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[I just came across this in my WordPress drafts.  It was written sometime late last year.  I’ve decided to publish it in its unfinished state because I’m not sure I’ll get around to finishing it…and, I believe, it is an idea worth exploring.]

First a little background; I live in an unintentional community with a dozen house mates. Like many community households in Berkeley, ours is a diverse bunch.  The Woolsey House is also made up of older than average folks ranging in age from 40 to 72.

This holiday season got me thinking about household interactions and how we each benefit to some degree from the other household members.  From this I started thinking about the plant/animal kingdoms and the symbiotic relations that they encompass.  This in turn led me to think about Proudhon and Kropotkin’s views on mutualism (mutualism is one possible aspect of symbiosis) and how it relates to our household.

Symbiosis comes from the Greek for “With” and “Living” and at its most basic means “living with.”  With this simple definition in mind, I think it can aptly be applied to a household community.  Symbiosis is about relationships and their negative/positive values on each entity in the relationship.

Symbiotic relationships can be divided into three subtypes: Mutualistic, Commensal, and Parasitic.  Following is a brief explanation of each in a declining order of value.

The term “mutualism” describes any relationship between individuals where both individuals derive a benefit.   Mutualism was first coined by Proudhon from the root mutual from L. mutuus “reciprocal, done in exchange.”

Commensalism describes a relationship between two living organisms where one benefits and the other is not significantly harmed or helped. It is derived from the English word commensal, meaning “sharing food” and used of human social interaction. The word derives from the medieval Latin word, formed from com- and mensa, meaning “sharing a table”.

A parasitic relationship is one in which one member of the association benefits while the other is harmed.   Parasite, from L. parasitus, from Gk. parasitos “person who eats at the table of another,” from n. use of adj. meaning “feeding beside,” from para- “beside” + sitos “food.”

The roots of each type of symbiosis is mentioned because having to do with food and sharing relates well to the present discussion.  I also find it interesting that Proudhon first used mutualism in reference to human relationships before it was adopted by biologists to reference symbiosis among species.  We can also reference these three types of symbiosis as they relate to three ideals of societal structure; with mutualism being analogous with anarchism, commensalism relating to socialism, and parasitism having a correlation with capitalism.

With that said, I can see that I have one of these three symbiotic types with each of my housemates, and each of us has one of these relationships with the house as a whole.  Each individual’s relationship with the household is what I intend to focus on below.

As mentioned our household is unintentional, meaning first that we did not filter housemates by ideology and second that we do not have household meetings.  An intentional community is by definition pre-planned, ours is not.  Not being pre-planned, our household contains a broad range of ideologies, these range from well thought out idealism to backward and not thought through.

The house, the people living there, and the interplay between them make up an ecosystem.  Remove any one individual and the ecosystem changes.  This change then reflects back on the other house members, causing further changes.  Add a new house member and the ecosystem and its inhabitants are likewise changed.  The health of the ecosystem depends upon each member’s symbiotic relationship both to other members and to the whole.  This dynamic interplay, and its ability to absorb shock, is the health of the ecosystem.  Positive relations and interplay promote health, negative (parasitic) relations promote disease.

Through mutuality the ecosystem is nourished.  If the majority of each member’s relationships are mutually beneficial, then a surplus is created to feed the ecosystem.  When the ecosystem prospers it creates a positive feedback loop that nourishes its member organisms.  Simply put, a healthy mutualistic ecosystem will tend to become stronger, healthier, and more capable of absorbing adverse shock without disruption.  Every group of people will be made up of all three types of symbiotic relationships, it is the ratio of each that will determine the health of the whole.