The case for Resilient Community

Some years ago I visited two villages near Gampaha, Sri Lanka. Both were small and poor. Both were inhabited by members of Rodhi caste, the Sinhalese version of untouchables. But there, all similarity ended. In the first, families of five and six lived in palm-leaf huts just large enough for them all to lie down in. They made their living begging, which I’m told is the traditional livelihood of the Rodhi. They had no running water, no toilets, no access road, and no school. Most were illiterate. They lived in squalor that up to that point I would have found unimaginable.

In the second village, people lived in houses made of wood or concrete blocks. These houses were not large and luxurious, but they were at least recognizable as permanent structures. The villagers had installed a gravity-fed water system, had enough sealed-pit latrines for the village, an access road, and a school for the children. They made their livelihood hand-weaving baskets for use by other nearby communities, though they’d recently made arrangements to sell their products in Colombo.  And when we arrived, the villagers smiled at us– a facial expression I never saw in the first village.

How did two villages with an identical background develop so differently? Fifty years ago, a man named A. T, Ariyaratne, then a science teacher, had an idea for dealing with Sri Lanka’s poverty: rather than tell the villages what they ought to do, he would ask the villages what they wanted to do, and see how he could help empower them to do it. The second village accepted his proposal. The first did not.

Ariyaratne brought a group of high school students to the village and brainstormed with the villagers what they wanted and how they might accomplish these goals. In the beginning, they had only labor and experience to share. But that gift was enough to change the course of several hundred lives.

In the process, they discovered (as many others across the globe have also discovered) that by giving their gift to these villagers they did not know, something inside the givers awakened as well.  Today, what has become the Sarvodaya Shramadana Sanghamaya (the Movement for the Awakening of All through the Gift of Labor) has touched 10,000 villages, and has a network of over a thousand member villages and tens of thousands of volunteers.  It has rarely exerted its grassroots political strength.  But as one peaceworker, a Brit with Quaker Peace and Service, observed: “Sarvodaya is the sleeping giant.  If it wakes up, things will change.”

The Sarvodaya experiment changed the whole concept of community development, its principles adopted or adapted by the U.N. and GOs and NGOs around the globe. Â That alone is an accomplishment. Â Yet today this experience holds relevance beyond poverty alleviation.  As Alvin Toffler observed 15 years ago, the world is changing. Â Toffler described a shift from a two-pole world to a three-pole world: from tension between local and national power centers, to three-way tension between local, national, and transnational power centers.  He called this the Third Wave, and predicted it would change everything from technology to warfare.  And he’s been right.

John Robb’s blog, Global Guerrillas, analyzes the change in warfare from modern to post-modern.  It has become less centralized, attacks the system itself, and evolves rapidly to meet changing circumstances.  Robb calls this 4GW: Fourth Generation Warfare.  He also suggests it is nearly impossible to defend against with traditional methods.

“It should be clear, as we watch the gyrations and excesses of global markets, that no organization/state/group has any meaningful control over its direction. The same is true for almost every other aspect of globalization, from the environment to transnational crime to energy flows. In short, we’ve lost control and our collective future is in the hands of a morally neutral system that is operating in ways that we don’t fully understand (nor will we). The best defense against this emerging situation is not to call for new Manhattan projects or global treaties or Marshall plans, which won’t work since we can neither marshal the resources necessary nor collectively agree on anything other than the most basic rules of connectivity, it is to slowly introduce organic stability into our global system.”

Robb argues that, from a security standpoint, the only way to defend against 4GW is to create what he calls Resilient Communities. He envisions these communities in an economic/security sense:

“This conceptual model creates a set of new services that allow the smallest viable subset of social systems, the community (however you define it), to enjoy the fruits of globalization without being completely vulnerable to its excesses. These services are configured to provide the ability to survive an extended disconnection from the global grid in the following areas (an incomplete list): Energy. Food. Security (both active and passive). Communications. Transportation.”

Robb’s concept has much in common with Ariyaratne‘s community awakening or Gandhi‘s village councils.  Robb, a former special operations pilot for the Air Force, naturally looks at the results from a security standpoint, both physical and economic:

  • Space. Localization (or hyperlocalization) radically reduces the space needed to support any given unit of human activity. Turns useless space (residential, etc.) into productive space.
  • Time. Wasted time in global transport is washed away. JIT (just in time production) and place.
  • Energy. Wasted energy for global transport is eliminated. Energy production is tied to locality of use. More efficient use of solar energy (the only true exogenous energy input to our global system).
  • Mass. Less systemic wastage. Made to order vs. made for market.
  • Information. Radical simplification. Replaces hideously complex global management overhead with simple local management systems.

For 50 years, Ariyaratne has been describing a similar concept in terms of other benefits: a “no poverty – no affluence” society which promises political, emotional, and spiritual development at the individual, family, and community level.  Ariyaratne argues that awakened communities can participate in an awakened central government for those needs that cannot be met at the community level.  The central government depends on the communities of its membership, not the reverse.  And an awakened central government can participate in global affairs without fear of losing its power, for its power comes from within.

We already see the breakdown of nationalism as groups of U.S. states band together in “compacts”– subnational agreements between state governments– and as California concludes its own treaty-like agreements with foreign nations.  As our national government continues to fail us, and as even some state governments begin to falter, a scattering of communities throughout the nation have begun looking to themselves for support.  Some of this self-awareness has religious roots, especially in Mormon and Catholic areas.  Some has pragmatic roots, in which residents band together because the State has abandoned them or because they seek to be prepared for an uncertain future.  In some cases, people would describe their motivation as moral: the belief that producing food and energy locally is just the right thing to do.

Ariyaratne has been writing about his experience in village awakening for decades from a pragmatic quality of life perspective as well as a spiritual (though non-theistic) one.  Robb’s blog describes the characteristics and development of Resilient Communities in detail.  And again, while his focus is on security, the developments he surveys are completely consistent with the greater changes we need.  Here’s a quick lost of some of the organic and radical innovations he chronicles:

And more.  So while some might argue that the development of a community-focused economy is impossible, they might wish make way for those who are already doing it.


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