It was 2015 when I found the answer to why you and I crave community.
When you think of the word “community”, you likely get a wish-wash of concepts and reactions, both for and against it.
Identity. Value. Purpose. Belonging. Contribution. Sharing. Meaning.
These are a few words you likely associate with “Community.” And who doesn’t want these? This want in our life + our inability to clearly define what community means indicates a real problem – how can you know if you have community, or if you are a part of a healthy one, if we can’t clearly define it?
So what is community? I found a suitable answer in 2015 when I was preparing a presentation on how to apply the design science of Permaculture to social systems, in addition to homes and landscapes. Wanting to start the presentation with a clear definition of community, I searched the internet… and searched… and searched! Every definition I found was missing something important. Here are three examples:
- Oxford Dictionary: A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. This to me seemed the broadest stroke of a definition for community. It encompasses that we share a country or ethnicity, but in its broadness it lacks specificity and is hardly compelling.
- Oxford Dictionary: A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. Now we are starting to get a more personal with words like “feelings” and “goals”! This would now include things like religion, a sports team, or a union. While this is a valid facet of what community can mean, it is not robust enough and trivializes the core essence of community being something that is functional and essential.
- Oxford Dictionary: A group of interdependent organisms of different species growing or living together in a specified habitat. Honestly, this definition has the same issues that the previous two had; on one hand it is very broad, but it is also hyper specific to biology. But this biology definition captured something essential in a single word… “INTERDEPENDENT”.
The essence missing from every definition was an emphasis on being part of a larger ‘whole’ that is only possible and healthy through functional integration of its individual counterparts. I felt exhilarated at chasing this missing essence down, and yet I also felt frustrated and confused. Why was this information so fractured? Why did it take such a hard line of inquest to arrive at this answer? And most importantly, where was the eloquence in communicating this concept which is critical for society? As a teacher I always tell myself – “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t know it well enough.”
There was one last line of research I hadn’t explored yet: semantics and language. When you are trying to capture the essence of something with words, it can be insightful to look to the roots of language, of what the individual components of a word mean. Here is what I discovered about the Latin origins of the word “community”:
- “Com-“: Means “with” or “together”
- “-munis-” Means “the exchanges that link”
- “-tatis”: Means “small” or “local”.
Translation: The local exchanges and sharing that link us together.
These Latin root words eloquently encompass what community is and it allows us to critically ask ourselves if we belong to and contribute to healthy resilient communities. I would argue that we lack real community in two fundamental ways:
First, the average citizen today lacks a sense of belonging, identity, and contribution to their local landscape. Every other species on this planet lives in community WITH their local landscape, feeding from it, living with with its natural rhythms, and only continuing to grow quantitatively if their world improves qualitatively. For centuries, possibly millennia, as a species we have been increasingly successful in separating ourselves from our landscape and these cycles to become seemingly independent from our environmental constraints – we do not eat from it, we no longer drink from it, we no longer follow its ebbs and flows, and we have created climate controlled environments to keep us out of it. Born through the intent of convenience and comfort, we have systematically removed the local exchanges that link us to our lands.
Secondly, never before in history have we had so many human beings who feel so alone, and it is because of the lack of INTERDEPENDENT social exchange. Our food, our homes, and almost every single thing we want and need is produced through the efforts of people we do not know and from locations far away, instead of through local exchanges that are supposed to be the backbone of every community. It is no wonder people seek a sense of social community – the feeling of connection, purpose, and value which should come through sharing and local exchanges of goods and services has been displaced. But it does not need to remain so.
Physically, it is not hard to connect again with our local environmental community. Bearing in mind that we can only thrive if our local and global environmental community thrives, here are 3 ways to quickly reconnect:
- Return organics back to the land and create soil. For most, this means having a backyard or worm bin composter. This saves us from locking valuable nutrient in landfills and provides newfound understanding of soil, food, and its interplay with the cycles of life and death.
- Encourage biodiversity. Life begets life, and you do not need to be a biologist, botanist, or green thumb, to instigate life on your landscapes. Any actions you take to build soil, to grow a garden, to plant perennials or trees, will incur new cycles of micro-organisms, insects, and animals.
- Encourage water. Water is life, and our human landscapes have been designed to shed water, rather than retain it. The reasons for this are practical for infrastructure, but come at the cost of ecosystem health and biodiversity. You can counteract this larger trend and connect with your landscapes potential by capturing rain water through tanks, earthworks, or ponds. The value it provides for temperature moderation, drought resilience, and biodiversity is incredible.
Socially, we can foster local community again. It is simply the action of providing value and supporting others who provide value for the local community. We must give ourselves the chance to be needed, and to humbly engage our community with our needs. The former requires us to analyze our skill sets and strengths, then ask ourselves how we are able to contribute.
Many people balk at the idea, or the result, of analyzing their functional capabilities because, yes, most of us are pretty darn useless. And indeed this is why we have community; you can pick ANYTHING which your community needs or wants, but you can’t do EVERYTHING. So I urge you – RESKILL. It’s liberating to feel competent, even if it’s in just one aspect of what you, your family, and your community need.
And so I will close by saying that community begins with us – we make the links with every dollar we spend, with what livelihoods and skills we choose to learn and offer our community, and with how we engage the world outside our front door.
(Kenton is a passionate educator for sustainable living who lives in an off grid tiny house with his wife in northern Alberta. Kenton runs a wide array of workshops to create sustainable homes, edible landscapes, and resilient communities.)