Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Two World Views

To follow up on my previous post about Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's essay in the Sydney Morning Herald, I think it's necessary to tease out the differences in the two World Views which he and I represent. Kevin Rudd sees the economy clearly enough, and has the advantage of the best advice and information available when he comes to form his views. But his views are also formed by his life experience, and the last fifty years have been one of unprecedented and almost non-stop expansion of every human activity.

It is only human to assume that the conditions one has always lived in will continue on into the future without revolutionary change. Even more so, if your life experience has been one of being enmeshed in a system with a clear hierarchy which you have climbed your way through for many years and the gradations of which you take very seriously. I mean otherwise you'd hardly take your job seriously would you? Such is the case of someone like KR, who has never as far as I can tell had any sort of experience which might make him question the legitimacy of the ladder he has climbed. He also suffers from the burden of success, which tends to make one aware of the sunk costs of getting where you are and all you would lose should your attention waver.

I am a much less focused, much more muddly sort of person than the Prime Minister, which is part of the reason I am completely insignificant in the the great hierarchy of power (I also don't get my jollies bossing people around). One benefit of being a muddler is however that you allow yourself the leisure to entertain doubts. This may weaken your focus on the goals which others might exhort you to achieve, but has the advantage of letting you test (to the extent which you are able!) whether these goals are valid or not. My diffuse attention has also wandered into areas which never seemed to promise any direct career or financial benefit to me — I loved history, psychology, art, music and religious philosophy. Couple all this with a necessity for me to justify my contrariness to myself as honestly as I could even if I couldn't to those who were distressed by my lack of worldly success, and you end up having a fairly clear eyed view of most human activities and foibles including your own.

Let's put aside our personal capabilities — I'm sure that Kevin Rudd is my superior in many ways — and look at how we see the World. I'm aware that KR is religious and that may well give him a different way to regard the World, in opposition sometimes to the very materialist slant which has been the dominant social vision of our modern industrial world, but I haven't seen any evidence of it modifying his economic views. He seems as hell-bent on infinite expansion as any blind cornucopian blow-hard. I see however we have reached the end of the race and are hitting hard physical limits at many different levels, and I can also see how that would be a very difficult fact for someone in his position to acknowledge. It will undermine fundamental assumptions underlying much of what he does at a personal and political level.

Of course he is aware of environmental issues, the population pressures and the other multitude of real threats to Business As Usual, but he does not connect these problems directly to the underlying causes of them. He still thinks God or science will pull a rabbit or a series of rabbits out of the cosmic hat and save us all from the collapse we're heading for in this mad race to produce and consume More.

This is why we have people in his position talking about nonsensical matters such as "sustainable growth". This is a cover, a poor intellectual bandaid over the cornucopian fantasy that growth can go on forever. People who talk this kind of talk really do think that at some level the Earth is infinitely large and nothing will ever run out. We'll colonise space, fusion power will produce electricity too cheap to meter and we'll grow all our food in little vats watched by brilliant, all-knowing white-coated technicians! None of this is based on real knowledge, but on the kind of superficial gossip and fantasy which we've become very good at blinding ourselves with in this era of CGI films and computer games. But the people on the job, the real engineers, geologists, agriculturalists and climate scientists know it aint so.

It takes a certain strength of character to step away from what you're doing and see it clearly for what it is. If you can bring up children with that kind of fundamental honesty you have done a very good job. Unfortunately mass education, especially at the higher levels, tends to create narrow intellectual strengths at the expense of moral weakness, so don't rely on that for moral guidance.

Perhaps the best one can say is that great desire for success in the World, unchecked by doubt, can lead to great weaknesses, even in the very clever. Moderation in all things is a more useful course!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Great population post by an ex-government minister

Everyone should read this great speech by Andrew McNamara, ex-minister for the environment in Queensland which Rob Windt has posted at the Naked Mechanic.

The Prime Minister's essay on the economy

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has published a long essay in the Sydney Morning Herald which lays out his vision of what's happening financially to Australia and what we can expect over the next few years. Steve Keen has published a commentrary on the essay on his Steve Keen’s Debtwatch blog which I'd recommend reading because he zeroes in on the fact that KR does understand what has happened to the World economy and to Australia's as well. That is he sees the crucial role which debt has played and the way deleveraging of that debt will hold back industrial economies for many years to come.

While I generally agree with a lot of what Steve Keen says, there are lots of red flags in this Kevin Rudd essay from my point of view. Take the following quote:
The second new challenge is to build the foundations of sustainable growth. It begins with recognising the source of our future growth cannot be the same as for past growth.
Sustainable growth? WTF is that? We are already running up against environmental limits all over the place in this country. As just one item in a million, I happened to watch a documentary last night in the ABC about the shrinking habitat of cassowarys in north Queensland - it appears there are only 1500 or so birds left. Their habitat has shrunk because we're building out their tropical rainforest home. Another quote

But this does not mean we should accept that growth has to be lower, or that we should reduce our aspirations. Just because the global economy will be tough, we must not accept lower growth as inevitable. The budget forecasts growth over the next economic cycle at roughly the same average level as growth over the last cycle. This will be achieved only through a responsible agenda of future economic reform.

Australia will need to work smarter and harder to achieve better national growth in a weaker global environment. We need to implement a global competitiveness agenda for Australia that reinvigorates the drivers of productivity growth. Our mission must be a more globally competitive Australia capable of securing a greater slice of what may well be a more sluggish global economy.

In other words, we are going to fight an economic war with the rest of the world, where those weaker than us will go under in order that we get our "share". As if our share is so small already! And who will these weaker competitors be?

This is the classic zero-sum game. It also assumes a world economic environment which is "fair"; that is, where the other players obey rules which will allow us to win. We are not in a position to dictate these rules to the players who are the real powers in the game: the USA, China, the EU and India. When the crunch comes, and it has come already as we have recently seen in the arrest and imprisonment without charge of the mining executive Stern Hu, players like China will play very hard-ball. And let's be clear about Australia's real strength in all these games. With a tiny population and a tiny defence force we are nothing.

The statement above by the Prime Minister seems to implicity recognise that the game is zero-sum. I believe we are in a transition towards a time when the gloves will come off, and at the level of international politics we will drop the polite fiction that there is one World we're all working towards. Within a few years the power plays will be naked with no polite pretenses. Let's be clear what's at stake: we have resources which other people want in order that they may win at the game. Are we going to be in a position of strength with regard to China, especially when we're bloated with debt and heading into a future where we are going to be even more dependent on oil imports to keep our economy operating? My feeling is that we are looking to a time where the kinds of humiliations which the powerful nations in the industrialised West have been able to inflict on those we have seen as "lesser" are going to be inflicted on us. Unless the Chinese come apart first.

The essay is an interesting document in that it does lay down the ground rules which whatever government which runs this country will follow for the next few years. We, meaning you and I, are exhorted to work harder. This is because the government is going to be strapped for revenue as we slide off the peak of world production of oil and other primary powerers of our economy, and unless we all become virtual slaves of the system, the system will crash. That the system is crashing anyway cannot be admitted because we have everything invested in it - there is no alternative. This is what always happens when a population of any sort of creature runs up against the limits of its environment.

There will be a mighty crash, despite everyone's best efforts. It's not that far away. If you want to come out the other side of it, start preparing now!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Carbonic Civilisation & its Discontents

Various legislative bodies around the World are busy pushing out laws which are meant to address the issue of greenhouse gases. How effective these laws are will be inversely proportional to the wealth of the country each legislature controls. This is because people are very bad at sawing off branches they happen to be sitting on.

Us ordinary folk may labour under the delusion that technology can solve any material problem. We see glossy pics of electric cars and solar panels, and imagine the only thing stopping the adoption of low-carbon technologies are some fossilised politicians and industrialists. But this is not so. The real brake on cutting carbon dioxide outputs are tens of millions of families with 2.4 kids, two cars, a hefty mortgage and orthodontists bills. The real costs will be very high for such folk, which are a lot of the people we know.

Why? Because you may recycle your plastic, not waste water, buy organic and do all the things we are told to do, but there is a whole lot of stuff "out the back" in the industrial suburbs of every city which has to operate on copious fossil fuels in order that we can live our lives, and this stuff — the factories, warehouses, freeways, waste treatment plants, hospitals, offices, roads, mines and railways — are expensive to rebuild and will take a long time to change. "Expensive to rebuild" means we must find the time to rebuild them. Either that or we must work to pay someone else to do it. And that assumes it is possible to rebuild them in a more benign form, which in many cases it is not.

We've just had a big materialist binge over the past few years, where the cost of the stuff we use has been kept artificially low because the Chinese have paid their workers a low wage to build it. That situation cannot last. We will soon go back to paying the real cost of living. This will mean less money to change our built environment to a less carbon intensive arrangement. Add to that the decline in oil availability and we have a real problem.

And then there is the unspeakable, uncomfortable truth that lies under all this — there are way too many people on the Planet. How are we voluntarily going to reduce our population to something more in line with what the Earth can support?

The truth is that we are animals like any other on Earth. We expand to fit our environment and then some. We want more, usually not much more, just that little bit, even the richest amongst us. Do you know anyone who wants less? No, I didn't think so!

We've expanded very successfully until now. Of course we always have Problems. And we always have earnest people, experts, discussing and proposing Solutions to these Problems. These Solutions, strangely enough, always need More of something. More spending on health care, education, law and order, supervision of industry. Surely a solution to the crises looming over us at the moment is a lot less of everything? People, cars, cows, strip mining, commercial fishing, driving, flying — well, make your own list!

But of course having a lot less means things get very tough for the great mass of people with the 2.4 kids, cars etc. They need to work to pay for their lives, they vote, or even if they don't, they can make trouble for the People In Charge. And of course we all want the world to be better, we just don't want it to be at our expense. Let the less worthy pay! So we will see the hunt for people to blame — scapegoats — intensify. But of course all that is in vain if the problem is all of us.

So what is my Solution? Well, it's in several parts.

Firstly it's your problem so you've got to solve it! OK, you didn't choose to be born, but can you tell me the name of anyone who did? So get over it — you're in charge of your life.

Secondly a lot of us, maybe most of us, don't feel we're really up to scratch in a lot of ways. We'd love to be told by some competent person what to do. We believe in experts. Well guess what? Experts are often wrong! And the more they say they know and the less you do, the wronger they tend to be. Sure, listen to what people say. But an honest heart and an open mind is of more value than believing any appearance of certainty. This may mean you run against the tide of opinion a lot of the time. Learn to deal with it. You don't need to broadcast your contrariness. But practice the courage of your convictions in small ways, because one day you may need to find it for something big.

You will come across people who believe that the world was made for the use of themselves in any way they see fit, and others who will tell you the human race is a blight on creation. Avoid these types — they are both expressions of arrogance, in that they make value judgements which no-one can truly make. And both attitudes lead to trouble.

The world will re-adjust to make everything right again. Nature has a way of dealing with these problems. Those who best protect themselves from what is coming will part of the future of life on Earth. Let that be a guide for your actions.

I don't think we can do anything at a world-wide or even nation-wide level about the greenhouse problem because of the pressure of population and the prior investments we have in our industrial civilisation. So we will have to deal with the consequences of dramatic climate change over the next few decades. That's the way it is folks. Just think about how you and those closest to you can survive the coming changes. Forget about survivalism and Mad Max scenarios. Most people will survive or die where they are, dependent on the conditions in their local area. So for a start, understand where you live, how it works, how people survive in it now and how they and you might survive in the future. If it doesn't look good, move to somewhere better while you can!

Understand how nature works. Darwinian selection works through the survival and reproduction of the fittest. That doesn't mean the ones who can win races, it means the ones that fit the best into their environment, who can gain sustenance, shelter and safety without wrecking where they live.

We are used to seeing ourselves in a very upwards and outwards way. I'd say the dominant story of our civilisation for the past sixty or so years has been "Everything will be fine once we get the settings just right and all those other people learn to behave themselves". But unfortunately that just isn't so, and we are going to be flung into a world soon where we wont necessarily have any idea of what's coming next. We'll be reacting to crises right on our doorstep, not trying to make the Afghans or the Somalis jump when we say jump. For a lot of us this is going to be a bitter pill to swallow. So preempt the change and embrace your inner powerlessness now! Just concentrate on what's close by and attend to its needs: self, family, community and the enclosing natural environment. Forget saving the world-as-a-whole. That's always been a totalitarian dream powered by cheap fossil fuel.

The hard part for many of us who wake up to what's really going on is we can feel very isolated. If our Significant Other doesn't share our new view of reality, what do we do? I don't know what the answer is here other than patience and good humour. Reality will impose itself on us all eventually. Your job is to make sure you're as right as you can be. Not that anyone predicting trouble gets thanked for it, but speaking from a little experience in these matters, time is on your side with this.

What do you tell the children? I have my way with this one too, but it may not be for everyone. I have four children, two of them step-children, the oldest of whom is thirty-four. My attitude has always been that children make their own way in the world and what you need to do is keep them safe, well-fed, emotionally secure and don't let them get away with bad habits. Everything else they will pick up themselves. If you push them in a particular direction you will get adults who either will do nothing unless they're pushed, or adults who believe in pushing other people.

I've been very lucky so far with how things have turned out, but I'm aware that it is luck and not good management. The problem is, if you do something to assure success, like spend a fortune on private tutors, all you do is create someone who can't live outside that sort of system. To my way of thinking the best you can do is let children grow up in an environment which is healthy, with not enough money to get them into trouble but enough to keep them fed and give them a few basic tools for their growth. As long as they don't feel crushed by the society they grow up in, or that they are too good for it, things are generally alright. As for us breast-beating about how we elders have squandered the inheritance and left them nothing, give it a break! The last thing anyone needs is an excuse for failure and by saying something like that, you will produce either arrogance (I'm not as stupid as the person telling me this!) or a victim's mentality (I'm one of you and therefore I'm doomed too!) in a child who isn't sensible enough to say "Phooey!" to you.

Education is important but I can't say that it is necessarily effective to spend twelve or more years sitting at a desk. Looking at the corner we're busy painting ourselves into with our mighty civilisation, one needs to question some of our basic notions here. It may become more difficult to fund in the future in any case. Opportunity is the most important thing, plus the ability to take advantage of it, which involves such things as good health, common sense and a lack of timidity. Character is something which matters more than just about anything and it matters a great deal when you're younger. And character is what will distinguish the survivors from the doomed in the next, difficult stage of our history — providing they are in the right place!

The next pillar of survival is community. We ordinary folk will find it much easier if we're part of a real community. Communities are the normal human social arrangement, but they have not fared well in our industrial world which demands loyalty to abstract functions and specialisations, and prefers humanity to be broken up into single, bite-sized functional units for easier deployment to places of highest profit. The Soviets did it by force, through murder and deliberate starvation in the nineteen-twenties to break up the village structure of the Soviet Union. Our more modern societies have done it through education (get the children away from their parents and environment) and propaganda (most advertising), and by driving local, small businesses under or by making them into empty shells, fronts for a franchise. All this has so undermined community that in many places it is vestigial, especially in big cities. As a natural human artifact, it is forever being rebuilt. But building community takes a long time, generations in fact, so in the face of the rapidity of the changes we're facing it's better to find one already in existence. I've had some experience of intentional communities (I'm an old hippy) and they tend to be unstable for a variety of reasons. So I don't recommend cults or communes unless they are embedded in a larger functional community and have good relationships with it.

The final step is for us industrially disabled types to throw away our crutches. Learn to walk or ride a bike — leave the car at home — grow some of your own food, talk to your neighbors, get involved in the work of your local community. Don't be like a little bird, lying back helplessly with your beak open, squawking and waiting for Big Daddy to drop something into it. Cause Big Daddy wont be there much longer.

The solution to the greenhouse problem of carbon dioxide will be a radical fall in its production by individual people, and this is going to happen not by executive fiat, but through the uneven collapse of the great industrial civilisation which has been built up on the back of the copious use of fossil fuels as these fuels stop being affordable to the great bulk of us. The cheap stuff has all gone, and the expensive stuff is too expensive to keep the wheels spinning. We will have wars for resources and people saying we've turned the corner and that new technology will save us — it's only five or ten years away! It's always just five or ten years away.

But the show is over. It will appear to run in for years, as the elites who manage to command remaining resources claim that everything has returned to normal and those who aren't benefiting have only themselves to blame, but that's the age-old story of the relationship between the haves and have nots. Forget alternative energy. It will provide only a tiny fraction of our energy. It simply costs too much compared to dirty old oil and coal.

Will life be worth living? Of course it will! This is an amazing time to be in. We have lived through and seen the peak of the greatest civilisation the World has ever known, and we get to decide how to deal with its dissolution and the shape of what comes after it. It would have been nice to have flying cars and holiday trips to the Moon, but there's still plenty of other good things to enjoy: wine and love, children, good friends, food, music. Have fun!



Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thoughts on the anniversary of the Moon landing

I was a primary school space nut. At the age of eight, growing up in a small, remote and poor country town, I knew all about multi-stage rockets, Werner von Braun, space stations and weightlessness. All through the sixties I ached for space travel to become an everyday reality. I wrote a story for my high school magazine in second form (year 8 these days) about an intrepid pair of space-tug pilots delivering some special cargo across the inky void. Finally in nineteen sixty-nine I sat with some of my fellow year 12 students in one of our science teachers' living room watching Neil Armstrong take his first step on the Moon and mangle his famous quote. And then what?

That was the problem. Having strained engineering to the maximum and somehow got hundreds of thousands of people to co-operate nearly flawlessly to race against the Russians, the United States won. But it was a strangely empty victory. There were more flights to the Moon, but they were a curiously dull spectacle. Nearly everyone lost interest in the endevour. The money ran out, and that was that. Space travel was and is incredibly difficult and expensive and there's nowhere to go — at least nowhere close by with anything interesting to do or which promises a quick return on the investment. There are no cool aliens to hang out with on Mars or Venus, no strange cities under the clouds.

Before the Moon landings we — or at least I — imagined somehow there would be a breakthrough and we'd be going to the Moon for holidays by the year 2000. But most of all, I was looking for something beyond that — something ineffable but powerful — a transfiguration, an escape from our dull and routine existence, a chance to be a hero and something to give life a stronger, more real dimension. I wanted to escape from my life. And I think this was true for a lot of people. The Moon landing had become some sort of spiritual goal for many of us materialists, but its banal, dusty rock pile reality brought us strangely undone.

It was a time of many broken dreams but also of new ones. The Vietnam war was staggering on towards the increasingly obvious defeat of the Americans in this holy war — because it was a religious crusade at bottom, even if the Vietnamese didn't see it that way. Again I'd bought into this as a teenager. I can remember arguing with great conviction (against what I remember as the leader of the Victorian branch of the Communist party. He addressed us at some sort of school function at Caulfield Grammar where I was boarding for a couple of years. What the hell was he doing there? Who knows and who would now remember?) that the North Vietnamese were the evil aggressors and had to be stopped. Two years later I was on the anti-war side.

There was no great road to Damascus revelation for me. I don't know how it was for other people caught up in that tumultuous time. I just stopped believing in what I now call Heroic Materialism. It retreated for me into an historic memory. As the time came for me to step of the educational conveyor belt, I realised in an inchoate, almost subconscious way (my thinking was not clear enough for me to articulate my thoughts) that Heroic Materialism was a totalitarian vision. It required the subjugation of the will of the masses to further the dreams of a fortunate few. My idle ambitions of being an artist-engineer or architect would require me to buy into a system of social relationships which I detested. Not only that, but it was quickly obvious that only the exceptionally ruthless and energetic could rise to positions of power in such a system, and that the merely talented would be spear carriers. I didn't want to be the lacky of persons I despised, nor did I want to design ugly commercial buildings for a civilisation I suddenly found myself at odds with. I dropped out of my architecture degree at the end of the first year.

What followed was what seemed to be a very personal and private struggle to find a meaningful way forward for myself. My girlfriend and I set off on a motorbike from the city. For the next few years I didn't watch television, listen to the radio or read newspapers. I worked different hard physical jobs and tried to figure out what life was really all about. How could what I do be meaningful and beautiful on a small, personal scale yet fitting into a larger, more seemly whole? As you can see, my ambitions were still grand underneath it all.

Of course what I thought of as my personal quest was really something I shared with many others at the same time. We met each other and we tried to build our New Jerusalems. We never reached what we wanted, but our efforts gave us a depth of understanding and an independence of vision. Now we are the old ones of the culture, the ones who know the subtleties and wrinkles of existence.

Just as only a small number of people could ever be truly free and powerful in a culture of Heroic Materialism, only a relatively small number of us have taken the outsiders path to try and build a new culture.

The old culture still stumbles on, with its spokesmen still talking the talk with increasingly less impact and conviction. The Americans are once more planning a Moon landing, but the budget for such an enterprise seems to be shrinking by the day. The Chinese are working hard on their space program and could still manage to pull it off if the decayed Communist Party can hold onto power and keep their industrial system spinning on for another ten or fifteen years. But I am not confident that either of them can ultimately manage it.

I grieve for the past glories of Heroic Materialism even as I despise the social arrangements it produced and which it depended on. I'm forever bifurcated by this split in loyalties. One of my favourite DVDs is a three part series put out by the BBC called "Space Race", about the rivalry between Werner von Braun and his unknown counterpart in the Soviet Union, the amazing Sergei Korolev. How much of what was achieved in space depended of the visions of these two people! And yet at what terrible human cost: more lives were lost using slave labour building the V-2 rocket, which was von Braun's first great achievement, than were lost when it struck its targets in the dying days of World War 2.

And so after forty years I can look back and say that the Moon landing was a crucial event in my life, a pivot on which my existence turned and took me down new paths. I'm still hopefully traveling. I haven't arrived yet.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Village politics

I'm interested in the gap between what we are and do, and what we think we can be. Last night there was a documentary on TV about the gypsy village of Glod in Romania which Sacha Baron Cohen used for his home village, supposedly in Kazakhstan, for the "Borat" movie. The villagers were like something from a Brueghel painting, but aware of their place in the world. Some of the more "progressive" members, humiliated by their portrayal in the movie, saw an opportunity to make money out of a lawsuit against the film-maker. I didn't watch the whole show. But I was fascinated by the various characters, the dynamic of the village, the clash of ambitions and the sense of the whole human race writ small. Here was a village community, which while obviously poor, had enough resilience to have survived the vicissitudes of Communism and the years since then. And yet each member of the community felt imprisoned by fate and was fighting for change and more space, more life.

Yet it was also a village in which one could imagine middle-class tree-changers buying up houses and coming down from the city on weekends to soak up the atmosphere. It was also the sort of place which earnest post-peak-oilers could imagine to be the sustainable future model for humanity, looking at it from a systems point of view, with its simple robust infrastructure and horse-drawn traffic.

How did it compare to the little town where I live? Foster is more complicated socially. We have much higher levels of education here, even amongst the least educated! Girls aren't seen as old maids if they're not married by the age of seventeen, as is the case in Glod. There is a richer mixture of types here, we have much higher material wealth and a lot of us have had experience of the wider world. But the fact that we are embedded so completely into the industrial matrix of western society gives us very little real autonomy. If the trucks stop delivering to the supermarkets we'd go hungry. We are not materially self-reliant in the way a primitive European village like Glod can be.

But there are similarities. Foster people are physically tough. I see the netballers and footballers practicing at night at the footy ground opposite our house, no matter how foul the weather, and the young girls, sprigs of fashion, wandering around town in skimpy singlets on days when I'm rugged up to the maximum. And most locals can fix their own stuff — cars, houses or whatever. If you've made the commitment to live here, then you do what you must to get by, which means lots of different types of work. A lot of it isn't terribly highly skilled, but that doesn't mean it's easy, and many of us work long hours. Despite that, most people here are cheerful enough.

There are big differences in the way the people of Glod related to one another and the way we do. We're much more formal and strangely tribal — something I first became aware of when I worked with lots of Americans, who are emphatically not tribal. We are polite and not excitable in the way that the folk of Glod are. We are more trusting — for now — because we have all come through long, formal school education and therefore have a faith in abstract, complex systems. I don't think this simple trust will survive the next couple of decades though.

Will Foster survive? I'm confident it will. There are many towns in Australia which will not. Many were established by executive fiat, and command no loyalty from their inhabitants. Others are dependant on resources or other arrangements which are subject to the world financial system, are climatically marginal or are at the end of fragile supply lines. But Foster was established by miners over a century ago and when the mines ran out of gold, enough inhabitants found the place amenable to keep living here. Sure we will have to deal with some big changes, but short of invasion or the sea levels rising to swamp us, I think we're here for the long haul.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

John Robb again!

How does he do it? Here's another great post from John Robb on local manufacture…I need time to think this through for our situation in South Gippsland.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How do we get there from here?

I've just been talking to my friend Leo about ideas for living arrangements in the area we inhabit, which is rural and moderately populated in Australian terms. Change is coming in a big way, whether we like it or not. Can we steer our lives down the correct path in the face of the end of cheap energy?

Leo comes from a business and science background. He's been fairly high up the tree in various organisations over the years although he's retired now. We were kicking around the economic implications for the high speed broadband network which the Federal government has announced will be built down here as a pilot for the national scheme. Leo's a forester by training but he's come up through big business and he knows how all that side of things works. The problem is, everything we could think of that could take advantage of the broadband depends on more Business-As-Usual — that is, debt-financed tie-ins to the larger economy. Now it may be that BAU will carry on in some way for a couple more years in this country. But then what? What is the use of building up industry and a way of life that simply won't carry on for more than a couple of years and will lose all the capital placed in it? We will just end up with a population of upper-middle class types down here with no future, and they will be forced to move on.

The problem for us is that the solutions we come up with currently are all contained within a paradigm which I believe is doomed. And maybe Leo thinks that too — we were filled not with hope by our discussion, but by a kind of exhaustion. Now it may be age related: I'm in my late fifties and Leo is a bit older again. We've both been burned by life and the struggle to succeed, and suffered blows of fate which may have been deserved or undeserved. And maybe for some of us, there's a limit to how much you can take. But I can't help but feel at the back of it all was a sense that it's all smoke and mirrors now. We're all caught in a game, or dancing a dance, that we can't stop because it's the only game we know and we have to play something.

But what other game is possible? There are visions — I've talked about them here — and John Robb has just posted a link to a great essay (behind a subscription firewall) he's written for the World Politics Review which sketches out the necessary attributes of what will come next. The difficulty is: how do we get there from here?

The key issue from John Robb's point of view is the self-reliant community. That is, while communities may link together, they need to be able to exist independently if they have to. What is the point of having solar hot water if all your food comes from a major distribution hub in a distant city via a line of diesel trucks? What disruptions to our current networks can our communities survive? How are we going to make out in South Gippsland if we have a diesel fuel shortage? It will happen. There is no backup — no railway (it's been mostly pulled up), no alternate fuels, no local production which we could turn to for food for the numbers of people in our population.

We have drifted into our current predicament without any great plan. It's been the Market at work, and Australia is a country which has been built almost entirely around the functioning of international and national markets. Because this has worked so well so far, there has never been, except for a few brief moments such as the "Back to Earth" hippy movement of the late sixties and early seventies and a few more cultish experiments, any alternative way of doing business here. There are no "peasants". The closest thing we have are a few aboriginal settlements in remote places. Europe at least has a memory of such a way of life, as does much of Asia and Central and South America (they also have better soil!).

There are two levels of the problem to consider as well. One is the Emergency Situation, produced by, say, a sudden shortage of diesel fuel. Our way of life might be disrupted for a time and maybe never quite recover if it went on for long, but if we could weather it reasonably well, it would soon be forgotten by most people except perhaps emergency professionals. The other is a crisis brought on by a longer series of such emergencies, which would force big changes in populations and how we actually live down here. It's the latter changes I'm trying to plan for.

Perhaps it's a vain hope to try and plan, because most of us are pretty much stuck in the traditional way of doing things and even if we could see the desirability of change, would find it difficult or impossible. What could make such changes happen? What are the "boundary conditions"?

I don't think it can come from any campaign of persuasion, no matter how much talking we do. And something external, such as a huge violent change would kill off or drive most of us away. The most likely agent for change would be a series of disruptions which left no-one unscathed, which could just be surmounted and which were continuous enough for it to become obvious that Business-As-Usual was over for good. The successful survivors of such a challenge would be residents in communities which were able to shelter their members to some extent through a series of such crises. In turn the members of such communities would most likely have a primary loyalty to the community itself rather than to a career or group of like-minded associates. This is very different from the way most people live in Australia.

The alternative is a highly stratified society with the haves able to fight the have-nots to the death for whatever resources were available. I've no doubt this will be the case in many places over the remainder of this century. I just don't want it to happen here!

Can you convert a place inhabited by a population of isolated career-focused individuals into a strong community? I have my doubts. That's a very strong reason why I live where I do. Foster is a town inhabited mainly by people doing whatever they have to do to live here. No, it's not perfect here. The soil is just OK, it's cold and miserable for months in winter, the architecture is unremarkable, nothing really stands out other than Wilsons Promontory, which is like another world right next door. It used to be the view from our bed when we lived out of town. I can assure you that a great view doesn't pay the rent, which is one of the reasons we sold. But overall, I can't see any strong reasons not to live here.

There are lots of great places to live in the World. A lot of them are going to stop working when the oil runs out in the next five to ten years. Our task if we wish to have a stake in the future is to help the ones that can survive to do so. So we've got to keep battling away at this problem: how do we get there from here?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A localisation recipe

John Robb (whose mind must work at many times normal human speed!) has a short and solid post this week: "Resilience Judo". John's view of the world is probably a little too dark for many people, but he seems perfectly cheerful despite all that. He's like a scientist from another planet, picking over humanity's less pleasant mass characteristics with a cool eye. Anyway this post is so good I'm going to quote a lot of it with my comments.
There are growing signs -- from a black swan in savings/debt reduction to massive debt loads to quarterly trillion dollar losses in personal wealth to stagnant/falling consumer purchases to persistently low consumer confidence -- that the parasite ridden American "consumer" is finally dead. If this is true, the economic model of the latter half of the last Century is likely dead too, and that will mean wrenching change. It's my belief that the dominant solution is to prepare for a local future to ride out this storm.
I'd say we're about six months or a year behind the US in all this, but it will happen here soon. Here's the bulk of John's post…
Here are some of my random (more random than I would like) thoughts on what you should do to prepare:
  • Ruthlessly reduce debt. Nothing on credit. Pay off every loan. Strategically walk away from underwater assets (like homes that are worth less than the mortgage). This will allow you to stay one step ahead of the death throes of the old economy.
  • Turn your hollow home into a productive asset. Most homes are devoid of any productive capacity. Adding energy, food, etc production to them turns them into real, productive assets. Get your assets out of financial derivatives (stocks, bonds, etc.) as fast as you can and put them into productive assets (not commodities) you can touch.
  • Make everything you can yourself. Grow your own food. Produce your own energy. Make/repair your own clothes. Turn costs into savings. Reskill to do this. The new "fashionable trend" isn't what you can buy, it's what you can make. Anyone that buys "designer or branded" anything is a fool.
  • Work online. Convert your skills into something that can be sold electronically (most of my complex work is done this way). Develop the skills necessary to work as part of a virtual team. Telecommute whenever possible (and push to do this, even if it means less money), reduce the number of cars/dress clothes/etc you own in synch with this conversion (and move to a less expensive locale when possible!). Always have two jobs going at the same time.
  • Build a local business. Own assets that produce and sell that production locally. Even if it is small, it will help down the line via contact networks/experience (a new spin on modern "networking"). Develop the niche skills that sell locally. Group/tribe up when possible to tackle larger opportunities.
  • Barter. Cashless trades. Convert what you have to what you need. Skill set bartering is amazingly effective. Become part of a local barter network (the backchannel).
  • Bring your family home. Grow your home to accommodate more people. Bring back parents and grown kids (with their families). This will allow you to pool incomes and radically reduce workload/costs. It's also beneficial for security. NOTE: I've found that consideration/compromise is the best way to handle an expansive family home environment.
  • Suggestions welcome!!
To amplify on John's points, don't go into debt for anything at the moment! Prices are going to plummet left right and centre once the downturn really hits Australia. If you've got any stuff you don't really need, sell it on eBay now! Cash will be king for a while, until inflation creeps up as the Federal government starts to wash away its financial burdens (social security for a start).

Remember that power comes from ownership of the means of production! Get the tools you need, learn the skills you need.

Buy from Savers, or the local op shop. Go to garage sales for bargains. Swap stuff. Don't waste precious capital.

Think self-employment. My wife and I have a retail plant nursery and florist, a garden maintenance business, I design and build interactive educational exhibits and one of my sons and I are getting into breeding aquarium fish. All our businesses are tiny but they add up and we have no debt. Look at your skill set and see where you can go with it.

Look at your home and location. Is it going to work for you long term? We've bought a block of land in our town but are not building yet, and may sell and buy something more suited. Meantime another of our sons has moved back from Melbourne with his partner. She's working for us part-time as well as making and selling jewelry and he's working part-time for another retailer and running his own business, all with no capital costs worth speaking of. We share tools and help each other out. We have two vehicles between the four of us. Our costs of living are very low.

Last words to John Robb…
This change doesn't require cute and crunchy notions about "lifestyle" environmentalism. It's all about mitigation of stresses in the short to medium term as living conditions deteriorate, while at the same time preparing to ride the resilient community wave to rapid and sustained long term success/wealth.