What Robin Dunbar taught us
It emerged this week that the symbiotic relationship we've long understood lichens to be is a little more complex than was previously thought. In addition to the fungi and the algae or cyanobacteria (simply put, the former contributes a structured moist environment and the latter photosynthesises sugars from sunlight), yeasts have now been discovered living close to the surface. It's believed their function is to help fend off predators and repel microbes. This news adds another layer to an already fine example of cooperation that I've been sharing on my permaculture courses for a long time now. It is of course just one of a multitude of examples found throughout nature. All multicellular organisms, including our own human body, are clear evidence that working together is a better long-term strategy than going it alone. Our social tendencies express this too on a scale beyond the individual, but our modern society has put us in contact with more strangers than perhaps any time before in our history, bringing with it much mistrust and fear.
Our ancestors of course understood the security value of living in groups, but there's a point where size does matter. This is what Robin Dunbar taught us - that when groups get beyond 150 or so there are more people than we have enough time to have regular contact with and it's that interaction time that builds trust. So if you have more than 150 friends on facebook, well, if you're like me, many of them are still strangers aren't they? They may share interests with us, but those occasional virtual interactions don't bond us in the same way as those we enjoy face to face.
Unfortunately, most of the people we meet on a regular basis only share a geographical location with us. Our ancestors had to get on with the people around them for security reasons, but now we can more easily travel, both physically and virtually, we are free to seek our friends at a distance if we choose. And most of us do. But wouldn't it be even better to live with those people too - to have quality interactions with people who understand us - on a regular basis? That's why we're seeing an increase in the number of intentional communities being formed, both in Britain and overseas. Amongst them are Lammas Ecovillage in West Wales and Landmatters Community in South Devon. I visited Lammas for the first time a few weeks ago, joining one of their regular summer Saturday morning tours. I anticipated a low turnout because it was grey and wet, yet at least 40 people came, a testimony to the growing attraction of this inspirational project. I could see why, the infrastructure at least was substantial for a project just 7 years old and this is due in part I'm sure to the large number of volunteers who offer labour in exchange for the chance to learn. Interestingly, other aspiring smallholders are now buying adjacent land to establish additional holdings and also become part of the community. Clearly the social aspect is working too.
Closer to home back in Devon is a project I'm much more familiar with. I've be visiting Landmatters with permaculture groups for a number of years and have got to know many of the residents. I also now teach a summer design course there with the theme of 'Communities in Transition', something boosted by its close proximity to (Transition Town) Totnes. The community is the first I am aware of in Britain to have been designed using permaculture from the outset. It shows. Of course, it's not all smooth going, very few of us have been brought up in community and however much we might want to be a part of one, we mostly lack the skills to do it well. So it's a learning journey too, a challenging one for many - most of us coming from homes where we can avoid dealing with issues by simply retreating to our room. In Eire we shared a fire throughout the winter and dealt with those issues when they came up because the hard work of cutting, drying and carrying turf on foot from half a mile away was less attractive. Dealing with issues quickly made for a better community in my mind.
Ultimately though, if communities are to truly work we have to do things for each other. Regularly. As we see throughout nature, a system is only as strong as the number of beneficial relationships within it.