Chris Maser

Community, as English historian Arnold Toynbee said of civilization, "is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor." But community is a deliberately different word than civilization or even society. Although community may refer to neighborhoods or workplaces, to be meaningful it must imply membership in a human-scale collective, where people encounter one another face to face.

Community is thus a group of people with similar interests living under and exerting some influence over the same government in a shared locality. Because they have a common attachment to their place of residence, where they have some degree of local autonomy, they form the resident community.

People in such a community share social interactions with one another and organizations beyond government and through such participation are able to satisfy the full range of their daily requirements within the local area. The community also interacts with the larger society, both in creating change and in reacting to it. Finally, the community as a whole interacts with the local environment, molding the landscape within which it rests and is in turn molded by it. In this sense, community is about the oneness of the whole and the wholeness of the one.

Community is rooted in a sense of place through which the people are in a reciprocal relationship with their landscape. As such, a community is not simply a static place within a static landscape, but rather is a lively, ever-changing, interactive, interdependent system of relationships. Because a community is a self-organizing system, it does not simply incorporate information, but changes its environment as well. Thus, as the community in its living alters the landscape, so the landscape in reaction alters the community.

Reciprocity is the self-reinforcing feedback loop that either extends sustainability to or withholds it from a community and its landscape. We therefore create trouble for ourselves in a community when we confuse order with control. Although freedom and order are partners in generating a viable, well-ordered, autonomous community, a community is nevertheless an open system that uses continual change to avoid deterioration.

A community also has a history, which must be passed from one generation to the next if the community is to know itself throughout the passage of time. History is a reflection of how we see ourselves and thus goes to the very root by which we give value to things. Our vision of the past is shaped by, and in turn shapes, our understanding of the present—those complex and comprehensive images we carry in our heads by which we decide what is true or false.

When the continuity of a community's history is disrupted, the community suffers an extinction of identity and begins to view its landscape as a separate commodity to be exploited for immediate financial gain—instead of an inseparable extension of itself. When this happens, community is destroyed from within because trust is withdrawn in the face of growing economic competition.

It seems clear, therefore, that true community literally cannot extend itself beyond local place and history. Community, says Wendell Berry, "is an idea that can extend itself beyond the local, but it only does so metaphorically. The idea of a national or global community is meaningless apart from the realization of local communities."¹

For a true community to be founded in the first place and to be healthy and sustainable, it must rest on the bedrock of mutual trust among its members.

. . .a community does not come together by covenant, by a conscientious granting of trust. It exists by proximity, by neighborhood; it knows face to face, and it trusts as it knows. It learns, in the course of time and experience, what and who can be trusted. It knows that some of its members are untrustworthy, and it can be tolerant, because to know in this matter is to be safe. A community member can be trusted to be untrustworthy and so can be included. But if a community withholds trust, it withholds membership. If it cannot trust, it cannot exist.¹

"Trust," according to the American Heritage Dictionary, "is firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing; confident belief; faith." But trust cannot really be defined because it is based on faith that a particular person is "trustworthy" or faithful to their word. Trust can only be lived in one's motives, thoughts, attitude, and behavior. Trust in human relationships is the bedrock of community and its sustainable development.

In sum, community is relationship, and meaningful relationship is the foundation of a healthy, sustainable community. In this connection, Ralph Waldo Emerson penned:  "It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself." William James said it thusly:  "Wherever your are, it is your own friends who make your world."

As such, a resident community serves five purposes:  (1) social participation—wherein people interact with one another to create the relationships necessary for a feeling of self-worth, safety, and shared values; (2) mutual aid—services and support offered in times of individual or familial need; (3) economic production, distribution, and consumption—jobs, import and export of products, as well as the availability of such commodities as food and clothing in the local area; (4) socialization—educating people about cultural values and acceptable norms; and (5) social control—the means for maintaining those cultural values and acceptable norms.²

Community also reminds one that the scale of effective organization and action has always been small local groups. As anthropologist Margaret Mead says:  "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has."

It is therefore logical that community not only is a way of valuing the voluntary or nonprofit organization but also relies for its expression on such institutions as neighborhood schools, family centers, and volunteer organizations. Further, creating sustainable communities strengthens one's fidelity to a sense of place and is the best possible immigration policy because it raises the value of staying home. These things top-down government cannot fulfill.

With the current disintegration of family and local community in American life, it is unlikely that most people in this country really have an intimate sense of trust and belonging. We have largely lost our sense of connection to and with community that once impressed the French political figure and traveler Alexis de Tocqueville to the point that he wrote in the 1830s:  "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associationsŠreligious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons and schools."

He went on to argue that is was no accident that "the most democratic country on the face of the earth is that in which men have, in our time, carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the object of their common desire." Why then the progressive disintegration of trust? What has happened to the most democratic country on Earth? Why have we lost our sense of community?

One reason for this loss of community may be our lopsided expansionist economic worldview in which material possessions and the incessant push for continual economic growth takes the place of spirituality, as once manifested in quality relationships and mutual caring. The economic worldview translates into necessity of both adults in many households having to work outside the home just to make ends meet, which raises the question of who is left at home to act as a parent and forge community ties when both adults are too busy. If, however, human society and its environment are ever to become sustainable, it is necessary to rediscover—or consciously—recreate our sense of local community in order to balance the material with the spiritual, the piece within the whole.


Although the last two centuries may have nurtured such institutions as political freedom and the rights of private property, they have done little for the quality of relationship—the trust—that holds traditional (resident) American communities together. The last two centuries have done even less to nurture the concept, let alone the reality, of multiracial communities. But this softer value of trust is the social capital that enables people to work together and commit to common causes. As such, relationships of high quality and integrity are absolutely critical to the success of a community in translating its cultural identity into a shared vision of the future toward which to build.

For a community to fulfill its vision, it must be grounded in personal ethics, which are translated into social ethics. This puts the responsibility for one's own conscience and behavior where it rightfully belongs—squarely on one's own shoulders. With a strong sense of personal and social ethics, communities will be spared wasting time and money policing socially unacceptable behavior, which ultimately leads to the destruction of both a community and its landscape. With a strong sense of personal and social ethics based on a solid foundation of spiritual consciousness, neither the environment nor future generations will be the dumping ground for personal and social irresponsibility.

For some people community may simply be a useful new concept to wrap around old ideas and institutions, for others it will be a new set of ideas, a new frame of reference about how and why people relate to one another and to the wider world. Its value lies in creating a bridge between people's core values and principles for action and governance, which will help shift perceptions toward balancing growth in a community's population with the biophysical capacity of its landscape.

There is in each community an upper limit to its population; beyond that, the overall quality of life becomes unalterably diminished and the immediate landscape irretrievably damaged with respect to human values. If an upper limit to population size were selected, a certain percent of the population would reply that the community is already too large. Another segment of the community would respond that it is big enough right now. Still another portion would assert that if things were done better, such as all phases of careful strategic planning, a much larger population could be accommodated. But at some point, no matter how well growth is "managed," people realize that the upper limits of a population do count.

Once a certain size, a critical mass, is reached, there is no reclaiming the more comfortable scale of a community with its ambiance. Beyond some point, the indescribable, cumulative effects of population, traffic, human activities, commotion, noise, the clarity of stars at night, open space, the quality of air and water, demand on public services, quality of personal relationships, and the ability to put it all in the context of a place of quality called "home" is irretrievably lost.

Why should ten, fifteen, or even twenty percent of the people be able to determine the long-range future of a community's population? Urban Growth Boundaries are designed to limit the size of a community within the context of its landscape as long as development meets certain criteria. But those with vested economic interests continually push for increasing the Urban Growth Boundary to accommodate perpetual growth, which negates the whole concept of balancing the population's size with the community's surroundings.

So the question becomes one of how a community can be given the legal right to limit the growth of its population if it so chooses. The decision, once made, needs to be written into the city charter and used to provide a context for all documents and any further planning.

Amending the city charter is important because there is an increasingly common yearning for a more defined and authentically lived set of ethical values (trust) with which to rekindle meaning and purpose in life and politics. The language of community is one way of reconnecting people to a set of shared values and principles with which to embrace daily uncertainties.

Shared ethics must be nurtured as one of the most valuable assets in making human communities work. For a community to work, it must nurture human-scale structural systems so people can feel safe and at home in a particular place to which they feel a measure of fidelity. And it's precisely this sense of safety in and fidelity to a particular place that is being called into question as the face of community is being redefined in a more worldly context.


What, you might ask, is meant by a measure of fidelity? Here, it's instructive to consider communities of birds in a given area, as ornithologists think of them. First, there is the resident community—that group of birds inhabiting the area to which they have a strong sense of year-round fidelity. In order to stay throughout the year, year after year, they must be able to meet all of their ongoing requirements for food, shelter, water, and space. These requirements become most acutely focused during the time of nesting, when young are reared, and during harsh winter weather.

Then there are the summer visitors, which over winter in the southern latitudes and fly north to rear their young. They arrive in time to build their nests, and in so doing need to fit with the yearlong residents, but without intense competition for food, shelter, water, or space, especially space for nesting. If competition were too severe, the resident community would decline, and perhaps perish, through overexploitation by summer visitors that have no lasting commitment to a particular habitat.

There are also winter visitors, which spend the summer in northern latitudes, where they rear their young, and fly south in the autumn to over winter in the same area as the yearlong residents, but after the summer visitors have left. They too must fit with the yearlong residents, but without intense competition for food, water, shelter, and space during times of harsh weather and periodic scarcities of food. Here, too, the resident community would decline, and perhaps perish, if overexploitation too severe. And like the summer visitors, the winter visitors are not committed to a particular habitat but use the best of two different habitats (summer and winter).

On top of all this are the migrants that come through in spring and autumn on their way to and from their summer nesting grounds and winter-feeding grounds. They pause just long enough to rest and replenish their dwindling reserves of body fat by using local resources to which they have only a passing fidelity necessary to sustain them on their long journey.

The crux of the issue is the carrying capacity of the habitat for the resident community. If the resources of food, water, shelter, and space are sufficient to accommodate the yearlong residents and the seasonal visitors and migrants, then all is well. If not, then each bird in addition to the yearlong residents causes the area of land and its resources to shrink per resident bird. This, in turn, stimulates competition, which under circumstances of plenty would not exist. However, such competition causes the habitat to be overused and decline in quality, the ones who suffer the most are the yearlong residents for whom the habitat is their sole means of livelihood.

Here I might anticipate your question concerning what a resident bird community has to do with a resident human community. It has to do with the statement previously made by Wendell Berry, that a true community can extend itself beyond the local, but only if it does so metaphorically. If a resident community is rendered non-sustainable by outside influences, such as people from other areas over-harvesting local crops of mushrooms or large absentee corporations clear-cutting forests to the detriment of local water catchments, then the trust embodied in the continuity of a community's history is shattered, as is the self-reinforcing feedback loop of mutual well-being between the land and the people.

Another, subtler way outside influence can destroy community is transients in its population. In one small town in Idaho, where I asked people how they felt about the fairly large number of employees of the U.S. Forest Service living in their community, they replied that they tried not to get to know them.

When asked if they avoided getting to know the folks from the Forest Service because they were transients who felt no sense of place within the community, the answer was only partly in the affirmative. They said it was mainly just too painful to become friends with and learn to trust Forest Service employees only to have them leave in two or three years. That kind of continual loss was too much like perpetual grieving for the death of friends and was more than the community could abide.

When a community loses (for whatever reason) the cohesive glue of trust embedded in its fundamental values, it loses its identity and is set adrift on the ever-increasing sea of visionless competition both within and without, where "growth or die" becomes the economic motto driving the cultural system. Such visionless competition inevitably rings the death knell of community.


To protect the sustainability of a resident community's within its landscape, the community's requirements must be met before other considerations are taken into account; if this does not happen, no other endeavor will be sustainable. Let's consider, for example, the Indigenous Americans.

Indigenous Americans

Prior to the invasion of foreigners from Europe, the Indigenous Americans had unlimited natural resources per capita on a long-term basis, although such resources as food may have been limited seasonally. (Today, however, local communities face increasingly permanent limitations on natural resources, both renewable and nonrenewable, in addition to which seasonal limitations must also be taken into account.)

When the Europeans arrived and began competing for those same resources, the inevitable outcome was not readily apparent. But as the numbers of Europeans grew, both through local births and rapid immigration, the Indigenous Americans were increasingly pushed out of the way by the seemingly limitless numbers of Europeans, each of whom demanded their "fair share" of the available resources, which, for the most part, were well beyond those used by the Indigenous Americans.

Moreover, the Indigenous Americans shared the land, whereas the Europeans took forcible ownership thereof to the exclusion of a whole indigenous cultural myth. The Europeans superimposed their mythology on that of the Indigenous Americans and consciously set about destroying not only their culture but also the mythology upon which it was based. With the demise of their resources and culture, the Indigenous Americans lost their sense of place, hence their sense of mythology, hence their sense of identity, hence their sense of community, and finally their cultural soul.

"Corporate" Towns

Many of today's local communities are in a similar type of jeopardy as were the Indigenous Americans because they are little more than the economic colonies of large national and international corporations. The corporations—whose fidelity is to the profit margin, not a sense of people, community, or place—increasingly siphon off as much of the local capital as possible and give as little in return as possible. (This is how the Europeans treated the Indigenous Americans.)

When the corporations withdraw their presence, because the resources on which they count become depleted or markets fail, communities, which were built around the corporations, are left to fend for themselves. This often means that they must use all available natural resources in their local landscapes if they are to diversify enough to survive.

Outside Pressures

Today, local communities, like resident bird communities, are facing increasing outside pressures from people who move seasonally into their local landscapes to harvest renewable natural resources, which the local people themselves often need to survive as a community. When the harvest is over, the seasonal visitors leave. The issue, therefore, is no longer job stability but rather community sustainability. And because the people coming into the area are often from other countries and nationalities, there is a clash of mythologies and a corresponding lack of communication, as often happens when people are forced together through perceived necessity.

In some cases, people moving into an area for the seasonal harvest of its resources, like the birds, may be able to fit in without over-harvesting. There is a caveat to this statement, however:  There must be a firm limit to the number of seasonal gleaners and the quantity they harvest, which unequivocally takes into account the requirements of the local residents and the sustainable productive capacity of the landscape.

In other cases, where the necessities of the local yearlong residents and the sustainable productive capacity of the land are not put first, the seasonal gleaners operate de facto in a fashion similar to that of the corporations, which use local communities and their landscapes solely as economic colonies. This is something local communities must help seasonal gleaners understand if destructive competition is to be avoided.


In contrast to the above, there are communities, where wealthy people move in, drive up land prices, and effectively take over the town by economically driving out the community's original inhabitants. The displaced members are forced to live elsewhere but are allowed to commute from their new homes to their original community, where they may work to serve the wealthy. Whether this happens by default or by design, the effect is the same: trust is irrevocably broken, as is the historical continuity of the community.

Many people would say all this is simply the way of competition, which makes it okay. But a vision directed solely by competition cannot long endure; it must deplete itself. Continual depletion of natural resources, and with them local communities, is a danger we daily face because we are so overly dependent on and mesmerized by competition as our predominant model for learning and change.

Although conventional wisdom says there is nothing intrinsically wrong with competition, that it can even be fun and promote invention and daring, we have lost the balance among competition and cooperation at precisely the time when we most need to work with one another. Economic competition, which today is being globalized, increasingly pits workers in each enterprise against workers in all enterprises, workers in each ethnic group against workers in all ethnic groups, and workers in each country against workers in all countries.

Economic competition can only destroy social/environmental sustainability—never forge its links. We thus find ourselves oftentimes competing with the very people with whom we need to collaborate, which frequently leads to destructive conflicts over the way in which resources are used and who gets what, how much, and for how long. This need not be, however, because, we are not locked into any given circumstance. If the choices we make do not work, we can always choose to choose again. The final question will always be: How shall we choose?


  1. Wendell Berry. 1993. Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. Pantheon Books, New York.

  2. Ronald L. Warren. 1972. The Community in America (2nd ed.). Rand McNally College Publishing, Chicago.

©chris maser 2008. All rights reserved.

Protected by Copyscape Web Copyright Protection