Monday, July 28, 2008


In the book Superbia: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods, Authors Dan Chiras and Dave Wann emphasize the need to re-establish true communities as a way for Americans to live safe and healthier, without damaging others and the environment. The facts and logic behind this observation are indisputable. We get more lasting emotional value out of relationships than fleeting entertainment; borrowing items that are used infrequently anyway is much less wasteful than trying to own everything we might conceivably use; and communities are much more resilient than individuals in a host of circumstances.

Chiras and Wann quote Margaret Mead as observing the historical (and perhaps optimum) community size as been between 12 and 36 members (p. 26). It’s not unreasonable to suppose that larger groups would invite centralized leadership, regardless of the ownership model being used, diluting the input of individuals and therefore the integrity of the relationships, a mechanism that may well lead to the mismanagement found in all large, centralized governments. In contrast, the success of capitalism depends on small, independent producers and consumers, all with access to total and accurate information about products and services, suggesting that economies might best function at the same scale (or at least with units that aren’t any larger).

I have noticed considerable confusion between the concepts of community and both communism and socialism, especially among political conservatives. I suspect that this confusion comes from the cynical co-opting of community terminology by dysfunctional, socialist economies and governments such as China and the former Soviet Union. The growing failure of U.S. politics and economics can be traced to the same cause: too much power in the hands of too few people. While distributing power too diffusely could lead to an equally bad outcome, anarchy, the institution of operational community sizes might prove to be a good middle ground for efficiently organizing society. Having communities of communities, each interacting as “super-persons,” might provide a useful medium of dispersing necessary information and coordinating action among large groups.

To some extent towns, cities, and states approximate this model; but I would argue from their observed failures that their components are too large and therefore their relationships too complex to be functional. Beginning at an informal level, it would perhaps be wise to begin building communities again, breaking down barriers to communication and interaction, and working from the local level “up” to find the most fair and efficient granularity of relationships among people to deal with the issues that confront us at every scale.

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