Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

The Family as a Small Society

Our major challenge as human beings in the ninth decade of the twentieth century is to overcome widespread feelings of helplessness and despair over our apparent inability to have any effect on the social processes that grind on around us. We approach the second millennium of the Christian era overwhelmed with problems of scale and complexity, unsure of the survival of the species itself.

My answer to that challenge is to call attention to the oldest of human groupings, the familial group; archaeologists have identified household sites for homo erectus and mulier erectus from two million years ago and more in the Rift Valley of Africa. As an entity, the familial group has met catastrophe after catastrophe over many thousands of years—including the social catastrophes of the rise and fall of civilizations—changing form, structure, and habitat many times with a unique combination of inventiveness, courage, and caring. By focusing on the familial household and calling it a small society, I am separating out the issues of complexity and of scale. Schumacher said small is beautiful, but it would not be correct to say small is simple. Our own bodies are in some ways as complex as the universe itself. We are not likely ever to understand fully the functioning of the thousands of microsystems that maintain our body as a living organism, yet most of the time we can keep it in good working condition and get it to do the things we want it to do. Only in the most exceptional cases of malfunction do we throw up our hands and say, “I am helpless; I can’t make my body work.” We have found a way to live intimately and effectively with our highly complex body system.

Complexity of an unimaginable order also characterizes the households we live in. The people who make up that familial household may present the pattern of husband/wife/children, single parent/children, lesbian or gay couple with/without children, a small group of unrelated people who live communally, or the one-person household with its special extramural support system. Whatever the pattern, the relationships and interactions of that micro-social system are so complex that I as a family sociologist could never fully capture and record that complexity. In my terminology these entities are all families. I use the term familial household to emphasize the fact that people who live together in households, whatever the arrangements, are in a familial relationship to one another. One reason the complexity is unrecordable is that each member of a household is growing and changing every minute. Each day each member has her own unique growth tasks and her own unique experiences in the world outside, returning to the household a different person in the evening than she was in the morning. Because family members live at close quarters and must share limited resources, including space and time, there has to be a continual negotiation process between each member and every other, a continual checking out of changed circumstances and preferences.

We all have in our heads very complex maps of our familial households. If we fail to update them daily, we run into problems. Much family conflict stems from out-of-date mental maps. If we are members of a recombined household, then we hold an even more complex map in our heads, including former spouses, children no longer living in our household, and so on.

While the complexity of the family is of a high order, the scale is manageable. It is one we are comfortable with. We call it the “human scale.” In the family setting, we immediately get feedback about whether our actions are producing the results we intend. We get smiles, frowns, or shrugs; we get a hundred clues as to “how we are doing.” The possibility of immediate feedback from one’s actions characterizes all primary, or face-to-face, groups. It is what makes them so important to our existence as social beings; however, the familial household is a very special form of the primary group because in the long run it is one in which we spend the most time. We can manage the complexities of social interaction on the human scale because we get a constant stream of messages about the consequences of our acts. We can dare to experiment, try out new skills, new roles, knowing that we will soon find out if our experiment has worked. Our family will tell us if we are making fools of ourselves!

I propose, therefore, that we use our experience of the family as a metaphor for society itself, thus giving us a handle on the problem of scale. If we want to make the metaphor a more sophisticated one, we can say that the family is a reflecting mirror for society, showing in microcosm the customs, mores, structures, institutions, and values of that larger society. Metaphors, however, are dangerous if carelessly used. The family is not just a mirror, for it has its own independent life. It is not a microcosm, a miniature of society, for new structures and roles with emergent properties appear at other system levels as greater numbers of actors are involved.

There is, nevertheless, a sound underlying assumption behind the metaphor “the family is a society”—one which comes from general systems theory. The assumption is that there are general principles at work in all systems of social interaction regardless of scale. There are, for example, conflict processes which drive people apart, and there are integrative processes which draw people together. This is true in the family and it is true in the international system. A general systems approach helps us choose what information to ignore in trying to understand complex phenomena. As Kenneth Boulding likes to say, all learning comes through the orderly loss of information. By using the family as a metaphor for society, we get clues as to what information to throw away in order to understand the functioning of large-scale social systems. At the same time the concept of human scale is introduced as a criterion for judging the functioning of a large-scale system. If a given technology facilitates a social arrangement that helps humans to live joyfully and to handle sorrow and pain without being psychically destroyed, then it is, in Schumacher’s terms, an appropriate technology. Schumacher’s great gift to us in his “small is beautiful” concept is the recovery of human scale, of human feelings of self-efficacy, well-being, and joyfulness as primary social values. This makes possible the development of new ways of testing social and physical technologies.

We will begin exploring the family metaphor by seeing how the household functions as a small society—shaping people, culture, social values, and physical products.

The Household as a Small Society

The household as a society has population, resources, culture, technology, boundaries, and environment. Its form of political organization may be patriarchal, matriarchal, or egalitarian. Decisions about allocation of scarce resources are only as participatory as its political organization allows. It may be a subsistence economy or may be linked to a high-tech industrial or postindustrial information economy involving daily export of people and daily import of information, money, and goods. There may be a highly differentiated division of labor between ages and sexes or a low differentiation and sharing of tasks inside the home or job-sharing outside the home. Food, money, clothes, and possessions are generally shared among members, though not necessarily equally. Most members provide some form of health care to other members as needed over time, with women and children being the chief care-givers. Listening and counseling services are available with varying frequency. Play and recreation activities are conducted partly in the home, partly outside.

Civic activities by members are directed to the maintenance of a community environment comfortable for the household. Every one of these activities requires skill in negotiation and sharing. Since the members of this society live at close quarters, the constant requirements for negotiation would be infuriating if there were not something called affection to hold the society together. In the negotiation process, authority and power give some members more weight than others. The American ideal of familial power relations is slowly moving from a patriarchal to an egalitarian model, but the ideal is more often honored in the breach than the observance. Lesbian and gay households have a particular role to play in helping our society to develop familial egalitarianism, since there is no obvious authority figure in such households. Lesbian and gay relationships tend to be more fine-tuned in regard to decision-making and sharing of responsibility than most male-female relationships.

That fine-tuning is hard work in any family even when there is a lot of affection present. The truth is that the familial society is not very successful at carrying out its tasks. We all carry a load of resentment from childhood, resentment both toward parents and toward siblings for burdens they have put upon us in the past. In live-together households, resentments accumulate as much as in contractual and kin households. There are times when we intensely dislike our families. If conflicts become acute, households breakup. We must be honest about the fact that the family as an exemplar of loving and caring among humans is frequently a fiction. Yet the fiction is an important one because, like all fiction, it tells a story. The story is one of longing to be “at home” in our own special place, accepted by our own special people. It is both a longing for relationship and a longing to arrange our environment and have it stay the way we want it to be. A house and a garden may be a one-room apartment and a flower pot, but we have arranged it. Relationships cannot be so easily arranged, yet the need for relationship is even stronger than the need for place. In our feelings for those close to us we swing between love tinged with awe and an impatient desire to have the other fit into our program, meet our needs. Because both feelings are intense, we must learn to walk the narrow ridge Buber speaks of between I-thou relationships and I-it relationships with those we love. Sometimes it is enough for the beloved other simply to be. Other times we need them in very specific ways; they become instruments of our survival.

Failures in relationships are failures to walk the narrow ridge. That it is hard to do is no reason not to try, no argument against families. As humans we really do not have any choice in the matter. Humans thrive only in primary living groups; they cannot be successfully reared in communal nurseries or kept perpetually in dormitories. The reappearance of familial groupings in the Israeli kibbutzim is one among many indications of the need for the intimate group. The problematics of familial relations only serve to underline the basic fact that it is hard to grow up human. The household is the living-learning experiment in which the skills of human relationship may be learned. It is also the experiment in which one learns to occupy, arrange, and adapt to one’s environment, including nature. The home terrain represents the human scale in its basic form. It is also the place for dreaming about human purposes and ultimate meanings.

It is of great comfort to me, when I get discouraged about the state of humanity, to realize that every civilizational tradition, no matter how war-like or materialistic its history, contains in its literary records imagery concerning a Good Place. The Good Place is a public space, often a garden or green meadow, where people have laid aside their weapons and live together in peace—feasting, playing, talking philosophy, and reciting poetry. The Greeks knew it, the battle-happy warriors of Northern Europe knew it, the desert Bedouin knew it. We have an enduring capacity that has persisted over time to visualize humans as better than we experience ourselves to be and the social order as more harmonious than we observe it to be. In every age we also find hardy spiritual adventurers who respond to the vision by trying to reshape their lives and their society.

Sometimes those spiritual adventurers are loners, but more often they are family-identified. The exodus of Christians from the cities of the Roman Empire to found new communities in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts in the third to fifth centuries of the Christian era is a record of family enterprises: brother-sister, parent-child, husband-wife, with brother-sister teams predominating. A Benedictine monastery is as much a family as husband/wife/children are a family, and the Rule of St. Benedict explicitly posits the familial character of the individual houses of the Order.

We hear a good deal of talk about social transformation in these times. There are those who expect us simply “to evolve” into higher-order beings or who think we have already evolved and no one has noticed. The spiritual visionaries who have preceded us, however, have always pointed out that a great deal of hard work is involved. The Benedictines have been working at it for centuries. The familial household is a place where the work of becoming can begin. Every newly formed household can be seen as a colony of heaven, where the work of forming new persons is undertaken.

The household is also where the work of forming a new society begins. The Anabaptist tradition in Europe, out of which Methodism and the dissenting sects of Quakerism and the other historic peace churches came, has its roots deep in the Middle Ages in familial subcultures such as the Family of Love and the Brethren of the Common Life. Then as now, the children of these subcultures learned to accept revilement and prison for their beliefs as a badge of honor. The twentieth-century peace movements of the West represent a pronounced continuity with those older familial subcultures, including Hasidic, Catholic, and Greek Orthodox, as well as Anabaptist subcultures of nonviolence. Values and skills appropriate to the nonviolent resolution of conflict at every level from familial to international have been transmitted in family subcultures from generation to generation. Even today, some of the best materials for teaching children to handle social conflict nonviolently come from such groups: the Children’s Creative Response to Conflict Program was started in the 1960s by the New York Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends; within the Catholic Church there is the National Parenting for Peace and Justice Network.

The antiwar movement of the 1960s seemed antifamilistic, but further research suggests far more continuity in family values than at first appeared. The parents of the antiwar generation were more often than not survivors of the quietism of the 1950s who kept their dissenting values intact. Many peace demonstrations in the 1960s were in fact family demonstrations. Women Strike for Peace was a familial movement based on a concern for children; grandmothers, mothers, and children demonstrated together. This familial character of peace demonstrations continued right through the violence of the 1970s and is still evident in the demonstrations of the 1980s.

The contemporary environmental movement is at least as familistic as the peace movement. This has to do with the fact that the family system is the only social system in which resource limitations and consequences of different types of resource utilization provide immediate feedback to the behaving social unit. Recycling and energy conservation represent a series of tangible acts with consequences for a household. The psychological satisfactions of positive outcomes of conservation strategies for a family have encouraged people to apply what they have learned in household and neighborhood to larger social issues. Though the systems involved are more complex and the consequences more diffuse, nevertheless environmentalists are probably among the most successful activists we have today, suggesting that household-level insights are relevant for larger-scale problems.

Experience tells us that the family is indeed a workshop in which solutions to social problems can be tried out and that historically family subcultures developed social interests that extended far beyond their personal well-being.

What Households-as-Societies Do

Now we will look at the particular activities in the household society that may be important to the development of a healthy localism in the larger society.

Recovery of the Joy of Work

The leisure society with its emphasis on labor-saving has misled people into thinking that work is a necessary evil and not to be enjoyed. One avenue to the recovery of the joy of work lies in the household, since much activity there is of necessity labor intensive and is done with the hands. It has long been noted that rural families, although they work harder for longer hours than urban families, are more satisfied with their way of life and report themselves as happier than their urban brothers and sisters. In a recent series of observations of farm families in Vermont, Colorado, and Oklahoma published in Sociology of Work and Occupations in August 1980, I confirmed the very deep pleasure which farm families take in their farm life.

The children begin chores at the age of four; the wife works as a partner with her husband; and the fact that everyone works together is usually cited as one of the things liked best about farm life. Seeing the fruits of their labors growing under their eyes is another primary source of satisfaction. Urban families seeking that same experience are increasingly finding places to grow food in the city, and home gardening is on the increase everywhere. Prisons and mental hospitals use garden plots as therapy. Local food production by household units seems both therapeutic and economic; many associated craft skills are picked up in the process by the family.

The reversal of the historic rural-urban migration in the past decade, with a net population outflow back to villages and open country, suggests that this discovery of the joy of physical labor is being acted on in very concrete ways. Redividing domestic tasks among all household members as women become an accepted part of the permanent labor force rather than pin-money part-timers provides more opportunity for men and children to discover the satisfactions of household crafts. The “I hate housework” sentiment that fueled the women’s movement now needs rephrasing into “we like to work as a household team”.

The more skilled the labor, the more the pleasure; this brings sewing, carpentry, and other crafts to the center of attention again. In Home, Inc.: The Hidden Wealth and Power of the American Household Scott Burns predicts that there will be a shift toward home production of everything that can possibly be produced in the home—for both economic and lifestyle reasons. From my own observations in rural areas and small towns, children gravitate to oldsters who are willing to take time to teach craft and machine tools skills, just because they like knowing how to do things. Children who know only how to work computers have a very narrow range of skills.

Learning as a Family Enterprise

In Japan in the early sixties I discovered that Japanese women were among the best educated in the world because they supervised the studies of their sons (and sometimes daughters) right through college and graduate school, studying ahead so they could test their children. Education was a family enterprise! The tendency on the part of American parents to turn all education over to the schools is now reversing itself, with increasing numbers of parents either keeping their children at home to teach them there or becoming involved in school learning programs. The dissatisfaction with what schools are doing with our children generalizes to dissatisfaction with how growing-up time is spent in and outside the home. Parents sometimes have very hard choices to make between family time and working-outside-the-home time, but at least now the use of alternative time and its value are being carefully considered. Community-sponsored workshops on how to learn as a family, how to play as a family, how to solve conflicts as a family are giving support to a new trend to value time spent with one’s family group and to be more involved as a family in one another’s social, intellectual, and spiritual maturation.

Self-initiated learning at home by family members has been greatly underestimated. Alan Tough’s research (published in Toronto in 1979 by the Institute for Studies in Education as The Adult’s Learning Projects) on self-initiated learning, which he defines as learning organized by the learner without signing up for a conventionally taught class or workshop, indicates that the average person, whether young or old, spends approximately two hundred hours each year on some self-organized learning project (learning to sew, learning a new language, learning to play the guitar, etc.). Probably more learning goes on at home than in any other place where we spend time.

Health and Welfare Self-Help

Home doctoring by parents and siblings as well as nursing care for the sick were traditionally 99% family activities, with doctors on hand chiefly for emergencies. The shift in the 1950s and 1960s to doctor-dependency for the middle class has now shifted back to more self-help, this time in the context of availability of workshops and health centers and publications offering education in nutrition and health care to make families more knowledgeable about staying healthy.

Communication-skills workshops for parents and teenagers and for husbands and wives to enable them to handle their own problems are replacing dependency on long-term professional counseling. The encounter movement is one of the most remarkable of these self-help movements, having spread from coast to coast in the United States in a fifteen-year period with no professional or administrative staff whatsoever, simply on the basis of the principle that couples who have experienced an encounter weekend help organize a similar weekend for others in their community. This movement has learned to tap the love that married partners feel for each other but have forgotten how to express. By disentangling themselves from the human services bureaucracies, families are taking back their own households and recreating their own lives on a human scale.

One mutual-aid system has always operated outside of the human services bureaucracies and continues to do so: the extended family. Relatives in separate households—living nearby or even far away—have always been part of the family health-care system in times of serious illness. Financial emergencies have also been handled within the extended family to a significant degree through intrafamilial grants of money. This critical life-support system is almost completely invisible to the public eye.

Children, even quite young children, have been more important in helping to meet family crises then is recognized by professionals or parents. In Research in the Interweave of Social Roles, an exploratory study published in 1980, I could not find a single college-age student who did not remember instances of having helped a parent through a serious crisis—illness, bereavement, unemployment, alcoholism, spouse abuse—sometimes at a very early age (four or five years old).

The rural-to-urban migrations that accompanied the industrialization process in the United States were more than migrations from country to city. They were migrations from relatively self-sufficient households, where all family members shared in productive labor and the teaching of necessary skills to younger members, to areas lacking in the materials for self-help. Family crises in the countryside were generally met by family and extended-family self-help. In the city there was more apt to be dependency on the helping professions. This varied by class, however: the urban working poor were more apt to continue extended-family self-help in the city than the middle class. Middle-class decline in self-help and dependency on the helping professions were striking by mid-century. The reversal of the rural-to-urban trend and the rise in self-help activities in the middle class are suggestive of a possible change in middle-class consciousness, however slight the indications may be at present.

The rise in self-help activities does seem to reflect a rejection of earlier feelings of helplessness. Buffeted by the larger social system over which they have no control, families are beginning to take hold of their lives at that system level at which they can have control—in their own households. This could be seen as a retreat from complexity or as a potential launching pad for further social-change activity. We will explore a particular example of household activity as it contributes to social change at the local level.

Households as Reshapers of Community Environments

My perspective on the household as an active source of social change rather than an expiring victim of modernization is in part due to several years of observations of household behavior in boomtown settings in the Colorado Rockies (published in 1980 in a book I co-authored, Women and the Social Costs of Economic Development). The energy boomtown far from urban areas, usually located in a fragile mountain ecosystem, is one of the least desirable places to live for families accustomed to the amenities of suburbia. The newcomer family finds nothing right. The housing is too small, too expensive, the streets too dirty, the schools too crowded, too outdated, store goods outrageously priced. There is nowhere to go except bars, nothing to do except drink. People aren’t friendly. No wonder divorce, suicide, alcoholism, and crime rates go up in boomtowns. If newcomer families can develop active community roles under such conditions, they can hardly be accused of a retreat to privacy.

The first task of the newcomer family is to build itself a series of supports to keep psychically afloat in the new community. Adult males have instantaneous help from the workplace. School children have a harder time, needing to find a niche in a potentially hostile school environment. (New kids are seen as adding to overcrowding, as competing for places on athletic teams.) Wives have the hardest time of all. For survival they keep grounded in the town left behind through extensive use of the phone and the mails, while exploring the new town and grasping at the meager social contacts initially available. Family members go through a series of stages in the community bonding process. Every step of the way may be discussed over the family dinner table. Children advise parents, parents advise children. Collective family wisdom is very important. Churches, social groups, hobby clubs, civic organizations, mutual aid groups of various kinds are tested out and either discarded or joined. For some families the whole process is handled in six months; for others it may take a couple of years.

At some point the family in its process of adaptation becomes inventive. In the first wave of Colorado boomtowns in the 1880s families literally faced nothingness and had to create every amenity from scratch—home, newspaper, school, church, store. The inventions were all family enterprises, and even today the stores on Main Street of those old boomtowns (now going through a second or third energy boom) reflect the whole-family character of the enterprises in their early days. Grandparents and young couples and school age children all wait on customers together.

The newcomer families I observed between 1977 and 1981 became active in two kinds of social inventions in response to the relative cultural bareness of their new environment compared to the more urban area they had left behind. Both types of activity involved whole family participation. One was literally the construction of new facilities and new organizations locally: remodeling an old barn to become a cultural center housing local art exhibits and a concert series; building or raising funds for new parks, recreation facilities, swimming pools, etc.; starting a craft center or craft clubs; organizing new athletic teams; starting a community counseling service clinic or hospital.

The other type of social invention was the creation of communication and transportation networks to bring community residents, particularly children, to major cultural opportunities at the nearest urban center two to three hours’ drive away and to bring special art, music, and dance teachers to the community to “give lessons”. Medical and other special services were also made available through the same kind of transportation networking. These communication and transportation networks were very complex, sometimes involving hundreds of people, and took a lot of entrepreneurial time to organize. Tasks in the network were taken on by family units, with men as fully involved as women. This kind of networking often led newcomers to the state agricultural extension service, which usually has active programs in boomtown areas. As newcomer families from urban areas became involved in the whole-family-style activities of the 4-H clubs, where fathers and mothers go along to their children’s 4-H skill-training sessions, their mental horizons began extending to the rural environs of the boomtown. The newcomers also discovered state-wide activity networks through such experiences. For long-term environmental planning this extension of horizons through whole-family activities builds an infrastructure of concerned households who will make their views felt at local and national levels.

Whole-family involvement in community activities makes possible a holistic view of community needs and lengthens the time horizon of immediate concern. The family asks: What will it be like here for our children, now preschoolers, by the time they are in high school? Will this be a good place to live?

Not every newcomer family was able to engage in the kinds of activities I have described. Some retreated into apathy, some just gave up and left. But it is important to know that some families could become active community shapers under difficult and stressful conditions.

Problems of Scale: Giantism and Localism

The point has been made that the family is a highly complex small-scale system that offers its members the opportunity to act effectively within the household and the local community. Can the localist skills the family develops be useful in larger-scale systems? More importantly, can the values of human scale be protected as individual humans move into larger-scale tasks? Before answering these questions I would like to offer some reflections on the context within which the family interacts with the larger world. The contradictory trends of giantism and localism and of contrasting types of localism make the family/world interface a very complex one.

It is ironic that the feverish corporate mergers into megacorporations and the continued expansion of already dinosaurian military defense systems constitute a ballet danced to the music of a new localism. The 1977 Stanford Research Institute report “Limits to the Management of Large Complex Systems” in Assessment of Future National and International Problem Areas offers one melodic line, President Reagan’s New Federalism another, the electronic cottage-as-workplace movement a third, and the Schumacher Center for a New Economics itself a fourth. In other words, very diverse sets of voices are calling for an end to hierarchy, bureaucracy, and large-scale organizations as inappropriate to the needs of the new age. Most of the voices for localism, however, call for a high-technology approach that leaves the individual as dependent on the highly specialized skills of others as before, the difference being that the skills are now available via home computer. In his book Megatrends John Naisbitt predicts that people will increasingly compensate for their dependence on machines by spending more time in consumer-focused public spaces. He calls this high tech/high touch: “The more technology we introduce into society, the more people will aggregate, will want to be with other people: movies, rock concerts, shopping. Shopping malls, for example, are now the third most frequented space in our lives, following home and workplace.”

The yearning of people for people is real and should be acknowledged with seriousness and respect. But the kind of localism Naisbitt describes strikes me as the localism of sheep huddling together. Yet Naisbitt also emphasizes the development of self-help skills and local political initiative through the use of locally available high-tech resources. Implicit but undiscussed in his study are the contradictions between consumerism and localism in the Schumacher sense. Consumerist localism is decentralized distribution of the products of a tightly meshed set of production systems that operate by networking instead of by hierarchical administration.

It is a far cry from the localism of “Buddhist economics,” as described by Schumacher in Small Is Beautiful, which emphasizes production from local resources for local needs, aiming at the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption and based on a conception of work as a means of purification of human character. It is also a far cry from the localism of the concept of the family as a small society, which calls for an authenticity and depth of relationships between family members and between family and community that cannot be achieved in shopping malls and at rock concerts.

This more grounded localism is another distinct, if faint, voice in the localist chorus. It is the purpose of the Schumacher Center to help make that voice louder. There are men and women everywhere who long for this kind of localism, and there are books (such as Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin and The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson) that describe their longings.

Two serious problems confront us in working for an authentic and grounded localism. One is to understand high-tech localists and find ways to work with them without losing sight of deep value differences. The other is to understand and deal with the stranglehold that giantism has on our society, even as new localist trends are developing.

Giantism is a complex phenomenon, with roots in the concept of the modern nation-state as a democratic institution requiring the replacement of an elite military force with mass people’s armies to defend the nation. It happens that these enlarged military forces were the first social entities to develop the skills of large-scale movement of people and materiel. Armies had to develop these skills in order to carry out the functions assigned to them by governments. Increasingly, governments came to rely on armies for large-scale operations of any kind. Soldiers were the scale specialists who could do mass evacuations, mass feedings, mass anything. The civilian sector never developed comparable skills, so the expertise stayed in the military. Because that expertise became more and more needed for planning as governments grew more complex, military personnel shifted from the category of resources on call to the status of co-planners and policy makers. This shift took place in the United States in the mid-fifties.

This explains in very oversimplified terms how foreign policy has come to be thought of more in terms of military rather than diplomatic action in present national-security thinking. Military action must be centrally planned and carried out in secrecy, which means that organizational innovations involving localism and networking can be applied only to a limited extent. Today each modern industrial state is pinned under the burden of a large centrally planned and hierarchically organized military force in an era when social problems call for local initiative and nonhierarchical information flows. Burdensome and inefficient as the defense systems are and irrelevant to the difficult political conflicts they are supposed to deal with, it will nevertheless take very substantial and prolonged local initiatives to “transarm” nation-state systems. Gene Sharp’s concept of transarmament is an ingenious device for a complete reconstitution of defense systems without evoking the terror of helplessness that the term “disarmament” evokes.

Unfortunately, automation of military systems has made it possible to handle very great complexities centrally—albeit badly. Security systems on a human scale will come about only when high skill levels have been achieved in the productive management of conflict between individuals and groups, from the local community to the international community. If localism does not develop such skills, it cannot “save” us.

The Gigantic and the Global versus the Planetary

Oddly enough, neither the megacorporation nor the giant military machine is global in the planetary sense of being rooted in the community of earth. The gigantic belongs to the systems of power that serve institutions and not human beings. The planetary refers to the sum total of human beings in their households and face-to-face groupings and more complex social networks across the planet. Another term for the planetary might be the sociosphere, the web of human connections which enfolds the globe. We must reclaim the word global from the institutions of corporate and military power, give it back its planetary meaning, and return it to the networks that operate on a human scale. Four thousand or more transnational networks linking households already span the globe through the mechanism of transnational nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) formed over the past hundred years in many areas of human interest and concern—economic, political, cultural, and religious.

Every single transnational network—whether it has to do with poetry, organic gardening, parenting, conflict resolution skills, religious faith, or the conditions of human labor—ultimately links households. People in their wholeness as men and women, as members of caring households, reach out to others in their wholeness, whom they will never see, and affirm a common goal, a common fate. In my global systems class at Dartmouth I have each student identify all the transnational NGO memberships represented in their family through their own activities and the activities of their parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, perhaps grandparents. (These usually are Scouts, church organizations, professional associations, and hobby organizations among others.) They then study the purposes of each NGO and its distribution of national sections across the planet and then map that distribution. I tell them to keep their maps, because in every country containing an NGO in which one of their family is involved there are a number of households where they will be welcome, as a part of the same community of concern. This is planetary localism.

The NGOs, like familial households, have hardly begun to realize their potential for human growth and development. They still need a great deal of effort poured into them. They particularly need more cultivation of the vision that brought them into being, so their members can remember the high purposes which could guide their lives. In workshops designed to help people image a future world without weapons, the NGO theme emerges again and again, although people do not use that terminology. Once people start imaging how a world would function without military security systems, they immediately start thinking of how to connect local households and local communities with one another around the globe. The nation-state seems of little relevance when the focus is on fostering human peaceableness and joy.

Rather than bewail the human weaknesses and socio-economic and political constraints assailing the potential for human betterment that lie in the familial households, I would prefer to celebrate the potential itself. In the household we have a place to stand, a place to work at being human, to work at humanizing the planet, a place where love can break in. It is a place where we can function right now, just as we are, with what we know at this moment. We need no grants or subsidies, need change no law, to pursue the work of humanization. Perhaps we will discover, as Schumacher did, that we are not alone, that the planet is God’s household, and that the work of becoming more human is the work of opening to God’s presence our every movement as we walk the earth.


Publication By

Elise M. Boulding

Elise M. Boulding (1920 –2010) was a sociologist and author as well as a peace and women’s rights activist. She received numerous awards for her lifelong commitment and contributions to peace and justice. She believed the family unit, and especially the role of women within that unit, was crucial to the global peace movement. When … Continued

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