Sustainability, Mutual Aid, and Liberation Redux

In the Winter 2009 issue of Black Oak Presents I wrote

With natural disasters turning cities into ruins, now is a good time to think about the rebuilding process. Initially I agreed with [former] Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert that rebuilding the disaster prone area didn’t make much sense, but I have changed my mind. Done correctly, New Orleans, Louisiana; Greensburg, Kansas; and other devastated cities can become models of sustainable development and Mutual Aid. This article will focus, loosely, on New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina.

The earthquakes that hit Haiti along with the worldwide economic downturn present a good time to revisit the ideas in that article. I don’t want to focus on Haiti’s specific political and economic problems, rather I would like to look at voluntary, community based responses to the issues that have effected Haiti, southeast Asia, Greensburg, KS, New Orleans, etc.

Mike Reynolds is an architect with a vision. Reynolds and his New Mexico based team have developed the practice of biotecture which is the combination of biology and architecture. The documentary Garbage Warrior highlights Reynolds move from traditional architecture to the creation of biotecture and the unique “Earthships.” Each of these structures utilized reclaimed materials and are completely off the grid. These homes do not require heating or cooling systems. Follow this link for more information on Earthship Biotecture. Reynolds was invited to help design homes in India after the 2004 Tsunamis devastated Southeast Asia. This was AFTER he lost his architecture license for breaking architectural codes and planning laws. US architects were demonizing his work while Indian architects were praising it. (For more on regulatory and licensing see Charles Johnson’s Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty as We Know It.)

The model house created by the biotects utilized old plastic bottles, tires, and mud to build a safe, sturdy structure that would remain cool even in the summer. The roof collected rainwater making wells unnecessary. Once the house was built, the biotects worked with Indian Architects to draw easy to follow building plans. We would all benefit from similar forms of cooperation. We would all stand to benefit if people were allowed to experiment with various forms of appropriate technologies within our communities. Unfortunately business as usual architecture and planning will probably take over.

Of course rebuilding can also cover other aspects of life. It strikes me that this would be as good a time as ever to begin setting up mutual aid networks. When I was in Haiti I witnessed a strong sense of solidarity and mutual aid. . .outside of Port Au Prince. Of course I am not glorifying Haitian life, but community members did seem to look out for one another. Perhaps this can be expanded into mutual aid networks dealing with everything from health and nutrition to transportation. I’m not sure how this would be done, but as Harry Browne often said, it doesn’t matter because somebody does.

These two steps will help move individuals, and therefore society, towards a more liberated state. I think it’s possible to start implementing these changes in the here and now no matter where “here” is. People living in cities will have a hard time following Mike Reynolds lead, but that doesn’t mean we can’t implement various aspects of permaculture into our urban homesteads. Mutual aid networks can also be created to meet the needs of various communities. The Voluntary City provides some historical examples and the International Anti-Capitalist Disaster Response Brigades are an example of current endeavors. Now, what are you going to do?


  1. They don’t have to. For example, I volunteer with the local Red Cross Disaster Action Team. Our DAT has a mutual aid relationship with other DATs. I would agree, however, that geographical proximity would be necessary on the initial level.

    My goal was to use the mentioned disasters as a way to start thinking about mutual aid organizations. I probably should have been more clear!

  2. Is the Red Cross still mutual aid? Based on my admittedly limited knowledge, it seems like any other multinational, hierarchical charity that takes donations and passes them out. Is that mutual aid? Doesn’t seem like it.

    Great post tho! Keep it up. šŸ™‚

  3. The Red Cross itself is not mutual aid, but there are aspects of MA within the RC. Fire departments, many of which are volunteer, often have mutual aid relationships with other fire departments.

    Perhaps it would be beneficial to see how these ma relationships work and then implement them into smaller, community based groups.

    Thanks for the comments George!

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