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The Outquisition
Alex Steffen, 12 Jul 08
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The other night Cory Doctorow and I were talking over coffee, and we got going on an idea that's been rattling around in my head ever since.

We were talking about the slow-motion collapse here in America, the looming climate crisis,the futility of survivalism; and we began to play with the thought, what kinds of heroes would actually do some good for the communities that get hit hard?

Because if the ruins of the unsustainable are the new frontier, and if, as is already happening, the various economic and environmental transitions we face will leave many people unmoored from their familiar assumptions at the very least and, at the worst, cut loose from their jobs or driven from their homes, a huge number of people are going to need help forging new ways of life.

Even if we do a pretty decent job of hugging the curve, and bright green innovation brings prosperity and security to a lot of people in many regions, some others will still suffer from ecological shifts, political abandonment, economic collapse or some combination of all three. Unless things change dramatically, we have not seen our last Dust Bowl, our last New Orleans, our last Detroit. What do the people who are left trapped in degrading places, who don't get the green collar jobs, do?

And we got on this riff about heroes who got the paradox of the moment: that abandoned people and places are sometimes the ones who most need radical innovation; that, these days, new tools and models are practically scattered all over the ground, just waiting for people to pick them up; but that those who most need them are those who least know how to find them.

What would it be like, we wondered, if folks who knew tools and innovation left the comfy bright green cities and traveled to the dead mall suburban slums, rustbelt browntowns and climate-smacked farm communities and started helping the locals get the tools they needed. We imagined that it would need an almost missionary fervor, something like the Inquisition (which largely destroyed knowledge) in reverse, a crusade of open sharing, or as Cory promptly dubbed it, the Outquisition.

Imagine these folks like this passing out free textbooks, running holistic programs for kids, creating local knowledge management systems, launching microfinance projects, mobilebanking and complementary currencies. Helping rural landowners apply climate foresight and farm biodiversity. Building cheap, smart, quality housing for displaced people (not to mention better refugee camps), or an Open Architecture Network for cheap informal rehabs of run-down suburban housing. Hacking together DIY windmills and ad hoc smart grids, communication systems, water treatment systems -- and getting really good atadaptive reuses of outdated infrastructure. In other words, these folks would be redistributing the future at a furious clip.

This would not be lone stragglers wandering through a post-apocalyptic landscape (ala A Canticle for Liebowitz). As we've said again and again, worldending is a fool's game, and what comes after will not be an adventure. Nor would it be the fantasy of a localist retreat to 19th Century farming communities that folks like Jim Kunstler hold so dear (I mean, for Christsakes, no one really wants that life -- our ancestors all had that life and they fled it as soon as they could in great teeming masses)

Rather, it'd be a network of places where people were engaged in ingenious development of elegant solutions to the problems of life where living is hard and money is short might well be a vital necessity for a certain portion of the population. It's really not hard for me to imagine a certain kind of person eagerly embracing the role of being facilitators of that network, sort of like barefoot solar engineers for the forgotten parts of the developed world.

It sounds implausibly weird, but then much of the world we're moving into is likely to sound that way at first. Our ideas of what's normal, or even what's possible, will not outlast the next decade, and it'll be the people who think in (what are by today's standards) abnormal, impossible ways who may just do the most good.

So, what do you think? What innovative tools or models could you see helping in hard-hit communities? And can you think of a better name that the Outquisition?

Image credit: Freakangels.

UPDATE: People across the web have been jumping into into this conversation with good ideas, which is terrific. Glad to see so much creativity out there. Clearly something about the idea of not just writing off collapsing places has touched a chord.

However, there's also been some outrage, and it's also interesting how much of that criticism has focused on the idea that this is a formula for clueless city-slickers to ride in and preach to the noble yeomen farmers who will be doing just fine in the wake of disaster, thank you very much.

There are three problems here.

The first is that if you read the post, we aren't even much talking about rural areas. It's pretty clear to me that the areas of maximum opportunity to help are probably shrinking cities and collapsed suburbs.

The second larger problem is the clamor from certain bloggers that this is yet another example of arrogant urbanites bossing around the noble country folk. No one's proposing that urban hipsters show up and tell anyone what to do: there are a great many ways of helping a community with new tools and resources than can start from a position of respect and intelligent engagement (in fact, you can read about hundreds of good examples of such projects right here on Worldchanging). I find it telling that some commenters assume the complete opposite, as if people who were willing to commit themselves to making a difference would be complete idiots in how they went about it.

The third, largest problem is that the idea that rural communities are all doing great and can survive collapses just fine is pretty insane. We have over a century of observed history to show us that while rural people are certainly better at being rural than urban people would be, they are no better at avoiding collapse, and, in fact, in North America, they are usually heavily in debt and dependent on long supply chains of increasingly scarce inputs. The average North American country person is not much better prepared to manage in a widespead catastrophe than the average suburbanite.

Here in North America, the vast majority of people who live in rural areas are not farmers. They work in poultry processing plants. They mine coal. They work at the landfill. They stock shelves at the local supermarket. They answer customer service queries at the local call center. They ship widgets from a mail-order warehouse. They flip burgers. I've spent big chunks of my life in small towns and country places, and while I love these places, they're not what most urbanites idealize them as.

Less than 1% of the U.S. population farms, according to the Census. The average age of those farmers is rising fast, with 40% now over 55, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than half of all American farms are now either hobby or retirement farms, according to the EPA. Topsoil erosion can be measured in feet in many parts of the Midwest, while the flight from small towns of an entire generation of young people means a huge number of those towns have no future as things stand now.

Rural North America is in sad shape. Rural poverty is perhaps even more startling than urban poverty these days, and the lack of jobs, education, health and financial resources is much more pronounced in rural areas. Virtually every measurement of human well-being is worse in rural counties (at least working rural counties, rather than rural suburbs) than in urban counties. Already, huge swathes of rural America are green and leafy ghettos, complete with welfare dependencies and drug addictions.

If managing in a catastrophe were just about growing your own food, many (but not all) rural people would probably be just fine. If it were about repairing your machines, maintaining your roof, keeping the well running, a good many rural people would be okay. But there's a lot more than that involved in running the kind of society we all demand, things like public health systems, communications systems, transportation infrastructure, energy supplies, banking and finance, good governance innovations, an effective legal system, etc. Places with these systems do a heck of a lot better than places without them, and these are systems many communities are in a poor position to provide for themselves. In much of rural America, those systems aren't even working very well today.

That's the reality.

In the coming decades, some places are going to do just fine. Metropolitan areas that shift gears fast enough (and are outside the worst climate-impacted areas) may even see a rise in their fortunes, as the expertise they've developed becomes more valued elsewhere. Ideally, we'll get smart and help everyone manage the coming transitions as well as possible, and we'll find that for a great many people in a great many places -- including rural communities -- life actually improves.

But if we don't get smart enough, fast enough, people are going to get left behind, especially in places which are already perceived to have limited value, like run-down cities, bankrupt suburbs and poor rural areas. If the past decade is any indication, neither government nor industry is going to be riding in to help restore critical systems in a timely manner. And the reality is that people who are desperate often need help, and in the future, the only people able to give that help may well be folks who get systems and give enough of a damn to show up.

I'd rather be one who gives a damn than turns away, personally.

UPDATED UPDATE: GREAT comments below on community engagement and on the need/opportunity in the suburbs. I really encourage you to take a look (and add some ideas, if you're so inclined).

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I love this site.

Great idea. I don't think we have to wait for widespread collapse, even. I think many of these programs would help depressed low-income communities now. The level of need out there already is shocking.

Posted by: Jane on 12 Jul 08

Well, I applaud the altruism but:

• Don't show up to teach and preach - show up to listen and learn. Then you just might help.

• Make sure you're not just arriving at the famine with cookbooks. Bring food.

Posted by: David Foley on 12 Jul 08

The danger is that this smacks an awful lot of "we city folk know better than you rubes," which is something that people in rural areas have already heard plenty of times. Now, if there's a way to reach the goal without sending that particular message, it might work.

Posted by: KateNonymous on 12 Jul 08

There's already an example of your idea, Alex.

The May 23 PBS New Hour had a broadcast on John Fetterman of Braddock, Pennsylvania.

Green Industry Hub Rises From Rust Belt Ruins

Paul Solman reports on innovators who are making the Pittsburgh region an eco-showcase of the benefits of going green and bringing new hope to the economically depressed Rust Belt region.

(My first post was held up by the software as possible SPAM)

Energy Bulletin

Posted by: bart on 12 Jul 08

I love this idea, but I think it may already be happening.

I know of several small towns whose recent population consists of folks from larger, urban areas. As @KateNonymous said, as long as these folks aren't trying to upstage the long-time residents, this cooperative mixing of information and technique can really work.

In fact, it's easier in some ways. The smaller scale of rural towns tends to encourage local, community-led change, rather than the attitude of waiting for a big city government to come around and fix things.

Posted by: John Labovitz on 12 Jul 08

I really liked this post. I myself grew up dreaming of survivalist fantasies, of commandeered missile shelters, stores of ammunition, hidden farms. What I find myself coming to realize is that the survivalist dream is not big enough for me. The survivalists I've spoken with (I'm generalizing here) all seem to have small dreams. Not shallow dreams, but dreams that mostly revolve around individual (or at most familial) success. I find so much to admire about humanity, and I see so much grounds for hope that small inward looking survivalist dreams just don't seem big enough for me.

Posted by: fionnlaech on 12 Jul 08

I remember being profoundly effected by David Brin's "The Postman" . . . the original short story. Essentially, it's about a vagabond who accidentally starts isolated communities back on the road to civilization by posing as a U.S.P.S. postman.

Yeah, yeah, it became a so-so novel and a less than so-so movie. But the central idea and image is wonderful.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 12 Jul 08

so the funny thing is i remember reading doctorow's short story (or not short story so much as serial novel) "themepunks" that dealt w/ the above issues/questions & it has continued to resonate with me, all the more so as things start to go down the tubes... lets go urban farming in detroit! (aside from the toxic chemicals leached into the topsoil by concrete & decades of run-off, i think it has promise!). & at the end of the day, this kind of boots-on-the-ground urban renewal is _exciting_. & it should be banging around your head. lets see more posts devoted to the kind of work people are doing to keep things _alive_ instead of just sadness @ the inevitable collapse... hooray for imaginative thinking!

Posted by: prema trettin on 12 Jul 08

Wow. Thank you. The best part of the idea is the optimism, and that's what we need. Gloomy doomsters accomplish nothing and most of us don't want to live in a yurt and hunt small furry creatures for dinner.

Posted by: Bob Morris on 12 Jul 08

I side with David Foley here. The thought that a bunch of city folks could come out to the country and teach the farmers how to do their job is comical.

Ideally it would be a two-way system with both sides contributing to the conversation. The farmers would be able to teach the city folk how to farm to grow their own food, while the city people would bring their particular skill set to the table.

We'll wait to see what happens though, won't we?

Posted by: gary on 13 Jul 08

I side with David Foley here. The thought that a bunch of city folks could come out to the country and teach the farmers how to do their job is comical.

Ideally it would be a two-way system with both sides contributing to the conversation. The farmers would be able to teach the city folk how to farm to grow their own food, while the city people would bring their particular skill set to the table.

We'll wait to see what happens though, won't we?

Posted by: gary on 13 Jul 08

You know, maybe the city folk DO know more about some things than the farmer might.

If the farmer has been dependent upon hybrid seed he must buy every year, because the seed produced by his crops is sterile, and the fertilizer he must buy is petroleum based and no longer affordable or even available.

Some "City Person" showing up with non-hybid seed and plans for a DIY manure composter that produces burnable methane gas and, as a byproduct, high quality organic liquid fertilizer, well that "city Person" just might be that farmer's personal saviour.

Posted by: Chris Tucker on 13 Jul 08

A few people are agreeing with Dave Foley. And he is right, coming in like you know more than everyone else is probably the wrong attitude... to listen and learn is important, every situation probably has a local answer instead of a cookie cutter round block being stuffed into any hole that looks like it can fit answer. But the basics of ideas probably don't change, and to identify what some of those ideas are, and if the people are looking for help in this particular area of understanding it could be provided in a way that is adapted to the local ways of doing things. A clearing house of not just ideas but how the ideas have been locally adapted is just as important I would think, so people can learn from others mistakes and provide new answers to perennial questions.

Posted by: TheMindFantastic on 13 Jul 08

This is just too funny... having lived in both city and country, I find this insulting to think city people even have skills to bring to the table...
Should things get bad (and they will) it will be the city people who will be killing farmers and ranchers, not for what they have in their fields but for what they have in their refrigerators...
The best thing to happen to us "poor dumb country folk" would be to wall up the cities and keep those people there...
Banking? who needs banking in the country? This is typical of over educated idiots, thinking they know more then anyone else because they have been taught things from a book...
Move to the country and see what it is to live free...

Posted by: Timothy on 13 Jul 08

Thanks for the great comments.

I think it's interesting that folks have seized on this as an urban-rural divide issue, since in my conception of the original idea, I was definitely far more concerned about failing cities and collapsed suburbs. And, indeed, I think that's where the real innovation is going to be needed.

I agree to some degree with the sentiment that folks shouldn't come riding in as white hat know-it-alls. At the same time, there's a huge body of knowledge out there now about how to be an agent of change working with a community. And many communities, not just rural ones, but certainly including them, do not have the skills they'll need to thrive in a world where infrastructural and governmental systems weaken greatly.

(If everything collapses to the point that people are shooting each other for food, literally nothing anyone might try to do is a guarantee of their safety. Thinking being isolated and heavily armed makes you safe is foolish. We need to avoid total collapse, not prepare for it.)

But, anyways, eager to hear more about what you think!

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 13 Jul 08

i think the real point here is the move from the survivalist 'one small group against the cold' philosophy, towards a system to restore some of the benefits of interconnected knowledge-sharing. The rural backbone of food production and shelter building et cetera, combined with the perspective of information that requires broader knowledge (which is, at least potentially, more easily obtained en mass in an urban environment). Think about all the geographical, hydrological and biological information available today as a result of large, publicly funded surveys and satellites of the past century. Knowing how you figure into the greater picture is the first step to taking hold of the paintbrush.

Knowledge and perspective is what allows small scale communities to blossom into larger collaborations. What did the postman represent, coming into all those small villages? It represented knowledge that a larger structure than the local community was still possible. It's not the postmen we need after the apocalypse, it's the librarians!

Posted by: leif olson on 13 Jul 08

"I mean, for Christsakes, no one really wants that life -- our ancestors all had that life and they fled it as soon as they could in great teeming masses"

If you read Kunstler carefully, he is not glorifying a stepping "back" into the terrible past our ancestors "fled", but learning some simple lessons about what worked. For example, the ability to walk or use draft animals to get to the next town is not any kind of nostalgic escape; rather this is something that would be very sensible in a post-oil world. I don't see the huge divide between cityfolk/etc as others do above, but I did find your tone here a little insulting. No, not everyone fled from the pastoral life as soon as they were able. And in many cases when they did, they were essentially forced to (foreclosures, taxes, local resources being trashed by industry, etc).

My wife and I -are- cityfolk and we have cashed in all our chips to move to rural Oregon. Not as part of any sort of survivalist or bunker-turtling strategy, but to have some space to experiment with learning to make compost, rustic construction, water and food management, mycorestoration, and more without the annoyances and dangers of city living. Here, we drink water right from the spring, leave our doors unlocked, and make dandelion wine. We bought a pickup truck and use it as seldom as possible. We use hand tools when possible, and go to sleep deliciously exhausted each night. As we've met locals here, some who seem to have never left this river valley, "dumb" is certainly not any more present than it is in the cities. The lore and knowledge here is AMAZING. While yes, some of the farmers are stuck on petrofertilizers, there are also lots and lots of "organic" farmers who didn't even realize it had a name, who have always been doing it that way. Several of the farmers here have been practicing what is essentially permaculture since before the majority of this blogs readers were born. Another aspect of the rural culture which might surprise those who are not actually exposed to it is how hackerish it is. These people may not read MAKE magazine, but they have far more skill in improvising, building, and reverse engineering than your average IT guy who built an arduino to control a webcam.

It is definitely true that some care will need to be taken in playing "missionary" with ideas one has read about on the net, especially when they have not been personally tried. Its so easy to read worldchanging or afrigadget or cooltools and think "oh what an elegant solution!" but please please get out into the woods and TRY some of them before playing expert. The missionaries you describe are going to need to have superhuman humility to have any kind of positive effect in a time of crisis and possible suspicion.

The above points about listening and two-way flow are going to become self-evidently important. Yes, the net provides amazing ideas and experience and it will be important to spread them to people not as connected, but please do not be so foolish as to think that the unwired bumpkins out there are in any need of help from screen-learned nerds without any actual off-grid history.

Posted by: franklin roberts on 13 Jul 08

The timing of this essay struck an eerie chord with me...I just finished reading an awesome book on urban sustainable living, and have spent the last few days mulling over the toxic mess that comprises a lot of urban and suburban space. The knowledge that goes into bioremediating that kind of thing is very specialized and non-intuitive, though not necessarily technologically intensive. I'm glad to see folks talking about spreading that kind of information around now.

Posted by: Ethan on 13 Jul 08

Alex, consider adding to your list the depressed rural communities in Northern California and Oregon.

These places are hurting.

A "know-it-all" attitude is a problem, as some posters have said. On the other hand, even that is better than complacency and do-nothing-ism.

One way that urban people can help is by supporting businesses and farmers in the rural and depressed areas.

Energy Bulletin

Posted by: Bart Anderson on 13 Jul 08

I am really impressed. What a great set of people commenting on this topic. I'm definitely in the rural camp because I find cities highly stressful and terrifying because they're just so many people that can do you harm. There are three things I see necessary to keep suburbia alive as a center of new communities. The first is plastering every single rooftop with solar panels and feed the grid. The land has already been taken and is in use. I can't think of a better way to get dual use of that land than use it for collecting solar energy.

The second would be to put in place mini big-box stores as a repository for products and shipped goods. if you do the math, you'll find, a truck carrying 40,000 pounds of food and goods is more efficient than a pickup truck carrying a few hundred pounds of food or goods. Farmers markets are potentially far more environmentally damaging than supermarkets. These new centers of commerce could also be places where you could pick up orders instead of having UPS deliver them to your house. Yes I know some people object to this model as corporations replacing community centers. If you plan things right however, that doesn't need to be the case.

The third item would be low range (i.e. 50-100 mile) medium speed (40-60 mph) electric vehicles. Using a common reference design, manufacture and service could be distributed to regional factories. These electric vehicles (two wheeled and four) would be useful for getting people to aggregation points for goods, services, and transportation. if you do the math, you'll find that even in densely populated urban spaces, a 60 mpg car has roughly the same person mile energy efficiency as a bus running around 10 or 11 hours per day. Individual transport also makes it possible for an individual to experience greater economic and political freedom.

Distributed energy, a return to the village model for goods and services, and appropriately scaled transportation would make it possible to build a really good life for both city mice and country mice.

Posted by: country mouse on 13 Jul 08

Alex, glad to see you are getting the resilient community idea.

Posted by: John Robb on 13 Jul 08

Here's a few thoughts:

1. Use nearby colleges and universities. Place enormous local political pressure on them to be genuinely place based.

2. Organize civil society--build especially on community foundations.

3. Undermine strong-border tribes...those who do not wish to collaborate.

4. Break down public-private by insisting Chambers of Commerce meet regularly with government folks and civil society folks...all at once.

5. Convince the local newspaper to go non-profit.

6. Hire streetscapers and planners like crazy.

7. Enlist schools to be part of large-scale clean-ups and marketing efforts.

8. Push things like farmers markets and collaborative get togethers very hard.

9. Grow the arts. This may be the most important.

10. Have a talent immigration policy--go after artists, PhDs, MDs, JDs, accountants, and other obviously credentialed experts who can build local value.

Posted by: Ryan Lanham on 13 Jul 08

Great comments. Clearly something here struck a chord.

Over on BoingBoing, someone commented:

'"Exquisition" would be a much better name.'

I'm interested that the comments both there and here have both really juxtaposed toxic urban ruins and abandoned rural areas. That juxtaposition itself seems a bit of a cultural hold-over.

What about the suburbs, for instance?

And, as I've said before, I don't think we're talking about what comes after total collapse, but rather how to shore up and support those places that experience collapse on the periphery of places that are doing okay managing the transition.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 13 Jul 08

A friend sends the link

and reminds me of engineers without borders:

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 13 Jul 08

This is already happening, and has been since 1972 inside the Permaculture movement!

Posted by: Lance on 13 Jul 08

I agree wholeheartedly with Franklin Roberts' post above. We have just gone through a similar exercise in NZ and the level of innovation and willingness to hack (although they'd never call it that) is impressive.

While Lance is right about permaculture, I think there is still room to add some technology into the mix. Permaculture is thought-intensive more than labour-intensive so the application of technology and smart tools to achieve better permaculture outcomes seems perfectly rational to me. Just be prepared to do without systems that rely on high levels of 21st century technology. By all means keep a database of your garden but back it up with a notebook :)

Posted by: John Hart on 13 Jul 08

David Foley has the right idea.
I just spent 2 years working on a grad degree where the basis of our entire program was basically:
The PEOPLE know what they need. YOUR job is to:
1- ASK the people what THEY believe they need.
2- Build community collaboration to PRIORITIZE those needs
3- Provide the TOOLS and RESOURCES to teach the people to meet their immediate needs
4- Help build permanent community resources to keep those needs (and future ones) met.
The fancy-pants academic term is "Community Based Research"--but I just call it being respectful and smart.
It's not heroic in the media sound-bite/ "Wow Brangelina gave umpteen grillion dollars today!"- it's the quiet leadership that will actually build a community from within that we really need.

Posted by: Susan on 13 Jul 08

Alex, this may be my favorite Worldchanging post so far. It marries the sense of optimism and innovation I value about your message with the grim realities of the bankruptcy, energy, and climate crises we see unfolding before us.

Here's the best starting point for a replicable "outquisition" model I've seen so far, just released in June:
(You can download the book in digital format for free...I'd buy the print edition as well.)

This is admittedly a "low-tech" model geared towards third world countries, but as more and more parts of America become slums and more people find themselves to be Nuevo Poor, I think the model could apply here as well.

Your post also brings to surface a lot of frustrations between rural vs. city biases.

I grew up in a rural area and looked down upon a lot of my peers who I thought were "simple-minded", and longed to get involved with a more culturally-diverse hub of city-folk. Now that I'm learning about sustainability, I'm realizing we need raised awareness among everyone, and a lot of the more technologically "sophisticated" and culturally "open-minded" folks have a LOT to learn from rural folks who are really good with their hands and working hard on matters of practical import, which will be the most critical factors in our survival IMO. In other words, I've been humbled, and in a Post Peak future, my "powers" of abstraction aren't likely to be that important.

In reality, most of us are far more dependent on High Technology that might not be sustained 5 years from now, so I like a humble, back-to-the basics approach. Franklin Robert's approach above is probably my dream ideal, but in reality we needs lots of different approaches to all sorts of contexts.

The future will not be like the past, so we need all sorts of new thinking and approaches and the humility to learn from those who are already living with a low fossil-fuel dependence.

Posted by: Brad Bonham on 13 Jul 08

The tone of this discussion seems to be coming from an assumption that the people taking part in the 'Outquisition' (neat idea, HORRIBLE name) are doing so more as missionaries than as members of the community. There is no us-vs-them if we assume that the latter approach is the only way to go. You pick your place, go there, and become part of the community. You do not show up one day with a deck of PPT slides and start bossing people around. By the time you've spent enough time in this place, you're a member of the community with a social network and (hopefully) some influence over decision-making or at least over the set of ideas that gets put forward.

So I think that people's fears about a wave of citifed eggheads fanning out across rural N. America and 'converting by cross or gun' is a red herring. What might happen is that people will discover that there are real advantages to moving to some of the more benighted locations in order to draw out the latent energies and possibilities of the resources and people there. Unless you're a totally clumsy arrogant person (or a Jesuit), you'll find the ways into the community that allow you to find your allies and gain respect.

Maybe this doesn't need to be said. Maybe it falls under 'implementational details'; but it's critical to point out that a top-down approach is not only self-defeating, it's probably close to impossible (assuming that on of the goals is to be effective).

I moved from a large city in the Pacific NW to a much smaller place a year & 1/2 ago, specifically in order to be part of the solution to some of the challenges posed by peak oil and climate mayhem. I didn't consider myself an expert on any aspect of relocalization or on the idiosyncrasies of this place. I have kept my eyes and ears open, spent a lot of time learning and listening and looking for the openings that allow me to add to the ongoing efforts to cope with the coming times and create a resilient community here. Can't say how effective I am, but it's certain that if I picked up and went somewhere else, I would have to spend the first few months at least just sitting and observing. That's why the sooner this work starts happening more widely the better.

Posted by: David on 13 Jul 08

As energy and other resources, and inter-personal communications, have already been discussed, how about a little desktop manufacturing? Desktop CNC and 3D printers? Also see: Mass customization, instant manufacturing. See also: Craftsman Compucarve, 'table-top' plasma torch, Dimatix Materials Printer, the Zing Laser, etc.

Posted by: Warren Bonesteel on 13 Jul 08

[comment by Greg with racist language unpublished here.]

Posted by: Moderator on 13 Jul 08

Alex, it's hardly surprising that people see this as a city vs rural knowledge contest. I understand this to be the main divide of your 'culture wars' (which is, ironically, part of your slow collapse)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 13 Jul 08

"The tone of this discussion seems to be coming from an assumption that the people taking part in the 'Outquisition' (neat idea, HORRIBLE name) are doing so more as missionaries than as members of the community."

Not surprising, David, considering this statement: "We imagined that it would need an almost missionary fervor, something like the Inquisition..."

Posted by: KateNonymous on 13 Jul 08

There is a romance to this idea.

The previous comments about respect I can agree with.

But let's give the benefit of the doubt to the idea that part of any reasonable innovative futuristic recovery effort in an area that's collapsed would be a certain amount of client/cultural sensitivity, and move on to other aspects of the dialogs.

What I'd like to know is if some areas get hit hard, and some don't (that feels real to me) what will be the difference between them. I mean, it's not just luck, right? So how do we act now to make sure our towns don't get hit hard, so we don't have be re-building in the ruins in the first place?

Posted by: Paul L on 13 Jul 08

I feel like I’m already living the dream!
I, and a group of fellow artists and innovators, have moved to the State of Jefferson (interesting story - check it out), the true northern California.
Coming from the S.F. Bay area, we feel like pioneers after moving into run-down and abandoned buildings in small towns like Weed, Ca.
My home.

The native townsfolk hardly know what to do with us but they also know they need to adapt to survive. They recognize that often we are reanimating structures that they have abandoned. Creative reuse at it's finest.
Income is a challenge. This will be a long, hard haul.

Last winter I lived in one warm room because my building’s heating system was so antiquated that I tore it out and am trying to go green!
We’re living on shoe strings and baling wire - using art and technology to live as non-consumerist/non-conformist as possible.

It’a a real life.

Posted by: Monica Zinda on 13 Jul 08

You've probably already seen this entry at /.

There should be much to learn from this workshop that would be applicable to the Outquisition.

Posted by: Kevin on 13 Jul 08

There's a great chapter in Gordon Conway's book 'The Doubly Green Revolution' ( on how agricultural research in developing countries changed when researchers started doing less talking and more listening. Short version: research started to get a whole lot more effective. And fun.

We've got some content on disaster preparation and other aspects of resilience over at GlobalDashboard:

Posted by: Alex Evans on 14 Jul 08

I like the idea of passing out free textbooks- it seems to me this might be a great place to send all those texts that are 3 years out of date and have no use in the university classroom anymore.

Posted by: Stephen van Breda on 14 Jul 08

Everyone's got something to teach and something to learn.

Check out this site about sharing skills and resources for example:

It doesn't have to be about people "coming in" to show others what to do - it's about a community being able to access solutions, tools and relevant knowledge. It doesn't matter if "facilitators of that network" are from within the community in question or not, as long as they enable access to the "elegant solutions", and have something useful to contribute to making a community more resilient.

As for what you might call someone who offers or is invited to help and teach communities or neighbourhoods in need of skills/resources/tools/knowledge, how about sustaingels? Like I said, everyone's got something to learn and something to teach - sustaingels will be the the ones who connect us up with the tools we need, who train the trainers, who dare to try new and crazy things and encourage people to live and work in a different and better way.

Posted by: Geraldine on 14 Jul 08

Hmm... What about if someone put together some sort of legion -- or, like, a Corp of Useful People to do these sorts of things. Instead of a war-like army, they would be peaceful types. They could name this foreign legion something like: The Peaceful Army. For domestic purposes, they could be UnitedCorps...

Posted by: john on 14 Jul 08

Now this is odd. The following paragraph is the heart of the post:
Imagine these folks like this passing out free textbooks, running holistic programs for kids, creating local knowledge management systems, launching microfinance projects, mobilebanking and complementary currencies. Helping rural landowners apply climate foresight and farm biodiversity. Building cheap, smart, quality housing for displaced people (not to mention better refugee camps), or an Open Architecture Network for cheap informal rehabs of run-down suburban housing. Hacking together DIY windmills and ad hoc smart grids, communication systems, water treatment systems -- and getting really good at adaptive reuses of outdated infrastructure. In other words, these folks would be redistributing the future at a furious clip.

Next to none of the example activities are rural in nature, but the discussion can't seem to climb out of the "reinventing rural" sinkhole. Why is that?

Perhaps it's just because it's so much easier to start with a clean slate. Just like businesses find it far easier to design greenfield than brownfield expansion. The curb is just so much higher, at least mentally, when it has to include cleanup. Besides, we didn't make the mess; why should we have to clean it up just to get to zero?

I don't see much in the suggested activities that precludes starting from a brownfield; in fact, some of them almost require a brownfield (some existing infrastructure, at least.)

Do I knock down my shed and build a new one, or "just" fix up the old one? I've done both, and it's amazing how much of the old shed was as it was for a very good reason. The American answer is "knock down the old," and look where it's got us.

Posted by: Ron on 14 Jul 08

The interesting question to me, which hasn't really been tackled in these comments, is one that Alex points to in his post: What will happen to the suburbs?

These vast, vast expanses of housing and stripmalls and big box stores, truly only made possible by the automobile. What will happen when we just can't drive anymore?

I've got no idea, personally. Will the suburbs just be abandoned? Will they turn into dens of crime, as those who can, flee, and those who can't, stay to try and survive? Will they innovate and figure out ways to make it work... like tearing down the backyard fences and planting big community gardens? (So many people move to the suburbs because they want their own yard... maybe they'll actually be useful one day!) But what will people do for money, when they can't drive to their jobs? Will electric cars and motorbikes save the day?

I hate the thought of all those cheap ugly houses sitting abandoned, using up all that land that could have been used for food to feed the cities.

Or.... am I just an urban girl with a hate-on for the suburbs who's seeing it as worse than it really is?

When I read this post, Alex, the main idea that I took away was "he thinks that someone needs to go help the suburbs". And I think you're right. The funny part is that I have such an aversion to them, I just can't imagine volunteering! It really will require people who are willing to truly listen, to truly learn, to meet people where they are at. It will require people with all kinds of skills, and all kinds of heart.

Which brings me back to my usual conclusion, which is that while we desperately need people working on the "solutions"... we also desperately need everyone to be working on themselves. We all need to learn to listen, and to learn to accept and respect people who are very different from ourselves.

We're all in this together, and if you think that making your personal relationships work is hard... just imagine the interpersonal skills we'll need to create the society we want to live in. :)

Posted by: Sarah on 14 Jul 08

There is a century-old program called University Extension in the US which has done this. There are similar programs under USDA (Resource Conservation & Development Councils). Unfortunately, both are out of touch about how to work with communities, just as we desperately need their support. For example, in Alaska, the emphasis is still on commercial farming in traditional hunting-collecting-cultivating regions of permafrost. The USDA program focuses on program goals, not community.

The old VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program was also an effort to send the mostly untrained and naive to various places. Many in rural Alaska now think this was the single most effective means (1960s and 70s) to later disrupt Native cultures.

How would we get around the existing situation of institutions and individuals to tell people what they should do? We don't have collaboration with communities as colleagues. We "venture out" not live amongst.

The keys are knowledgeable people who know how to work with communities and learn from previous failures. It is devastating when communities are seen as supplicants only and when the knowledgeables are seen as complete experts [sorry, but building artificial ice floes will not "save" the polar bears, much less the rest of the dynamic eco-system, as a static historic display.] "Free books" and "free experts" most often come with a heavy price borne only by the locals (where do you put all those books?) while the visitors take home a "transcended" found self, maybe a book, until the next urge.

Please don't come to save "the natives". Please do look around your neighborhood. Who is overlooked? Who could use an extra hand or half-a mind-to? Who could you ask to help you?

Public involvement how-to readings for getting results from your experts

Posted by: mpb on 14 Jul 08

Community development and the seeding and implementation of new ideas, strategies and innovations are rarely successful because they had just the right tool/fix. We are talking about the human process of collaboration and decision making involving collective vision setting, aligning people around the vision, agreement for massive behaviour change, and the development of processes and systems to support the unleashing of that energy. A high degree of emotional intelligence in necessary to build and manage relationships. These emotional intelligences are critical to the success of any change process. More typically these skill have been cultivated in women due to the nature of our roles. This is changing for sure, and is a welcomed change. How is it that we make effective use of this skill setfor the benefit of our communities?

Posted by: Jodie on 14 Jul 08

A lot of skills that you might think would be valuable during a global collapse (and that are traditional "rural" skills in the heroic mode) would actually make things worse. Think about hunting. Valuable skill when the world population is in the millions. But scale it up and imagine 9 billion people relying on hunting... there's mass extinctions and everybody starves. Ditto for learning to build a fire (deforestation), harvest wild berries (ecosystem destruction) and a host of other previously-sustainable skills. Even something as seemingly innocuous as making your own fired pottery is no longer sustainable in this sense.

There's a principle here similar to Kant's categorical imperative: just imagine everybody in the world doing X and ask yourself how long we can all do it before ecosystemic or economic collapse.

All of which means that the skills and technologies needed to recover civilization from a fall now are not the same ones that would have been useful 100 years ago, or even 50. Another way to put this is that the survival skills and behaviours that work for an individual or small group do not scale (think hunting again) and therefore, the transfer of high-level collective knowledge Cory and Alex are talking about might be necessary.

Posted by: Karl Schroeder on 14 Jul 08

Nice spirited discussion. One thing we all have to remember/learn is that the cities we have are where they are because people can live there, not just because they like it there. They all have some combination of resources, agriculture and water that makes human life possible. Next, we need to get our minds around the fact that all the suburbs are located on the best farm land. The farm land that drew people to the cities in the first place are covered over by the non-farmers who came later. We are going to need to remove the suburbs to get back to that good land and still be close enough to get to the city. Next we are all going to have to learn that everyone is the same everywhere. There aren't any of the urban people who are any different from the rural people. We are all in this together. Finally we will have to accept that our little episode of cheap energy and lots of speed is not turning out to be a long term solution, as this whole thread implies. We will find that boats are better for transportation that most things, that maybe trains will be useful and that draft animals (including shank's mare) will be the default for personal transportation. Our one great invention has been the bicycle which is actually the most efficient thing on earth. And our most important resource is being together and discussing things in good faith and with our full attention.

Posted by: Joe Bell on 14 Jul 08

Two words:

Sustainability camp.

Okay so it sounds Project Mayhem, but teaching kids these things is where it's at. They're the ones who will inherit the absence of social security, the lack of resources, the lack of knowledge. They're the ones who grew up networked.

I watch my nephew playing in the dirt all the time. Imagine if I could teach him how to make those worms work for him.

There are actually projects like this already -- Heidi Swanson did a great post on an alternative school in NoCal that teaches organic farming and cookery. But there can be so much more.

Posted by: Madeline on 14 Jul 08

I think another problem with suburbs is that there tends to be very little "community" at all. How many people in the suburbs talk to their neighbours with any frequency, let alone go to local council meetings? How do you get the message out to suburban dwellers without looking like Jehovah's Witnesses? Finding a place to get started could be difficult (though local council meetings would certainly be a good place to begin.)

Posted by: Chris L on 14 Jul 08

I agree that something like this could be used immediately and certainly doesn't need to wait for collapse. In fact, a large enough program (or set of programs) could even postpone or prevent some kinds of collapse.

Now this is purely speculative, but I am intrigued by the practical possibilities of starting something like this up. I realize this is rather more specific than you are really looking for at this point, but I've been thinking about it all day at work. :)

It seems to me that the single largest problem, at least initially, would be ensuring that your outquisitors are trained and competent to handle their tasks. Certainly no one can be an expert at everything, but several people mentioned that clueless volunteers have soured such efforts in the past. Competent field agents would obviously get the most done, but they would also go a long way towards minimizing necessary administrative overhead.

I could see a hybrid college-apprenticeship system here, where outquisitors would be certified by a community-college style school. (It's easier to get respect and official cooperation when you've got a piece of paper backing up your real life experience.) Smaller colleges connected by a common set of standards and philosophies would have a number of advantages, including the ability to keep some graduates local.

There would be some liberal arts education; history, polisci, etc. But the focus would be on practical skills; everything from programming to architectural engineering to vetrinary science. Obviously life experience would be a big factor too; I could see experienced students (actual practicing architects, auto mechanics, etc.) being encouraged to student teach classes, or even independently teach their specialties.

Then they would go out and do their thing for maybe a year as an internship/apprenticeship. After certification, they'd go out to a specific area for a couple years at a time, perhaps returning periodically to the school to serve as instructors. Field agents might meet likely candidates and begin the training firsthand, then send the apprentices to the college for polishing up the field agent's weak areas and getting certification. Or interested people could simply come to the college and start the course on their own initiative.

Small teams would be easiest in the field I think; to start, perhaps a techie, a farmer, and an engineer (with appropriately fancy titles for officialdom). All cross-trained of course, but with expert-level specialties in their chosen area. Not more than 5 people for most areas, to prevent committee-itis from setting in.

Oof, that was pretty long. Sorry. What do you think?

Posted by: Toshi.m on 14 Jul 08

Instead of the Inquisition (even as an opposite), I'm reminded of the Irish monks at the end of the Dark Ages that ventured out to return knowledge & history to the collapsed civilizations of Europe. Of course, the Irish monk allusion ignores the issue of trying to solve the problem with the same mentality that created it, but I still like the imagery for this concept.

On the other hand, I am reminded of post-9/11 survivalist instructions for how to make a personal HEPA filter mask out of vacuum cleaner bags, as opposed to buying an expensive manufactured product. Those instructions would not have actually created HEPA level (or even decent) filtration, and I shuddered to think of anyone actually using this travesty of a design. In my pessimistic view, we are more likely to see well-intentioned, but not well-informed, people evangelizing survivalist mis-information to the masses. It would be hard for someone who is not (yet) well-informed on a particular topic to sort out the truth. Look at how poorly the news agencies cover technical topics: even when they are apparently trying to be careful there are often significant inaccuracies that make someone educated in the field cringe.

Posted by: Tori on 14 Jul 08

Seems like there might be some lack of co-evolutionary processes being discussed here. I’m real cranky about progress as the balance of subjective experience and technological proliferation; happy about the irony that technological advances are telling me more all the time about subjective experience: Info-networked clues about memes and alienation and “the moment”; sad that none of that thought has much currency in my immmediate real-world neighborhoood.

I — or more accurately, the received knowledge I happened to have — solved a visibly desperate young family's visibly devastating problem with the cooling system in their car yesterday in fifteen minutes right out in front of my house while watering the lawn. (They needed a ten dollar part that installs instantly.) Wish I could spend at least half of my time in that subjective realm: the privilege of just being a help. Maybe when we're more technologically advanced it won't have to be a privilege anymore. Then they could help me with my devastating technological impediments — the desparate helping each other.

Most likely, though, we have plenty of technology and the virtual social networks it’s fostered; that it’s just not yet fostering the kind of real-world neighborliness it might promise. I think it’s that we still want to worship stress — in all its sacred and entertaining places — and “vertical solutions” we’ve inherited: Every man for himself and his own upward mobility, instead of the welcome selflessness of being lost in the moment of working on something sustainable that might then proliferate more readily.

Posted by: Kenny Mann on 14 Jul 08

Gosh, I was astonished to see my little comment generate so much discussion.

I didn't mean to refer to a city/rural divide. (Actually, I was recalling lessons learned decades ago while working with a squatter settlement in Mexico City.) I was cautioning against believing there's an enlightened/ignorant divide. Not one single person on Earth knows how to create a sustainable civilization. Some of us think we have some ideas about it - and many of those ideas will turn out to be wrong. Listening and empathy are about reverence and humility - those are antidotes for hubris. In these times, hubris will kill us.

But listening - active listening, with reflection back to the speaker - is also tactical. I recommend it as a way of supporting Alex and Cory's fine idea. So many of our problems are linked to the absence of community - resilient community, thank you John Robb. By engaging with people, we can become hubs - we can create the "strength of weak ties" within neighborhoods and towns. We can start mapping community resources - did you know that the neighbor six doors down knows a lot about water filtration? Did you know that Sophie on Cedar Street is a great small-engine mechanic?

We start to learn that people are renewable resources - if communities aren't de-populated and thoroughly destroyed. Despair is a communicable disease. Bringing new knowledge, new skills and techniques, is really, really helpful - but so is rekindling people's belief in themselves.

In my little town of 1200, once rural and now suburban, if we took an inventory of the resources we have now, there are many folks who know something about sustainable development. They wouldn't use those words, but they know a lot. Especially the women, many of whom do cosmic choreography every morning to keep the food coming, the clothes washed, daycare - and what's really needed to keep that going. We have a great deal of accumulated practice of sustainability, a lot of it knocked down by condescension and sneering, calculated marketing and cynical politics.

This great online conversation is a fine example of networking, idea sharing, and so on. But at the end of the day, someone still has to go fishing, someone has to tend the sick children, cut the firewood and get the laundry done. At any rate, by all means let's share what we know, but let's be careful not to see other humans as empty vessels waiting to be filled by our brilliance. And now, let's all shut off our computers for a while, and go do something involving dirt and fingernails.

Posted by: David Foley on 15 Jul 08

Bloggers and commenters have set this up as an urban/rural dichotomy because that is how you presented it.

"What would it be like, we wondered, if folks who knew tools and innovation left the comfy bright green cities and traveled to the dead mall suburban slums, rustbelt browntowns and climate-smacked farm communities and started helping the locals get the tools they needed."

You have described a one-way flow of information. From the "comfy bright green cities" out to the poor fools living in the suburbs, rust belt, and farm communities.

In one fell swoop you insulted and alienated about 7/8ths of the American population. Therefore, color us insulted.

Posted by: Erika on 15 Jul 08

I don't get it.

What knowledge, exactly, do the urban dwellers possess that is not possessed by non-urban dwellers?

Just as rural communities have become more dependent on long, brittle, supply chains, so they have become more connected via telecommunications to repositories of knowledge that once were thought available only to urban libraries and academic institutions.

Posted by: James Bowery on 15 Jul 08

From a country dweller and a city dweller... I think the basic sentiment of Alex's is this: "I have something good, I wish to share it with you." The way this was posed could come off as patronizing, but this sort of positive exchange shouldn't get sidetracked by any bruised feelings over who knows best. This is the sort of thinking that stifles collaboration between groups that have much more affinity than we think. Perhaps a prerequisite to the conversation could be "How would you like to be approached and helped? What problems do you have that I could help solving?". That is a sign of respect, and willingness to listen first that engenders trust. Just my $.02, from somebody who has been in both places. I hope we all can start following through on the promise of such good intentions.

Posted by: Peter on 15 Jul 08

This is already happening as an informal movement in New Orleans-- check out Common Ground

and NOLA YURP (Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals)

My 21 year old sister is a leader in this movement.
Many, many, many of the hypothetical issues presented here are being worked out there on the ground: collaboration vs. confrontation of insiders and outsiders, demolishing to rebuild, adaptive reuse, the crucial and central importance of the arts in keeping a community functioning.

Posted by: Anya on 15 Jul 08

Oh, and I read the addendum to the post just now.. green and leafy ghettos? Where do you come up with this shit? Seriously, I'm not trying to question your motives here, I believe you're a good guy at heart but some of these claims are just outlandish. The midwest is not some crumbling hell-hole of decay and poverty.. on the contrary its mostly honest folk working hard to provide the backbone of the food supply in this country.

"But there's a lot more than that involved in running the kind of society we all demand, things like public health systems, communications systems, transportation infrastructure, energy supplies, banking and finance, good governance innovations, an effective legal system, etc...
In much of rural America, those systems aren't even working very well today. That's the reality."

Are we talking about post apocalyptic scenarios still, or what? Because if you think the transportation infrastructure in LA is better than in Iowa.. Also public health? What public health? This is the United States of private healthcare. Almost everything you mention either isn't true, is misleading, or or just sounds ridiculous. Good governance innovations? Effective legal systems? Lets compare the crime rates in Minneapolis to New York or Los Angeles, per capita.. The whole idea of a suburban brownbelt is a misnomer when you're talking about the midwest. The midwest IS a suburban lay-out, there's no 'urb' to speak of in most of these places. You want to compare the dilapidation of some rural areas in Kansas to say, eastern LA? I'll take that Pepsi-challenge ANY fucking day. You're a ridiculous guy, sorry. EOT.

Palindromic, midwest to LA transplant.

Posted by: palindromic on 15 Jul 08

Well, Palindromic, the facts disagree with you. Child poverty rates are widely considered the most important and reliable statistic for judging the overall economic health of a community. And the Census tells us that rural America is POOR:

"(January 2008) While many people think of poverty in the United States as primarily an urban problem, data released by the Census Bureau this week indicate that most of the counties with high child poverty rates are located in rural America. Of the 100 counties with the highest child poverty rates in 2005, 95 are rural counties (see table). All 100 counties have child poverty rates above 40 percent, more than twice the national rate of 18.5 percent in 2005."

"Rural counties with the lowest child poverty rates tend to be recreational and/or retirement destinations with high levels of natural amenities such as mountains, lakes, or other attractions."

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 15 Jul 08

Poor =/= ghetto.. I'd spend a day in a poor rural community in almost any area rather than walk around on the wrong side of the tracks in St Lois. And I'm glad you brought up poverty, since it is a huge problem afflicting much of the South (abandoned as it is). Maybe we can bring the Outquisition to areas already subject to such destitution as to be considered poor, in this glamorous first world democracy that we live in? A kind of trial test of all this accumulated sustainable living knowledge, pre-apocalypse?

I'm game, anyone else?

Posted by: palindromic on 15 Jul 08

Actually, something like the Rural Studio on a more massive scale was part of my thinking here...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 15 Jul 08

Sorry about the caustic statements earlier, I was a little riled and I think took some of your statements the wrong way. I've not heard of Rural Studio, I'll look into it.

Posted by: palindromic on 15 Jul 08

Great post Alex, and the comments have been quite interesting, informative. These issues are certainly worth debating and mulling over as it appears as if humanity is on the verge of some momentous changes. I am of the opinion, though, that many urbanites are ill-equipped to cope with any drastic changes vis-à-vis rurals because of the sheer no. of people in cities in relation to the amt of resources available within urban confines. In addition, many urbanites have little to no knowledge regarding agriculture, much less one based on organic/permaculture principles. Thus the challenges of efficient transportation, infrastructure, and food in an oil scarce world would be borne much more heavily by urbanites.
We live in some scary times. I just try and read, learn, and formulate ideas that I think would help in a more challenging world. Passive solar heating and cooling(Midwest is very cold/hot); organic agriculture; water conservation, recycling, harvesting, and purification are also key things to know...

Posted by: Zef on 15 Jul 08

I agree with the sentiment that city folk should not barge into the country and lecture country folk - or try to turn the country into the city.

However, I've been living in a rural area for a number of years and can testify to the degradation. Yes, there are people who are surviving and a few who are thriving. There are many, many going down the tubes, however, and the resulting hopelessness, alcoholism and addiction, and the constellation of problems wrought by those things are enormous. Too many of our rural areas *are* ghettoes, no less than many inner cities. There are points of hope and change, yes, but too, too much paranoia and fear and need for my comfort.

More important, I once believed the country was the place of survival, and not necessarily in any "survivalist" way, despite my wording. I no longer believe that. There is too much need out there and too few opportunities to form networks without some serious compromise. I did manage to form my own network, but it was almost undercover --- there are some very smart, very savvy people out there. But TPTB are too engrained, too used to having their own way and too adept at pulling the rug out from under any competition. You have to play it really smart, iow.

I could say much more about this, but I'm tired. I will say, though, that I'm glad to see the thinking about the coming _____ moving in this direction. We need a change of mind,, a change of behavior, and I think this essay demonstrates steps in that direction.

Posted by: biscuit on 16 Jul 08

Oh, and in case you're vague on the concept of "public health":

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 16 Jul 08

Alex -- thx so much for caring and thinking and posting about this world-saving topic. And for your addendum addressing the urban->rural issue.

However, i'd like to call you on something else: you don't seem to be aware that there are hundreds of ecologically and otherwise alternative communities engaging in the very activities you list, some of them for decades now. You come off rather insultingly -- at least to my ears -- with your dismissive "[...] the fantasy of a localist retreat to 19th Century farming communities that folks like Jim Kunstler hold so dear (I mean, for Christsakes [...]". (I read the "localist retreat" link as well, btw.) And in various places you talk as if your idea is only a hypothetical. Of course there are countless thousands of individuals and groups who are doing this kind of work who aren't in formal community settings. Your links show that you're aware of them, yet you also write as if you don't realize how many of them there are in "the forgotten parts of the developed world." In any case, i'll focus on the "communities movement".

For the full overwhelming picture, look at the list of communities at . A very short list of deep green + communal + otherwise progressive communities in the usa can be found at . Or zooming back out again, try . You'll find that "a network of places where people [are] engaged in ingenious development of elegant solutions to the problems of life where living is hard and money is short" *already exists*. I've visited or lived at many of these communities, over a number of years, mostly in the usa but also in eastern and western europe. I'm tempted to tell stories of real-world projects that cover every single item on your list, but you get the point. I will say, tho, that luddites longing for the 19th century are actually hard to find on the ground, among the web-wired, PV- and micro-windmill-juiced rehabbers of "the dead mall suburban slums, rustbelt browntowns and climate-smacked farm communities".

I agree that a mass conversion to a low-tech homesteading lifestyle is completely unrealistic, and to me as to you, undesirable. My point is only that these people -- even the ones who are more "back to the land" than you and i -- have long been doing the work you imagine. You won't often find perfect agreement with your views, but many of these folks and projects are close enough, even if they're approaching you from a different starting point. If you're serious about seeing your vision come (further) to life, there are a zillion things you could do. To that list i'd add plugging in to the communities scene, learning from each other, and continuing the convergence. -- Thx again.

Posted by: alyosha on 17 Jul 08

I live in a small Oregon town, in the foothills of Mount Hood. When we moved here three years ago, it dawned on me that there was a much better use for my yard than having a lawn. So I've been digging it up and planting vegetables and herbs and berries, mound by mound, until the grass is finally gone and I'm growing enough food in my yard to feed myself and a few neighbors. And it's really hard, let me tell you. But I 'm learning as I go.

I'm so sick and tired of every blessed thing on the planet being for sale, that I'm just sharing what I have. So far, it's just one neighbor who loves my tomatoes. But I'm going to get better at this. It's a lot of fun. It's not a great big thing. It's just what I can do. So what's everyone else doing?

Posted by: Beverly Rupp on 18 Jul 08

Please read this thread about one mans dream of a better world andwhat it has done to his neighborhood. I have spent a lot of time helping him see his vision thru to reality and he is a prime example of what I consider a "hero" in the truest sense of the word.

Here is the link to the website:

and the title of the thread is "The Start of an Urban Garden and Neighbourhood Gathering Place". This is the most sincere man I have met in my 48 years on the planet, who is making a difference not only in his neighborhood, but in all of us who have chose to volunteer and help out.



Posted by: Bob Hovansian on 19 Jul 08

Great article and agree with whomever said that inner city urban intelligentsia/seachangers/treechangers aren't the only ones who make change happen in regional, remote and suburban environments. Something of this idea resonates with the 'cultural creatives' phenomenon that Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson explore in their book called "The Cultural Creatives: How 50 million people are changing the world".

Posted by: Linda on 19 Jul 08

An important question is: where would these outquisitionists get their own information from? Of course, from a wide variety of sources but I would suggest that the common denominator may be the "open design communities" the collaboratives where the knowledge is shared and vetter and continuously improved.

The emergence of such communities is covered in detail here at

Posted by: Michel Bauwens on 19 Jul 08



How about--and, I know, this is corny as all hell, (groan-worthy, really)--the..."Outpouring."

Laugh all you want at the earnestness of it, but the point is that an outpouring of generosity, co-creation, innovation, and mutual support is what any cooperative effort to re-vivify struggling suburban and urban areas will need.

That being said, both "Outquisition" and "Exquisition" aound way less cornball than what I've proposed, which is why my Cool-O-Meter veers firmly in their direction. ;)

Posted by: Sanjay Khanna on 21 Jul 08

I have been thinking about this article, and the comments, for weeks now.

I finally was able to distill my thoughts into a blog post that I just put up today at The Sunny Way:

An excerpt:

"But the idea is certainly not for strangers to come and condescendingly start ordering people around in their new communities. I think what Steffen is questioning is the tendency of well-educated, green-concerned people to congregate in eco-friendly enclaves in big cities when they could probably do a lot more good by getting out of La-la land and engaging in places where their expertise is needed, in communities that are struggling to get back on their feet."

I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, probably one of the comfiest places on earth for an eco-concerned type to live. It's so easy to be green here -- what with the food co-op, the subway, and the fact that everyone in this neighborhood thinks like I do.

But what do we accomplish by living solely amongst our own flock? Doesn't progress come from tension, from resolving stress that arises from conflict?

America right now is hurting, bad. My sense is that people are stressed to the point where they are willing to try out new ways of thinking, to experiment with new ideas and ways of living, and that the time is right to shake things up, to mix a little bright green in with the brown and the rust and the blue and the red ...

Posted by: Megan Dietz on 24 Jul 08



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