What Happened To Community?

Nathan Wiebe
Do you ever feel like you lack community or a sense of belonging? You have your base community of friends, family (if you’re lucky enough to live close to them) and co-workers. Perhaps you’re even a part of a club or weekend sports team, but how many people do you really know? Do you have an intimate relationship with the people who grow your food? How much do you know about the people who cook your food when you eat out? What about the people who make your clothes, produce your medicine or fix your car?

When I drive through the Kootenays and I see all of the old Doukhobor barns and dilapidated homestead buildings I often wonder how they survived. They didn’t have supermarkets, cars, cellphones or a lot of money. How did they get things done? They had community.

If you lived in the Kootenays nearly 100 years ago and you wanted to build a barn you couldn’t go the lumber yard and purchase lumber. You couldn’t hire a contractor to build your barn. You couldn’t go to the hardware store and grab a saw off the shelf. If you wanted to build a barn you had to ask your community for a favour.

Building a barn was a community event. Community members would come over, they would chop down some trees, cut them to size, erect the barn and nail it all together. After, your family would cook a big feast for everyone as a thank you. Perhaps a few community members would bring their musical instruments, play a few tunes and sing songs from the old country. And after all was said and done you were now obligated to help your community when they needed it. You were dependent on your community and your community was dependent on you. You needed one another. This was how real community was built. Money wasn’t the primary medium of exchange - reciprocity and gifts were.

Back in those days community was built into the fabric of society. Most of the things you needed were produced locally. Just by gathering your basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and entertainment you were forced to build relationships with the people who produced those things. You didn’t really have much of a choice.

Today things are very different. Money has now become the primary medium of exchange. And because you can now buy everything you need, you no longer need community. You no longer need to know your neighbor because you can simply buy whatever you need from a company comprised of strangers whom you’ll never meet. The ease of money has made things more convenient in a lot of ways but there is a hidden fee that comes with the use of money. The cost of using money for everything is community. My questions is, are you happy with that trade off? Are you happy living in a world where strangers produce the goods and services that you need? Where you have more relationships with faceless brands that you do with people?

Sure, it’s more convenient to buy all of your groceries from a supermarket with a self-serve checkout. You can walk in, do your shopping, pay and leave without making eye contact or speaking to a single person. But by doing so, you forfeit your relationships with your community. If you want to feel less alone in the world, a world filled with friends instead of strangers, you have to start buying local whenever you can. You need to choose community over convenience. You have to start depending on your community again.

Building community is now a choice. It takes more work. And yes, it can be inconvenient. But the rewards are well worth it. An easy place to start building community is with the food you buy. Every time you buy food from a local farmer, a butcher, a baker, or an artisan food maker, you build a relationship. You get to know them, they get to know you and over time you become friends. Maybe you even start exchanging favours, free of charge.

By supporting local businesses you begin to foster a stronger sense of belonging. All of a sudden there are less strangers in the world and you start to feel a deeper connection to your community. And that feeling is something that can never be bought - it can only be built.