Too messy to fail: ancestral mutual aid and instinctive sharing as the topsoil for the cooperative ecosystem

I’ve come to believe that mutual aid is the dynamic heartbeat at the confluence of the theories of change in this framework. When I was 33, I went up on a forested mountain near my home for a 4-day fast with no food or water to inspect my life and bring back some renewal and clarity on what next. I had prepared for a year by taking a break from farming and several professional projects to make time, which I then used for a daily journaling and meditation practice, and to have heartfelt conversations with all of my loved ones, asking for their feedback on how I show up in life, in their lives, what my blindspots are, what my gifts are. All that input gelled while I was fasting and one of the gems I came home with was the realization that since my first memories, I’ve acted out of a deep, unsatisfied longing for wholeness- unsatisfied because I instinctively sensed from a very young age how broken the human and non-human systems around me are, and how our survival and certainly our happiness depend of healing that broken-ness, putting back together that which has been dis-membered.

Once I named this pattern in myself, I could look back at my life and see an astonishing consistency to my actions and the personal and social change efforts I’ve dedicated myself to. The current dysfunctional narrative dominating our species has to separate the beneficiary from the one who deals with the consequences, compartmentalize ecosystems and cultures so they can be broken down and sold for their parts to the highest bidder. When things become whole, accountability is an inevitable consequence. So I’ve sought to create wholeness by re-constituting relationships between disassociated elements in my body, in my relationships, through living in an ecovillage, through equity work and inter-racial alliance, through inter-generational living, through growing a regional mutual aid network. (This drive for wholeness has a shadow side: untenable complexity. Maybe a different post).

My sense from studying histories of cooperative culture, mutual aid and resistance movements is that this messy drive to heal broken things, bring the hens home to roost, is an ancient instinct that has brought many benefits to all of our diverse ancestors. And that in the U.S., the movements for cooperative enterprise, re-imagining commons, new democracy, unions, restorative justice, and human ecology and permaculture- all of these draw on a primal mutual aid topsoil which is far more polyvalent than economics, land use, or democratic power-sharing on their own.

I think that if we don’t make this common topsoil explicit, and pay as much attention to the culture of mutual aid as to the mechanisms of resources and power, we risk fixation on specific tools and strategies which will always be vulnerable to hostile co-opting.


One thought on “Too messy to fail: ancestral mutual aid and instinctive sharing as the topsoil for the cooperative ecosystem

  1. The metaphor of mutual aid as topsoil is very powerful. I’m inspired by the intentionality you have around aligning your values with your actions. The path to wholeness requires stillness and deep internal work. I’m curious if there are any best practices that have helped you nurture the topsoil in community with others. How have you worked alongside others to build a culture of mutual aid in your ecovillage?

    Also, you mention “making the common topsoil explicit”. What might that look like?

    I share your belief that mutual aid should be “the why” at the root of our work to build wholeness, and that good soil is more important than the tools that till the ground.


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