The Way It Could Be.




This report could be from your neighbourhood, in 2030.



 “Hi, I’m Mike, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I’ve arranged to interview Pete?”

“Yep, that’s me. And this is Annie and Joe. Welcome.”

“Thanks. They tell me you have a nice neighbourhood going here.  My producer wants me to report on how it works.  Can you start by telling me a bit about its size. How many live here?’

“About 150 people, in about 55 households, taking up about 10 ha, including the old road space.”

 “What do you mean by ‘old’?”

“Oh that’s the area roads took before we dug most of them up. Now there’s only one narrow path in to a few parking spaces. There’s no parking on private house blocks. Most people don’t need car anyway, so they can borrow one of the community cars when they want to drive somewhere.”

“But then how do they get to work.?”

“Most of them walk or cycle, because now this town has a highly self-sufficient local mini-economy.   A lot of what we need is produced right here, within a few hundred metres of where we all live, especially our food.  Some people ride bikes to jobs in other suburbs and a few have a car. Also we can borrow a community car any time.” 

Annie broke in, “… and most of us don’t need to do much work anyway.”

Mike said, “How come? I work fifty hours a week and still struggle to pay my bills.”

“Because we don’t have many bills. Most of us only need to work for money one or two days a week.”

“What? How?”

“Well firstly because we live very cheaply, we only buy things we need, we grow and make many things, we swap surpluses, there are cooperatives, for instance providing eggs and fish, and many things are free from the commons, such as fruit and nuts and herbs.”

Joe chimed in, ”And for some of the things we do buy we don’t need any normal money, we just use the stuff we print.”

“What do you mean ‘print’?”

“We have our own local currency.  Actually we don’t really physically print it.  For things like vegies we might get from the co-op we just record the value of whatever we buy, and we record the time we work in that and other co-ops, and keep the two totals close together, so we can get fish from that co-op while we work in another, without having to work in a factory or office for normal money.”

“Hang on, how do you catch fish in a city neighbourhood.”

Annie helped out here. “With a small hand net.”


“The fish co-op people just scoop one out of the tanks when someone wants a fish dinner.  See we have lots of small ponds on our commons and tanks in backyards.  And there are co-ops here that specialize in fish production. You can have a fishing industry right in the middle of a big city.”

“And most of the food for the fish and the other animals here comes from garden wastes and household kitchen scraps. See this neighbourhood’s a thriving farm now, with lots of orchards and poultry and animals and little patches of forest, and ponds with ducks on them, so there is a lot of stuff to harvest and feed to animals.”

“And the animals especially the chickens free range, to find some of their own food …’

Joe broke in “…and while they do that they clean up garden beds and pests like fruit fly grubs in the fallen fruit.  And we collect all the manures and recycle them to the gardens.”

“See its about closing the nutrients flow circle; all of the nutrients coming from the gardens and orchards and poultry pens and fish tanks either go through food scraps and toilets back to animals or compost heaps or gas producers or they’re fed directly to animals.  That means not many nutrients have to be brought into this neighbourhood because we’re close to continually recycling a set mount through households and back to the systems that produce our dinners.”

“Meaning we avoid having to import fertilizers, and we avoid all the packaging and transport involved in supply of food via supermarkets.”

Mike said, “OK but food from the commons isn’t free because you have to work to maintain them, right?. The fruit trees have to be pruned don’t they.”

“They do, but there’s no work involved” said Annie.

Joe again, “Almost no work at all done around here Mike.”

“How can that be? You can’t produce fruit or carrots without work.”

“Around here Mike carrots are produced by people who love gardening. Its more like enjoyable leisure to them.”

Pete said, “Hey its time we started showing you around.  Come this way and we’ll show you how to produce crockery without work.”

Pete led them through a winding overgrown path, past a few houses buried in foliage to a low shed surrounded by benches, tubs and buckets of yellow clay  and some new looking pots, and there were bits of broken pottery littered around, and a stack of firewood beside what he realized was a kiln.

“Village pottery!” announced Pete.  “All the pots and plates and cups and mugs we use in this neighbourhood are produced here…”

“Without any work.” said Joe.  “Several people in the neighbourhood are mad keen on pottery and they make all the crockery needed to replace breakages around here.  And they do it for fun.  Again no work involved at all. That’s how lots of things are produced around here, clothes, furniture, preserves, toys, baskets, rugs even much of our footwear, like slippers and sandals and winter ugh boots.”

Pete added, “But in addition there’s a small business operating here.  Fran and her mates turn out crockery for sale, especially ornamental platters and vases. They sell most of them outside the neighbourhood, in the town. We have a number of mini firms like that here and throughout the town, producing some things for use close by and some to sell further afield.”

Joe said, “Mike we should have explained that our neighbourhood is only one among the others in the town, operating as we do. Each tries to produce as much as it reasonably can within its borders but of course there are lots of things each needs that can’t sensibly be produced within it, like boots and pots and pans.”

Pete again, “And our region contains several towns so it contains firms producing things like tools and stoves. One of those factories might supply ten little towns within say five kilometres, and also export to other regions.”

“But why the concern with keeping the scale small and trying to be self-sufficient?”

Annie jumped in; “To save the planet, that’s why.”

“What do you mean?”

Annie looked to the heavens and took a deep breath.

“Look, … the world’s over consuming, right? Our rich world rates of per capita resource use have to be cut enormously, right? Well the only way a big enough reduction can be made is if we develop mostly small local economies like we have here.”

Mike cut in, “Why? Aren’t economies of scale best, most efficient?”

“For some things yes but not for most of the things we need round here, and you are overlooking the fact that there are big diseconomies of scale.”

Joe said, “Hit him with the eggs Annie.”

Pete said, grinning, “Yeah, that’ll fix him.”

“OK…”, said Annie,  “We’ve costed it all out, comparing the energy and dollar costs of eggs produced in the commercial economy with eggs produced in our backyards and in the poultry co-op over there.  Your average industrial-supermarket egg involves enormous costs, coal mines, power generation, steel works to make big sheds and silos and tractors, ships, trucks, feed producing factories, fertilizer going into growing poultry feed, chemical inputs to factories making additives, hormones, insecticides, then packaging, advertising, supermarket lighting and staff… “ Annie stopped to take a breath but Joe jumped in.

“And massive wastes and damage at every stage, manures thrown away, exhausts going into the atmosphere, soil depletion and damage by agribusiness, packaging and food scraps trucked to dumps.”

Annie got to the main point: “Mike even ignoring the damage, just taking in dollars and energy, we worked out that the normal industrial commercial path has costs per egg at least fifty times greater than our egg costs.”

Impulsive Joe again, “…while eliminating the lousy conditions in battery hen factories.”

Pete came in, “The point Mike is that very low costs like that, especially in resource use and ecological impact, can only be achieved in small, highly integrated cooperative settlements. We can take kitchen scraps to the chickens in buckets, and bring manure to the nearby gardens, and let the chickens clean up the garden snails, and do it all without bureaucracy or computers or trucks or energy …”

“Apart from porridge”, said Annie.


Yes, most of the everyday things we use around here are produced by hand, by human energy, fuelled by dinners.”

Pete again, “Don’t overlook the informal factor, the way people keep an eye on things and discuss with each other and see problems early and get together to spontaneously fix. No bureaucrats or expensive professionals or insurance costs.”

Annie pushed in, “ And all this adds to amenity. It makes our neighbourhood interesting and enjoyable. I often have my breakfast in the chicken pen, sharing my porridge with the girls.”

Pete said, ‘We’ve got bogged down in talk; lets walk.  Mike come over this way, what’s this up ahead?”

A minute later Mike said, “Looks like apple trees.”

“That’s right, but this is one of our experimental plots.  We’re always slowly trying out different varieties, in a few little areas like this one. The town has an agriculture committee with several sub-committees and one of them organizes these trial plots. The eventual goal is to have worked out which varieties of all kinds of fruit and vegetables thrive in the particular conditions we have here, the rainfall, temperature, frosts, soil types etc. Someday we’ll have this neighbourhood stacked with the varieties of everything that’ll do well here with a minimum of fuss and attention. We’re on the way to living in abundant food forests, just pick your dinner on the way home, from the commons, for free.”

“On the subject of committees,” Joe said, “… we should tell Mike about the others we have. How many committees in your neighbourhood Mike?”

“Ar …  maybe … about none.”

“We have a leisure committee, a looking after old people committee, one for water catchment and sewage reuse, one for community building maintenance, one for youth affairs, an energy committee …”

“And they’re all voluntary. Remember most people have five days a week to give to community development and working bees.”

“Working bees?”

“Oh yes, must explain those.  So we have over a hundred people here able to join in regular maintenance of the commons or occasional special projects, like when we recently built premises for our bee keeper.  We all average about four hours a week. That’s a form of tax payment, for the free goods we get from the commons and co-ops. But some people can put in more and earn credits that enable them to in a sense purchase some extra things from the community stores …”

“That’s how I get all my clothes,” said Joe.

“Now do you realize Mike that’s about 400 person hours of labour going into this 10 ha area every week. No wonder it's a beautifully gardened space producing lots of free stuff and full of well oiled equipment providing energy and water and refrigeration and fire wood, and leisure facilities.  No council back in the old days could look after any neighbourhood anything like that well.”

“Mike guess how big my garden is?” said Annie.

“No idea. How big?”

“Ten hectares, three hundred metres across.”

“… but you said that’s how big the neighbourhood is.”

“That’s right.”


“Oh, I get it; the neighbourhood is sorta your garden.”

“That’s right. And do you realize that I have over a hundred people working diligently much of the time to manicure it, and they’ve filled it with little ornaments, ponds, bridges, castles. Just going for a ramble is a leisure event, and I run into plenty of familiar people to chat to.”

“Come on, let’s show him the community centre,” said Pete. Within a few minutes he had led the way to what he soon explained had been a street, with houses in a row but now fronting a densely packed area containing patches of vegetable gardens, fruit trees, green houses, ponds and little sheds, with chickens and ducks here and there, and several people pottering around amid the foliage.  Pete, Annie and Joe seemed to be on family terms with everyone, exchanging greetings and bits of information. Joe pointed to a large pond saying it was one of the many growing edible fish. At one point a youngster said to Pete, “Don’t forget to put Elsie’s tree on our agenda.” As they moved on Mike asked, what was that about Elsie’s tree.

Pete said, “Elsie is probably the world’s best cake maker. See that house roof  through there, that’s her’s. She’s in her nineties now, lives in the house alone but of course lots of people drop in all the time. When she was a kid she planted a blue gum near the house but now it's a big fellow and Elsie is a bit worried about it falling on the house. I’m coordinator of occasional working bees so I’ll get the gang to discuss what we should do.  We meet tomorrow.  Think about what it would cost her to get a commercial tree remover in; we’ll do the job at negative cost.”

“What do you mean, negative cost?”

“I mean we’ll enjoy the job, be delighted to partly repay Elsie for years of perfect cakes, be rewarded by scones and jam, enjoy reinforcing team solidarity, enjoy using our tree skills and equipment, and confirm our belief that we can run this place, we can make and do and get together to solve problems.  Those are all positives, benefits we’ll get from doing the job, the opposite of costs.”

They had come out from the gardened road area through a wall of big trees into a more open and grassed space, with a few small shops and business premises around the edge and a large two storied building among them.

“This is the community centre” said Pete. “It contains a hall big enough to take us all, a workshop, library, art gallery, craft and meeting rooms, pottery, a stage for performances, a big open fire place, and storage and recycling racks out the back.  There are smaller workshops in the neighbourhood but this is where main events are held and where the heavier machinery is located, the drill press and lathe, the crow bars and sledge hammers you can borrow.”

“And don't forget to mention Marios.”

“Oh, yes, and there’s our little eatery and café, largely do it yourself, like a community kitchen, but someone on roster to make you a cuppa.”

“More like a chattery really, always someone there to chat to. It used to be a petrol station, long ago. Very few cars around here now. We managed to buy it when the business failed and our working bees extended it and put the second story on top.” 

Mike said, “Must have cost a lot to do, its pretty big.”

No, because all the labour was free, and we have several expert builders in the neighbourhood and its mostly built from scrap materials and wood from our forests.”

Mike looked puzzled. “Your forests?”

“Yes, come over this way, see those tree tops way down there, that’s a dense little thicket of spotted gums. They grow tall and straight, ideal for strong poles and beams. Our forest garden patches are mostly edible plants but they also contain tall shading trees we can take out when timber’s needed.  We don’t need much now because the neighbourhood is stable, just enough to replace things like broken furniture and fences. We can mill logs to any size, right down to thin mouldings.”


“There’s a saw bench in the main workshop, driven by an old car engine.  But I should say that the timber used in the workshop didn’t come from trees grown here, because we were only just starting to plant trees here about then. It came from the small farm we teamed up with, ten kilometres away. Alby was nearing bankruptcy and was delighted to be able to become our neighbourhood farm, supplying various things we couldn’t produce here.“

“Including holidays.” Said Annie. “We’ve built little cabins on the farm and a swimming spot and rope ways for the kids, and canoes for the creek, and pens for injured animal rehab.  And Andy and his mates built a gypsy cart so a family can go for a slow tour of the locality using a map of idyllic camping spots. So that’s another kind of costless holidays for us.”

Joe added, “Yeah, great work by our fabulous leisure committee.”

Annie said, “I should point out that modest Joe here is its chair. Your neighbourhood got a leisure committee Mike?”

‘Er…not really.  But we don’t need one.  Doesn’t take much organisation to get the TV on.”

“Our’s does a lot of planning and organizing, but that’s because we do a lot of things.  For instance we coordinate the weekly concerts, we arrange visiting speakers, discussion nights, visits to demonstration farms and firms, adventure tours, hikes, celebrations and festivals and banquets.  And we look after maintenance of leisure facilities, like checking whether the flying fox the kids use over the main pond needs repairing, or whether the railings on the tree house are still safe. And you would be amazed at the talent here, all the comedians, play writers, actors, poets, musicians, artists, sculptors, all eager to perform but they never get a chance in the commercial entertainment world because it only wants a very few superstars. Our concerts are far better than anything on your screens.   And don’t forget all the art and craft groups.  And you can drop in on any of our small businesses any time, to watch Henry blacksmithing or Fred making wooden toys, or have a yarn and a cup of coffee from Sam’s pot belly stove; he’s a cabinet maker but he can also build you a house. So it's a leisure-rich area; always plenty to do or observe or think about or plan. Most neighbourhoods back in the normal old world were leisure deserts. Here, gling for a walk is an adventure.”

“Enough from him,” said Annie. “Let me tell you what our oldies committee does. I’m on three committees but the main one keeps an eye on people who are older or not well, to make sure they’re OK.  People usually drop in to chat and help out but if necessary we arrange someone to do some housework or bring older people to events.  And we oversee a house that you’d call a nursing home, where people who need constant care are looked after. It’s just behind the community centre, and in the middle of a community garden so there’s always activity and people around, and chickens and ducks and two goats.” 

“You realize most people here have a lot of time to give to these kinds of activities.  Most of the work done here is actually spontaneous and unpaid. For instance if I’m going to the café I can drop into the aged care house for five minutes or an hour, and maybe have a chat with old Bob or tidy up or sweep a floor.”

Mike was again looking puzzled. “OK, but I don’t get how you can all be mucking around most of the time without working in offices and factories for money but apparently living comfortably.  Back in my real world people work long hours, they’re too tired and busy all the time because of the pace and insecurity, and most of them worry all the time about being unable to pay their bills.”

“Two things Mike. People here live very simply, they don’t buy much from the outside economy because they don’t want much from it. And secondly because they get most of the basic things they need without having to earn money. They get perfect tucker from their home gardens and the poultry co-ops the community gardens and orchards and fish farms, they get free entertainment and holidays, and they can pay for many things like furniture repair in time given to helping the carpenter.”

Pete said, “So Mike that five days a week is spent not working for money but much of it is spent producing useful things, although not for a wage.  Again much of the important work done here is voluntary and spontaneous. If I’m walking home and I see the wind has blown over some of the new apple trees we planted the other day I tie them back to their stakes.  Sometimes a few people just arrange a time to fix something or prune or repair a path, without consulting any one.  See, in a sense we all own and run this neighbourhood. We know our welfare depends greatly on it being kept in good shape.”

Annie continued the theme. ”That’s extremely important Mike.  We realise that what matters most of all for our welfare is the spirit of community, the collectivism. It’s glaringly obvious that if we let the spirit of helping and caring and looking after our systems and orchards and concerts and landscape weaken then we’ll all suffer. Our individual wealth is quite unimportant, what matters is our public wealth, our great gardens and concerts and ethos of collective concern, the knowledge that if you have a problem lots of people will help you out. Those are the things that do most for your quality of life as an individual. You are only as rich as your community.“

Joe came in, “Yeah keeping this neighbourhood in good shape requires good behavior, doing what’s good for the community, but at the same time it rewards good behavior. So it’s not a problem or a burden to do what needs to be done, its enjoyable.”

Mike was frowning again, “Yes I can see that, but what about higher skills, professionals like doctors, universities. You depend on steel works don’t you.”

“No problem.  Frank lives just across from me. He’s a nurse; goes off to work part time in a high-tech hospital. Just down from us is Tom; he’s a doctor, working three kilometres away, for money, full time.  And his son Greg is doing post grad engineering.  So most of us can live most of the time in neighbourhoods like this while some of us train to be the professionals we need, and to do sophistiate R and D. Of course if most people lived as we do here our society would need far fewer professionals, because there’d be far less need for engineers to run factories churning out consumer stuff we can do without.”

“And a big reason why we wouldn’t need many professionals is that most of the ways we have in our economy here don’t require sophisticated skills.  Most people here can grow and make and design and fix most of the things we need. The norm is the Jack-of-all-trades, not the specialist.  We do need some highly trained specialists in the hospitals and running the railways, but not producing our food or clothing or furniture or houses.”

Annie beamed; “On the subject of houses, I’m busting to show Mike my house. Let’s go this-a-way.”

After walking for a few minutes they came out into a small cleared area with a very small house in the middle, nearly finished but with bits of rubble and off-cuts littered around.

“My palace!” Annie proclaimed. “Made from rammed earth so good insulation and fireproof, earth floors, low ceilings, stone fire place, and I made the led light windows and now I’m fitting out, doing the carpentry.”

Joe pointed to a big hole in the ground a few metres from the house.  “Mike that’s where we got the earth for the walls.  Guess what that’ll be.”

Annie said, “Yeah, why would I leave a big ugly hole right in front of my big window over the kitchen sink?”

Mike didn’t answer before Annie said, “So I can wash up gazing at my fish and duck pond! That’s what it will be soon.“

“ But the house is very small,” said Mike.

“Yes but all the space I need” said Annie. “But I’m going to have some small sheds out here for storage and my craft hobbies. Come on in.”  They negotiated the rubble as Annie said, “I made this front door, and the lead light panel, with a bit of help from Andy.”

Mike was looking at the walls. “Did you say the walls were rammed earth. They look too smooth, and the colour is more like yellowish paint.”

“They’re surfaced with clay from our quarry, about a hundred metres away from here.”

Pete said, “Mike on size, “the smaller the house, the easier it is to heat. So, less fire wood to cut.”

“And less cleaning,” said Annie.

“I’m surprised you had a concrete slab put down though, said Mike looking down.  I thought greenies like you would’ve used timber for flooring.”

“Oh no, that’s not concrete,” said Annie.  “It’s earth, rammed and surfaced, and it has little tunnels molded into it, to take the warm air the fan draws from the fire in winter. Mind you the kitchen and bathroom floor surfaces are split rock set in earth, with coloured cement between the chunks.”

Pete said, “Mike, see the ceiling beams?  Just small tree trunks.  Haven’t been sawn. Look great don’t they?  Top surfaces adzed to be level enough for the attic floor boards. The attic is the bedroom. Warm air goes up there in winter.  And this strip wood Annie’s using to fit the cupboards and windows was cut in the community saw mill, back of the community centre.”

Annie said, “For every tree I used I planted two on the farm.”

Joe added, “We’ve now got some densely packed mini timber plantations, with seedlings planted close together to make the saplings grow straight up to the light, so we can get poles without any kinks. And we have the bamboo clumps too, vey useful stuff, not just for building but for baskets, animal pen fences, craft, and to eat.”

Mike asked, “Who’s building the house?”

“Me of course!” Said Annie, “… with a bit of help from my mates, and of course Andy. He’s a builder but he didn’t do any of the work, only advised. I paid him by helping on his sites, and learnt a lot about building doing that.”

Annie asked, “You got a house Mike?’

“Yes …I mean I got a mortgage?”

“How much do you think it cost to buy the house, without the land? Any idea?”

“Yes because we built it, I mean had it built. It’s only small really, and not very elaborate.  I think it was around $150,000.”

“Ouch”, said Pete.  “$350,000.”

“No I said $150,000.”

“Ah, but I bet you left out the interest on your loan, and tax and inflation.  If you get a $150,000 loan, you’ll pay back about $250,000, maybe more, right?  And to have $250,000 to give back to the bank you must earn about $330,000 right, because the taxman wants about a third of each dollar you earn. Then the value of your money is falling all the time because of inflation.  I don’t know how to figure that in, but interest and tax alone means to own your house you had to work to pay out your total pre-tax income from about maybe eight years full time work.”

Mike turned to Annie, “Well what’s your’s going to cost?”

“Without appliances, around $5,000.”

“You’re kidding!”


“No, but remember it’s much smaller than yours. The figure is mostly for the corrugated roofing iron. One day I want to replace that with ceramic tiles made in the local clay works.”

“But you should add the labour costs to your $5,000,” Mike said.

“I don’t think so,” Annie said slowly.  “There was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it.  It’s my house and I made it.  Do you know what that feels like? And I got exercise. Most of the time I would have chosen to be here building than anywhere else. So I think we should deduct a few thousand dollars for the exercise, leisure and life satisfaction we got. Get it?  If you want to add $3,000 to the cost for unpaid labour, then I want to take off $3,000 for the satisfaction and other benefits receive.”

Joe said,  “Mike I reckon Annie’s palace is a really good illustration of how cheaply things can be done and still be not just good enough but beautiful.  Not just dollar cheap but at low resource and ecological cost too. I figure the price you paid per square metre for your house would have been more than  twenty times what Annie will have paid.”

Pete saved Mike; “Come on, it’s time for cuppa at Henry’s.”

What should have been a three minute walk took fifteen, due to frequent stops to talk to people pottering in gardens and encountered on the cycle path. Mary was taking a basket of surplus greens to put on the take-away tables at the centre, Meg told Pete his joke telling at the last concert was pretty good, and old Jack couldn’t stop to chat because he was being tugged along by a big black billy goat, managing only to gasp, “Taking him to clear blackberries on Anderson’s.”

“Who’s taking who?” Annie called after him.

Then they ran into Tod and Melanie, teenagers who told Mike about the kids fish coop they were in. They explained how youngsters had various important tasks helping to provide some of the goods and services the neighbourhood needed. Their group was entirely organized and run by a group of ten about their age. They had access to advice and assistance from adults but said they rarely needed any.

“Kids are important contributors around here,” said Pete. “In the old world they were useless, with no social role or expectations apart from going to school…

“And purchasing!” said Joe.

“But here they’re treated as important members of society who do important things for it, they go to the meetings and working bees, and they learn to be good helpful, responsible citizens. They learn first hand how the economy here works, how important it is to keep things in good shape and to think about the public good. And they get respect and appreciation.”

“We need fish to eat and the kids know they are doing something valuable for all of us. They learn from toddlers that their welfare depends on all of us contributing and caring about how well the town’s functioning.”

They were back at the community centre where Mike could see that this had once been a street because a few small houses remained in a row, some as small businesses and some as shops. Mike peered through the glass into one but couldn’t see anyone.

“Not open until Thursday”, said Pete.  “If you want new shoes or a hat you’ll have to wait. Sally opens three half days a week. That’s enough. No sense in having someone in there every day is there?”

Joe said, ”No one in here either, but it’s open. It’s the community vegie surplus shop. If you want some beans Mike just go in and weigh them out and leave your money in the tin on the counter.  No need for anyone to waste their time being a shop assistant.”

They turned into another one which had “Henry’s Heap” painted over the door.

Mike had been told that Henry was known as The General. He was a bit less impressed when he saw in the finer print over the door, “The General Fix It Man.”

Henry was old, small, a bit hunched, wearing a heavy leather apron, carrying a big hammer, and wearing an even bigger smile.

‘’Gerdai Mike, they told me you’d come by. Sit yerself down,” he said gesturing towards a wooden crate.” 

Mike found himself in a cramped and cluttered workshop, benches piled up with bits of material and half finished jobs, all sorts of tools hanging from the low roof, wood shavings on the floor, and an anvil silhouetted before a fierce looking fire. Henry told Joe to get the kettle and scones from near the fire while he finished a blacksmithing job.

“Crawford’s got a flamin’ Llama now, breaks out of their pen all the time, so they asked me to knock up some heavy hinges.” He pulled a scary looking red hot bar from the fire and deftly banged the end into a flat shape, sparks flying, before putting it back in the flames.”

“When he’s warmed up again I’ll punch the bolt holes in that end.  Now we ready to pour Joe?”

Mike found out that Henry had earned his title.  He could make or fix just about anything, from machinery, plumping, furniture, house construction, toys, carts, and solar gear. Mike told him he could only do one useful thing, reporting…usually reporting useless information.

Henry said, ”Well we need specialists, we got some around here, like Doc Maria next door, but the norm around here is the Jack of all trades.  See most of our machinery and tools and appliances are very simple, mostly hand tools and wood stoves and 12 volt electrics, wheelbarrows, windmills, bikes, so most of us around here can make and fix most things. If you get stumped well there’s someone down the way who’s really good on bees or metal work or fruit tree diseases.  We have big recycling racks so I don’t often need to buy in wood or strip.  So if the national economy self-destructed, we’d get by.”

Pete said, “You realize that means there is far less need for expensive institutions to train professionals and tradies. Most of the work done around here producing and maintaining is done by ordinary people with no credentials. Of course we still need to train a few, especially at the high end like medicine, but back a couple of decades there was vast effort to put people through universities to learn how to operate complex systems, design supertankers, fix diesel trucks, do air traffic control etc. But this town needs almost none of that.”

“And that feeds into the unemployment issue,” said Annie.  “People don’t need to slog through years of so-called education to get the credentials they had to have to compete for a job in the old world. Around here there are mostly simple things to do so we just make sure everyone who wants to contribute can, using easily learned skills. Joe tell Mike about Daisy.”

Henry said, ”Hang on a bit Joe. Pete you be my striker for a minute, I’ll just get a couple of holes in while he’s hot again.” Pete took hold of a hammer, obviously familiar with the process, while Henry held the bar over a hole in the anvil with one hand and with the other positioned the punch. Mike hadn’t ever seen this kind of work being done and was surprised how quickly the two of them had the holes in and the bars back in the fire.

“Sorry Joe, now tell him about me ol’ mate Daisy.”

Joe said, “Yes Daisy’s a good example. She’s got a serious mental disability. She can’t read and would never get a normal job.  But she does valuable things, like feeding our chickens and locking them up at night and bringing in fire wood, and helping to sort into the recycling racks, and she’s appreciated for her contributions. She is employed and a normal helpful member of this society even though she has no credentials.  Hey Pete, Johnno could be an even better example.”

“Ah yeah, dear old Johnno, my cousin. You Mike would say he’s lazy, a bit of an undeserving rascal. Sits around a lot of the time picking at his guitar, goes to minimum working bees, is a bit unreliable, and you probably wouldn’t organize a party at his scruffy place.  But he more or less pulls his weight, and tells amusing stories at our concerts. Now if that’s the relaxed lifestyle he chooses, why shouldn’t he be able to have it? No need to make him homeless  for not staying at school to get credentials to work hard to own a ‘nice’ house thirty years later.”

Joe said, ”Mind you, he like the rest of us has a reputation. He’s known for what he’s like, as I am, and in this community that’s extremely important. I like Johnno but I know he’s not very reliable. I know Annie and I know she is, and she’s energetic and a good chairperson, and that inevitably feeds into her reputation and into respect and appreciation. If we need a new committee chaired we know she’d do a good job. So your status around here where everyone is very familiar with everyone else can’t be influenced by the fancy clothes you buy. It’s determined by how you behave, what you’re like. You can’t buy a reputation.”

Mike asked, “If you all know so much about each other, isn’t there a problem of gossip and lack of privacy. One of the good things about living in my suburb is that others don’t know about my foibles.”

Annie said, “Yes things like that can be problems that come with community, but we know we have to deal with them, before they arise if possible. I mean we realize it’s important not to pry or pass on rumours and we have mechanisms for handling interpersonal issues. For example there’s the anonymous comments site where people can lodge concerns about anything sensitive. At a recent neighbourhood meeting I said to everyone I thought the concerts are getting too long, a bit late for the kids to go home, but I didn’t want to say there that I thought Alice’s dancing was a bit too risque. I didn’t want to say that to her direct, so I put it, politely, on the site.  The site’s rules include that you must make an effort to be helpful and friendly; no nastiness allowed. We’re not all happy about the site and it’s understood as an experiment. We might scrap it and try something else, but it’s very important that a community has ways of criticizing, of airing problems, or getting people to see they’re doing things that some find difficult. You must try to avoid issues being swept under the rug, because if there’s lingering discontent it’ll cause trouble somewhere sometime.”

Pete added, “Over in Benny’s neighbourhood they’re still using the village elders system. Seems to work for them.  A few seniors are known to be great facilitators and pourers of oil on troubled waters, and kind and discrete fixers, so sometimes a chat with them ends up getting a message delivered or mysteriously freeing a log jam. That’s how some peasant villages work.”

Henry got up and took one of the bars to a big vice and quickly bent it at right angles, then put it back in the fire. Mike was surprised at how easily it bent. Blacksmithing looked interesting.

“And,” said Alice, “of course the weekly neighbourhood meetings are where the main concerns get aired. We’re pretty good now at being critical, friendly critical, able to disagree or suggest a rethink without giving offense, because we all know the climate has to be about resolving difficulties in a friendly way, because the aim is to maintain harmony. That all takes a community a lot of learning and skill. It can only develop over time, but living in a basically cooperative situation that we all depend on and where the top priority is the welfare of all is a very educative situation.”

Pete added, “The ancient Greeks understood that. Having the responsibility to contribute to finding good solutions was seen as crucial in the education of the wise and good citizen.” Then, seeing the need to terminate the sermon, he practiced his preaching.  He pointed to something and asked Mike, “What’s that?”

Mike peered into the cluttered gloom only to find a menacing looking beast staring at him.

Henry explained, “Rocking horse head I’m carving, surprise for Helen’s birthday,” Can’t get around to finishing it. Got Lenny’s bike to weld up first, and half a dozen other jobs on the bench.”

“You not gonna die of boredom Henry”, Joe said.

“Nope, and that’s the best part of it around here; always lots of different things to do, lots of people drop in for a cuppa. Wouldn’t swap with Donald Trump.”

“Don’t do that General; we don’t want him around here. All he can make is billions; no useful skills at all.”

After they left Henry’s Mike said surely Henry couldn’t make a sufficient living doing odd jobs like carving rocking horse heads. Pete replied that he does, because he needs so little money to live on.

“He isn’t interested in expensive things, doesn’t need a car, never travels, only needs old clothes, goes to the water colour group as his main hobby, after gardening that is, goes to most of the events organized by the leisure committee, and he’s on various committees.”

Suddenly it struck Mike to ask, ’What’s the unemployment rate like in this town?”

“Isn’t any,” Annie immediately snapped back. “You only find unemployment in barbaric societies. The town has a committee that connects anyone seeking employment with things that need doing. If there isn’t a firm needing your skills then you can join the town’s work brigade and help with maintaining and building public works. Even if you want to work for only a few hours you can sign on and be useful while earning.”

“But who pays you?”

“The town, through its taxes, like land rates, and earnings from rents and services, and town owned firms, just like the old councils funded their activities.  But we can pay our taxes without dollars, for instance by putting in extra hours on working bees or rosters or selling extra garden produce at the food co-op.”

Pete said, ”See the town makes sure everyone has a livelihood. No one has to fear being unemployed, let alone poor. For instance if a small firm has to close we adjust things, such as if we realized the town has too many bakers and some are struggling. We work out how best to redeploy those resources while looking after everyone’s wishes. We see if some might like to go into some other kind of business.”

“Back in my world the market saves you the bother; the weakest baker goes bankrupt.”

Annie jumped in, “Yes, like I said, that’s how barbaric societies work.  In this town we prevent the market from doing things like that. There are many more important things to take into account than dollar costs and benefits, especially the welfare of the baker and his family.”

Pete again; “Here Mike we’re in control of our economy, through our committees and the town meetings which make the decisions, so we’re able to make sure that things like the welfare of the baker, and the environment, are given priority, even if there’s a big dollar cost to us. And again nothing’s more important than maintaining the morale and solidarity of the town, the spirit of cooperation and caring, and the knowledge that we work together for the good of the town and we look after each other.  That’s what makes the town work well. If we allow that culture to be damaged then people won’t turn up well to working bees and concerts will they? And all that gives us our security and our wealth.  I don't have much in the bank but I know I’m secure from unemployment, and even if my house burns down I know everyone will pitch in to help.”

Annie added, “I’ve probably got less in the bank than Pete but I’m extremely rich. I have great wealth, in the form of this beautiful landscape, terrific concerts, solid friends and community, people who will teach me pottery and painting for nothing, my little house, lots of things to do, time to do them.  My wealth is mostly in the form of the public property and activities all around me, and that wealth is not exclusively mine, it’s also everybody else’s wealth.”

They took Mike on a long rambling tour of the neighbourhood showing him lots of things that didn’t exist where he lived, including the fish farm, the many herb patches growing beside the path, the spare parts area in the workshop, the willows and rushes the basket weavers harvested, the complicated system of bunds and swales that took all surplus rainfall run off down to ponds, underground tanks and soak in areas within orchards. Pete identified many different useful trees in one small forest garden, and rattled of many products and services. “This is my favourite perfume, deodorant, room freshener,” said Annie, “… tips from the Lemon Scented gum. Here smell.”

Pete again, ”And this thicket is on the windy side of our neighbourhood, so helps to give us shelter, and firewood and honey and mulch, as well as shade for the understory and the perennial vegies on the forest floor.”

The explanations continued at lunch, presented by Mario, who apologized that the salad contained an imported ingredient, the salt. He said his little farm just outside town was less than one hectare but was producing enough food for  over 25 people, without any artificial fertilizer. His donkey did the small amount of heavy work needed, mostly bringing food scraps back to the farm. He did share a rotary hoe with other farmers but it ran on ethanol, from the local biofuel co-op.

After the long lunch the rambling continued, this time focusing more on energy. Pete said all new buildings were now made from earth, in various ways, especially because the insulation properties minimised the need for heating and cooling. There was a waterwheel on the main watercourse, geared to shred for the paper makers, and to drive a tumbler for the lapidary club. The main quarry was near the creek, where nature had accumulated rich yellow clay. “It’s nearly all been dug now… several  houses have come out of there,“ said Pete. “Someday soon we’ll make it into our main swimming pond. Hey look at that, the kids built a mud brick castle.”

While they were taking a sit down break under a huge clump of bamboo, Mike asked, “When you say you run the town, does that mean somehow you make all the decisions about what’s going to be produced and how it’s to be sold? That sounds like extremely bureaucratic and big brother.”

Pete replied, “Sorry, sorry, we’ve mislead you a bit. We should have explained earlier, the economy has two sectors. The history is that about a decade ago people in lots of towns realized that important needs were being neglected, so they just got together and formed voluntary citizen groups to attend to them as best they could. Things were set up like co-ops to enable homeless people to grow some of their own food and build little cabins.  We referred to this sector as Economy B, developed under the old market based and capital-intensive and free enterprise economy. The new sector is now large here, but there is still an old Economy A. It deals it those tasks it makes sense to leave to it, sometimes meeting needs but also providing various usually little luxuries …”

“Like Fran’s plates, and Miranda’s hand made swanky dresses.”

“Yeah, if you want to start a business in Economy A and function according to market forces that’s OK, but it is now not a big sector because most of us don’t want much from it.”

“OK but tell me how the town meetings work, how do they run Economy B?”

“Well it’s the standing committees that run the various bits of Economy B, mostly our co-ops, but I should point out that we also help bits of Economy A if they do good things for the community. We might buy from a firm or provide working bee assistance if we see that would improve supply of something needed.”

“Like we extended the bee keeping shed for Samantha and Tim recently,” Annie said. “Their income is from selling honey, and other things from their small mixed farm.”

“But the actual decision making, how does that take place?”

“Tell Mike about the Smith street parking lot, that’s a good example.”

“Yes, we recently realized it wasn’t really needed any more so we set up a group to receive ideas and think out best options, and we all mulled them over for a while and debated and revised plans, but we seemed divided between a kindergarten or another orchard.  Now we try to avoid votes on big issues, except straw votes to see how most people are thinking. If we were to go with the 51% position then 49% would be discontented.  The aim has to be working out a policy we all agree is the best for the place.  So we kept talking…”

“For months actually …”

“Yeah but that’s OK; better to get it right.  Eventually good ol’ Harry came up with a plan to more or less combine the two, to build the kinder into a garden setting containing lots of fruit trees.”

Annie; “We practice real democracy Mike, thoroughly participatory, everyone rules and no one rules over us. The town must feel that it’s in control of its own fate, with the power to figure out and do what it comes to see as best for the town. Government here is not about self interested parties trying to get the rulers to let them do what’s in their self interest, it’s about doing what’s of most benefit to all. Sometimes we do have to decide a zero sum tussle between two self interests, but that’s not the main kind of issue we deal with. Most are down at the level of deciding priorities to put our resources and working bees into.”

Pete suddenly said, “ Wow, look at the time. We’ll have to move fast to get you to your bus Mike.“

They walked quickly and in silence for a while, then Mike said, “I’m still wondering about the small scale. Your basic unit seems to be the neighbourhood, did you say 150 people?”

“Yes.  How many people can you know well Mike? For a million years or more we lived in small tribal communities, on familiar terms with everyone. We humans seem to be wired to function best on that scale. It's a good idea to minimize impersonal, anonymous relations if possible. It’s not just about cohesion, it’s also about logistics. Much that needs doing in this neighbourhood is done automatically, spontaneously, without filling out forms to get some official to put it on his agenda. If I see those apple trees blown over I fix them there and then.”

A minute later, “What about schools. I don’t think I saw any.”

“Yes you did,” said Annie. “Really big one…three  hundred metres across actually.”

“Better get yourself out of that one quickly”, said Pete, “There’s the bus up ahead.”

Annie hastily explained, “Most of what the kids learn here is learned just by living here. They help with things, they go on working bees, even a five year old can tell you about water wheel physics or how to wire 12 volt, they have about one hundred teachers explaining things all the time. Then there are the formal classes and visits the ed committee organises, like when Henry shows groups how to do metal work. Ed committee has detailed records on every one of them, fed in from everyone and anyone, so we know who hasn’t been to Bob’s ethics discussions yet, and who needs a brush up on arithmetic or spelling. Mary’s a qualified teacher, but the rest of us aren’t.”

Pete added, “But they can go on to get qualifications when they’re older if they need to, or go to uni to become a professional.”

They reached the bus with a little time to spare. Amid the thank yous and good byes Pete said, “Any other questions Mike?”

Mike thought for a moment and then said, “Got any vacancies?”