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Verso Book Club: Lifehouse

Lifehouse: Taking Care of Ourselves in a World on Fire by Adam Greenfield is one of our Verso Book Club July reads.

7 June 2024

Verso Book Club: Lifehouse

I have a particular suspicion of the kind of book that spends 10 chapters telling the reader the many problems that face the contemporary world, and then follows with a final chapter that offers something - socialism, say - as the simple solution to all our woes. I call this the ‘11 Chapter problem’, and warn every author to avoid this trap. It is often easy to diagnose the problem; it is far harder to think clearly about what we are meant to do about it. More often than not the reader is already well aware of the problems: the reason they pick up a book is to find solutions. And this is why I am so excited about Adam Greenfield’s LifehouseTaking Care of Ourselves in a World on Fire. Here is a book as a toolbox to build actual, hard-tacks answers to the crisis of the Long Emergency.

I first met Adam when he was still in New York. Adam Greenfield is a great author who has one of the strangest CVs on the verso list. He has been a DJ, and bike courier. Was involved in the early digital economy in Tokyo. He was head of design directions for Nokia in Helsinki. Then he came back to New York and started to develop new projects in urban systems design. I first read his book Against the Smart City, which still remains the essential work on urban tech. He was invited to the LSE in London by Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassens, and he has lived here ever since. Together we worked on his next book, Radical Technologies, which we published in 2017 and again was ahead of its time, and actually is more relevant today than ever.

This book starts with his own experiences in Occupy Sandy, when the mutual relief efforts of ordinary citizens far outstripped what the state services, FEMA etc, were willing or able to provide. This is a book about how we - as local communities - can survive the long emergency - what can we learn and how can we prepare for disaster. There are so many books that look at the nature of the disaster and make gestures towards what actually we can do - but this book stands out with clear and very realizable goals. 

He begins by telling stories of Occupy Sandy, the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, the welfare programs of the Black Panthers during the 1960s, the Kurdish separatists at Rojava, and the solidarity with refugees in Greece following the Eurocrisis. To show us how we have faced challenges before and the power of local organising. He is building on what Rebecca Solnit told us in A Paradise Built in Hell as well as Mutual Aid by Dean Spade. But he goes one step further - with the creation of the Lifehouse: Taking Care of Ourselves in a World on Fire. This is what makes this book so different - its a nuts and bolts survival manual for the future, that has the potential to change every community.

It starts as a building - a church, a library, a school gym - that is the Lifehouse. This is a place for everyone to go to in an emergency - a flood, fire, or hurricane. It will have a kitchen, beds, clothing storage. But it will also be its own power source - with generators or renewable energy from a wind turbine, or solar panels on the roof. It will also be able to produce its own food with vertical farming technology installed. It will be a tool library that allows for repair and restoration, even outside the emergency - with 3-D printing technology. It will also have a skills library so that the community knows who is a doctor, nurse, teacher or transport. 

This is the start of the Lifehouse, but the place creates the people that will live there - and gives a new life to community: creating a collective, shared space, beyond the state. This is not a place controlled by local government but by the locals. They will police themselves. And in time, Life houses will connect and develop a network that can span a city, or a region. So that when the government has disap

peared - as it did in Red Hook or New Orleans, life can go on. And Life itself is preserved.

When we were first thinking about this book, we both held on to the title Beyond Hope. It seemed both to gesture to our times when we are passed the point of return, but also that we should not just rely on hope itself as a source of succor. At some point the community has to come together, plan and look after itself. What is so powerful is the spirit of collaboration and unity that comes in the face of trouble. 

But sustaining that effort for the long term - the long emergency itself - is hard. Often communities fail to plan far enough ahead. They split and betray each other. They face insurmountable opposition who wish to take away their autonomy. The Lifehouse is designed with this in mind too. It is not an afterthought, but a deeply considered means in which to think about the future.

The tools that we use determine the strength of the sanctuary we can create. I believe that Lifehouse is an essential contribution to activists and thinkers alike.

I hope that you enjoy the book.

Leo Hollis, Editorial Director

London, September 2023

Lifehouse: Taking Care of Ourselves in a World on Fire by Adam Greenfield is one of our Verso Book Club July reads.

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A Lifehouse is an institution at the heart of each neighborhood that responds to the terrifying reality of climate collapse in our own communities.In this book Adam Greenfield, author of Radical Te...

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