Friday, 31 October 2008

Two-Step To Rhizomes

Two-Step To Rhizomes

I remember stumbling across Jeff Vail's Rhizome a year or two ago, giving the information a cursory examination and then wandering off onto other things.

The last few weeks, for whatever reason, have seen me involved in a few different discussions as to how we approach the future, what plan is best for dealing with the multiple crises we face as a society.

So it was with some joy that I re-discovered Rhizome. This time around I spent a lot more time reading up on the various ideas that go together to make it a whole, and the more I read, the more I liked. It fit well with a lot of my preconceived ideas (and ideals!).

The fundamentals (as I understand & interpret them) are that the countryside is dotted with hamlets, each of 10 - 40 people from a family group. Each group supplies itself a certain base level of self-sufficiency. It is able to care for itself. This is handled via combinations and permutations of permaculture, forest gardening & biointensive methods of production. Surrounding each hamlet's productive area is an area of "managed wilderness", akin to permaculture's zone 5, though this area is a buffer for bad times. When crops fail, the inhabitants turn to this region and apply hunter/gathering to the natural bounty to feed themselves. Each hamlet also supplies one or more specialty items, which are used in trade with other hamlets at gatherings that are arranged to occur loosely throughout the network.

In addition to the resilience arising out of the level of self-sufficiency for each node, it offers resilience on the network level as each hamlet depends and is depended upon by it's neighbours for both specialty items and to maintain the freedom that such a non-hierarchical structure brings.

This summary necessarily hastens over a lot of the realities, and many of them are discussed in detail on Mr Vail's blog, so that should be your first port of call if you wish to know more. Start with What is Rhizome?

In re-discovering this plan for the future, I was hit with something of a revelation. The seed, and often seedling, of Rhizome already exists in many parts of the world. Households such as our own, and others far more advanced than ours, form the basis of the future network of hamlets.

We're not yet hamlets, but we have a measure of self-sufficiency somewhere above the negative value assignable to most of the western population. We produce some specialty goods that we trade with others upon occasion. Even a pot of jam in exchange for a jar of olives is an exchange that is occurring along the lifelines that will one day connect together the hamlets of Rhizome. They are an existing and active economy outside of that reliant on the hierarchical structures of modern society.

I'm aware, via my time at Aussies Living Simply, that there are other regions with active communities linked together in this way. They might not be direct neighbours, but they are operating within a network that meets many of the other criteria put forward as a part of the Rhizome idea. Aussies Living Simply and similar sites are, as well as bringing together neighbours, in effect creating the wider network connections beyond the immediate geographically local ones. This connecting is as fragile as the internet and so will one day need to be replaced with the robust solutions Mr Vail proposes, but it is a good start.

The question that naturally arises is, where to from here?

That Rhizome could be implemented in an across the board, one-off change of policy & practice is obviously (very!) highly improbable. That it might be a natural continuation of the growth of that which already exists is much more highly probable. If we simple living types keep doing what we are doing, and keep bringing others into the fold from time to time, those decentralised networks will naturally expand. Regardless of whether we are in the city or the country, it's that measure of self-reliance, and the network of like-minded people, that really matters. Obviously there are certain implementation problems when based in the city, but they should not prove insurmountable.

Without counting "doing what we are already doing", I can see two fairly obvious steps to facilitating the growth of Rhizome out of the current system:

1. Be prepared with excess foundation.

In the same way that you have frames of foundation ready for when you receive a new swarm of bees, so you should have many of the elements of a self-sufficient garden & forest waiting to be applied to new land. Put aside a small (or big!) corner of your land for a nursery and always have plants growing within it. Cuttings of your favourite useful herbs, some tree, herb and vegetable seedlings, and if you're keen even some grafted fruit trees.

Try to give some away every year as advertising, or even sell them as a sideline, so you don't end up with a whole heap of old stock. When ever you meet a potential new "rhizome node" (yes, they are people too, I imagine) load them up, even if they need to come back with the trailer. Help them out with planning out their gardens if they desire it, but otherwise be there to offer them assistance, advice and support. Supply the additional nutrients and energy that will help this seedling grow into a mature tree. It is of ultimate and infinite benefit to both parties.

2. Develop as many specialist skills as you comfortably can.

It falls upon those of us at (or in my case, within distant sight of!) the forefront of this new social model to prepare for teaching others. We need to learn more than just one or two skills, we need to be comfortable with as many such skills as possible, and have whatever resources, tools and books are needed to back up and expand upon the basics of those crafts. To go one further (and perhaps easier than learning them all), stock up on references for a myriad other skills that we just don't have time to tackle, having them ready for others when there are more to share the joy. Many of us on this path are inclined to do this anyway, so this is perhaps just one more useful argument to justify innumerable hobbies and a bulging bookshelf!

This is not because I believe a single person, or even family, can accomplish everything that needs to be done. It's because someone has to be prepared to help others learn these skills in the future, and there just aren't enough of us to go around at the moment. As the tenuous Just-In-Time by-the-skin-of-our-teeth society we live in starts to fail us, we will have more and more willing students. Without our preparations there may not be the knowledge and resources for them to even consider getting started, and the road to their (and by relation our) success will be so much longer. Our planning and preparation may spell the difference between an excessively frugal, grubby future and one of leisurely, agrarian indulgence. It may be the difference between water and beer, milk and cheese, wooden and metal spoons, bark shanties or stone homes.

We will see, if things continue as they are, a time when both grandparents and children remain in (or return to) the home for longer periods of their lives, when households naturally swell up beyond the nuclear size. Siblings may migrate out of cities to bunk with country family members, bumping the household up to the status of a hamlet. The natural decline of our civilisation will drive this aspect on it's own. In the same way the growth of new hamlets will occur as new families move out into the country, and the spaces left in the cities are filled by remaining neighbours spreading out their hamlet estates.

Our job, as the ones already on the path, is to be prepared to welcome and assist newcomers, get them a few steps along the path to the stage of self-sufficiency so they can as quickly as possible become productive, self-reliant members of the network, providing benefits to the new society as a whole.


Anonymous said...

Rhizome Theory has been panned in the past - especially in the US as they factor in McMansions and Mega Barnes and the full cost of good quality farmland...
Well I wish!!
What we are doing in the New England NSW is proving you can support yourself on grazing land and friends proved it can be done with minimal cash!!
With the financial crash and 9.1% declines itis now time to begin to implement the Rhizome...

Fargener alias sololeum

Geoff said...

Thanks Fargener.

It's certainly not something that can be achieved if we expect to keep living our high consumption lifestyles, and one way or another those lifestyles are going to come to an end.

The only choice we seem to have is whether we cut back voluntarily or are forced by circumstances to do so. Fingers crossed that enough of us choose to make the change.

The folks at Sara River seem to be doing a great job, love their site and would love one of those Listeroids :-)

Anonymous said...

Geoff you've done a marvelous job at Flood St. You're larger site should be a joy to behold!! Go for it!! You probably should put a link to the "for sale" on SPO I think there may be one or two interested parties there.

I think Jay Hanson is right - if we don't change our political system - we will get more of the same. We will spend ourselves into bankruptcy and still not address our energy needs, nor a lifestyle suitable for life on this little orb!!

Kim & Maureen have a 3hp Listeroid model on a genset - it goes really well! BTW their cob house still is costing under $2500 - and is a great place to sit and chew the fat!


Geoff said...

Thanks! There's still a bit to be done to ensure a comfortable lifestyle here post-PO, but we'll be leaving that as an exercise to the next folks. We're willing to step back further if it hits hard before we're finished all the projects! Plenty of time for such projects when the cars stop running and the server farms stop humming ;-)

Realistically I don't think we're going to be able to change political thinking until after the event. John Michael Greer mentioned this recently at the Archdruid Report:

Until the "mind-forg'd manacles" of dysfunctional thinking are unlocked and tossed aside, constructive plans for the world after peak oil on anything past an individual level are wasted effort, since they will not be implemented by societies that cannot grasp the need for them.

From Arguments from Ignorance

If they wont change it means they'll do everything in their power to spend up big to try to "solve" the problem, propelling us along the downslope that much more swiftly. I think we need to plan on them not planning!

The first time I read of the listeroids was when they were discussing their setup on ALS. We're going to go a similar route ourselves, might even end up buying one from them. I'm very envious of their cob house, didn't realise it was so economical. They milled the wood themselves as well, didn't they?