With incredible layoff numbers coming down the wires every day, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that we aren’t, in fact, facing the end of the world as we know it. How many have to be cut from the ranks of the employed before something gives? Before people actually have to change the courses of their lives to accommodate a new reality? Now, I’m not saying we’re anywhere near that yet. Things change, though, and most of the time they don’t change back, not all the way at least. And there’s bound to be a point at which enough businesses fail, and enough people get laid off, that we begin to change.
Imagining that breaking point led me to wonder what would happen when we got there, if we got there. Would we begin feeding each other, as mutual aid and government programs in the 1930s and the Diggers in San Francisco in the 1960s, did? (Of course, we’ve been feeding each other all along, thanks to groups like Food Not Bombs, food pantries, and church soup kitchens, and programs like these are seeing recent spikes in participants/beneficiaries.) Will pushcarts make a comeback? Apple sellers?
And what about living arrangements, as people get pushed out of their foreclosed homes, and the recently unemployed stop being able to pay the rent on their apartments? Would we devise ways of sharing less space — taking in boarders and consolidating families in single households? Or maybe people would start leaving the city, looking for other ways to make a living, other ways to approach life.
Perhaps we are already there, after all. Intentional and alternative communities are alive and well, and have, in the interval since the hippie-commune days, figured out how to deal with zoning. This past summer I attended a rainwater-collection workshop at a newish co-housing project upstate. A small group of people have built a large, modern house which is LEED certified and equipped to handle the needs of numerous individuals in different phases of their lives — a couple with a newborn share the place with college kids, grad students and mature single folk.
From an environmental standpoint, of course, one house is far less damaging than the four or five “normal” houses that the same number of people would ordinarily occupy. Tasks, from cleaning to cooking to planning and maintaining a vegetable garden, can be shared among the residents according to inclination and ability. Vehicles can be shared within the group, and rides into town can be planned, saving fuel and auto-maintenance expenses. Almost any domestic activity you can think of becomes more efficient with a larger group of people sharing a place and resources.
Another group model focuses around the idea of a community that not only lives together, but works together too. I’m hearing a lot about farming these days. Small farms are making a comeback, and with them, small farmers, too. CSAs and farmers markets, which have quadrupled in the last ten years, have slowly made earning a living from farming possible, with a lot of hard work and market savvy. Farming is one of the few growing industries in this country, and more and more often folks at Williamsburg cocktail parties are sheepishly telling me that they “really want to” raise goats/make cheese/grow Asian specialty produce, etc.
The Germantown Community Farm, in Columbia County, lives and farms together, earning its keep from shares in its CSA and sales from its roadside vegetable stand. In lieu of the traditional oversized farm family, a motley crew of artists, activists and others keeps the place going, and growing. Periodical work weekends enlist members of the larger community, including many city residents, to come, stay, eat and help tackle farm tasks, from harvesting to building new farm infrastructure.
We may be a ways away from a mass exodus to the countryside, but now is the time to both frequent your nearest year-round farmers’ market (farmers need your business all year ‘round) and also to begin planning your springtime CSA membership. The better our country cousins do now, the better off they’ll be when, and if, we truly need them.