Where Have All the Joiners Gone?


Thanks to Jan Nunley for pointing me to this article in Orion (which something else she pointed me towards recently…)

The question the article is trying to answer is why is it that we have such difficulty getting people involved in large projects these days. The answer is, in short:

“[T]he advent of cheap fossil fuel, and the prosperity, globalization, and specialization it allowed, changed, well, everything for those who went along (which is to say, everyone but the Amish). You could look at almost any profession—baker to banker—but let’s stick with farming. When you depended on horsepower and human labor, you needed help. When you depended on high-powered machinery, you simply didn’t. Once you had a big combine, you could do it yourself. As one farmer told Harper, all of a sudden ‘there was no need, no call, really, to go see them. . . . I don’t think anyone has anything against anyone—you just don’t have any need to be there.’ And all those machines let farms grow steadily bigger, which had as its logical result a far greater physical distance between the farm families who remained.

We could count this as simply the way of the world except for two problems.

One, of course, is that the era of cheap fossil fuel may be coming to an end, either because we run out or because we take global warming seriously and seriously cut back. Either way, the massive, invisible, industrialized methods we’ve come to rely on for feeding and clothing and fueling our lives may start to break down.

And the other problem is that we may break down. We weren’t designed to be this distant from our neighbors—we descend from apes who spend most of the day grooming each other for the practical purpose of removing lice and for the even more practical purpose of building the deep bonds that give their lives security and meaning. The economic life of Homo sapiens has always been about that kind of contact—until now, until us. Research has shown that when we live on car-filled streets, our number of close friends drops by half. We eat half the meals we used to with friends, family, neighbors. Forget about the flax-swingler; our clothes come through the ether from the mysterious geography of Lands’ End. We don’t need each other anymore, and that’s the saddest thing we’ve done—sadder even than the scourge of climate change, which at least is anonymous and impersonal.”

Perhaps the good news of re-urbanization is that we will concurrently return to a more socially connected way of living… but as some have pointed out to me recently, this is going return to the cities is going to come with some significant financial hardship for people.

I wonder what the church is going to need to do to be able to respond. Off the top of my head I’m thinking perhaps the resurgence in intentional-community in urban areas isn’t a piece of the response that’s already happening…

Read the rest here.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...