Sharon August 21st, 2009

One of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it.  As a people, wherever we have been, we have never really intended to be.  The continent is said to ahve been discovered by an Italian who was on his way to India.  The earliest explorers were looking for gold, which as, after an early streak of luck in Mexico, always somewhere farther on.  Consquests, and foundings were incidental to this search – which did not, and could not, end until the continent was finally laid open in a orgy of goldseekin in the middle of the last century.  Once the unknown of goegraphy wasmapped, the industrial marketplace became the new frontier, and we continued, with largely the same motives and with increasing haste and anxiety, to displace ourselves – no longer with unity of direction, like a migrant flock, but like the refugees from a broken anthill.  In our own time we have invaded foreign lands and the moon with the high toned patriotism of the conquistador and the same mix of fantasy and avarice.

That is too simply put.  It is substantially true, however, as a description of the dominant tendency in American history.  The temptation, once that has been said, is to ascend altogether into rhetoric and inveigh equally against all our forebears and all present holders of office.  To be just, however, it is necessary to remember that there has been another tendency: the tendency to stay pu, to say ‘No farther, this is the place.’  So far, this has been the weaker tendency, less glamorous, certainly less successful.” – Wendell Berry “The Unsettling of America”


Most of us are here where we are without substantial ability to change our circumstances in a deep material sense.  I think this observation is true, but painful for many people – that is it is possible that we may move about, it is possible that we may change jobs.  But we are on a gradual slide away from economic stability, away from a dream that growth could always continue or come back, away from the idea of giving our children better in the sense of material increase, and utimately, towards the realization that we are staying where we are in the largest sense – the possibility of new frontiers has been erased.

For Americans, this may be the deepest of all psychological shifts.  Wendell Berry wrote _The Unsettling of America_ before I was born, articulating the tension, as he has so many times since, between the impulse to stop and stay, and the impulse to always go on to the next thing.  The slow and painful realization that we are here where we are, and that the next thing may not represent a substantial shift in our fortunes, that the next move may not be to a better life but away from rising seas or away from too dire a situation, or that there may not be any move – that we may have chosen without choosing to stay, because we can no longer sell, and no longer afford to move, and we are here.

I know that many of my readers are not where they plan to be – others are in places that have a short term future, but may not have a long one.  There are many particulars of migration and movement in our future – in fact, I suspect many of these movements may, in some degree, track a backwards path past the frontiers of each stage in America, as the new call becomes “Go East, Young Man – at least there’s water!”  And yet, I think there is a larger truth here – that what we have now may be the most we can ever hope to pass down, that preserving what we’ve managed to retain is a project worth doing. Hence, of course, the idea of adapting in place for both those who have chosen something optimal and had their place thrust upon them.  Hence my newest project – the idea that on some level, it is possible to organize people around the idea of staying here, wherever here may be, because we are here, slowly losing ground, but here, and the ground below us is at the root, what we have to sustain us.

Much of what I write about in terms of Adaptations, particularly for people living in densely populated areas, but really for all of us, involves enlisting the people around you.  This is an enormously difficult job for most of us – partly because of the anomie of our culture, partly because we are not accustomed to community, partly simply because we have not had to – each of us could have a fossil fueled, private solution to needs once met collectively in most cases.  And the tools we have to get our next door neighbors to work with us are not easy ones – some people do it, others find themselves saying “ok, I’m here, but I’m fundamentally alone, and I can only go so far that way.”  Any hope of staying – and by this I mean in the largest sense – of turning our homes and nations wherever they may be, into places where the dominant narrative is overturned and we are enlisted into the vast project of making here livable, must begin with other people.  How do you get them together?  

I’ve written thoughts and solutions on this.  But still, I think more than any other preparation, how to begin, how to move forward, how to get your neighbors, who may think climate change is bunk and have never heard of peak oil, to simply talk to you about what to do if the water stops flowing is hard, oh, hard.  Taking on that problem, coming up with some kind of solution – and one that doesn’t require converting everyone to one perspective – this is a major project, and thus, the horns of my dilemma. 


Despite the fact that I spend an awful lot of time reading things and talking to people that put the nail in the coffin of our present way of life; despite the fact that my job description has the word “doom” in it ;-) , I mostly rather like my job.  I meet interesting people, I learn new stuff, I get to have an impact and be useful to people - and I do most of it from my home.  The boys can come up and perch on the bed when they have something to show me, I can whip down for a cup of tea, a chat with the husband and look in on the goats or start some pickles fermenting.  I get to wear my pajamas all day and listen to turkeys peeping to one another while I type.  Despite an ever-increasing number of very flattering invitations to come speak to other people, I usually only travel for more than a day or so a few times a year, so I’m mostly at home, which allows me to cook, preserve, garden, etc… around all the time I spend writing, reading, editing, etc…  It has its downside – not much money, not enough sleep, no retirement plan, a certain measure of stress and psychological difficulty, but all in all, I certainly can’t complain, particularly when so many people have no work at all, much less work they can enjoy.

And because I mostly like my life so much, I’ve been very reluctant to change it.  And that means that for the better part of two years, I’ve been struggling against an idea.  Maybe you’ve had this experience – where on some level you know there’s something true or right about a choice, but for a whole host of reasons,  you don’t want to think about it or acknowledge it. 

For me, I’m not sure when the first internal arguments began – perhaps at the post-conference meeting of the 2007 Community Solutions Conference on Peak Oil where I argued that we needed a neighborhood, most immediate level response to our collective crisis than could be achieved at the municipal level.  Or maybe it started when I wrote my essay “The Church Model for Environmental Groups” that argued that we needed to find new models for establishing groups to respond to our situation, ones with lower barriers to entry and more immediate responsiveness. 

I have known for a long time that if we are to work on a community level, we’re going to have to use the old community and neighborhood organizing strategies, rather than a series of showings of End of Suburbia or How to Boil a Frog (don’t get me wrong, I really think very highly of these movies).  That is, that we are going to have to be able to enlist people at very low levels of commonality, rather than at high levels of education about the future of the world if we’re to get enough bodies on the ground to do what is needed.  And that these communities need to be built, well, yesterday.

I’ve been offering general strategies for building community all along, and for some people, it works, but I hear more and more than people need more – they need some way to get connected to their neighbors, to the people they will be working with as times get harder, but who don’t share their worldview.  How do we set up a model that enables them to work together even if they don’t fully “get” all of our situation, or disagree?  How do we get started now?  These are the questions that keep me up at night.  And I have some ideas, I just didn’t like most of them.

Now I’ve known for years that generally speaking, when someone proposes that we need to do things differently, the collective answer to that is “Great, you get right on that and let us know how it goes.”  I knew this.  And yet, I kept hoping that someone else would simply start some kind of neighborhood level model – after all, I’d done the really hard work, I’d written the essay, right ;-) .

Looking backwards, I think my essays on Permaculture and Transition earlier this summer were in part an expression of my hopes that if I just did the hard work of pointing out the limitations of others ;-) , someone would see the gaps in our knowledge, step up, fix them and I’d be completely off the hook.  My sense that Transition and Permaculture has emerged as the only real, collective, wide scale and comprehensive response (there are lots of people working in particular areas, but few across the board) is something I still have.  But again, the answer rose up “well, why don’t you model something else.”  And internally came the response “But I really, really, really don’t want to even think about it, even if it is fundamentally unfair to criticize other people for work you are not willing to step up and do.” 

Why was I so reluctant?  Well, because organizing people and setting up models, administering groups and training people to enact models are all things I don’t want to do.  I like writing from home in my pajamas. I have four kids, between 9 and 3 who need me – I don’t want to be out at meetings in Albany or off giving talks in Iowa all the time – but that’s what it takes to set something up like this.  I hate administrative work.  I don’t want to run an organization or set up a non-profit, and those things would be required if this was successful.  I have ego enough to think that I could be successful – and I frankly, given the choice, I’d rather not be ;-) .  I want to stay in my comfort zone, I want to stay home and write.  The problem is, now that I’ve written 3 books and am on to my fourth, I’m not sure that simply writing is the most important thing I can do (although there will be undoubtably plenty of that too.)

It was at the Pax Christi conference that I finally broke through the last of my resistance.  Sitting in a conference room listening to Ernesto Cortez speak of community organizing and its history, I had one of those blinding flashes of insight that come to people now and again.  It was simply this – we need a working model and tools for people to connect with their neighbors, even if the neighbors aren’t PO aware – we need more than  advice on starting community, we need a structure – and that models for community organizing exist (I knew this, but again, denial is a happy place, so let’s just say I hadn’t let myself think it through).  And then the second, much more painful flash of insight - if I honestly think that this is the next most important thing to do, then I have to do it.  I spent the second day of the conference wandering about, making notes, and trying to talk myself out of this.  I failed.

Coming home and telling my husband about it, I used the famous words that have gotten the poor guy into trouble so many times now – “Someone has to do it, so why not us?”  That’s how we got into growing our own food, how I dragged him out to the farm.  That’s how the Riot for Austerity got started, and how I justified leaving the kids with him so I could write this blog ;-) .  Eric knows he’s in trouble when I say that.  To his enormous credit, other than some eye rolling and questions about how this might work (to which I as yet have absolutely no answers), he was supportive.  I’m the one who is still whining about it (I promise, I’ll be done real soon now ;-) ).

I started by cautiously talking to some people who knew what they were doing – to Rob Hopkins at Transition and to Pat Murphy at Community Solutions, both of whom have been doing this work already.  I spoke to some other people, doing this at religious and community organizations, and talked about ways to link in existing organizations.  My goal here is not to replace anything that we already have – in fact, I believe we’ll fail if we try to create all new structures.  My goal then is to supplement what exists – to offer a community and neighborhood level model that can work as an adjunct to Transition, to the institutions doing this work, to use the tools that we’ve got as best we can.

I have to write the Adapting-In-Place book – that’s due in April –  before I can seriously get started.  What I’m hoping to do before then is to find a few people willing to try and put together model neighborhood groups, and try out different strategies and tools – help figure out what issues are best to organize around, how best to approach this in as inclusive a way as possible, how to offer responsive solutions now, etc…  I’ve already got friends I plan to pick on in the Albany area to start something where they are ;-) , and I’ve a few thoughts about other people who might try it out.  I want to figure out how to get busy people who haven’t thought much about whether our societies can continue to show up and start working together – not just in places where there is a local charismatic leader or where the neighborhood was always cohesive, but everywhere.

Of course, I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m doing.  This has never stopped me before, and I doubt it will this time.  Before I became a farmer, the biggest single garden I’d had was a 8×8 balcony.  I managed to contract to write 3, count ‘em, 3 books before a single piece of my writing had ever been published in a journal or magazine that paid its contributors.  My whole personal history is of having no freaking idea what it is that I’m doing and doing it anyway.  That’s not what scares me.  I’m used to the idea that there simply is no adequate training for the work I’m doing.  What scares me is what I do know.

And that’s that this is going to disrupt my life, involve going to a lot of meetings (generally speaking, I’d rather have teeth pulled – without anaesthesia), leaving the farm a lot, probably travelling more than I want.  It is going to involve administrative detail work that I hate and probably (ugh) fund-raising.  I’m going to have to stop wearing pajamas or barn boots so much and put on clothes that don’t have any stains on them and go ’round and talk to people.  And worst of all, my failures are going to be a lot more public – no more privately screwing up in rough draft form.  I hate that.  And it is going to be a tough balancing act to work this around my family and their needs.

But, I also know that I personally believe that the municipal level is too large to get the numbers of people we need engaged.  When you want to make change in a city, you go neighborhood by neighborhood, you get down directly in the community, at the block level if needed. You can’t rely on the 12 people who show up for the meetings – you have to go out and explain to people why they should come, and offer them a real reason.  I say this not to criticize the municipal level work – that’s necessary too – someone has to run for city council, someone has to go to the waterworks, the aware people in a city need to get together and organize, as they do in Transition and various activist groups.  But the city level is not all.

In World War II in the US, the implementation of emergency procedures and rationing was tried at the city level – but too many people were being missed, so block captains and neighborhood associations were brought in – as were existing organizations – the PTA, the women’s clubs, the garden clubs.  All of these organizations were used to get down to the most personal level possible.  Where communities were often suspicious of government or city workers coming to their neighborhoods, block captains and local neighborhood activists were especially important – someone like them, someone from an existing familiar organization was needed to help bring implementation about.  It was astonishingly successful.

When community organizers need to get people together to respond to a problem or address an injustice, that work is not done at the level of the city, but at the level of the neighborhood – it takes door to door community work to reassure people that this is worth doing, to help people act in their own interest, to explain it as something more than a large scale political operation.  It takes direct contact, often continued, responsive direct contact to move people. 

And there’s so much we can’t even start unless we do this community work – I don’t necessarily mean getting everyone on board with preparing for the zombies ;-) , I mean even sourcing food collectively, or identifying people who are going hungry in your neighborhood and how to reach them, convincing people to change the zoning laws or making basic disaster preparations to deal with water, sewage and fire safety.  I don’t think it will be easy to get this going – but I think we have to try, because the municipal level, as important as it is, misses too many people. 

Now you may have noticed that this post is long on my reluctance and on needs, but short on plans.  At the moment, I don’t fully have one, other than to do some experimenting and to get my next book written quickly, so that I can turn my attention here.  What I have are ideas and organizing principles, which I’ll put up in a post over the weekend.  I’m still mulling it over, and I welcome input.  And I have a name.


You see, the two things that move me most are Wendell Berry’s profound insistence that we do have in us, even here in America, a strain of thought to draw on that is about staying, about making the place you live in better, about committing to a piece of land and a set of people.  Berry keeps reminding us of this, insisting that we see it in the overarching narrative of always moving for the better job, the bigger house, the next frontier, the final frontier.  We do have a history to draw upon – and that matters.  In _A Nation of Farmers_, Aaron and I wrote about the problem of history:

“The simple truth is that the glorification of our past makes us believe lies.  Glorification of our State makes us accept unacceptable things.  And yet, there is a United States worth believing in – moments in history in which competing forces of powerful and weak met and creating something decent, something worth treasuring and admiring.  It never happened without resistance, but neither was the story always a narrative of good people and evil leaders – it sis far more complicated than that.

All of us were taught a state- and hero-centered history that erased too many ordinary contributions and focused our national pride on the wrong things.  But we did have that teaching; we did learn that nationalism.  Perhaps a large part of our projects is the unlearning of the untrhuts, but smashing idols isn’t enough – we need to give people who love their country a place to put that love, give those who derive hope and comfort from their sense of the past a past to attach themselves to.”

Jim Kunstler has articulated the dangers of the “psychology of previous investment” when applied to our driving culture – he observes that we become so attached to the things we have invested ourselves in that we go on preserving them long after such preservation has become destructive.  But perhaps the psychology of previous investment can work for us, as well as against us, if we can articulate a past, a history, a something worth preserving and staying for.  And that history of staying, thrust upon us now as it is, may be something to hold on to.

In tribute, then to Berry’s _Unsettling of America_, and his long call for re-settlement, I have come to think of our project in terms of Settlement.  And this invokes something else worth invoking – the Settlement movement of the 19th and 20th century, conceived as a way to remediating class differences and integrating immigrants into a society, it called for ordinary people to live among the poor, like the poor, offering what they could to remediate their circumstances.  Lillian Wald, Dorothy Day, Jane Addams – their focus on the idea of a settlement as a way to ease class conflict, to integrate rather than disintegrate, and at the most basic level, help people learn to stay where they were seems eminently relevant to us, as we move towards a world where most of us are poorer, less secure, moving off the frontier into a changing world.  We must do it in community, we must work with people we once did not need, we must adjust our way of life – we must, ultimately, settle – in the sense of finding a home in places we thought we were only resting momentarily in, and settle, in the sense of finding a vision that accepts what is viable in a settled way of life, rather than the lost and destructive dominant discourse, and settle, in the sense of go out among people we did not choose, whose common ground is that they to, have entered the process of Settlement with us.

More on this soon.


59 Responses to “Settling”

  1. If you are as successful with this new frontier as you have been with your other projects you will be doing a great service!

    The Transition Town project I am working on, and the Transition Houston projects, are both planning to “seed” Transition Neighborhood initiatives as a key part of our strategy, as a way of going hyper-local, in the distances that would be readily travelable on a daily basis on a bike or by foot.

    We are also hoping to implement the Bright Neighbor software to let people organically organize themselves at the neighborhood level, as they have done in Portland. Of course, this is limited by the Internet, but we hope it will be a beginning of community and will spread beyond the digital confines of software.

    Looking forward to your discoveries and exploits.

  2. vera says:

    Sharon, if it takes doing what you hate, how do you expect others to emulate you? We don’t need new “models” and bureaucracies. We need neighbors talking with and working with neighbors. Why don’t you do it where you are? I don’t understand why people who want to change things always must go somewhere else… start a mission in Africa, rather than next door in Fargo, or start a neighborhood movement somewhere where they don’t live. Isn’t that a contradiction with all you have just said?

  3. Brad K. says:


    Two thoughts – homeowners associations, and country store.

    In my previous job, in Arizona, I lived in an acreage development with a loose set of binding covenants, including a homeowners association and homeowners association charter. I served on the board for a time – it was a place to order the business of the association, to air and address complaints, to organize plans, to consider changes. The association operated the flood irrigation water system within the development, so that operation, the costs and scheduling, were part of the regular business.

    My thought is that a voluntary membership version of that homeowners association might be one approach to consider. Dues? Shared task assignments? Plan, schedule, and distribute resources? These could be delegated to such a community committee. Use a charter or bylaws as our homeowners association did, and you could likely achieve legally binding and enforceable status. Our bylaws specifically called out operating under Robert’s Rules of Order (the first time I read that particular reference).

    The other thought for coordinating a community would be a country store – one that picks and chooses the products to stock based on what the owner feels the community needs, from soup to nuts and bolts. From broad forks for the garden to mattocks and cement blocks for root cellars. From spring chicks to composting supplies. Possibly even classes on sanitary butchering techniques, mulching, garden planning – adapting to losing regular utilities.

    Consider communications needs when cell towers start losing power, and when the grand national broadband plans the FCC is working on cause the telephone companies and internet providers to stop serving America.


  4. These are issues I’ve been thinking about/working toward the past few years . . . even before I heard about Peak Oil, etc. I wanted to finally settle down in a community and put down roots. How naive it seems now. I’ve been involved in the parent/teacher club and school, have volunteered at the public library and school, ran a Girl Scout troop, started a book club, joined another book club, joined a mom’s group. The only thing I haven’t tried, it seems, is church. Oh, and I also started getting involved in the homeowners’ association, which I do think has potential. I agree that municipal level may be too big, even in a small town like mine.

    What I notice is this lack of interest on the part of most people to join . . . anything! Are we too busy? Do the kids’ activities take all our time and energy? Are we too tired? Do we have less energy than our grandparents and great-grandparents who were members of Grange and other fraternal organizations plus church and other local groups like literary clubs? With both mom and dad working full time jobs, perhaps there just isn’t enough room in life for outside socializing. Or maybe there are just too many choices of activities. Plus, you know, you can’t miss the baseball (football, golf, SURVIVOR, AMERICA’S GOT TALENT, REAL HOUSEWIVES OF NEW JERSEY) show on television on Monday (Tues, Wednesday, Thursday, etc.) night.

    Because everyone drives, connections aren’t limited by geography, so our social circles are spread out far and wide rather than limited to the town or community we live in. People visit family and friends on the weekends–I’m guilty of this–because it is so darn easy to hop in the car and drive 3 hours north. Then there are work colleagues with whom to socialize . . . but all the work colleagues live in different suburbs surrounding the central hub where the actual cubicles are located. Used to be we lived, worked, socialized in the same community.

    Is it possible to overcome these obstacles in our current situation? How can we do that without talking about the scary future? How to convince people that it is important to connect with each other within the community? I’ll be interested to see what you and your readers come up with.

  5. Jerry says:

    Maybe a nice place to start would be farmers markets. At least you could start off with a group of people who may believe in what your trying to accomplish rather than getting the blank stares I always get when I say the future economy in this country is agriculture.

    I also agree with Vera in that you should try to change those around you not go on a crusade that takes you to far off lands where people will give you 15 seconds and then go back to their old comfort level.

  6. As for Brad’s idea about a general store, here is a story from Downeast Magazine about the small town of Hope, Maine. Someone bought the little country store and turned it into a community gathering place. Now there is a yarn spinning company (run by windpower!) and a restaurant, and the community is beginning to thrive. Take a look!

  7. madison says:

    Good morning, Sharon – and good luck with your new venture! Even though it sounds like you doubt yourself sometimes, I cannot think of another person who sounds better qualified than you to do this! Sometimes if something is worth doing, you don’t wait until all your ducks are lined up in a row – you just do it as well as you can.

    I’ve been thinking also about really settling in where I am and becoming involved in the community after two years of thinking, “oh, just one or two more moves and we’ll be THERE, where we are supposed to be”. Well, now I’m unemployed and rather stuck here, lol.

    I’m considering starting a business as a “Homestead Planner and Community Resiliency Advisor”. Here’s the idea. If any of this helps you, please use it! That’s why I’m posting it, as it is very much a work in progress.

    Homestead Planner

    Goal: To create action plans for individuals to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and increase personal and family resiliency.

    1) Systems replacement – light (daylighting, candles, oil lamps, LP lights, solar), heat (woodstoves, cookstoves, wood lot management, clothing, insulation), water (rainwater harvesting, local water sources, cisterns/barrels/gutters, water filtration systems and filters), and sanitation (alternatives to traditional toileting, composting toilets, emergency sawdust systems, greywater etc).

    2) Food Security – gardens (raised beds, containers, forest, lasagna etc), micro-orcharding and edible landscaping, bulk food storage and management, local food plans (farmers markets, local farmers), food preparation (smoking, dehydrating, canning), seasonal eating, foraging, cooking systems (cob ovens, grills, solar cooking)

    3) Health Systems – exercize (walking, cycling, gardening), herbal medicinals (making them, growing herbs), local resources (who lives nearby – nurse, doctor, EMT) and training (CPR, 1st aid, emergency responder training).

    4) Safety – guns & dogs (training, safety, food for dogs, vet care etc), landscaping for protection (blackberries, other thorny bushes etc), neighborhood watch programs, block parties, getting to know your neighbors.

    5) Work – Formal and informal economiies, barter/trade/craigslist/freecycle, community bulletin boards (brick & morter & online), trades/skills/workshops/tools.

  8. madison says:

    Community Resliency Advisor

    1) Local Food Security – who farms locally, what they grow; forming co-ops of buyers for local produce; establish farmers markets; establish community gardens; school gardens; food bank.

    2) Education – workshops*, Emergency prep minimum planning documents to every household, school programs, FFA, 4-H, speakers & movies, reskilling, unemployed persons working voluntarily on public works projects for meals/bulk food**

    3) Long Term City Planning – Long Descent (expect more poverty) Plan, Emergency (worst-case scenario) EMP Attack Plan, Resiliency Plan (city owned wood lots, public wells, health clinic), City management systems (light, heat, power, communications – how can they plan to care for the town if they cannot care for themselves?), zoning reconfigurations, encouragement of cottage industries, food/medicine/seed emergency supplies put by, local security (police, local militia, neighborhood watch trainings), rethinking empty buidings usage as barns, shelters, stables; light rail/trolley/wagons/walking & covered corner shelters; parenting center for natural childbirth and breastfeeding information and support; emergency shelter/homeless shelter/community relocation services; Community Center.

    *canning, dehydrating, cooking, cold storage, seasonal eating, greenhouses, season-extension techniques, fermenting, sprouting, egg storage, urban livestock, wild foraging, horsemanship, draft animals, alternative building methods, alternative power systems, water purification, composting, vermiculture, gardening in all it’s aspects, solar oven buidling, seed saving etc.

    ** building gardens, making covered benches on street corners, building root cellars, insulating homes, building solar hot water heaters, edible landscaping, setting up greenhouses & cold frames, canning kitches established, beautification of the town etc.

  9. madison says:

    By the way, I live in a little town of 2,500 people 7 miles from a town of 30,000. We are talking serious small town here. And, I think many would be interested in becoming more reslient simply because most of us are poor. 80% of the children at my son’s school get free or reduced lunches. 25% of the town population are either foreign born or first generation Mexicans who bring agricultural knowledge and skills and work in the wineries and farms that surround the town. Povery already forces many of us to economize and pinch pennies in sustainable ways. My situation is likely very different than other environments. I could see either the poor folks jumping on the bandwagon, or the well off who can afford to put in pretty gardens and remodel their houses and donate money to green things. It’s everyone inbetween, the pinched middle class, who is out of the loop and is the most difficult to wrangle.

  10. dewey says:

    Sharon, good luck! You have a knack for inspiring people; maybe you’ll make a dent in the nation’s thick collective skull.

    Madison, it’s not clear to me whether you’re planning to train or advise people on that whole list of concepts and activities, or whether you’re just going to say those are things they might want to think/learn about. If the former, though, I would not be inclined to trust any one-man business as a source of solid information on all those subjects; even John Seymour couldn’t have given expert guidance on all of them. Rather than looking superficial, might you consider focussing on the areas where you have the most personal expertise, and perhaps eventually bringing partners on board to deal with the others?

  11. Or maybe you should just move to Utah. :D My neighbors are all members of my church ward.

    We may not be living off the grid, and we don’t have big enough yards for cows, but many raise chickens, store food, grow food, can that food, have medical skills, make their own cheese, have military training and lots of other skills.

    We have come together in times of need for each other many times before. We share what we have with each other. We are an extended family.

    I know that if tshif we would all come together even more to create quite a force to be reckoned with. And then the country club we live right off of would quickly be turned into farming. There are actually 3 golf courses within a five mile radius from us. And the acreage my husband’s school sits on…..

    I may have to adapt in place, but that doesn’t mean I don’t do a lot of planning. :D

  12. Heron says:


    You’re a brave woman. And of course you know that.

    I wonder: When you jumped into moving to the country and beginning to farm, or into the Austerity program, did you have this feeling of intense resistance, of having to sacrifice so much that you love, of needing to make yourself do a lot of things you hate and that just aren’t you?

    Of course you knew you’d have to experience some discomfort and uncertainty on the path to that thing that you envisioned as better for both you and the world, but did it feel like you were going to have to eviscerate beloved parts of you and become something that felt fundamentally icky for you personally?

    If your path to the rewarding life changes you’ve already made felt this bad from the start, I imagine that would be heartening for you as you consider becoming a pavement- and airport terminal-pounding administrative organizational leader.

    But I’m guessing that your answer would be no, it didn’t feel like this before, or not so much. In which case, that would be important to know, too.

    You feel a strong call to see formed, and if necessary take a leadership role in forming, home-brewed micro communities to create a common support system for adverse times. Though I get the part that if you feel so strongly about it you should step out of your comfort zone into action, it doesn’t sound so much like just stepping out of your comfort zone. It sounds like gritty sacrifice and bloody suffering. I’m opposed to unnecessary sacrifice and suffering — it wastes every kind of resource that could be used to either get the job done a different way, or perhaps saved for an occasion when sacrifice or suffering are unavoidable.

    You have so many gifts and talents, and you share them so generously. I encourage you to work with *those* gifts and talents, or with new ones that feel right and invigorating to you, using the activities and environments that make your heart sing, and make that a defining condition on which to build this new endeavor.

    While it may take pavement pounding, administration and so forth to bring this vision to life, it’s not written that you have to do those things in order to lead your vision into the world, or to expand your sphere or depth of influence in the cause of adapting in place.

    Granted, most big new projects require us to get outside of our comfort zone. No denying that part. I’m squirming my way through such a process myself right now. But I’ll only do this new thing in such a way that makes my life richer and my joy bigger, despite knowing that there will also be the discomforts and costs in doing something both new and involved.

    That’s what I would want for you, that you stay true to your big vision, your big passion, your big ideas, and require of yourself both strategies and tactics that are, overall, good for *you*. That’s what will make you bigger, better, richer as a leader and resource for others to draw from as they also take on your vision and get to work in their own ways.

    Otherwise, you risk getting the opposite: possibly an overspent, ill-spent, poorer you in ill-fitting garments whose light has stopped getting brighter over time, whose creative spark has been engulfed in matters that are spirit-candy for others but possibly spirit-poison to you. That, in your case, would be a heartbreaking loss for the world.

    However you decide to midwife your vision, I dearly hope that it makes you more, and not less, of the joyfully, creatively passionate person that you are.

  13. Shamba says:

    To Shelley: I don’t think we have less energy that our forbear but we have a lot more things to choose from to do, to participate in, etc. I think our world is a lot wider, broader than a couple of generations back. People lived and moved and married and died in a relatively small geographical area compared to the options we have–or have had–in the past 40 years. AT least I think that’s been true in the US. I can’t speak to the rest of the world.

    We don’t have to band together so much just for survival and entertainment and companionship so we can choose the band of people we want to be with, like internet interacting like here.

    I don’t think these non local options are better than local ones but they are options we have. As a matter of fact, we’ve probably gotten too far away from any local options and that’s why we’re going to be forced to reestablish them in the next few years.

    Sharon, your idea is very interesting. Good luck with it!


  14. Amber says:

    Hi Sharon,

    I would love to work on initiatives and do some organising in my neighbourhood but here’s the thing: I’m an umarried, childless renter in a neighbourhood of home owning, married couples with children. The gulf between where I’m at in my life and where most of my neighbours are at, seems like an insurmountable obstacle to connecting with folks, which has led to my reluctance to do anything about community building in my neighbourhood. After reading your post though I feel like maybe I should just suck it up and give it a try anyway!

    Looking forward to reading more about how your Settlement progresses.


  15. David says:

    Great stuff! It’ll be good to hear what comes out of this new campaign. And I like how the verb “settle” has the two meanings: (1) to stay in a place for the long term; and (2) to learn to live with something or to lower one’s expectations. We should all become settlers in both senses (while being unsettlers of the status quo).

  16. Heron says:


    I also want to say that, while I don’t feel your same *depth* of call on this goal of Settlements, communities of local adapatation, I do feel the need, have been feeling it, and I think I hear a lot of the other commenters saying something similar.

    I think we–many or all–feel stymied about how and where to start, feel like we’d like to participate in such a community, or perhaps even such an effort to create a community-building process, if only there was already something in place we could slip into and participate comfortably in. I think this is what you’re saying you’ve been experiencing, except at a more insistent, personal level, in a way that’s telling you that your name is already on this so you might as well step into it already.

    Notwithstanding my previous unsought cautionary advice on how you go about doing this, I do want to acknowledge the ripples of energy that go out from your decision to, yes, step into it already. It’s inspiring. I imagine I’m not the only one whose response to your desire is, underneath our good wishes, more than just good-luck-with-that, it’s also wanting to hear more as your thoughts unfold, wanting to be a part of it at home as the ideas take shape into (probably small) actionable steps.

    I’ve been thinking, in a background but nagging sort of way, about what would work for me in terms of creating more community around me in my immediate area, not just for the sake of community, but as a foundation to adaptation. Your words have inspired me to think realistically about taking a small step or two. Like, starting as small as just walking around the neighborhood across the road from me, something I’ve never done.

    I notice that when we have hurricanes here, the barriers come down and it feels like an entirely different place. The power’s out, the TVs are off, it’s not possible to drive anywhere or go to work or do the laundry or anything else distracting, the doors are open to catch a breeze, and, funny enough, often the fences are also literally down. People are speaking to each other across roads and property lines, stepping across to inquire about damage or news, banding together to cut up a tree in the road, helping to chase down a neighbor’s dog who got loose from a makeshift pen, sharing cell phones to see if anyone can get a signal, offering extra pet food for the dogs next door. The place has an entirely different feeling than during ‘normal’ times.

    Then, within moments of the power coming down, hours, days or weeks later, that newfound spirit of Neighbor is sucked out of the air as the air conditioners come on and the doors are closed. Emergency radios are clicked off and TVs are turned on, computers are booted up, land lines are tried out, pizzas are ordered, and the connections between us are severed like a hatchet coming down. Where power and information flowed across the interpersonal lines when it was absent in over the overhead electrical, cable and telephone lines, the process is reversed in just over a heartbeat. It is fascinating. And sad.

    From that, I’ve come to believe that practical response to present reality, present necessity, will be important in creating adaptive communities among us. While we want these communities in place before the power goes out on a more frequent, or even permanent basis, before circumstances of all stripes are more consistently dire, I think we can only start now at the micro level by responding to what is in the community at the moment. And that will be a little different everywhere.

    Similar to your assertions that you don’t know what your ideas really mean yet, I don’t know exactly what ‘responding to what is in the community at the moment’ looks like. But if the municipal level efforts are about educating and planning for difficulties to come, I think the micro community formation work is pretty much just about responding to what is, at least for a long time into the formation of such community. Like you suggest, this isn’t the time or place for anti-zombie strategy, ‘The End of Suburbia,’ or anything remotely like that.

    It may be that the ultimate organizational level view that emerges out of your vision comes from first just observing the many small steps people–you and others–are taking, noticing the small increases in awareness people experience, and hands-across-the-fence tiny steps people take to help each other adapt to whatever *is* in the community, noticing what small efforts are required to reinforce that hand-across experience time.

    As I write this, it doesn’t seem to fit with your sense of urgency, which to some extent I share, that this should have been started yesterday. But then a pile of household tasks around here should have been started many yesterdays ago, and weren’t, and they’re going to be un-piled in small steps over time, and hurrying won’t make it better even if company is coming.

    As you often say so much better than I can paraphrase, what we have and where we are is almost always less than it should be, less than we need and mean it to be, and yet that is what it is and our jobs are to take what is, and adapt and go from here. Isn’t that where we start in turning our communities into settlements? First look around and figure out what is, and take the next natural-feeling step from there?

    After all, those block-level wartime organizations developed around a present, practical, somewhat urgent need. That level of involvement and organization may not be possible, or even necessary, until needs become more pervasive, more urgent, than they are. So, in some communities today there may be an appetite for much involvement, organization, etc. because they need to respond to large numbers of empty foreclosed and uncared-for houses, or children who are hungry or unsupervised while schools are closed during a pandemic, and so forth. Immediate needs make us willing to expend precious energy and attention.

    In other neighborhoods, it may only be possible, maybe only desireable, to start laying a foundations, taking some extra veggies from the garden or farmer’s market to a neighbor you rarely speak to; walking across the yard when you and your neighbor get home at the same time, to wonder together if someone ought to mow the yard at that empty house down the street; to speak to a neighbor at the store when you would normally have just nodded, to ask whether they think the older couple next door to them has anyone looking in on them during this flu season; to look around at work for people who live in your part of town and suggest a carpool might be started when gas prices are high.

    Yes, a system, a structure, a process or template that will serve others in this effort would, will, be SO VERY USEFUL. And none of this sounds very system-like.

    Yet, I think most great systems start with small steps of thoughtful observance of what is, combined with innovative thoughts about might be possible. Only then are the first partial, tentative designs sketched out, experimented with, adjusted, turned into prototypes that are useful for further learning but that at first don’t fly, and then eventually become a masterful new thing in the world that works so well that it’s hard to imagine that this tool/system was ever anything but inescapable.

    I wonder if your vision isn’t necessarily going to spend more time than you would like it to in the observe/play/pre-design stage?

    No matter how incohate, it is surely going somewhere, and isn’t it fascinating and supremely frustrating to wonder, *where*?

    Everything you say about not designing something new, about using what’s already in place, makes perfect sense. Yet, it seems like whatever your vision’s reality will be, it will be it’s own new thing. Maybe that’s just a slight tweaking to an existing system that you’ll find works so perfectly that all you have to do, mostly is re-brand, re-purpose it, and voila.

    Maybe it’s a cobbling together of several existing models-this engine, those wheels, etc.

    Maybe it’s something that grows up organically from a small seed, one of many that are planted, and becomes something that surprise you because you really had no idea what it was when you planted it and yet it serves the need delightfully.

    Maybe we all go plant some seed and see what happens, and you’ll see something that captures your heart and you’ll take it and love it and grow it and send it out in the world in a way that you can’t know now, but that will be perfectly obvious at the time.

    Maybe you spread a meme, a passion, wake up a partially buried way of living that catches on in lots of little ways until it snowballs, responding to evolving circumstances, a true grassroots movement that has no campaign headquarters but that has a beloved mother.

    A lot of maybes. And here’s one more. Maybe you’ve started plowing your field with your post today. Plow it and they will help plant?

    I hope that there is magic for you in the starting of this. Something new and vital should always be at least a little magical.

  17. Sharon says:

    Vera et al, well, I have been doing it (and writing about doing it) for many years – such a thing does exist in my neighborhood and among my neighbors. The problem is that what doesn’t exist is a set of parameters for duplicating it, and my neighborhood isn’t exactly a model for most American neighborhoods – my street is a mile long. There are 7 houses on it. If you define neighborhood as “about as far as you’d be willing to walk ’round distributing flyers there are maybe 40 houses. And yes, at that scale it works great. The problem is that the vast majority of Americans live not a rural densities, but at urban and suburban ones, dealing with a much larger population, so I need some other models – how does this work in other places. There are, of course, places with existing neighbourhood cohesion.

    The reality is that I see so many people saying they don’t know how to work with or talk to their neighbors that I don’t think it is sufficient to say “go talk to your neighbors” – we do need something more than this. What I get back, overwhelmingly, is “what do I say to them” or “we have nothing in common” or “I’m too introverted or too busy or…” But if we don’t do it, we’re screwed.

    Heron, I don’t know. I don’t really want to do this job, but I want to see it done. It isn’t a hairshirt, it is simply the recognition that no one else is doing it. How will it turn out? Dunno.



  18. Cindy in FL says:

    While reading your post, an idea came to me, that I have no idea if it is useful or not. I wondered if the local networking of
    Move would be a helpful model. It might be a way to disseminate information and get started. I understand that eventually it may not be helpful since you really want small areas of people communicating with each other, maybe even face to face.
    I don’t really know what I would define as my neighborhood. I live on a short dead end street with 9 houses. That is what I think of as my neighborhood. I can easily walk to several other streets or neighborhoods. How big should your neighborhood be? Should it be number of houses, number of people, or number of blocks?
    Just a couple thoughts I had. I wish you great success with this. Maybe if you step up to the plate, you will inspire others with similar ideas but less courage or passion.

    Cindy in FL

  19. vera says:

    So… Sharon, ok, you’ve already done it in your neighborhood. Then that’s a model. Tell us how you did it.
    Wouldn’t the next step be your nearby small town rather than Albany?

    I agree that we do not want to be with most neighbors. Same where I live. And that won’t change until there is some emergency. And even then, I still won’t be interested in most of my neighbors. Only necessity will force greater cooperation amidst us all…

    But when it comes to real communication, we will look for kith and kin online and by phone and at driving distance. And if the day comes when we cannot… we will be impoverished. Sigh.

  20. NM says:

    I don’t have any words of wisdom to offer. It was because of your observation about the universal response of “great, go get started on that,” that I helped start a Slow Food group here, that I think — hope — is doing some of the work that needs to be done.
    I was also inspired by the Ten Rivers Food Web not far away, which is doing some truly amazing work to revitalize local food and build community.
    I don’t know whether it would be of help to you, but I think you’d be very interested in it. Here’s the website:

  21. EJ says:

    It may be a good idea to answer the big question first:
    Should We Seek to Save Industrial Civilisation?

  22. Ed Straker says:

    Well gee, if there is a big enough die-off I guess all of our problems relating to eachother will go away since we’ll just be remnant bands of hunter-gatherers and that’s the way our brains are hardwired anyway. I guess I can stand down my transition town plans after all. I never wanted to bother with that anyway.

  23. cecelia says:

    I enormously admire Wendell Berry – reading a collection of his essays for the first time was a life changing event. However – I must note that it is a very serious misreading of human history to somehow think Americans and their moving about is some unique event. All of human history has been marked by migrations of people. Migrations due to lack of food, bad weather, overpopulation, escaping war or persecution. The massive influx of immigrants to Europe and the US going on now is one such example of a continuous history of movement on this planet.

    Some would say nowadays that there is no more room for moving – but as said above – we see massive migration from the middle east and Asia occurring now into the West.

    As for no longer having the money or the job prospects to move – consider the dust bowl migration – hundreds of thousand of utterly impoverished people left their farms and lived in refugee camps (if they were lucky) in California just 60 or so yrs ago. When there is no food or there are no prospects or when someplace is no longer safe – people will pack up what they can carry and try to find a better place. And they will do this despite the hardships involved. This has been true throughout human past and will certainly be true in the future. And why do people migrate? Because they hope – they know there is no hope where they are – so they hope to find something better – even when those hopes are unrealistic. When Arizona runs out of water – the majority of people there will not adapt in place – they will move.

    People will organize around beliefs they agree on – and people will organize to achieve goals they agree on. Until energy descent and even climate change become “real” to people – they will not organize around those principles and goals. Where models of community organization have been so successful is where people knew they had problems but didn’t know how to solve them or did not think they had the power to solve them. But community organization is not successful where people do not think they have a problem. This is the dilemna those of us who recognize the nature of our future face – the broader population will not organize until the emergency is well upon them.

  24. ceridwen says:

    Yep – I reckon you’re on the right tracks here. I know what you mean – that, at some level, we are geared to “the next Big Thing” – instead of making the best of what we already have. Ultimately – a lot of us arent that emotionally invested in our immediate surroundings (because this isnt “really” our job/our home/our relationship -its just a stopgap until the “Real Thing” comes along). With that way of thinking comes a sort of carelessness – as in we couldnt really care that much about what we currently have – as we dont plan on keeping it for long.

    Actually thats an idea that has relevance to all parts of our lives when you think about it – our health is one thing that just flashed across our minds – as in many people (British people certainly) dont really concern themselves that much with preventative healthcare – almost like we dont even really regard ourselves as “owning our own bodies” – rather than sitting down and thinking “Right – I’ve got this body for a good few years yet – so I’d better sit down and get used to that fact and learn to take care of it”. Thats a “model” for how many of us treat pretty much everything and everyone else – as disposable.



  25. Susan says:

    I brought this post up to DH yesterday, and he suggested getting in touch with the county emergency planning committee, and with the local FEMA representatives.

  26. Tracie says:

    Many people feel the urgency of organizing something that will help themselves and their neighbors survive this economic downturn. My sister has started a non-profit whose mission is to redistribute food to the hungry in her rural Minnesota county. There is strong interest, passion really, among all walks of life, to be a part of the solution. Those who have started and have that heart burden, need support, inspiration and guidance. A newsletter, video links, and emails would be a way to start, while we still have the infrastructure available. If you’re going to be flying around, make sure the talks are digitally recorded for later distribution and access. It might help reduce the number of times you have to fly around.

    The obstacle of not knowing how to talk to your neighbors or others who do not think or believe similarly is a huge one. I say that starting there, with tips, “role playing,” etc would be helpful. Even lessons, and exercises on your blog would be helpful – forgive me, I don’t know if this skill is discussed as part of your independence days. Teaching that to others who then teach it to others is a beginning. The intentional communities movement can be a resource for addressing interpersonal skills development. There are several excellent books out there that help people walk through the process of building concensous, cohesion, and cooperation.

    I had a conversation with a woman a while back, about the future of our economy and what will be needed. She and I are very different people, on the opposite sides of the political spectrum, and have virtually nothing in common except that we both know the same person. Despite all our differences, we found ourselves in robust agreement on one thing: food security – making sure everyone has enough to eat. She said that she has had conversations about the future with other people who also are very unlike her, but the one thing that struck her was that the one thing everyone has in common is that everyone eats.

    An organizing theme could be “Because Everyone Eats.”

    Your mission for food security, Sharon, has already a great foundation for your broader vision. I do not believe that it will require you to board endless series of airplanes, and endure spirit crushing meetings. It will require, however, a concerted effort to reach a broader audience using a way of communicating that is more basic, addresses core emotional truths, and a values orientation. I love your writing and your book “A Nation of Farmers.” But forgive me for saying this, while I am a college graduate and read at a very high level, the book has an academic approach that I found much too dense a read on this subject than I hoped it to be. Intellectualism is a nice thing, it just doesn’t always empassion the masses. A follow up twenty page action booklet – how to ensure food security for yourself, your family, and your neighborhood- with concrete steps, and resources for learning more, would be an excellent resource that would move many to take concrete action.

  27. Lori Scott says:

    We move. We have lived in utter isolation in the centre of Australia and in the state capital.

    Your model to bring people together. You can’t look farther than history. The village model from feudal onwards would have to be one of the most stable in the history of mankind.

    Villages are defined by distances between them. In foot traffic times is was on average 3 miles.

    Should the car go the way of the dinosaur, peoples horizons will be limited by their ability to comfortably travel. Get rid of cars and you have reshaped your society.

    Also, get the mums out of the workforce. One of the most community minded places we ever lived had a population of around 600 and very little employment so mums didn’t work.

    They networked.

    No children made a move without being observed. The type of issues like bullying that children stress about didn’t happen because everyone knew everyone elses mum. Mums got together to help those who needed it. Everyone knew who needed it. Neighbourhoods were defined and headed up by the mums with the most opportunity to do so. Old people were helped and and eye was kept on their needs.

    Plants and food were shared on a needs basis. I learnt about the potato walk. At nightfall, if one mum found herself a bit short of something for tea, the kids were sent on a potato walk, asking each neighbour for an extra potato. This was code for whatever you had. A carrot, some beans, some bread – whatever.

    It was a nice tradition and totally shame free because sooner or later everyone sent their children on a potato walk even if they didn’t really need it just because it was such a fun event for the kids and they really enjoyed it.

    While the mums are driving the kids around in their cars on the way to their jobs, this type of community can’t come into being.

    But on the other hand, can we force this to happen? The most useful thing anyone could do would be to encourage mums to be proud of being at home and to form an economic model that allows this to happen.

  28. cecelia says:

    I very much agree on keeping it short, simple. I would add – think about your audience. Don’t condescend – but face the reality that not all groups want to hold hands and do vision exercises. I saw an attempt to establish a transition town – which had a fair amount of local support – collapse because the organizers led the meeting as if they thougth they were addressing Woodstock Nation. People – like some of the local farmers – got up and walked out. Short – simple – and attuned to the audience.

  29. gaiasdaughter says:

    Sharon, you should team up with Will Allen somehow His idea of the urban gardens would dovetail nicely with what you are describing.

  30. MD says:

    I was a long-term single, and now am childless and conservative in a very liberal community. Suggestions for breaking the ice:
    brownies seem to do a remarkable job of getting people around a table, sitting and talking at work. Maybe starting with a neighborhood barbecue (and if you’re single, you “have the time” to fix the meat- the harried parents can bring sides or chips and soda) where you bring up the topic of a local catastrophe (remember the extended power outage after that storm last year, or the hurricane, or the tornado…), and how to handle it better as a group next time, maybe assigning tasks formally or informally.
    My brother is a minister, and he and his wife and kids are moving into an apartment complex with the explicit task of creating community there through shared social activities. I don’t think it is about preparedness at all, more about retaining happy renters long term, but such a program could easily be extended to organization, gardening, etc. once the initial relationships are established.
    Sharon, I would be really careful about getting into “organizing” too much- you do such a good job of communicating thought-provoking ideas through the venues you already use. I have seen too many good people (on the Christian mission and medical research sides of things) get so much into the organization that they forget why they started it, and functionally start mistreating the people they came to help. I know liberally-minded people love community organizing, but having been poor in the past myself, I can tell you it frequently does little good for the target population. Brownies and neighborhood potluck dinners, meeting and talking and making real friends, will do a lot more for people in the long run.

  31. ceridwen says:

    That Growing Power group mentioned above look WELL organised – I’ve put a link to them on my foodgrowing blog. We could use their ideas here in Britain.



  32. Jason says:




  33. Ann says:

    Finally I have something big for you. Your essay was excellent and so many ideas were brought up that my mind flew all over the place. But it all comes down to one thing. Good news: you can do most of it in your pajamas. Better news: you’re already doing most of it. Just 2 words to remember: Common Ground. Think: what does this person have in common with me? It is a mind shift because we’re always looking for differences. “Oh, you don’t know about peak oil? I’ll explain it to you.” Bad. No one likes to be lectured for being stupid. But everyone eats. Everyone needs shelter, heat/cooling, water, health care, and intangibles like dignity. So ask: what do your kids like to eat; how do you cook that; or, what I’ve been doing recently, how did you survive all that rain this summer? Here we are, on common ground. That’s where you are most of the time anyway. Ask interested questions about something Common Ground and give them the dignity to tell you. Rehearse the mind shift, then do it wherever you go.

  34. KathyD says:


    I had the same Wendell Berry foundation of ideas in mind when we up and moved our family from the metro to the family farm in an isolated rural area. In fact, two years ago I named my blog “Resettling Big Stone County.”

    I live now in a 36 square mile area with 96 other souls… And am blessed with some built in community due to my husband’s heritage in this area. If only I didn’t have a full time job I could spend more time on the community building and Transition…

    I did join the county emergency preparedness group and that is an EXCELLENT way to connect with those in our community around preparing for our uncertain future. Because we are so isolated and rural, we know that we have to care for ourselves, down to the most basis elements of food, water, shelter, and health. We talk every meeting about how we care for all in our community and neighbors. And despite having the mortician, ambulance driver, and pastors dealing with issues of death– we have so much great conversation and humor that we laugh until we cry.

    My best to you Sharon- I hope that I can contribute in some meaningful way.


  35. vera says:

    I read a great story I think on Carolyn Baker’s site… a couple bought a cheap property in central Oregon… all they could afford. Very rural, conservative area. Got videos, got articles, tried to “educate” and organize the neighbors. Absolutely no luck whatsoever.

    But when they finally got the farm up and running, and began to ply the neighbors with fresh eggs and veggies, suddenly doors opened, people were motivated to reciprocate, more neighborly talking got started, they were on their way. It makes so much sense.

    Do it where your life is, Sharon. Do it over the next ridge. Do it in the next tiny town. Do it where your roots are. Then write up the model(s).

  36. Brad Hunt says:

    First grasping the enormity of the collapse facing us, I went through the (predictable) initial stages of thinking i needed ‘bug-out’ to a self-sufficient armed compound in the woods, surround myself with canned food and ammo and fight off the zombie marauders…

    That was several years ago and thanks to sites like this one and the Archdruid Report, I have realized that the basic unit of survival is the community, not the individual, and my long term well-being will depend at least as much on the social networks I have cultivated as the green beans I have canned.

    But how?

    I live in a typical suburban neighborhood outside of Columbus, Ohio…people come home at 6:00, pull their cars into the garage and spend the rest of the evening inside watching TV. When I saw a sign out by the entrance to the subdivision about a neighborhood Block Watch starting up, I realized it would be just the thing. In a corporate/consumer/retail culture, having some of your shit stolen is way more frightening to most people than the idea that soon there will be NO more shit left to buy, so i figured the block watch idea would attract at least a small core of concerned citizens.

    Out of several thousand residents, less than 20 showed up, and most sat quietly and observed…but not me! The woman who took the initiative to start the meeting seems obsessed with having an “internet and meeting based block watch program”. By that, I mean she wants to get a yippy-skippy website, send out emails, sponsor programs about ‘home invasion prevention (there are no home invasions in my area) and other wise do what she can do to get residents to attend the meeting. Her idea of success seems to be having some large % of residents attend some large % of block watch meetings.

    I had to engage in some strong push-back and point out that the fundamentally most useful thing we could do, at least as a first step, would be to try and get every neighbor to get the name and phone number of every other neighbor within sight of his or her house. More of the group seemed to think that that was a good idea, so they immediately started thinking of ways to access some sort of public databases so as to provide a phone list for all of the residents of the neighborhood. At that point, I had to push back more (and I think start getting the rep as a malcontent, haha) and point out that the value was more from personally meeting the neighbor and exchanging phone numbers, maybe along with a little neighborly chit-chat, than from getting a list of numbers from the County Auditor’s website.

    The ‘leader’ and a few other continue to have some rather grandiose ideas of where they want it to go, and I think don’t understand that simply getting several thousand neighbors to meet each other face-to-face is an enterprise that could easily take several years, but there are already other who have recognized that beyond ‘block-watching’ for crime, it is good to know that perhaps the neighbor 2 doors down has a heart condition and to keep and eye on him, or maybe shovel his snow when the time comes, and it is also good to know that one of the other neighbors works outage restoration for the local electric power utility and knows all about the grid and MAY even be able to expedite restoration to our neighborhood if there is an outage.

    So I am just throwing my experience out there – most people are (almost unrealistically) concerned about property crime and a block watch is a perfect way to get the camel’s nose under the tent, get neighbors to start talking to one another, and at such time as the collapse of western civilization begins in earnest, at least you know who else is in the lifeboat. My experience though is that you have to really stand strong against a high-tech solution and make it as low tech as you can,all the while not saying too much about why it should be low tech – once you come across as an apocalyptic doomer you will be marginalized as most people are simply not ready for a realistic look at where we’re heading.

    Great topic. Thanks for the opportunity to share.

  37. Marnie says:

    don’t do it, Sharon.

    or rather, i think you’re already doing what you want to see in the world. maybe if more of us step up and tell you how you’ve inspired us at the neighbourhood level, you’ll just keep doing what you’re doing, and it is good and it is enough.

    you said “what doesn’t exist is a set of parameters for duplicating it”, which, and this is meant kindly, is a rather academic statement. how do you define parameters on such an amorphous thing as community building and neighbourhood? and frankly, i don’t need what you’ve got in your neighbourhood, i need to draw from it and find what works best in mine.

    Your example has inspired me with regards to community organising (even though i hadn’t thought about it in that way before this) just like some other commenters have said here. if all your readers do told you how you’ve inspired them, i don’t doubt you’ll be amazed at the amount of community organising already grown from what you’ve sown.

    my story: when i started reading your blog maybe three years ago, i had barely heard of peak oil. i was a new-ish mom in a new-ish neighbourhood in the middle of Toronto. also important to know is that although i’m o.k. at organising, i get really nervous around people and i don’t really like them that much ;-)

    since then, and really just through being inspired to action by you, i’ve helped establish an urban fruit harvesting group:, and am the “hub coordinator” for my ward. i also got really brave and joined a social justice group right around the corner from me called The Shoelace Collective. This group is alot of what you talk about – helping people cope with poverty, connecting with our neighbours, feeding people. And it happened to be founded by someone who is peak oil aware. so now we’re starting with projects like a small community garden that supplements the food bank that the group works with and we’ve almost completed a solar dehydrator made mostly from stuff we already had. also, we try to keep our local politicians connected with what’s going on on the ground.

    and, i certainly never expected to be running food preserving workshops with these groups, but again, i have an enabling friend, and we’ve been running weekly workshops that are fun, productive, and well attended. we use fruit donated from the urban fruit harvesting project and also produce donated from the two farmers markets in the area.

    i’m telling you this not to toot my horn. i’m telling you this to show how much you’ve already done, Sharon. i think people establish models that work for them in their own neighbourhood, probably drawn from a bunch of existing structures. for example, we work out of a church who lets us use their kitchen.

    solutions which wander away from home and neighboourhood are not sustainable, right? i know that’s simplistic, but i would love to hear from you specifically how your neighbourhood has come together. i don’t think community organising is about “taking one for the team” and giving up what works in your life. i think there is a reason that voice inside you has helped you type a gazillion times: “i don’t want to do this”.



  38. Everyone: Thanks for a great discussion. Some things I’ve taken from this that I will do in my neighborhood are 1)take brownies (or bread or jam or zucchini) to my neighbors 2)invite my neighbors over for a bbq/block party 3) put together a list of neighbors and their phone numbers and distribute the list to everyone 4)invite neighbors to join one of the homeowner association committees (water, garden, road, social, etc.) 5)ask neighbors if they are interested in forming a food co-op.

    It’s a place to start.

  39. LRH says:

    Another aspect of people settling in place, rather than thinking they will be upgrading to bigger and better in a few years, is that more people will consider investing in solar panels and other energy saving or renewable sources of energy. People, I think, would rather spend $10,000 to $40,000 on a new car which they can easily take with them, than the same amount on a solar or geothermal system. When people start viewing homes again as a long term place to live and to actually pay off, and realize that they will recoup their investment for renewable energy faster and faster as the price of electricity inexorably rises, new values should start taking hold. My solar pv system will last at least 20 years, and require no maintenance, and no one can say the same for their cars. I figured it was a better investment than a Prius.

  40. Shira says:

    Abraham Lincoln said “do what you can, where you are, with what you have”, and it’s still great advice.

    What you have is an existing local base and a trade as an essayist, even some momentum there.

    What could you do from where you are, with what you have? I’m just here to tell you that as soon as a person starts extensive professional gallivanting around, the domestic economy is close to impossible to hold together. Children have fits, the well intentioned relief gardener cannot keep the starts alive, strawberry season comes and goes while a person is elbow deep in preparing for, attending and mopping up after a conference in Orlando. It is hard enough to keep up with a busy professional life and the rhythms of even a modest homestead without traveling a lot and being gone at meetings several evenings a week.

    You may have read “Better Together”. It’s full of great inspirational stories about community transformations. They were mostly accomplished by persons of modest means, working locally, and taking years. A few experienced participants later branched out and helped start similar organizations in the next county.

    And I’m all for the stealth model of community organization, as detailed in several examples above. The lesson that I took from “Better Together” is that any organization which addresses a real community need can be a vehicle for transformation. Gardening and local food security is ideal, because it does an end run around ideology from the start. Emergency preparedness is another great vehicle for getting people talking. The idea of time scale of the emergency in question always comes up, and you don’t even have to be the person who mentions it.

    Community organizing is a whole skill set. You might consider reading some books and getting some training before plunging in with the big vision. A while back, I went to a workshop on leadership in volunteer organizations. Good stuff, and I stuck with it for a decade, then burned out on organizations.

    Shira in Bellingham, WA

  41. Tracie says:

    Second response to this post, sorry.

    Maybe Sharon’s next book is a compilation of ideas and models that her readers and others she’s inspired are using to build community etc in their neighborhood. An medium for spreading the good news that change is happening, and is possible even in today’s disconnected world.
    Stories can be sent in to you, Sharon, and you can compile, and edit whilst in your pajamas. Maybe you’ll need to do a weekend trip or two to interview someone, but not more than that. People like to tell of their good news, and boy can we all sure use some these days.

  42. Stefan Pasti says:

    Hi Sharon,

    I have read many of your contributions to the Energy Bulletin. I was very interested in the posts (and comments) associated with your discussion of Permaculture and Transition Towns—and I am now very interested in this beginning of discussions on “Settlement”.

    I’m sure there are many people who feel in agreement with your comments on what is needed:

    “I hear more and more that people need more – they need some way to get connected to their neighbors, to the people they will be working with as times get harder, but who don’t share their worldview. How do we set up a model that enables them to work together even if they don’t fully “get” all of our situation, or disagree? How do we get started now? These are the questions that keep me up at night.”

    “Taking on that problem, coming up with some kind of solution – and one that doesn’t require converting everyone to one perspective – this is a major project, and thus, the horns of my dilemma.”

    And I’m sure there will be many people willing to help you bring some of the best ideas together into something that contributes another piece to that part of the challenges ahead—as you have the ability to synthesize discoveries into accessible educational experiences.

    As my contribution to this discussion, I would like to suggest that you look into the concept of Community Visioning Initiatives.

    One of the main goals of these kind of Community Visioning Initiatives is to maximize citizen participation in identifying challenges, and in solution-oriented activity.

    Many cities and towns in the United States have carried out visioning initiatives or strategic planning exercises, but I do not know of any particular examples which are meant to be responses to most of the multiple challenges which readers of the Energy Bulletin are familiar with. (Note: My own assessment of the challenges of our times can be accessed here ). I also believe that for community visioning initiatives to be most effective, much more attention needs to be given to preliminary surveys (see Section 9 in the proposal mentioned below for my contributions on that subject). The Transition Movement recognizes the value of visioning as a way of building consensus, and as a way of increasing citizen participation in creating practical action plans and implementing doable steps. What I am suggesting is a greater appreciation for the kind of Community Visioning Initiatives which might require a years time (or more) to carry out.

    If you visit the website of The Interfaith Peacebuilding and Community Revitalization (IPCR) Initiative (which is an initiative I am building as a resource and response to the challenges of our times), you will see in the “Keynote Documents” section a document titled “1000Communities2” (see ). “1000Communities2″ (“1000CommunitiesSquared”) is a 161 page proposal advocating Community Visioning Initiatives, “Community Teaching and Learning Centers” with ongoing workshops, and “sister community” relationships as a way of generating an exponential increase in our collective capacity to overcome the challenges of our times.

    I have written 5 or so short introductions to the “1000Communities2” proposal—two of them are “Transitioning from Less Solution-Oriented Employment to More Solution-Oriented Employment” ( ) and “The ‘1000Communities2’ Proposal: Creating a Multiplier Effect of a Positive Nature” (which is also part of the “Educational Materials Outreach Package” at the bottom of the IPCR homepage).

    I encourage you, or anyone else who might be interested, to explore the “1000Communities2” proposal. Maybe your approach to “community building” will be much different, but you might find pieces which are useful to you [for example: the Summary of the Potential of Community Visioning Initiatives, the 15 Step Outline (which provides significant detail) or the “15 Suggestions for Preliminary Survey Questions”). (It is also worth noting that if you look at the IPCR Mission Statement, or the “Brief Descriptions of The Eight IPCR Concepts”, you will see that the IPCR Initiative hopes to be a holistic approach to problem solving, by encouraging a “constellation of initiatives”.)

    On the subject of “constellations of initiatives”, I have just posted an entry to my journal at which provides a draft pdf titled “Starting Point Links to ‘113 Related Fields of Activity’” (field of activity related to peacebuilding, community revitalization, and ecological sustainability). This piece may also provide some assistance to you.

    And recently I made a series of posts at my Facebook page, which include excerpts from past writings. One of the excerpts is a piece titled “How Modern Agriculture-Based Villages Can Contribute to the Continuity of Peaceful Human Settlements” (written in 1990, but still relevant…).

    I should add that the IPCR Initiative is still in the “building phase”—I have not yet been asked to give any workshops. Thus, there may be some people who would say since these ideas have not yet been successfully implemented, why should people believe they might work? My response: the challenges of our times call for problem solving on a scale most of us have never known before. Many solutions will be needed that do not already have proven track records. Community Visioning Initiatives can help “… bring to the fore what is often hidden: how many good people there are, how many ways there are to do good, and how much happiness comes to those who extend help as well as to those who receive it”.
    I believe the concept of Community Visioning Initiatives is very underappreciated, and I hope to help remedy that, so more people can benefit from a very useful—and relevant—community building tool.

    I hope this is helpful in some way.

    Best Regards,

    Stefan Pasti

  43. Shira says:


    That’s brilliant.

    Sharon, Tracie has a point. By all means, write the article/book/radio interview about the Transition Town movement in the U.S. Movements are legitimate when they get a book.

    Far better than doing what you don’t like and taking time away from things that you do like. One day a couple of decades ago, I left my children, who were putting in a little container garden, and my mother, who was visiting from another state, to go off to work on a Sunday doing high tech academic stuff. At the time, I knew that this yuppie momma paradigm was not working so well. It took me a decade to get to where I can put the bread on to rise and start work in my bathrobe.

    You’re already there. As we used to say in the Army, “Use your strengths.”

    Shira in Bellingham, WA

  44. Kat says:

    I agree with those who think you should continue to focus your talents where they are obviously most useful. I didn’t know anything about Peak Oil (or a lot of the other scary things that are bearing down on our world) until I read Depletion and Abundance. I have since passed that book around (sorry, I guess I should insist that people buy their own, but then they might not, and then the information wouldn’t be diseminated! :> )) and have gotten more folks at least interested in the idea that we need to be prepared. That wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t gone to the effort of writing a very compelling book. So don’t rush through the writing of the next one so you can be about this new business, because it will be an important book, too. I am looking forward to reading it! You are, first and foremost, a mom, and it is an important job, probably THE most important job. Remember that, while you may have some impact on the rest of the world if you go out and work in this new capacity, you will have a far greater impact if you bring those little boys up in a way that reflects what you are passionate about. (There’s only one of you – there are four of them!) The rest of us will just have to take responsibility for our own communities. Sorry, of course I can’t tell you what to do. But (perhaps selfishly), I want to continue reading impassioned essays about goat sex and chickens you’re just dying to butcher, as well as political op pieces and environmental issues. You ARE building a community, and enabling the rest of us to do the same.

  45. Joseph says:

    As I said before Sharon, I am sure you will sell enough books to have enough money to do All (or most of) The Things You Have Ever Wanted To Do With Your Own Farm (but didn’t have the money to do).

    At that point you can be, say, the organizational and/or educational hub of your own rural local area network of people, which will then function as an extended village.

    Such villages could then create a local economy between themselves and nearby small cities. And…so it goes

    That is what i intend to do, but though I am going to stay in my general area, I still havent decided exactly where i am going to live.

    I have the money to relocate and put that money into an existing farm or intentional community, or even possibly in a neighborhood-type venture in the small city I live in now, and being single with virtually unlimited time, I will have the capacity to do a lot of things that most people cannot do. However, I still have to make a decision as to where i want to do this.

    Why? Because I live in a small progressive city, have interned in an intentional community and/or have lived in rural areas, and I am still weighing the pros and cons of each situation.

    And yes, it has to do with people.

    But once I do, I would have to agree with the posters here who have suggested to start out small in terms of organizing and let it – and the organizational plan – grow organically instead of trying to impose a top-down plan.

    And, at some point, I will assist you in your endeavor to make your farm all you ever wanted it to be by buying 20 copies of ANOF and/or D&A (or maybe Carolyn Bakers book SD, but that one might be a bit too scary, or ideologically unacceptable for some people) and giving them away to the people around me as an example of a simple way to meet people and spread ideas and knowledge.

    At any rate, I will be introducing your books and Baker’s to my weekly salon next week as a test case. Of course, most of these people are already into various aspects of this, so a lot of this wont be new for them, but…they might tell their friends, who in turn might tell their friends…and so it will go. It’s out of our hands, Sharon, no one is in control: how it will all unfold is how it will all unfold. Regards, Joseph

  46. Randy says:


    We will be launching Bright Neighbor nation wide in October… check out our community mobilization strategy:

  47. Jerry McManus says:

    I say skip the “organizing meetings” and invite everyone to dinner instead.


    What better way to “organize” a community than to watch one come together, all on its own, in celebration of food itself.

    How to do it? Couldn’t be simpler, really:

    1. Identify distinct neighborhoods in you area, make note of churches, community centers, food banks, farmers markets, etc. for each neighborhood.

    2. Pick a promising neighborhood and start advertising as a landscaping business that specializes exclusively in food gardens. Should be easy to find customers, there’s a growing interest in kitchen gardens, but few people currently have the time or motivation to do it themselves.

    3. Once established, start canvassing the neighborhood door-to-door and making people an offer they can’t refuse: They let you dig up their yard for a food garden and in return they get a free box of first-pick fresh produce from every harvest, probably every week during the growing season. You do all the work, they get boxes of free food, you keep the rest. Make it clear they can walk away from the deal at anytime, even after you’ve done all the work to establish a garden. Offer to install a rain-barrel to help defray watering costs. Show them pictures of how pretty (and un-farm-like) a permaculture garden can be, and pictures of your other satisfied customers grinning in front of beautiful heaps of fresh free produce.

    4. With the surplus from those gardens you have enough produce to open a huge stall at the neighborhood farmers market, maybe even enough to start one where needed. If enough people sign up for your offer you can create some jobs and train people to do the gardening. Need 50 million farmers? You just made a start.

    5. Now start talking to the churches and community centers. Offer to donate produce to their food banks and soup kitchens. Get to know these people real well and be very generous with them.

    6. This puts you in the perfect position to pick one of the centrally located churches or community centers with a nice big kitchen and approach them with the idea of making it a secular gathering place for the whole neighborhood. A community kitchen with classes for cooking and canning, and crucially, weekly shared meals open to all.

    7. Now the beauty part: Invite everyone to dinner. Make it fun for the whole family and festive. Music, dancing, storytelling. Encourage everyone to bring ingredients or participate in the cooking (and cleaning!). Make sure everyone knows that most if not all of the food they are sharing came from their neighbors yards.

    Guess what? You’ve just created a garden community. Use the franchise model to start similar operations in every neighborhood with willing and able bodies. Expand the services offered to bee-keeping, poultry, etc. Expand the community kitchen to offer classes in other self-sufficiency skills.

    Now, if events should conspire to make times especially tough for people, no worries. The framework is already in place to keep people fed and, just as important, eating together. One neighborhood at a time.

  48. Jerry—WOW! Have you done this? Or are you in the middle of doing this? Very cool.

  49. Sharon says:

    Jerry, we mostly agree. Dinners are meetings, they just avoid the boring stuff.

    I didn’t say *other* people will have to have boring meetings – my feeling is that meetings are the death of everything. I only fear that I will ;-) , in the process of initiation ;-) .


  50. Sharon says:

    Cecelia, I don’t think Wendell Berry is ignorant of that – I think the distinction is that in North America, particularly the US, the idea of migration into the frontier is ingrained in the history and the founding narrative in ways that it isn’t, for example, in much of European culture. Even peoples who have moved a lot often have as part of their basic identity where they are from in much of the world – in the US, the tendency is to see where you are going as your identity. It is a broad cultural generalization, with all the limitations implied in that, but I don’t think it is especially inaccurate.

    Vera, I’ve been writing about what we’re doing for a long time ;-) , I’m not going to repeat it all here. A lot of it is as simple as bringing brownies and having meals together, of sharing things and checking in on the neighbors. But it is also the case that a lot of people can’t cross even those boundaries, and formalizing ways to do it – not making them more formal, but making the tools formally available – is helpful to people. Not everyone learns or changes the same way – some of what I do works really well for people who like to read copious amounts of wordy, opinionated stuff ;-) – I’m daily surprised how many. But other stuff is needed too.

    Thanks for all the discussion and contributions – it is percolating through. And no, I won’t be rushing through the AIP book – far too much to do there. That’s the problem – all the work is needed, there’s far too much of it, and always yesterday ;-) .


Leave a Reply