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?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, have you seen the new Sustainable Gippsland facebook page? Just search in facebook under "Sustainable Gippsland" - there is also a Leongatha Transition Towns site