Why Live Collectively

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We choose to live together because human lives were not meant to be spent alone.

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Let us tell you a story about life (in 4 minutes).

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800 million years ago, life was isolated in the seas. There were no oak trees, no honey bees, no aardvarks. The only life that existed were tiny, unicellular creatures, swimming around in their primordial soup. Each of these cells was an island – an individual self in a chaotic world. These cells floated alone in the sea. They ate, or were eaten, then ate, or were eaten, for hundreds of millions of years.

But then something amazing happened. Some of these cells started to group together. They found that life was easier around others like themselves. They began to share – one cell made body parts to be used by another. Soon, in addition to individual cellular selves clustered together, a new kind of self emerged – a multicellular self with a collective body.

Now let’s fast forward to around 2 million years ago, to when these multicellular selves had evolved into primates, our ancestors, who had just climbed down from the trees and were exploring the savannah. The grasslands were wide and full of wild beasts, and these early humans had no claws or fangs to hunt them. But they had one thing which no other animal did: language.

Words allow thoughts in the mind of one human to become experiences in the minds of others.  For our ancestors, words were the difference between a lone ape scavenging food with fingers, and a tribe of humans who relied not on claws, but cunning. Language was about much more than, “You go right, and I’ll go left.” Our ancestors used symbols to cultivate collective identity. Tribes have names, and from this point forward, being a human meant identifying with a group.

Now let’s fast forward again, this time to around 15,000 years ago. Before this time, all of our food relationships were antagonistic. We ate, or were eaten. We killed, or were killed. But then, in a place now called Iraq, something shifted. Instead of wandering through the landscape, searching for the next creature they could kill and eat, our ancestors realized that they could spend their lives taking care of the creatures that they would one day consume. We began planting seeds in the earth, and never strayed far from our flocks. Our lifeways changed. We stayed in one place, and our communities grew larger. And not just larger with people. A host of animals and plants gathered together to create this arc we call civilization. From this point forward, being a human meant cultivating non-human life.

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The arc of history moves onward. First came cities, then religions, and nations. Soon enough there were trucks and roads, concrete houses, and border police. Our social groups grew larger and more complex, and also more difficult to identify with than with those early tribes. Saying “I am an American” means something more abstract than, “I am Zulu” or “Spartan”, or “Algonquian”. So, we erected a host of intricate barriers like property law and religious creeds to keep our social structures in place. These barriers unified larger groups of people than ever before, but they left many on either side of the boundaries feeling isolated and alone.

In the age of the megalopolis, few people know the names of their neighbors.

Collective living is a response to all this. By choosing to share our space, our food, and our lives, we recognize that from our earliest unicellular origins life was better in a group. By choosing to grow our food from the dirt at our feet, we recognize that a human life is not well lived unless it is spent cultivating the lives of others. We regard the boundaries our society builds between physical dwellings and symbolic ethnicities with equal disdain. We chose to share our lives in spite of them.

We choose to live together because human lives were not meant to be spent alone.