Excerpts from Better Ways to Live: Honoring Social Inventors, Exploring New Challenges
From the Introduction of Better Ways to Live (Willow Press, 2017)
Chapter One, The Grace of Social Inventions, in Better Ways to Live (Willow Press, 2017):
It’s social inventions that make the difference between an okay town and a great one. Fortunately social inventions aren’t restricted; they can be freely reproduced.
Here are seven examples from a town in southern Oregon, which also happens to be on many lists of the best places to retire.4 Yes, the area has theater, hiking trails, and a river for rafting, but its foremost grace is a rich network of social inventions.
A good place to start is with the sharing of true stories. Once every season an organization called The Hearth sponsors an evening, now attended by hundreds, at which ordinary people tell about episodes from their lives. Each participant gets ten minutes, with live music at the beginning of the evening and at the end, and all proceeds from the $5 tickets are given to a local charity. The most recent theme was “borders.” This is a model that could be replicated anywhere. (See Chapter 2.)
This town also has an arts center, where there are open studios that can be visited, a gallery, a community classroom, a ceramics workshop, and walls available for displaying photography. As a result the artists are no longer isolated, they have another venue for their work, and are able to teach kids and their parents. The center is supported by studio rentals, art sales, and grants. (Chapter 4 gives more details.)
An international organization, the Mankind Project, is especially well represented in this area, perhaps because its co-founder lives here. MKP sponsors a “training adventure,” which lasts for one very intensive weekend plus an integration series for the attendees when they return home. Among its local activities is a circle of elders. Since “integrity” is a big MKP virtue, when looking for a builder I favored someone who had received the training. (See Chapter 11.)
Some other social inventions resulted from a circle of guys, organized by Bill Kauth, who call themselves “The Relentless Optimists” and still meet weekly. One of their inventions is an annual “Abundance Swap.” In the frantic shopping season after Thanksgiving, people are invited to bring items they already have and that they think others might be happy to receive as gifts. After walking around the tables in the cavernous hall where the swap is held, each person can choose anything he or she wants, while somebody else takes what that person brought. Despite the name, it’s not the usual swap at which two people exchange items. You give to the community, and select something that catches your eye. (More in Chapter 5.)
Also present in the town, and in a number of other towns in the area, are many “Heart Circles” which are based on a book by an early member of the relentless optimists. Just as The Hearth offers true stories, heart circles support the vulnerability necessary for truth telling.
On the north edge of town is a planned community of separate homes and condominia where retirees can “age in place,” rather than disappearing into isolation or going prematurely into a nursing home. The development includes a dining hall, activity rooms, and a bus to take residents to town for shopping.
One more example, which resulted when the plight of returning veterans became evident to a local couple, was the engagement of Michael Meade to lead a workshop where vets were invited to write poems about their experiences. These poems were then read to an audience of around five hundred townspeople. The workshop and evening are the subjects of a documentary film, which is shown nationwide. (Reviewed in Chapter 19.)
Also worthy of mention are a center for restorative justice, a computer-based community bulletin board, a “New Tribes” movement (Chapter 7), a “Peace House,” a food co-op, an institute for senior education (Chapter 6), a weekly “ecstatic dance,” a major and successful electoral campaign for the exclusion of genetically modified crops, a sustainability center at the local university, and other social inventions.
What did each of these initiatives have in common? A champion and the help of volunteers.
European visitors to the U.S. in the nineteenth century, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, praised the voluntary associations they found here. Any group could form, choose a name, open a bank account, and begin operating without permission from anybody.
In contrast, totalitarian states are organized from the capitol. For example, in the former U.S.S.R. you were supposed to petition the center (as Moscow was called). This rule was broken by a guy I met on a visit to Moscow, Gennady Alferenko, who, in the distant Siberian city of Novosibirsk, had organized an association of dance enthusiasts, and later wrote in the main national newspaper for youth (Komsomolskaya Pravda) asking what social needs could be met by volunteer effort—which prompted an outpouring of letters. This was one beginning of civil society in the country that eventually became known as Russia after the fall of the U.S.S.R.. Meanwhile, Gorbachev rewarded Alferenko by putting him in charge of exit visas, which, in turn, led to citizen diplomacy exchanges with the U.S.
We have many freedoms that are sometimes more assumed or bragged about than acted upon, but it is the freedom to start voluntary associations that led to each of these examples above.
Everybody knows what physical inventions are. These objects are ubiquitous, and many can be handled in some way while being used (for example, a mobile phone); set in a room (a television); or even entered (a passenger jet). Another illustration of physical invention is the immediate power we receive from a wall outlet, thanks to the discovery of alternating current electricity.
In contrast, social inventions are a set of arrangements or practices, sometimes codified in rules, which govern the way we live. New ways of doing things are often disruptive, but once accepted, once widely adopted, they quickly become almost invisible—and it feels amazing that people ever behaved otherwise. On the other hand, when we travel and are dropped into a different set of social inventions, we may experience culture shock.
Physical inventions can often be patented, after which they receive legal protection.
Social inventions, because they are ways of living, are as hard for us to grasp as for a fish to grasp water. They are the medium in which we live.