Bolo Bolo

The Transition Towns movement is much more grounded and practical, but it might be enriched by an insight from Bolo Bolo (a now out-of-print little book describing a kind of anarchist utopia — a world of wildly diverse relocalized communities bound by a cooperative meta-structure that allows for travel, communication, and limited trade among them).

Each Bolo is limited to about 500 people and is largely (although not totally) self-reliant. The anonymous author P.M. states explicitly that the real wealth of each Bolo is culture — that complex and ever-changing mix of values, ideas, habits, and material that make up the life of a specific local group of people.

When Rob Hopkins reiterates the need for “lots of celebrations” as we go about Transition Town building, I believe he is encouraging us, albeit in an abbreviated and non-specific way, to feed and celebrate that local culture.

According to Bolo Bolo culture is made up of  “habits, philosophies, values, interests, clothing styles, cuisine, manners, gender behaviors, education, sexual behavior, religion, architecture, crafts, art, rituals, music, dance, mythology,” ways of dealing with birth and dying, and so on.

As important as it is to work toward food, energy, shelter, and goods self-reliance, we will likely have limited success unless we also nurture the local culture. It is this local culture that embodies the sense of place, that provides us with ways to enjoy our lives, and find meaning in them.

Without survival of course nothing matters, but mere survival is not enough. To be human is to live in culture. As P.M. puts it, “cuisine is not just calories, and clothes are not just body insulation”. And shelter needs to provide comfort and beauty, not just utility.

P.M. emphasizes the cultural essence of the bolo as an explicit counter to the general idea of most modern utopian ideas because, he says, “they conceive their communities from an administrative or purely ecological/technical point of view. [These utopias] are full of general prescriptions that are compulsory in all their basic dimensions (clothing, work timetables, education, sexuality, etc.) and they postulate certain principles of internal organization. Reason, practicability, harmony, non-violence, ecology, economic efficiency, morality, all are values that must be enforced. But in a bolo, culturally defined people live together and their motivations are not determined by a compulsory set of moral laws. Each bolo is different. Only cultural identity and diversity can guarantee a certain degree of independence and ‘democracy’. This is not a question of politics. Social organization always means a certain amount of social control.”

Of course, in a relocalizing society, this diversity will occur naturally, if we take care not to stifle it. I hope that we will go further, and encourage it. A global monoculture of cookie-cutter ecovillages is as problematic as any other monoculture.

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Take It Or Leave It

Daniel Quinn has done a lot of thinking and a lot of writing and it’s impossible to do justice to the impact of his ideas in a short post (or two or three).

But to make a small beginning — Quinn talks about two kinds of human cultures — Leavers (who are the great majority of human cultures throughout the ages) and Takers (a minority — albeit a powerful minority — of one). We belong to Taker culture.

Taker culture arose along with the ability to store agricultural surplus (about 10,000 years ago in the Middle East) and began to spread as extra food created riches that in turn allowed an aggressive warrior class. This Taker spread went on for about 5,000 years before writing was invented. Quinn calls those 5,000 years “The Great Forgetting”.

When the ancients began writing they erroneously believed that the way they lived (as Takers) was the way humans had always lived. Thus our disciplines of history, philosophy, theology, and even science to some degree, are based on fundamentally flawed assumptions. These disciplines continued to be developed in this way until the 19th century, when explorers and early modern scientists began discovering other kinds of living cultures, and the palaeological and archaeological evidence of human history began to show us a more accurate picture of prehistoric human life.

Quinn doesn’t mention it, but just at that juncture an accident of history gave a tremendous boost to Taker culture — the new availability of unheard of amounts of cheap energy from oil. Did you know that one gallon of gas equals about six weeks of human physical work? This bonanza of abundant riches (like that produced by the storing of agricultural surplus, but on steroids) produced an explosion of expansionism, of goods, and of aggression.

It is certainly true that Taker culture, along with the fossil fuel extravaganza, has produced wondrous things — from hot showers to the internet. But it has also brought horrible consequences — among which are overcrowding, stress, war, genocide, highly profitable criminal ‘businesses’ like slavery, drug-running, child prostitution, armaments trafficking, etc. These sorts of things were unknown in the thousands of Leaver cultures throughout the long, long period of human life on Earth, or for that matter in the few remaining Leaver cultures still surviving.

Nor has the staggering proliferation of ‘things’ produced by Taker culture made us happy — not even those of us in the wealthy nations. Study after study has shown that — beyond a minimum necessary for a comfortable life — getting more stuff doesn’t give us more happiness. Quinn suggest that this is because we evolved through thousands of years to fit into Leaver culture — the human ‘default mode’ as it were (archaic Homo sapiens remains have been found that are 780,000 years old!). And the last 10,000 years as Takers is not long enough to turn us into ‘Takers at heart’.

It is Quinn’s contention that Taker culture is, in the end, unworkable because it sets us apart from one another, and apart from nature. This ‘special status’ is a delusion — we are, in fact, children of the Earth and as much a part of nature as rivers or trees, or bears. Therefore, Taker life is evolutionarily unstable and is in the process of failing.

I highly recommend that you look into Daniel Quinn’s books yourself. Check out Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael, and Beyond Civilization. The website to start with is http://www.ishmael.com (and be sure to take a look at his recommended books list).

An Enormous Garden

Ecotopian fiction was named for Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975) — which describes a utopian society based on ecological principles.

But check out Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, (1915). Gilman may (or may not) have heard of ecology. Its first text, Oecology of Plants by Denmark’s Eugenius Warming was published in English in 1909. In any event, a case could be made for calling Herland an ecotopian novel (even though ecological ideas are in no way its central point) as well as an early feminist utopia.

Herland is “a land in a perfect state of cultivation, a land that looked like an enormous park, only it was even more evidently an enormous garden.” The women of Herland had “early decided that trees were the best food plants, requiring far less labor in tilling the soil, and bearing a larger amount of food for the same ground space; also doing much to preserve and enrich the soil.”

Nearly all the trees of Herland bear fruit or nuts. Between the trees are fruit bushes and food-producing vines. The countryside also has “broad green fields” of grains and “closely cultivated gardens” of vegetables — and flowers everywhere.

As to animals, Herland has birds and bugs and cats. The cats are “rigorously bred to destroy mice and voles and all such enemies of the food supply” but they do not kill birds. There are no dogs or large animals — no sheep, horses, or cows for example. “They took up too much room — we need all our land to feed our people.”

They had “worked out a perfect scheme of refeeding the soil. All the scraps and leavings of their food, plant waste from lumber or textile industries, all the sewage, properly treated and combined — everything which came from the earth went back to it.”

Although they had many fine towns (and electric cars), they were apparently using renewable energy as “There is no smoke, no dirt, no noise!”

Each adult has her own apartment — a bedroom, bath, and a social room for entertaining visitors. All else is cooperative and collaberative: food preparation, and dining (although take-out and picnics are common); laundry; work, arts, crafts; children’s spaces. Learning is constant and life-long, but schooling is unknown. Decisions are made by direct face-to-face democracy.

Of course, permaculture would argue the necessity of a smaller population — to leave room for large tracts of ‘untouched’ natural areas, complete with predators, allowing for ongoing study and learning — as well as natural evolution. Nevertheless, for its’ time Herland is an amazing accomplishment.