Where is the momentum of history taking us? What role might intentional communities play in shaping that future? How will that future shape communities?
In June 2013, The International Communal Studies Association (ICSA) hosted it's 11th conference in the Ecological village Findhorn Foundation. The ICSA holds a conference every three years. It attracts communal scholars (academics from disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, history, education, architecture, politics, utopianism, geography, religious and cultural studies etc.) as well as community activists of intentional communities).The 2013 conference theme was:
Communal Pathways to Sustainable Living.
The presentations cover wide aspects concerning community life, both historical and modern. 250 participants arrived to Findhorn from over 30 countries, to a lively, informative conference.
Dr. Robert Gilman, a former astrophysicist, a well known explorer of the link between communities and sustainability, opened the first panel with a unique historical overview. Central to his perspective is the idea that humanity is now involved in a cultural transformation as profound as the shift out of hunting and gathering and into agriculture and cities, that happened roughly five to ten thousand years ago. The leading cultural forces of population and technology already reflect the new era but our major institutions – government, business, religion, finance – reflect the old.
He describes three historical periods of time: Tribal, Empire and Planetary. The first transition starts with farming and ends with cities. The second transition started with the Renaissance and it probably hasn’t ended yet. We don't know how much longer this transition will last but it seems that the next 20 to 40 years are going to be hugely consequential in terms of how this second great transition plays itself out.
In the Tribal Era, the main livelihood is hunting and gathering, the basis for social organization is kinship and the communications level-of-development is orality – stories, song, etc. In the Empire Era, the main livelihood is agriculture and the basis for social organization is violence-enforced, religiously-sanctioned hierarchy. The communications level-of development was elite literacy. In the Planetary Era, we don’t know yet. That’s the whole point… We’re trying to sort out what those characteristics might be like in the Planetary Era.
We need to develop tools in order to look beyond the Empire era towards the Planetary era. We need to look for analogies to dramatic changes in nature, to research our history, social and cultural, in order to find models of transition from one era to another. Part of our problem is that we are still living in Empire era mentality and it is difficult to look beyond it. The Empire era is still here. It shapes our language and beliefs, the way we live. Our daily life is changing but our brain still lives in the past and creates a cognitive dissonance. When we try to interpret reality, we need to find a way to get out of ourselves in order to look at a potential future. Reality is already beyond imagination. We need to focus on positive thinking. We are very good at predicting horror scenarios, not good at predicting a positive future.
When we look at our era as a transition period between two eras, what can we already see from the Planetary era?
Communication has already developed beyond imagination, wider connectivity. During the last 500 years, more people received the right to vote regarding their way of life. Innovation and creativity are looked at as a positive value. Technological innovations and international commerce started a chain of social and cultural changes, that lead to more technological innovations, international commerce and international communication.
We can be certain that innovation and creativity will continue to prosper, that people will continue nourishing each other and global conferences will spur yet more innovation, not just technologically. Gilman thinks that the real constraints today are in social considerations. How people live and work with each other and in co – creation with our unuiverse. Our ability to live sustainable life is a sign for transition to the Planetary Era. Since we are still in the chaotic stage, moving from a rapid growth of global population to an equilibrium, maybe even a decline, every aspect of life will be influenced – economy, government, judicial system, health, education, religion, warfare.
Gilman concentrates especially on warfare and says that the long-term trends are that warfare is, in fact, winding down. His sense is that within two generations, we will have ended warfare as an institution, and when we do that, we will really be out of the Empire Era. Warfare has been with us for 5000 years. With the levels of economic and communications integration and the need to become much more efficient, we finally begin to acknowledge that warfare is enormously wasteful. It no longer is as economically valuable as it was in the Empire Era, and it will just lose its support. Add to that the morality aspect, the developing consciousness of sustainable living, co- creation with nature. There is no doubt that a lot of these changes are going to be resisted. The Empire Era was built on bullying, the bullies are not going to be happy about losing their place and, of course, their mode of operation when they get stressed is to try to bully.
Gilman predicts that the Planetary Era will be characterized by sustainability and diversity, not just in occupations but in lots of ways. For instance, self organization, which will seem chaotic to our minds but it’s the way nature does it. Groups living according to their own rules, in perfect harmony with the environment. It will be necessary to develop deep connectivity, between individuals and communities, innovation, ease with learning, with discovering new things, with thinking out of the box.
The central issue of our times is not whether humanity or the Earth will survive. We very likely will. We could lose 90% of the human population and be back at the point that we were in about 1700. The issue is how graceful can the transition be? How much suffering can be avoided? How much long-term damage can be prevented?
We’re being called to be cultural midwives. There is a birth that is happening, and just as in a birth, you have a full spectrum from the possibility of a stillborn baby and a dead mother to something that is really beautiful and ecstatic. A good midwife can make a difference in terms of where you fall along that spectrum. So there’s a birth that’s underway and what we do will make a real difference. It’s taken countless
courageous choices by millions of people in hundreds of generations to get us to where we are at this point. And it’s going to take countless more, but with today’s communications, learning and innovation processes, we can build good cultural DNA, and spread it quickly.
So what do we need to do?
According to Gilman, we need to recognize that we are in this great transition and let go of the Empire Era. Find a way to honor it, bless it for its gifts, but let it go. And then step forward into the Planetary Era. We need to innovate, implement and educate, and we need to do it all with compassion. What is going to drive this forward is all of the good social innovations that will come from places like intentional communities.
The only way to change something is to make it obsolete. The only way to make it obsolete is to come up with a better way of doing things. The obstacles we face are human, cultural and solvable. It’s not as if there were an asteroid approaching us and there was nothing we could do about it. This is all of our own making and of our own remaking. The communities that are innovative get to enjoy the benefits of living in this new culture sooner.
The 2013 conference focused on the link between "community" and "sustainability". Historically, many intentional communities were focused on living modest, self sufficient life. Communities that are focused on their own private salvation, with the idea that the world is going to hell and they’re going to be the only safe places left, will find it very hard to survive.
Building new institutions can only be accomplished in groups, and in this epic transition from era to era, we need cooperation and communication between the different groups. Modern ecological villages, such as the Findhorn Foundation, who focuses on developing sustainable methods and are open to the world, can serve as research, demonstration and training points.
Gilman ends with suggestions for communities:
Examine your own images of your past and future. Look at places that you’re stuck in Empire Era thinking or in reaction to it. Expect changes, be ready for them. Work with the flow of history. Lead towards the emergence of Planetary Era by aligning yourself with those Planetary Era qualities: Innovation, creativity, implementation and education. If you have an inspiration for a positive change, please go ahead and innovate with that. And then once you’ve got something working well, get it out to a wider public. There’s something everybody can do along this innovate – implement – educate spectrum.