans, but all of the life around us. And it integrates us with rocks and soil and sunlight as well. We deeply need belonging in this expanded sense of community—a community which includes butterflies, lizards, frogs, earthworms, fungi, deer, raccoons, squirrels, trees, ferns and birds.

The Polycrisis Is Driven By A Sense Of Non-belonging — An Absence Of “Community.”

Polycrisis’ is a term used to designate the complex and interconnected set of crises facing our world today. These crises include environmental degradation, economic inequality, political polarization, social fragmentation, and cultural disintegration, among other factors or symptoms. This term reflects the understanding that these crises are not isolated or disconnected issues, but rather part of a larger systemic challenge that requires a holistic and integrated approach to address.

The polycrisis is characterized by the interdependence and interrelatedness of these crises. For example, environmental degradation can exacerbate economic inequality, which can in turn lead to political polarization and social fragmentation. Addressing the polycrisis requires a fundamental shift in the way we think about and approach these issues. It requires recognizing the interconnectedness of these challenges and working towards solutions that are inclusive, equitable, and sustainable. This may involve rethinking our economic systems, our political institutions, and our social norms and values, as well as building new models for collaboration and cooperation across sectors and communities.

Often, these days, the “climate crisis” is treated as if it is utterly distinct from the “biodiversity crisis”. But these two are really best seen as aspects of one and the same dynamic — a dynamic with a common etiology and history. And I will go further, we cannot rightly understand the polycrisis — of which the climate and biodiversity crises are subsets and symptoms — without understanding these in relation to a crisis in education and media, and numerous other institutions of our society. We can say that the polycrisis is basically a crisis of culture, which includes a political crisis, since politics is a facet of culture. But I’m weary to my bones about the word politics these days, because I believe most everyone is quite mistaken about what politics is — what it amounts to. We tend to think of politics as something which occurs within government and governments. And that’s partly true, of course! But an awful lot of politics occurs outside of government. And this gives me a lot of hope, where otherwise I’d feel pretty hopeless.

Politics Is Decision Making In Groups.

At least, that’s what the fellow who makes the wonderful videos at WHAT IS POLITICS? (the YouTube channel) uses as his definition. And I like his definition very much. Some dictionaries use this definition. And others don’t. Some dictionaries use a mistaken definition which restricts ‘politics’ to what happens in government, with governments. I believe this restricted sense of the meaning of the word to be hugely problematic—, even dangerous!

But politics isn’t even best limited to decision making, per se. And here’s why: If I have a suburban lawn and I rip it up and replace this lawn with an organic permaculture garden (edible), that’d be a political act. There can be no denying that would be a political act — because it’s a public act of imagination and creativity. And it would be a public act of prefigurative politics in relation to the polycrisis. By ‘public’, I mean visible to one’s neighbors, as contrasted with ‘private’ as invisible to one’s neighbors. This is a different sense of the term ‘public’ which often distinguishes the public and private spheres politically.

Unfortunately, the dominant culture, mainstream media, and conventional politics do not recognize the communal sphere as existing. And that means we almost always habitually conceive of all ‘politics’ as either public or private politics. But both public and private politics in many nations have been absorbed into an experiential and conceptual schema in which all of life is about competition, combat, winning, hegemony, control, dominance — dominion. No wonder we long for a sense of belonging in community! No wonder we feel isolated and alienated! Our social lives are absorbed into competition and combat as a total way of life — excluding cooperation, sharing, giving and mutual aid.

All Politics Are The Politics Of An Ethos

In my essay, On Commoning, I say that “all politics are the politics of an ethos.” This, to me, is like saying “you reap what you sow”. The dominant culture of the modern western world has largely replaced — to the point of near extinction — earlier (or just plain different) ethe (plural form of ethos) in which commoning and “community” was the norm. In doing so, we became the first humans in the long history of our species who do not know their neighbor’s names, and in which our food comes from distant lands and is provided by people we don’t know. We’ve been dutiful followers of the ethos of a Megamachine which cares not in the least for a sense of belonging in community, least of all at the neighborhood scale. Our imaginations have been colonized by the Megamachine, and so have our politics. And I propose we take our lives back. And there is no time like the present. But we will need to wildly reimagine our neighborhoods — together. I don’t think it is possible to address the polycrisis without coming home to our neighborhoods. But this act of imagination requires something else we lost as the Meagamachine came to dominate our lives. Dialogue. Dialogue, most crucially, is not debate. It’s not an effort to win, to dominate. It’s an effort to be known and to know. It’s a neighborly act of being and belonging together.

What dream for your neighborhood comes to mind and heart in this moment? A community garden? A neighborhood composting project? Regular gatherings where neighbors can meet up and share food, music, play and dialogue? Neighborhood bicycle trips?

What you can do, or dream you can, begin it,
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated—
Begin it, and the work will be completed!
– from

1Always check anything it says for accuracy. It’s best to compare results with multiple sources. And if you choose never to consult an A.I. robot out of some sort of neo-luddite sensibility, I’m fully understanding this attitude and may well join you soon!

Teaser photo credit:, Public Domain.

James R. Martin

I'm an eco-cultural philosopher -- which is a fancy way of saying I am obsessed with trying to understand our human relationship to ecosystems and the biosphere in relation to philosophy of culture.

Tags: building resilient communities, polycrisis