12 May 2017


Ten years ago, my neighbourhood got into quite a fix. Everyone had received notice that an asphalt company was seeking consent to build an asphalt plant just down the road from us.

Because of this, something happened that still amazes me. We were upset about what felt like an imminent attack on our clean air. We formed a society to fight the asphalt plant, and ended up with a close-knit group of battlers, some of whom are still my dear friends today, and others who at least feel like an important part of my community.

From the outside, the prospect of the asphalt plant seemed like purely a terrible thing. But being a key leader in the fight was in fact wonderful. The camaraderie. The energy that filled me, despite having a three-year-old and a baby at the time, The intellectual challenge that I got from becoming with the legal and planning aspects of the case, and in the moves and counter-moves that were involved - because the outcome really mattered to our future.

In the end the asphalt company pulled out. Here's a photo taken that night:

How did the big baby I'm holding on the left get to be ten years old?
And the small boy in the spiderman T-shirt is a young man.


I had unwittingly stumbled into a shade of a situation that Sebastian Junger describes in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. The book hit me like something physical, because of what it reminded me of, and because of what it made me realise about this human life of ours.

Junger came across the magic of this 'Tribe' situation while interviewing people as a war correspondent. In the siege of Sarajevo, residents clustered together as tribes to survive, growing and sharing food, and fighting in the war. He later asked one woman who'd been a teenager at the time whether people had been happier during the war.

"We were the happiest," she said.

Another man  had been in a special unit that went behind enemy lines. Now he's a taxi driver. He and others spoke about how they longed for who they had been during the siege. As crazy as it sounds, people miss the war.

Which means not that war is good, but that it brought about an extremely rewarding camaraderie, vitality and reason to fight for the tribe that is missing from what is now normal life. Without those things, life is emptier.

What our little community had ten years ago was a hint of what humans always had until a few centuries ago. A close-knit group of people who had to share with and support each other to survive. A group inside which members gained status by contributing to the group and doing the right thing, without laws or policeman to force them.

Ye Olde Status Quo

Our ancestors lived in a world of physical threats that forced them into depending on each other, and they (we) thrived that way. We had to feed ourselves, and without fridges, we had to share what we found or grew to eat, because next week we might find nothing, but our neighbours might be luckier. Our full bellies would have depended on them knowing that we would return the favour.

Full bellies or not, another common threat was attack by another tribe. Fighting to the death made sense, because failure would mean the whole tribe was doomed anyway.

As Junger writes, 'The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good." The firemen come, the police arrest, the supermarket or food bank provides. We might go through our lives without even having to give up our lunch for someone else.

Still the same

But we are still wired so that our most meaning-filled, satisfied lives come about in those now-rare situations. War and natural disasters fling people back into them.

Junger writes that "What catastrophes seem to do - sometimes in the span of a few minutes - is turn back the lock on ten thousand years of social evolution. Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss."

Your neighbour

A friend and I were talking recently how it is a bit uncomfortable to look at an animal - its eyes, its fears, its aliveness - and think that we're eating these things. I said that if we got hungry enough, that would change pretty fast, and that alive thing would make our mouth water. He said that the sight of our neighbour might make our mouth water!

But of course that is not true. Your neighbours would most likely be the people with whom you share your last collective drops of clean water. We joke with our friends about how they can huddle around our woodburner when there's no electricity, and we can all chuck our offerings into a stew pot to cook on top of it. On a cold night we'd probably all sleep around it. One family points out that they have a very large lawn in which we can grow potatoes.

(I'm thinking now that I should have planted more broccoli, just in case...)

Sharing food

In bitter safety

I love the first line of this poem that Junger quotes from Siegfried Sassoon, a WWI soldier sent home after being wounded.

"In bitter safety I awake, unfriended
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud."

I think of the bitter safety of our weathertight houses, our overstuffed pantries, our soft doctored and medicated bodies and the fences dividing us from the neighbours who might annoy us - all of which I happily partake in, of course. Humans have always strived for convenience and comfort, and we have created lashings of it. In so many ways, life is so much better. Anaesthetic. Electricity. Rice. Transport. Phones... the list goes on.

But we have paid a price.

So, going forward, the mist has cleared a bit thanks to Mr Junger. I need to be with friends and family. People are more important than things. I need to play an active role in our community. I need to make sacrifices for goals bigger than myself. These are what makes a good life.
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