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Responding to Collapse, Part 8: Pitfalls and Practicalities of That Team Sport

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on March 26, 2019

Sunset over Lake Huron, March 26, 2019

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The "responding" to collapse that I've been talking about in this series of posts, is largely a matter of adapting to the new conditions that come with collapse. We can't stop collapse from happening, so the question is, "how to cope?" I've spent a lot of time talking about how adapting is likely to be easier in small and fairly remote towns, how to pick a town in a good location and then encouraging people to make their move to such a location while there is still time.

But making that move is only the first step. The point of moving to a small town, rather than a more isolated location, is the relationships you'll be forming with the people in your new community.

In my last post I started talking about the idea that being human is a "team sport". That is, it's in the nature of human beings, and very much to our benefit, to live and work together in groups. Such groups can act as a force multiplier, achieving more than what you would expect from simply adding up the number of people involved. And that's more both in the sense of 1) achieving the group's common goals and 2) enhancing the individual well being of its members. For most of the time that people have existed, we've lived together in small groups (less than Dunbar's number), made decisions largely by consensus, and allocated resources in a sort of "primitive communism"—from each according to their abilities and to each accordito their needs.

During the difficult times that lie ahead of us, I think we will need to fall back on this way of living, in order to successfully meet the challenges we face.

In that post I went on, at some length, about the benefits of group efforts and why we have abandoned the idea in 21st century society in favour of individualism and isolation. Largely because increasing affluence has made it possible and because it has been encouraged by those who are in power who find it easier to control and exploit lone individuals than groups acting in solidarity.

What I want to talk about in this post are the pitfalls and practicalities of actually becoming part of your new community and laying the ground work for the groups you will come to rely on as BAU declines. I wish I could offer a complete and detailed manual on how to do this, but I'm just not to that point myself yet, and I'm not sure anyone else is either. I've added links at the end of this post to a couple of books that I think might be helpful

I should make it clear that I don't expect you to rush out and create your own commune and kiss BAU (Business as Usual) good-bye right away. This is unlikely to be a success. I don't think collapse is going to happen all at once, nor I do think adapting to it is something that can (or should) be done all at once.

As long as BAU is detectably alive and even slightly well, propaganda for the consumer lifestyle and the virtues of individualism will be a distraction blaring away in the background. Most of us have never had the opportunity to learn the interpersonal the skills that make primitive communism work so well. And as long as our economic situation inside BAU is reasonably comfortable, it will be altogether too easy stalk off in a huff when the going gets tough rather than doing the work it takes to make a group effort succeed.

I'd be the last person to tell you that any of this is going to be easy. Indeed there have been many times when I have pretty much given up on the idea. I am sure we've all been involved in some co-operative effort or other that failed because of the disruptive efforts of grandstanders, glory hounds, control freaks and the power hungry. Or even just people who couldn't get along, didn't want to pull their weight or abused common resources like tools and equipment. These sorts of problems can be overcome, but only, I suspect, when there is an overpowering need to do so, and no easier alternative.

Of course, there is one sure way to foster group cohesiveness and that is to encourage group members to focus their displeasure and dissatisfaction on easily identifiable people outside the group. People who group members are encouraged to hate. But the long run consequences are pretty ugly. You just have to look at the last century or so of our history to see what I mean. Unfortunately, this kind of thing does have a strong appeal, and I would advise constant vigilance to avoid getting sucked in. Just ask yourself, if the finger of hate is being pointed at "those people" today, how long before it is pointed at people like you.

Currently right wing, white supremacy hate groups seems to be enjoying a good deal of success and causing a lot of harm. Clearly something to be avoided and opposed.

Another way to bring people together is activism. There are certainly many problems in the world today that need to be solved. When people join groups to tackle these problems they often find a real sense of community and an external problem to focus their energies on. And groups of other people to oppose.

I'd say that before joining an activist group you need to keep in mind that our current world order, what I call BAU, is fundamentally flawed and is itself the cause of the problems we are facing. Trying to fix BAU so we can go on living as we are is not going to work—our way of life is the problem.

Of course, there are causes that even I can't see anything wrong with. Such as forming community groups to adapt to collapse or to work on any of the things that need to be done to prepare for collapse.

Anyway, these are just some of the pitfalls of trying to make a co-operative effort to adapt to collapse. But adapt we must, and we have a much better chance of doing so in a group than as lone individuals or nuclear families. So we have to try, even though we'll be learning the skills as we go along, and all the while our current society will be doing its best to distract and discourage us.

Realizing this, we need to look at the practicalities of living and working together in groups. It would be a really good idea, I think, to start with some baby steps in your new community, to do some gradual adapting before the need gets urgent. Start learning to work together ahead of time, probably first in social groups, then maybe doing some volunteer efforts together, and finally as times get harder, acting together in what I would call mutual support groups. It is one heck of a lot easier, in times of need, to get together with people who you already know and with whom you've accustomed to working.

How people behave during disasters turns out to be very different than we have been led to believe. Rather than triggering social breakdown, the removal of the usual social constraints allows people to stop playing their customary roles as individuals and competitors in the formal economy (the roles society has forced on them), and come together co-operatively and generously as a community to cope with the challenges the disaster has presented.

The fact that responding to the disaster provides a clear common goal, and that the people involved are often family, friends and neighbours, is a big help. But such communities are in fact the default human behavior, rather than the rioting, looting and general social breakdown that the disaster mythology would have us suspect. Our preparations for disaster and collapse should reflect this—that we can expect co-operation rather than conflict. Any organization that we plan in advance should be such that it encourages this behaviour and helps people to rise to the occasion. A little study into what actually happens in such situations shows that people's response can be amazingly positive.

So, your first priority after you've moved into a small town is to get to know your neighbours and make an effort to take part in the things they are doing together.

Here are just few suggestions about how to become part of the community you've moved into and develop a network of friends and acquaintances who will be of help as collapse intensifies.

  • if you're religious, join a church and get involved
  • if you're not religious, join a secular volunteer organization that interests you:

     

     

     

     

     

     

    • a club, lodge or service group
    • a choir or orchestra
    • a community garden
    • a sports team, a gym, a hiking or nature club
  • if you have children…

     

     

     

     

     

     

    • put them into activities that interest them and volunteer to help in the organizations that offer those activities
    • volunteer at their school
  • work hard to network, talk to your neighbors, ask questions
  • invite people to dinner or out for a coffee

Be modest and don't act like you think you're better than the locals, or know more than them, or that where you came from is better than where you are now. Express an interest in their families, interests, and what they do for recreation and entertainment (FIRE is the mnemonic for this aid to small talk). Be eager to listen to what they have to say and patient while they are saying it.

You want to get to know and be known (in a positive way) by as many people as possible, but also to develop a core group of friends who you're quite close to and on whom you can rely in a pinch. That core group should be people you see eye to eye with on most things. At the same time, don't be too particular about finding people who think exactly as you do—cut them some slack and they will do the same for you. Be quick to offer your help when they need it and don't hesitate to ask for their help when you need it. And of course, watch that this doesn't become too one sided (in either direction).

As a kollapnik, a committed enough of a one to leave the city and settle in a small town, you are probably at least a bit of a fanatic about the subject and would love to find some people who you can talk collapse with. This will put a certain spin on your relationships, one that you need to get control of. You don't want to be a pest and develop a reputation as a crackpot, driving people away in the process. On the other hand, you don't want to be secretive and give people the impression you've got something to hide. If they see you making preparations, storing food, gardening, whatever, be open about what you are doing and why.

Among all my friends and acquaintances, there are two (perhaps three) who I would say are fellow kollapsniks, and a small handful of others who are willing to talk about collapse as long as I don't push too hard. I consider myself lucky.

One of those kollapsnik friends is Don Hayward, and I'd like to share with you his wisdom on classifying the people you'll meet in your new community. He says there are four kinds:

  • those who will eventually turn out to be pure poison and should be avoided at all costs (which can be awkward in a small town). If you can figure out how to identify these people quickly and painlessly, let me know.
  • those few gems who you can talk to about collapse and perhaps even start right away working with on adaptations.
  • those who don't want to talk about collapse, but who will make good friends anyway. This is no doubt the largest group of people and where you will concentrate your efforts.
  • and lastly, people from the first three classifications who will change as circumstances change and may well turn out to be great adapters.

Please understand that it is possible to make connections, often close connections, with people who are not yet ready to talk about collapse. It is probably a good idea to make that connection first, before bringing up collapse. There will be times when the world seems to be falling apart, when the news is full of that sort of thing, and then people will be much more receptive.

But people are strange animals and coping with them can be challenging, especially since you are one yourself. You should maintain a realistic expectation that not everyone will react positively to everything or even anything you say or do, that some people won't even want to give you the time of day. Respond politely to such rejection and move on. Don't get discouraged.

You may also frequently find people doing things that seem to be specifically intended to get under your skin, and not in a humourous way. I personally have had much more success in difficult inter-personal situations since I learned the importance of being calm, patient, kind and understanding. And after I finally gained a "strong-ish" grasp of the fact that it's not always (or even usually) all about me. But even at age 65, this is an on-going effort.

Much good advice about this sort of thing can be found on the internet (along with some bad advice, unfortunately). Here are links to several articles that I'd say fit in the "good advice" category.

Hidden variables of Human Behaviour

In brief here is what you should remember:

  • Everyone has a reason for what they do.
  • If we knew that reason, we would be more understanding and sympathetic.
  • If we don’t know the reason, we may as well assume the best.
  • It’s unlikely their reasons have much — if anything — to do with us, so there is no need to take their actions personally.

Three Important Life Skills Nobody Ever Taught You

Again in brief, they are:

  • how to stop taking things personally
  • how to be persuaded and change your mind
  • how to act without knowing the result

It’s harder to be kind than clever

Or as my dear old dad used to say, "It's more important to be nice than to be important." As the article says:

…the central conceit of a dangerous assumption we seem to have made as a culture these days: that being right is a license to be a total, unrepentant asshole. After all, why would you need to repent if you haven’t committed the ultimate sin of being wrong? Some say there’s no reason to care about other people’s feelings if the facts are on your side.

Getting along with people in groups is a learned skill and challenging for those who didn't grow up doing it. Many people have decided it is not worth the effort, but that is something of a self fulfilling prophecy. It can be done, given motivation and sufficient practice.

So far I've been talking about getting together socially, helping out your friends, and taking part in volunteer projects. But as collapse progresses further and we come to rely on our friends and neighbours more, we'll get deeper into living and working together. To wrap up today, I'd like to discuss three aspects of this: working together, living together and organizing those efforts. I was actually surprised, after spending a few moments with Google, to find numerous resources on each of these topics and in each of the sections below I've include a few links to relevant articles.


Organizing Together

Even if we're mainly considering groups of people less than Dunbar's number, say a maximum of 150 to 200, some sort of organization will be required. There are many ways of doing this, all with their pros and cons. I'm suspicious of hierarchical and especially patriarchal organizations because much of what's wrong with BAU seems to be centered on those organizational styles. They seem to be based on a fundamental split within the group between those who are in control and enjoy a lot of benefits they haven't earned, and those who are being controlled and exploited, and whose potential is largely ignored.

So I would recommend trying consensus decision making. It's main disadvantage is that very few of us in the developed world have much experience with it. But like any other skill it can be learned, and promises some real rewards for those who make the effort.


Working Together

Working together is likely the easy part—even big business is aware of the advantages of having people work in teams, so many people have some prior experience with teamwork.

I thought this would be the easiest of these three areas to find information about, but what's out there is mostly about teams working at the bottom of a hierarchy in businesses or educational settings, so it's not exactly what I was hoping for. I haven't included much that material here. You can Google for teamwork, team building, working in groups, etc. if you want to see more of it.

  • Effective Groups—Starting them up and keeping them going, more from Seeds of Change
    This article recommends you first find the right people and then talks about using publicity to attract them. For the kind of core group I've been talking about in this post, I would say definitely you need to find the right people, but I would caution against sending out a public appeal. This would attract lots of people, but most of them wouldn't likely be suitable and rejecting them becomes awkward. Instead meet people in social situations and take your time to size them up before forming a closer relationship.
  • 6 Ways to Empower Others, by Starhawk
    Sometimes you really do need someone to step forward and lead. The important thing is to be able to step back when the need has passed.
  • Teamwork, Wikipedia


Living Together

Living together is something that's going to be forced on many of us in the years ahead, as the economy contracts and affluence decreases. And as we move to small towns and find there is limited housing stock that's suitable for living in when infrastructure starts to fail regularly. So many people will find themselves having to share apartments or houses. Most of us have grown up in small nuclear families and many have had their own room since birth. More crowded and less convenient living circumstances will be challenging to adapt to. But it's being done by the majority of people alive in the world today and has been done by almost everyone who lived in the past. So it seems likely to me that we can learn to cope just fine.

I'll just wrap this up by saying that I think it is important to let other groups try anything they want to, in the hope that someone, somewhere, will come up with one or more approaches that work. I call this "disssensus"—letting other folks go their own way and wishing them well, even offering to help when we can, rather than raising a fuss and trying to force them to do it our way.

So far, I've been talking about what you need to do when you first arrive in your new town and during the following years as collapse intensifies. The gradual and uneven failure of BAU will provide numerous opportunities for you and your new friends to work together and support each other. I'll definitely be doing a post in the near future about how I see that playing out, but first I think I need to talk about the practical, material preparations that you need to be making during that same time period.

If you've chosen your small town well then it will have the resources you need to get by when BAU lets you down. But some advance set up is needed if you are to put them to work effectively. This will be the topic of my next post.

Books


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

 

Responding to Collapse, Part 7: A Team Sport

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on March 18, 2019

Late Winter (Early Spring?) on Lake Huron

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At the end of my first "Preparing for/Responding to Collapse" post , I said that we'd be considering the following subjects in this series:

  • where you want to be—where bad things are less likely to happen
  • who you want to be with—people you know, trust and can work with
  • what you are doing—something that can support you, and allow you to develop the skills and accumulate the resources you will need

 

I think I've given the first one adequate treatment in the last 5 posts (2 to 6 in this series) so now I'm moving on to the second item—who you want to be with.

So, who do you want to be with? The main thing, I think, is that you want to be with people, rather than being alone—to borrow a phrase from Douglas Rushkoff, being human is a team sport. (Here's a podcast with Rushkoff and Naomi Klein that I found interesting. Of course Rushkoff isn't talking about exactly the same thing as me, but it's still good stuff.)

What I am talking about is this: it is in the nature of human beings, and very much to our benefit, to work together in groups. Such groups act as a force multiplier, achieving more than what you would expect from simply adding up the number of people involved. And that's more both in the sense of 1) achieving the group's common goals and 2) enhancing the individual well being of its members. For most of the time that people have existed, we've lived together in small groups (less than Dunbar's number), made decisions largely by consensus, and allocated resources in a sort of "primitive communism"—from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs, if I can be forgiven for quoting Karl Marx.

During the difficult times that lie ahead of us, I think we will need to fall back on this way of living, in order to successfully meet the challenges we face.

But over the last few centuries this sort of thing has gotten a bad name. People have gone from living in small, close knit communities made up of large, extended families to living in isolated nuclear families or as lone individuals, and relating to other people mainly via the formal, money based economy. During the time when this change was happening, the level of affluence in our society continually increased, allowing us to get by just fine more or less on our own. It seems that many people have come to believe that individualism is at least partly responsible for the progress we have experienced, and that our former way of living probably had to be abandoned in order to reap the benefits of that progress.

I would say that such ideas are a long way from reality. So much so that I think we'd better stop here for a closer look at the advantages of living and working together in groups, and follow that up by considering why we have given up on this way of life. Best to be clear on this before going on to the practicalities and pitfalls of forming and working together in groups within your new community.

It's interesting that while today's corporations are intensely capitalistic and competetive, within them people are often organized in teams or crews whose members relate to each other in a very "communistic" way. I'd say that this is a tacit acknowledgement of what actually works best. For much of my career with Hydro One (Ontario's electric transmission and distribution utility) I worked as part of a crew of maintenance electricians. While it is true that there are some jobs that can be done by one person, most of the work we did went much better when done by a small group of people. Once such a crew gets to know each other and the work they are doing, they can organize themselves to do that work more productively and enjoyably than the same number of individuals could do working separately.

Within a crew there is usually a diversity of skills that complement each other, and allow people to focus their efforts on the parts of the job best suited to them. And of course the nature of most work (be it physical or mental) is such that it can be done quicker and more easily if the people doing it help each other.

Teams like this are an excellent learning environment, where you can pick up a great deal from people with more experience or different experience than you. Not just job related learning, but also contributing to your growth as a human being.

Beyond productivity and training, there are many benefits to the members of the crew which are not an intentional part of the situation or necessarily supported by management, but which certainly make for a better work environment— camaraderie, companionship, support (both in times of difficulty, and in growth and accomplishment), and the ability to make the boring parts of the job go quicker with humour, story telling, singing, etc.

As it happened we were also members of a labour union, which did its best to shield us from the worst predations of management. Unions are a pretty clear case of the use of group solidarity in dealing with a situation where the power dynamics would otherwise be completely one sided.

Co-operative efforts of groups of people in organizations like food co-ops and housing co-ops enjoy the benefits of enhanced bargaining power and economies of scale that are not available to nuclear families or single individuals. A group can also provide a safety net for its members in a way that conventional insurance, provided by a company whose main responsibility is to its share holders, can never do.

People working and living together also get to know each other quite well. Because of this the group can effectively discourage its members from shirking their responsibilities and provide them with a strong incentive to contribute to the full extent of their abilities.

And lastly I'll just note that compared to an isolated existence, living in groups with people that care about you and will help when you need it, has considerable psychological benefits.

So, given all these advantages, why have we largely abandoned our extended families and close knit communities?

Certainly, there is some overhead involved in living and working in close knit groups, and you can see why people who have attained a sufficient level of affluence might choose to exercise their independence and strike out on their own.

But the idea that group life is not worth the effort is somewhat of a self fulfilling prophecy. Living as we do these days, with a big emphasis on individualism and little opportunity to practice working in groups or learn it from experience people, we have forgotten many of the interpersonal the skills that make primitive communism work so well. And as long as things are going well there is little incentive to really try to make co-operative efforts succeed. We can do just fine on our own, without the trouble of getting along with others. Those whose lives are the most precarious, for whom individualism really isn't working, have come to simply not trust other people, and would never think of working together for their mutual advantage.

But even allowing for all that, I think we also need to keep in mind that isolated people are a lot easier to control and exploit, and this is very much to the advantage of the people who are running things in our society.

Whenever I see people making choices that clearly run counter to their own best interests, I've found that I only have to look a little further to uncover a great deal of effort that is being expended to make them do so. Effort that is being made by those who do stand to benefit from those poor choices. This is certainly the case practically everywhere in the world today, with most countries ruled by oligarchies who at best give only lip service to democracy, and are not of the people, by the people or for the people.

So, I would like to suggest that what going on here is rather different from the way we are encouraged to perceive it. Maybe, for most people, the growth of individualism was anything but progress. And while it is true that this happened while a lot of progress was happening, you don't want to confuse cause and effect. If you look closely, you can see that much of that progress was basically economic growth, or very closely tied to economic growth, which was largely driven by our switch over to using fossil fuels as our primary source of energy. So I'd say economic growth and the rise of modern capitalism drove the growth of individualism, rather than the other way around.

A excerpt from David Graeber's Debt: the first 5000 years may help clarify:

By the end of World War II, the specter of an imminent working-class uprising that had so haunted the ruling classes of Europe and North America had largely disappeared. This was because class war was suspended by a tacit settlement. To put it crudely: the white working class of North Atlantic countries, from the United States to West Germany were offered a deal. If they agreed to set aside fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system, then they would be allowed to keep their unions, enjoy a wide variety of social benefits (pensions, vacations, health care…), and, perhaps most important through generously funded and ever-expanding public educational institutions, know that their children had a reasonable chance of leaving the working class entirely. One key element in all this was a tacit guarantee that increases in workers' productivity would be met by increases in wages: a guarantee that held good until the late 1970s. Largely as a result, the period saw both rapidly rising productivity and rapidly increasing incomes, laying the basis for the consumer economy of today.

This was the world into which I was born and grew up. Essentially, "setting aside fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system" amounted to abandoning our communities and extended families, in exchange for individual affluence and economic security. Unfortunately, because of 1) a financial system based on interest bearing debt and 2) a growing population, this world required endless economic growth in order to continue fulfilling its promise. In another reality, where planets have infinite resources, this might have been possible, but not here.

After a few paragraphs about how this relates to Keynsian economics, Graeber goes on to say:

When the Keynsian settlement was finally put into effect, after World War II, it was offered to only a relatively small slice of the world's population. As time went on, more and more people wanted in on the deal. Almost all of the popular movements of the period from 1945 to 1975, even perhaps revolutionary movements, could be seen as demands for political equality that assumed equality was meaningless without some level of economic security. This was true not only of movements by minority groups in North Atlantic countries who had first been left out of the deal… but what were then called "national liberation" movements from Algeria to Chile, which represented certain class fragments in what we now call the Global South, or, finally, and perhaps most dramatically, in the late 1960s and 1970s, feminism. At some point in the '70s, things reached a breaking point. It would appear that capitalism, as a system, simply cannot extend such a deal to everyone. Quite possibly it wouldn't even remain viable if all its workers were free wage laborers; certainly it was never be able to provide everyone in the world the sort of life lived by, say, a 1960s auto worker in Michigan or Turin, with his own house, garage, and children in college—and this was true even before so many of those children began demanding less stultifying lives. The result might be termed a crisis of inclusion. But the late 1970s, the existing order was clearly in a state of collapse, plagued simultaneously by financial chaos, food riots, oil shocks, wide spread doomsday prophecies of the end of growth and ecological crisis—all of which, it turned out, proved to be ways of putting the populace on notice that all deals were off.

I would say that the underlying problem causing this failure of capitalism is economic contraction caused by the reduction in the surplus energy available as we've been forced to tap into ever poorer quality and/or less easily accessible fossil fuels. And sadly this is a problem for all economic and political systems. Indeed, it is a problem without a solution, which is bringing about changes that we will just have to adapt to.

I am not certain if Graber agrees with me that the crises we've faced since the 1970s are quite real, but I do agree with him that those in power have certainly used those crises to "put the populace on notice that all deals are off." He is also quite right that this is a "crisis of inclusion"—as the economy contracts the rich and powerful are not about to be excluded, so a great many other people have had to be, in order for the rich to keep a relatively larger slice of a shrinking pie.

But how, you may ask, does this relate to the problem of diminishing community in our modern society? Well, it seems that all the fixes that are available to the excluded majority involve us being separated from our former support systems (family and community in an informal economy) and striving to perform better as competing individuals in the formal economy.

We are told that to secure a good job we need an education, at least a bachelor's degree. This means (in many countries) taking on a significant amount of debt, so that after you graduate, you'll be desperate to get a job and pay off your student loans. This leaves you very little choice in the job you take and little choice about leaving it if it doesn't suit you.

To get that job it is very likely that you'll have to move a long way from where your family currently lives and set up as a lone individual, in a place where you, at least initially, have no support network.

If you meet the love of your life and decide to live together or actually marry, you will both have to go on working to pay off those student loans and make a start on building a family together.

This is a stressful situation, especially since you don't have any sort of support network and I suspect it contributes to marriage breakup. If you do break up you'll be left as a single mother or a lone individual.

Or perhaps instead of seeking higher education, you could go for a job in the trades. As I said earlier, crews of tradesmen are among the best examples of communistic relationships found in today's world. But in most companies there is a strong push to have people working by themselves whenever possible and to have as little contact with their co-workers as possible, lest they organize a union. Unions are in a desperate situation today, with no effort being spared to break them and leave working people completely at the mercy of management.

All this is very convenient for those who are in power. It is easier to exploit people who are not organized, who see each other as competitors rather than comrades. And in the process you can monetize much work that used to be part of the informal economy and make some additional profit out of it, while keeping people conveniently isolated from each other. I'm not saying this is a conspiracy of any sort, just rich people supporting the kind of politicians who will benefit them the most in the short term, and rest of us taking the path of least resistance through our lives.

Even if you are fortunate enough to have a good, secure job, it is pretty easy to look around and see than many other people find themselves with no support from family or community and working for minimum wage with no benefits in a job where their schedule can be adjusted and their hours reduced arbitrarily and they can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. And if they end up jobless and homeless, there is a definite tendency to put the blame for this onto them, rather than a system which sees workers as liabilities rather than assets.

No wonder many people are starting to express doubts about the current world order. As BAU continues to collapse it will become more and more clear that there must be a better way to live. Many would tell you that things are more likely to break down into chaos and violence but a closer study human behaviour in disasters shows that when there is trouble, people feel a strong urge to work together to help each other pull through.

Well, that was a lot of words expended in support of a proposition that I originally thought was obvious. I do think it was worth it, but now this post is just about as long as it should be. So I'll wrap things up here and continue next time with a look at the pitfalls and practicalities of forming and working together in groups within your new community.

The Disaster Mythology is a subject that keeps coming up on this blog, and to save explaining it again and again in various posts, I've finally created a page about the subject: The Disaster Mythology. Check it out.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

 

Coming Soon to a Laptop Near You on Diner YouTube

Just another day on the Farm with FarmGal

 

 

Responding to Collapse, Part 5: finding a small town

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on December 28, 2018

 

 

Driftwood accumulating on the beach

 

2019 Collapse Survey Still OPEN.  Get your opinions counted before it closes!

 

Discuss this article at the Doomsteading Table inside the Diner

In my last post I started talking about moving from the city to a small town as a way to make adapting to collapse easier, and I listed a number of criteria for choosing a small town. Today we'll be looking at some of those criteria in greater detail.

As before, credit goes to Don Hayward, Joe Clarkson from the comment section of this blog, and, new this time, to Category 5, from the Dark Green Mountain blog and the Doomstead Diner.

Looking back on the criteria I laid out last time, I can see that I should have divided them into two sections— picking a town where you can live while BAU is still working and then picking a town that will also be livable after BAU is no longer capable of supporting us. For the next while we will find ourselves living in two worlds—trying to make enough of a success of life in BAU so that we can afford to disentangle ourselves from BAU and get something started to replace it.

So, to get started, just exactly how far from the city do you need to be? I am very much a "shades of gray" guy, so my answer will be in terms of a spectrum rather than a single hard number. Here in rural Canada we tend to talk about distances in terms of driving time. I would guess that an hour amounts to around 50 miles. I live about three hours from Toronto, around two hours from many other cities to the south and east of here, and about an hour and a quarter from the small city to the northeast. I am not considering a move to get farther away, so if pressed for a definite answer I would say somewhere between an hour and two hours is a sufficient minimum distance. To be cautious, err on the long end of that range, and of course I'm not saying you shouldn't be more than 2 hours from a city. On the other hand, you may find you need to be close to a city for a while yet and accordingly place yourself at the lower end of the range, while remaining aware of the greater risk that probably entails.

Many cities are quite close together and there are whole areas where there is nowhere far enough from a city to meet my distance criteria. Moving away from your current city but toward another one clearly won't help.

By the time collapse has progressed far enough for this distance to be a real concern, transportation fuels will be in short supply, either because of genuine shortages, market malfunctions or supply chain breakdowns. Initially they will be "rationed by price" to the point where they are not affordable for most of us, or they will be outright rationed by the authorities. Then there will be intermittent interruptions in the supply. And at some point beyond that these fuels will not be available at any price. So the distance from the city would have to be covered on foot or bicycle, making it, in effect, considerably longer. That two hour drive would be a multi-day walk for most people, if they could manage to do it at all.

There are several reasons for wanting to be this far away:

  • in the city there are limited opportunities for adaptation in the face of infrastructure and supply chain failures—the resources you need are just not available locally. You need to be far enough away from population centres that the local resources can support the local population
  • there will be social unrest and civil disobedience (much of it justified) in many cities—violence that you don't want to get caught up in
  • as conditions worsen in the cities, there will occasionally be waves of refugees fleeing from them. I think the aim of people in small towns like mine should to help those refugees, but if there are too many we won't be able to help them and things will go badly for both them and us. So, we want to be far enough away that the distance acts as a filter and reduces their numbers to something manageable.
  • it seems likely that there will epidemics from time to time, especially as public health systems start to fall apart. It would be good to have some distance between you and any city that is being ravaged by an epidemic. A sort of geographical quarantine.

But the main reason you're moving to a small town is for what's there, not what you are trying to get away from.

What size of small town you should be looking for?

Zero is the wrong answer. As Douglas Ruskhoff says, "being human is a team sport." You can't accomplish much, especially in the long term, as an isolated individual or family. Even a group of a few families will find themselves struggling just to survive. In my opinion, remote, isolated survivalist compounds or even lifeboat eco-villages have little future. More people means a greater range of skills and talents and more redundancy in the support systems you need to set up.

I don't think there is much hope of retreating to the wilderness and surviving by hunting and gathering, either. There is very little wilderness left and what is left is not so completely untouched as it once was. The effect of this is to make hunting and gathering more difficult and it is, in any case, a skilled and demanding lifestyle, especially if you weren't born to it. Learning those skills, when you aren't living in a group where most people already have them, would be very challenging.

What you really need is a community that is viable now, as part of "Business as Usual", and which can adapt as collapse progresses and then still be viable under post collapse conditions.

Now I will agree that for some activities a lone individual is best, and for others 2 to 5 people is ideal. But these are specific, short duration jobs within a larger context.

At this point some of you are probably thinking of "Dunbar's number"—"the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person." That number is somewhere between 100 and 250 people, and there is definitely something to the idea. But I would say that this is more like the lower limit on size for a viable community. Larger communities are made up of smaller, overlapping circles of people who know each other in the "Dunbar" sense.

The upper limit on the size of a viable community is determined by how many people the surrounding geography can support without fossil fuel powered agriculture and shipping. Typically that would be a few thousand people, possibly as many as 10 to 20 thousand in ideal circumstances. A counter example would be Edo (now Tokyo) during the days of the shoguns, which grew to over one million people without the benefit of fossil fuels or modern technology. But these days climate change is reducing the carrying capacity of almost every area, and you must remember that the size of small towns will increase first as former locals return from the city and then again as refugees arrive. Set your upper limit around ten thousand to begin with.

So, distance and size will help narrow things down somewhat, as will the climate change based criteria I mentioned previously. But still, which town to pick?

Probably the most important consideration is connections in the community. If you grew up in a small town, if you still have family there, or even close friends, then that town has to be very high on your list of places to consider. If you have limited resources, those connections may prove vital in making your move possible.

Next, I think you have to be looking for a place where you can find accommodations and earn a living in the short run while "BAU" is still in operation. As Category 5 suggests, once you have found a likely looking small town, it would be a good idea to live there in rental accommodation for a year or two in order to get to know the place better. It takes more than a few brief visits to really size a place up and figure out how to fit in. And for those with limited resources, renting on an ongoing basis may in any case be a better alternative than taking on a mortgage you can't really cope with. In today's uncertain market, it's wise let your landlord take the risk of investing in real estate.

Financial considerations also have to be very high on your list of priorities. Eddie at the Doomstead Diner has written an excellent article entitled "Some Inconvenient Truths About Collapse Economics". He challenges the idea, common among kollapsniks, that the only things worth investing in are preparations, gold, silver and farmland. At some point in the future that may be true, but you have to have a plan for surviving in the meantime, and that will likely involve taking part in an economy that you know has a limited shelf life—even putting some of you money into conventional BAU style investments in the short term.

I'll be going into more detail on this in a future post, but some degree of preparation is a very good idea and you should spend some money on it, but not every cent you have. It is also good to have some ordinary cash on hand, and even some actual physical gold and/or silver carefully hidden where you can get at it if you need it. Farm land, while it is tempting, is currently very expensive per acre and since it comes in large chunks, likely to be out of reach for most people. Remote farms may cost less, but leave you too isolated.

When I talk about "collapse progressing", it may sound like I am envisaging a uniform run downhill, but my regular readers will know this is not the case. Collapse progresses unevenly, unsteadily and unequally. This is good news if you are thinking of moving, because there is likely some place where things are better than where you are now, especially if you are flexible and willing to adapt to a new situation. There are "eddies" in the stream of collapse, places where things occasionally stand still or even improve somewhat for a while.

I think this is very true of both real estate and employment considerations.

A great many cities are experiencing real estate bubbles today. Accommodation costs a lot to buy or rent there and the situation is only getting worse. This is less about the demand for housing and more about malfunctioning markets and people with money trying to find somewhere to invest it at a good rate of return. But since there is no real demand to justify those real estate prices they will eventually decline, and decline precipitously. The trick is to get out with your assets intact before that bubble bursts.

Aside from high prices caused by investment bubbles, there is also often a clear relationship between distance from good employment opportunities and the cost of housing. Housing in small towns away from big employment centers (which are almost always in cities) is very likely to be less expensive. So if you don't mind a longer commute, if you can telecommute, or if you can make the big leap of finding work away from the city, you will likely find housing that costs less.

But I've read that in the United States towns with more affordable housing also offer jobs that pay less, so moving there may not solve your problems. It seems to me that this will be determined by what level the minimum wage is pegged at, if there is one. So states (provinces here in Canada) with a decent minimum wage would be a good place to look for work.

Handymen and skilled tradesmen are most always in demand, as are skilled professionals. Even small towns have a few relatively unskilled jobs in service industries and there will be seasonal work in agriculture and tourism. One of the few justifiable reasons for delaying this move is to find a job to support you in your new location. Just don't make this an excuse for not moving.

I live in a small town that is in an economic eddy, being a bedroom community for a nearby nuclear plant which employs several thousand people. (It's one of the largest nuclear generating developments in the world.) This is "energy sprawl", where lower EROEI energy sources require a lot more infrastructure, and just happen to create jobs building, operating and maintaining that infrastructure in the process. So such opportunities do exist.

How you approach these opportunities will largely depend on your own personal circumstances—your socioeconomic class, in particular.

The Upper Class

If you are a member of the upper class—the "one percent"—you can do as you please, at least for the moment. But in a really serious financial crash, your wealth is likely to evaporate, and you probably don't have the sort of skills that will be needed in the aftermath. For all I care, you can jump out a fortieth floor window and end it all quickly. But if you hope to survive, you'd better be prepared to fit in and keep a low profile, among people who are likely to be resentful of the rich, who they see (correctly) as responsible for the mess the world is in.

No doubt though, you will be focusing on ways of keeping BAU rolling along and maintaining your status within it. Good luck with that.

The Middle Class

Indeed, a willingness to let go of BAU should probably be seen as the distinguishing difference between the middle and upper classes. Though currently, especially in the U.S., many middle class folk mistakenly think that if they support policies that benefit the upper class they will themselves eventually be able to ascend into that class. Of course, the upper class does everything they can to encourage that attitude, with no intention at all of benefitting anyone but themselves.

There are two traps here: one is thinking that you have much chance of joining the upper class and the other is thinking that it would do you any good if you did. If you're currently in the middle class, you likely have enough resources to respond to collapse in a fairly effective fashion. Don't miss the opportunity.

If you already own a home or at least have quite a bit of equity in it, you may well be able to sell it, buy a house in a small town and still have enough cash left over to retire early and invest in preparations. You should do this soon, before the real estate bubble bursts. If you are already retired, you can probably do the same thing and end up in better financial shape than if you'd stayed in the city.

If you are middle class but younger, you are likely working at a job that is keeping you in that class, and this will make the proposition of leaving the city much harder to consider seriously. But perhaps you can commute or even telecommute from a small town. Or find a small town with a local industry that needs people with your skills. If you are renting or have only recently bought a home and don't yet have much equity built up in it, then renting in a small town may cost you substantially less than your current rent or mortgage payments. Don't make the mistake of believing that real estate prices will keep going up forever.

All middle class people should look ahead to days of further economic contraction and consider taking a "deliberate descent" approach to life. That is, learn to live with less, so that when that is all you have left, it won't be so much of a shock. As John Michael Greer has said, "collapse now and avoid the rush." And of course, living frugally will make your resources last longer.

The Lower Class

It can be difficult to see where the line should be drawn between the middle and lower classes, so I am going to simplify things and lump everyone who has a somewhat decent, secure job with benefits, and who owns a home or is renting while saving with a reasonable expectation of being able to buy a home in the foreseeable future, into the middle class. We'll leave other assets and debts as an issue for another day.

Below that is the lower class which for the purposes of this discussion includes, at the upper end, those who have a job and can afford accommodation and a vehicle to drive to work, down through those who have to choose between accommodation and a vehicle, and may end up working but living in a vehicle, through to those who are jobless and homeless. The majority of these people, if they have a job, are members of the "precariat". That is, their job is not in any way secure and does not pay enough to make the rest of their lives secure either. If you are a member of the precariat, you don't need to be told about "deliberate descent"—you're already living it, though I would guess not willingly.

No doubt it is somewhat presumptuous on my part, as a relatively "fat cat" middle class guy, to offer advice to lower class people. Though I did grow up on a small family farm in a family that was just barely middle class at best. And my kids have certainly spent their share (and more) of time in the precariat. But I don't really have a lot of experience at being poor and when I have problems, I am accustomed to using money to solve them. For people in the lower class that’s rarely an option.

Nonetheless, I have a few things to say that I hope may be of help. Lower class people are, I think, farther along the collapse road than the rest of us, and may well be less bothered as things fall further apart—it will all just be more of the same shit to them. Psychologically they are quite resilient but, materially speaking, they have very limited resources to deal with specific problems as they arise, and in that sense they will be harder hit. So, for lower class people, the need to get out of the cities is no less, but the challenge of doing so may be greater.

Many of the problems faced by people in the lower class come from the degree of isolation in which they find themselves. I think there are great possibilities for small groups of disadvantaged people to get together and share housing, food, transportation and so forth. Sadly, we have largely forgotten the skills for getting along in such circumstances, or have been convinced by those who are in power that such skills are worthless. The neo-liberal approach of using money to mediate all relationships between people leaves us at the mercy of those who control the money and that of course is exactly what they want. I think there is a lot of potential in various sorts of co-operative ventures to break out of this trap.

I've been doing a bit of reading at Sharable, a website that "aims to empower people to share for a more resilient, equitable, and joyful world". This is essentially what I am talking about here. It would certainly be a move in the direction of the adaptations we'll have to make down the road in order to succeed in small isolated communities.

Well, I think that's enough for now. Next time we'll continue with this, looking closer at criteria for choosing a small town as place to live as BAU goes further downhill and we can no longer rely on it completely for the necessities of life

The Myth of Self Reliance

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Published on the Toby Hemway Blog on August 1, 2011

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A mass emailing went out a while back from a prominent permaculturist looking for “projects where people are fully self sufficient in providing for their own food, clothing, shelter, energy and community needs. . .” There it was, the myth of “fully self sufficient,” coming from one of the best-known permaculturists in the world. In most US permaculture circles, the idea that anyone could be self sufficient at anything past a very primitive level was abandoned a while ago, and the softer term “self reliant” replaced it. But even self-reliance is barely possible, and, other than as way of expressing a desire to throw off the shackles of corporate consumerism, I don’t think it’s desirable.

I took a Googling cruise around the internet and found that “self sufficient” shows up as a desirable goal on several top permaculture websites. I’d like to hammer a few coffin nails into that phrase. My dictionary says that self sufficient means being “able to maintain oneself without outside aid.” Who lives without outside aid? No one. Let’s unpack that a bit further. The meaning of “self sufficient in food” is something most of us can agree on: supplying 100% of your food needs from your own land and efforts. I have never met anyone who has done this. I’m sure there are a few people doing it, but even subsistence farmers usually raise, alongside their food, a cash crop to buy the foods that are impractical for them to grow.

I hear people say they are growing 30%, 50%, even 70% of their own food. What they usually mean is that they are growing fruits and vegetables that make up some percentage of the total cost or weight—but not calories—of their food. Vegetables are high in wet weight, but low in calories. If you are growing 100% of your own vegetables, they provide about 15-20% of your daily calories, unless you are living mostly on potatoes or other starchy veggies. Most daily calories come from grains, meat, or dairy products. So if you’re not raising large-scale grains or animals, it’s unlikely that you are growing more than one-quarter of your own food, measured honestly by nutritional content. In that case, it’s not accurate to claim you are “70% food self-sufficient.” If you are getting most of your calories from your land, you’re almost certainly a full-time farmer, and I salute you for your hard work. Now we begin to see how difficult, and even undesirable, self sufficiency is. You won’t have time for much else if you are truly food self-sufficient, even in a permaculture system.

But even if you grow all your own food, can you claim you are self sufficient if you don’t grow all your own seeds? Provide all your fertility? Where do your farm tools and fuel come from? Permaculturists understand as well as anyone how interconnected life is. At what point do you claim to be disconnected from the broad human community in anything? Is there really a way to be “fully self sufficient” in food?

Let’s take a quick pass at clothing, shelter and energy. Even if you sew all your clothes, do you grow the cotton, raise the sheep? If you milled all the lumber or dug the stone for your home, did you forge the glass, fabricate the wiring? In the off-the-grid house, what complex community of engineers and factories assembled the solar panels? We’re reliant on all of that.

Claiming self sufficiency in almost anything insults and ignores the mountain of shoulders we all stand on. US permaculturists are a pretty politically correct crew, and it became obvious to some of us that “self sufficient” was not just impossible, but was a slap in the face to all those whose sweat provides for us, and was another perpetuation of the cowboy ethic that puts the individual at the center of the universe. So the term morphed into “self reliance,” to show that we know we are interdependent, but are choosing to be less reliant on others. At its best, self reliance means developing skills to provide for basic needs, so we can stop supporting unethical and destructive industries. But I see much less need for self-reliant people who can do everything themselves, and much more need for self-reliant communities, where not everyone knows how to weave or farm, but there is clothing and food for all.

There is still a deep prejudice in permaculture, as websites and emails show, that doing it all ourselves, and on our own land, is the most noble path. And insofar as our skills make us less dependent on corporate monopolies, developing the abilities that we think of as self-reliant is worth doing. However, the more we limit our lives to what we can do ourselves, the fewer our opportunities are. Each connection outside ourselves enriches us. When we create a web of interdependencies, we grow richer, stronger, safer, and wiser. Why would you not want to rely on others? To fully probe that would take us down a psychological rabbit-hole, but some of it is grounded in a belief that others are unreliable or unethical, and that we weaken ourselves by interdependencies. But the old saying “if you want a job done well, do it yourself” simply shows poor management skills.

If you’re still skeptical, I’ll resort to scripture: a quote from the Book of Mollison, Introduction to Permaculture, page two: “We can also begin to take some part in food production. This doesn’t mean that we all need to grow our own potatoes, but it may mean that we will buy them directly from a person who is already growing potatoes responsibly. In fact, one would probably do better to organize a farmer-purchasing group in the neighborhood than to grow potatoes.”

As veteran permaculture designer Larry Santoyo says, go to the highest generalization to fill your needs. Thinking “I must grow my food” is painfully limited. Thinking “I must satisfy food needs responsibly” opens up a vast array of possibilities, from which you can choose the most stable and appropriate. Individual efforts are often less stable and resilient than community enterprises. And they’re bad design: self-reliance means that a critical function is supported in only one way. If you grow all your food and get hurt, you are now injured, hungry, and watching your crops wither from your wheelchair. That won’t happen in a community farm. And for those worried about an impending collapse of society, the roving turnip-bandits are much more likely to raid your lonely plot while you sleep exhausted from a hard day of spadework, and less likely to attack a garden protected by a crew of strong, pitchfork-wielding farmers who can guard it round the clock.

Creating community reliance gives us yet another application of permacultural zones: Zone zero in this sense is our home and land. Zone one is our connection to other individuals and families, zone two to local commerce and activities in our neighborhood, zone three to regional businesses and organizations, zone four to larger and more distant enterprises. Why would we limit ourselves to staying only in zone zero? We can organize our lives so that our need for zone-four excursions—say, to buy petroleum or metal products—is very limited, while our interactions with the local farmers’ market and restaurants are frequent. This builds a strong community.

Self reliance fails to grow social capital, a truly regenerative resource that can only increase by being used. Why would I not want to connect to my community in every way that I can? If we don’t help fill our community’s needs, there’s more chance that our neighbors will shop at big-box stores. An unexamined belief in self reliance is a destructive myth that hands opportunity to those who are taking our community away from us.

If you love being a farmer, then yes, grow all your own food. And sell the rest for the other things you need, in a way that supports your community. But is there really a difference between a farmer exchanging the product of her labor—food—for goods and money, and me selling the product of my labor—education—for goods and money? We both are trading our life energy within a system that supports us, and I’d like to think that we are both making wise ethical choices.

A good permaculture design is one that provides for the inhabitants’ needs in a responsible and ecologically sound manner. But there’s nothing in permaculture that says that it’s important for all yields to come from the owner’s site! If I can accomplish one thing in this essay, it is to smash that myth. Permaculture design simply says that our needs and products need to be taken care of responsibly in our design, not on our own land. That design can—and must—include off-site connections. If you are an acupuncturist whose income is provided by your community and you are getting most of your needs met from mostly local sources you believe to be ethical, then that’s excellent permaculture design. Your design will be stronger if your needs and products are connected to many off-site elements and systems.

It’s very permacultural to develop skills that will connect you more deeply to land, home, and community. And sometimes the skills that we gained in search of self reliance are the same ones we need to be more community-reliant. But self reliance, as a goal in itself, is a tired old myth that needs to die. It’s unpermacultural.

Hot Brain, Cool Brain

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Published on Peak Surfer on June 12, 2016

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  Lion and wolf cubs, when they learn to stalk prey, learn fairly quickly that they must delay the urge for immediate gratification if they are to be successful. They have to cultivate patience.

 

 
Babies who are taken to their mother's breast whenever they cry do not learn this as early. Those allowed milk only after they stop crying, and maybe even then not right away, learn patience.
 
Last month Walter Mischel gave a Long Now talk that eventually found its way to our earbuds as we bicycled through Amish country in Southern Tennessee.
 
It is wheat harvest time here and Amish men are out scything the sheaves, tying bundles, and forming them into shocks to field dry in the sun. When the wheat has cured, the shocks will be collected by horse wagon and carried back to the barn for threshing. The Amish abide in the Long Now.
 

Walter Mischel’s psychology experiment at Stanford in the 1960s took students from the Bing Nursery School, put them in a room one-by-one, gave them a choice of a cookie, mint, pretzel, or marshmallow and the following deal: they could eat the treat right away, or wait 15 minutes until the experimenter returned. If they waited, they would get an extra treat. 

Michel and his team then went behind the one-way glass and filmed for 15 minutes.

Footage of these experiments, which were conducted over several years, is poignant, as the kids struggle to delay gratification for just a little bit longer. Some cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal. One child, a boy with neatly parted hair, looks carefully around the room to make sure that nobody can see him. Then he picks up an Oreo, delicately twists it apart, and licks off the white cream filling before returning the cookie to the tray, a satisfied look on his face.
— Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker 


The genius of the experiment was not in discovering what percentage of children delayed gratification and how that might correlate to sex, age, race, ethnicity or income, but in following the children with a longitudinal study for the rest of their lives.

 

As they matured and became adults, the kids who had shown the ability to wait got better grades, were healthier, enjoyed greater professional success, and proved better at staying in relationships—even decades after they took the test. They were, in short, better at life.
— Drake Bennett, Bloomburg 

 

Mischel showed that a child’s ability to delay eating the first treat predicted higher SAT scores (by 210 points) and a lower body mass index (BMI). They got paid more, lived longer, and had fewer divorces. 

 

 
In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester added more nuance to the original work.  In "Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability," Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri and Richard N. Aslin tested children who had little reason to trust that the scientists would return in 15 minutes versus a control group of children who were more likely to have trust. Children raised in homeless shelters or alleys, for instance, have much less faith in the reliability of their environments, or adult authorities, than children who are raised in stable family settings surrounded by environmental constancy.
 
What do children plucked from bus station bathrooms do when told that if they delay gratification they will get a bigger reward? They eat the treat right away. While the study is too recent to track those kids for a lifetime, the long term effects of mistrustful childhood do not require a leap of imagination.
 
Kidd et al report:
The results of our study indicate that young children’s performance on sustained delay-of-gratification tasks can be strongly influenced by rational decision-making processes. If self-control capacity differences were the primary causal mechanism implicated in children’s wait-times, then information about the reliability of the environment should not have affected them. If deficiencies in self-control caused children to eat treats early, then one would expect such deficiencies to be present in the reliable condition as well as in the unreliable condition. The effect we observed is consistent with converging evidence that young children are sensitive to uncertainty about future rewards.
***
To be clear, our data do not demonstrate that self-control is irrelevant in explaining the variance in children’s wait-times on the original marshmallow task studies. They do, however, strongly indicate that it is premature to conclude that most of the observed variance—and the longitudinal correlation between wait-times and later life outcomes—is due to differences in individuals’ self-control capacities. Rather, an unreliable worldview, in addition to self-control, may be causally related to later life outcomes, as already suggested by an existing body of evidence.
 
There is also an existing body of evidence that tells us that humans are predisposed to disbelieve scientific facts, or even their own experiences, if they conflict with strongly held beliefs. This is likely the phenomenon most responsible for our failure not merely to make the cultural changes required of us to avert climate Armageddon and Near Term Human Extinction – even simple lifestyle changes like eating lower on the food chain, cutting discretionary travel, living in a smaller house and having no more than one child – but our failure to even acknowledge, as individuals or collectively, that we have a problem. We have chosen instead, to use the words of Dr. Kidd, an unreliable worldview.
 
As John Michael Greer says, human beings are like yeast. They respond to increased access to food and energy with increased reproduction. In other words, marshmallows make us horny.
 
Our cockeyed worldview has a concatenation of causes. We are products of the religious views of our parents. We inhabit a globalized culture that infantilizes us while it trains us to become dedicated followers of fashion.  We like hearing the sound of our "own" voice in our heads. Add all that up and it amounts to simmering distrust. We are not at all prepared to delay gratification. The average child in Kidd's study waited only 6 minutes.
 
In his Long Now talk and in his book, The Marshmallow Test,  Walter Mischel spoke of our internal dialog in terms of a conflict between the "hot brain" that wants to operate on impulse and take what is right in front of it, and "cool brain," that is willing to wait, willing to trust, and then to reap the greater rewards.
 
Those who find themselves more often on the winning side – whether in athletics, business, politics or relationships – are those who have cool brains. They play the long game.
 
All too often they use the inabilities of opponents to see that long game to pad their advantage. That is how they get ahead.
 
Climate change and the existential threat it holds cannot even be perceived without a long view. It needs a cool brain, not a hot one. But there is a self-reinforcing feedback being played out here that does not work in favor of our species. Climate change weirds the normal course of things. It makes the environment for everyone unreliable. It seeds distrust. It makes brains hot.
 
The question then becomes, how can we develop cool brains? Mischel suggests several techniques of ideation that can help build self-control. What is clear, however, is that the best self-control starts early in life and is built upon a foundation of trust. The environment a child experiences will affect how much trust they can invest in adults, their culture — its rules and social responsibilities — and their future. Take away stability and trust from children and the effects of that loss ripple out to very large consequences for everyone.
 
"By changing cognitive skills and motivation, we can use the cool system to regulate the hot system," Mischel says. "Is it all pre-wired? My answer is an emphatic no."
Attention control strategies and cognitive transformations/reappraisals can 'cool' the immediate temptations and 'heat' the delayed consequences is what's important.
***
The point I am trying to make is that if we are going to talk seriously about taking long term consequences like climate change into account, we've got to make the consequences hot. We have to really make them hot. And that's not easy to do.
 
One of the reasons that it is not easy to do is because that limbic system, that hot system that activates automatically when you have high stress, is there for good reason.
 
We have often wondered whether continuing to write scary tomes about our future is an effective strategy. Mischel says it is and we need more of it. But we also need to cool our brains once they have grasped hot consequences.
 
His advice is to narrow the economic class divide, teach self-control in schools, assume everyone is capable of improving their skills, and stop creating new victims of biological and social biographies.
Mischel’s main worry is that, even if his lesson plan proves to be effective, it might still be overwhelmed by variables the scientists can’t control, such as the home environment. He knows that it’s not enough just to teach kids mental tricks—the real challenge is turning those tricks into habits, and that requires years of diligent practice. “This is where your parents are important,” Mischel says. “Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?” According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood—such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning—are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires. But Mischel isn’t satisfied with such an informal approach. “We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner,” he says. “We should say, ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.’ “
— Jonah Lehrer
 
From the presidential campaign now playing out in the United States and similar dramas in Brazil, Philippines and elsewhere, we can surmise that a cool brain standard is not in the immediate offing. It is easy to see the distinctions between the many hot brain / instant gratification candidates and constituencies, whose policies would widen the class divide, rekindle the Cold War and heat the planet, and the rare cool brain / calm and steadfast candidates and constituencies, who want to end divisive rhetoric, level the playing field, and pursue a path to real progress in peace, justice and transformative change.
 
Voting these days is like choosing between the hot faucet and the cold faucet, but only the hot faucet works.
 
Watching the Amish gather in the sheaves we see a culture that invests in trust. Children grow up relying on adults to be steadfast, seasons to come and go, and the good earth to provide. They learn self-denial and delayed gratification early. It becomes a joyful practice because it underpins a greater love of community, and the return of community love for each member.
 
Humans are capable of these things. We are capable of designing entire societies that function this way. Whether we choose to act rationally, with self-control, and not on impulse, is simply a matter of choice.

Repricing Reality

bizbuddha_6_10_flat gc2smFrom the keyboard of James Howard Kunstler
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Originally Published on Clusterfuck Nation February 15, 2016

 


It ought to be a foregone conclusion that Mr. Obama’s replacement starting January 20, 2017 will preside over conditions of disorder in everyday life and economy never seen before. For the supposedly thinking class in America, the end of reality-optional politics will come as the surprise of their lives.

Where has that hypothetical thinking class been, by the way, the past eight years? Don’t look for it in what used to be called “the newspapers.” The New York Times has become so reality-averse that the editors traded in their blue pencils for Federal Reserve cheerleader pompoms after the Lehman incident of 2008. Every information-dispensing organ has followed their lede: The Recovery Continues! It’s a sturdy plank for promoting the impaired asset known as Hillary.

Don’t look for the thinking class in the universities. They’ve surrendered their traditional duties to a new hybrid persecution campaign that is equal parts Mao Zedong, the Witches of Loudon, and the Asylum at Charenton. For instance the President of Princeton, Mr. Eisgruber, was confronted with a list of demands that included 1) erasure of arch-segregationist Woodrow Wilson’s name from everything on campus, and 2) creation of a new all-black (i.e. segregated) student center. He didn’t blink. Note: nobody in the media asked him about this apparent contradiction. That’s how we roll these days.

Don’t look for the thinking class in business. The C-suites are jammed with people still busy buying back stock in their own companies at outlandish prices with borrowed money. Why? To artificially boost share price and thus their salaries and bonuses. Does it do anything for the fitness of enterprise? No, in fact it makes future failure more likely. Why is their no governance of their insane behavior? Because they’ve also bought and paid for boards of directors composed of a rotating cast of praetorian shills, with fresh recruits entering the scene weekly through the fabled “revolving door” between business and government regulators.

Oh, and then there’s government. Anyone viewing the boasting-and-defamation contests that the cable TV networks call “debates” knows that these spectacles are based on the opposite of thinking. They are not only reality-optional, they’re thought-optional. Hence, it appears for now that America is fixing to elect either a primal screamer or a road-tested grifter to preside over the epochal collapse of our hobbled, exhausted, way of life.

The recent carnage in the stock markets will probably see a retracement after the President’s Day hiatus. They’re bouncing up in other parts of the world today, the triumph of hope over all the available evidence that something fatal has happened out there in Tom Friedman’s supposedly permanent global economy. Some observers suspect that it has something to do with the price of oil, because the oil futures market and the stock indexes seem to go up and down in tandem. But they don’t really get it.

How hard is it to understand that A) that something adverse happens to oil companies when it costs them $70-a-barrel to hoist the product out of the ground and then sell it for $30-a-barrel? And B) that all of the infrastructure of techno-industrial civilization was designed to run on oil under $30-a-barrel and founders when the price goes higher? That’s how it is. That’s your basic reality.

We’ve been trying to work around this vexing problem — the non-linear manifestation of the supposedly bygone predicament called “peak oil” — since the early part of this century. Mainly, we worked around it by borrowing money that wasn’t there. Having created this matrix of borrowed money, we’ve also created an expectation in market obligations that it must be paid back. In fact, the process of paying back money owed is the only thing that supports confidence in a system based on that essential trust — even if that expectation was unreal to begin with. When it is violated, terrible things happen in markets and economies.

Those terrible things are underway. We’re going to be a much-distressed and poorer so-called republic when this year is done with us. The markets will crack and the trade relations that comprise globalism will fall apart as nations and regions of nations struggle to survive. We’ll move inexorably to a very possibly disastrous election. We’ll face the basic choices, as distressed societies always do, of freaking-and-acting-out (usually in the form of war), or opting for a reunion with reality and its mandates. So far, it’s not looking good for the better option.

If you are a thinking person, the months ahead might be your last chance to protect whatever wealth you have and to move to some part of the country where, at least, you can grow some of your own food and become a useful part of a social and economic network that might be called a community.

 


James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.

Community in Death

Death-Rattlegc2reddit-logoOff the keyboard of Albert Bates

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Published on Peak Surfer on February 7, 2016

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"Denial is common among our kind of sapient apes and faith in the supernatural — angels, aliens, and economists — exposes our deeper fear of overdue reckonings."

 

 

 

 
When a person you know dies, a part of you must go too, like a thread being cut and a part of yourself unraveling. We are a weave of such threads, we two-leggeds, and our knits are a biochemical, emotional, electrical and microbial gestalt. We interweave with each other in ways that are seen and unseen, forming a fabric that we call, for lack of precision, "community."

We have been spending some winter months in recent years in a small village on the North coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. When we first arrived it was a not atypical coastal town with dirt streets and thatched or tin roofs. It is secure within one of Mexico's largest nature preserves, and it is here because the village pre-existed the reserve, so it was allowed to remain as long as it behaved, and then even when it didn't. Development has been very cruel to this region in recent years, has made it socially, economically and ecologically more fragile, and has set it up for a big fall in the not very distant future. 

We are much more comfortable wintering here than in the cold north, in Tennessee, or in touristy trendy spots like Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas or Playa del Carmen. Here we can find the quiet time we need to gather and sort our lost or jumbled thoughts, recover from our summer labors and travels and prepare for the work to come. We have written 5 books here and substantially contributed to at least twice that many more.

Before there was Cancún or the state of Quintana Roo, this had been just one more fishing village — a few hundred souls. It was known mainly for the quality of its hammocks and the beautiful seashells that washed up on its beaches. Because of its position along Cabo Catoche and the Straits of Cuba, it receives annual migrations of fish, birds, sea turtles and marine mammals and the biodiversity runs deep. The name of a nearby town is the Mayan word for manatee. The name for this place in Mayan is "black hole," a reference perhaps to the freshwater Yalahau cenote that for more than five centuries attracted whalers, pirates and explorers to refill their water casks. Among the older family lines you can recognize Russian, Nordic, Moorish, Maori and Portuguese lineages in facial hair, skin complexion, physical build and other features that are neither Yucatec nor Mestizo.

Here, where it is so full of life, is a strange place to think of death, but there come times when everyone needs to. Mexico has very different customs regarding death than its neighboring countries to the North. As Octavio Paz wrote in Labyrinth of Solitude:

"The Mexican … is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony."

When Hernan Cortes conquered the region that is now Mexico City, his conquistadors noticed a local ritual of making offerings to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen regnant of Mictlan, the underworld, ruling over the afterlife. In the Aztec codices, Mictecacihuatl is represented with a defleshed body, jaw agape to swallow the stars during the day. Cortes' priests were quick to link the Aztec rituals to the Catholic observances of All Hallows Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, just as they brilliantly connected the dark-skinned indigenous Madonna, the Virgin of Guadalupe, to the corn goddess, Chicomecoatl. Unlike the masses for the dead celebrated elsewhere, however, Dia de los Muertos is a happy occasion, with a carnivalesque atmosphere.

For the south of Mexico and in rural areas, death holds far greater social and cultural significance than in the north and large cities; families and communities may spend large parts of the year in smaller rituals and processions and it is not uncommon to find an altar in every home with images of the departed. The pre-Columbian concept of life and death was as part of a broader, never-ending cycle of existence, which dovetailed neatly with Christian and Asian traditions of veneration of the deceased, afterlife and reincarnation. In places and periods where unnatural death is a regular feature, as it was in much of Turtle Island after European contact and for 500 years, death becomes engrained as a cultural expression. As the artist Diego Rivera said in 1920: "If you look around my studio, you will see Deaths everywhere, Deaths of every size and color."

Our neighbor across the way on Calle Gonzalo Guerrero is Capitán Carmelo, a fisherman and whale shark diving guide. He is part of an old family in the town and an "abuelo" now, with grandchildren in their teens. A day ago his wife, Maria Coral de Sabatini, died and today the community laid her to rest. We are going to spend a few moments now describing that process, because it has a lot to say about the power of community, how it is built, how it is held, and how it passes between generations.

We started noticing Maria's cough a few years ago. She sort of shrugged it off, sitting as she did in her chair in front of her home every day, but we couldn't help but notice as it became deeper, more throaty and more painful. We suspected that because she and Carmelo neither drink nor smoke and neither does anyone else in their house, that it was not likely lung cancer but more probably tuberculosis. Her family simply called it las garras (the claws, or what we might call the grip). When we returned last year it had gotten so severe that she had lost a lot of weight and could not sit outside on dusty days. When we returned this year she was gone. We asked after her and Carmelo said she was in the hospital.

Then on Christmas she returned home. We asked her about her health and she said she lived day to day, “poca a poca,” little by little. We understood her to be dying. She had come to do that at home, among friends.

The knowledge that a person will die, combined with the uncertainty of not knowing when the event will happen, can be very stressful for family members and we witnessed this as the family drew together over the holidays. Then she seemed to recover, was up and about, and we were happy to see her walking to the corner store for eggs or fruit again, frail but smiling. The family dispersed again, the kids back to school, Carmelo and his son-in-law to fish each morning before sunrise.

A few days ago Maria's condition worsened and the family was pulled back together. Then one morning she suffered an arrest and the paramedics were summoned, followed by the police with the village pickup truck that doubles as an ambulance. We watched from our home and after an hour or so, the medics and police left and soon the village priest arrived.

Maria was given last rites by the priest and anointed with holy oil. If she was able, the priest heard her final confession, provided communion and offered absolution. Then began the vigil.

The vigil was attended mostly by immediate family, close neighbors and friends and lasted a day and a night, until Maria passed, peacefully, in her sleep. In the morning the family closed off the street and erected a tent. Chairs were brought and placed in a circle. A white coffin arrived, and Maria was bathed, dressed, and placed in it, on a pedestal in the front room of her home. For the next 24 hours, everyone who knew her came to pay their respects and say goodbye. They filed into the home and then out to the tent, where they sat, told stories, ate, sang. Musicians — different ones, separately and in groups — came with instruments, some several times. Choirs appeared and serenaded. Prayers were recited. Children came and sat with their elders or wandered in to stare at the body in the open coffin. Candles were lit. Elders were helped in, touched her, held her hand, said a prayer and were helped back out to the street. More candles were lit. More hymns, more prayers.

The wake continued through the night. A heavy rain fell, the heaviest of the winter so far. The songs got louder to drown the rain. Because Carmelo and Maria were teetotalers, there was no alcohol. This was a time for friends and family members to share memories of the past, to speak of their concerns for their own families, the village, the future. It is a moment when the fabric of the tribe is being woven. Lost threads are recovered. Wrongs are forgiven. Apologies are made. Expressions of friendship, kinship and love patch tears in the fabric. The children witness it all. This is part of their formative experience.

Maria was royalty. She bears the family name of José María Sabatini, for whom the annual fishing tournament is named. Her family, and the family of Carmelo, go back to the group that endured the great hurricane that swept away the original village on the Southwest point of the peninsula and made new islands there. They migrated their ejido southeast and built the village that is here now. There are a few names that appear most often in the cemetery that mark these families: Moguel, Ancona, Betancort, Avila, Nuñez, Rosado, Coral, Sabatini. Notice that these are not Mayan names and some are also not Spanish.

At sunrise a pickup truck fords the deep puddles and backs up to the house. The coffin and flowers are raised into the truck bed and the procession of mourners follows it at a walking pace to the church. There the coffin is unloaded, brought to the front of the nave and opened for viewing again. It is 8 am. Now the village gathers.

Capitan Carmelo is a vicar in the church and normally it would be his duty to prepare the way, usher the family to seats, read part of the scripture, and make the collection. Instead, he takes his position in the front row with his family while his fellow deacons, dressed in white, perform those functions. A choir forms at the vestry door and sings energetically at various points in the service. Loudspeakers in the nave make their small number seem larger than it is, but they sing in a style that is definitely homespun and authentic, not canned.
 

The cement angel motions the dead to hush up and sleep

Midway through, the town's power is lost, a not uncommon daily occurrence in this place. The priest does not even pause to acknowledge the loss. Lit through stained glass and with acapella choir, his mass does not miss a beat.

After communion, the pallbearers return to stand beside the coffin and Carmelo leans in to plant one last kiss on Maria before the lid comes down. It is a touching moment.

Then the coffin and flowers are carried back onto the bed of the pickup, which gets stuck turning around in the mud, and once unstuck, the long procession passes slowly through town and out to the cemetery in a light rain.

In Mexico it is said the dead return on certain days of the year. Those days they are remembered through special ceremonies. The body must be buried, not cremated, for their return to occur. Because we are on the sandy coast, the cemetery consists of aboveground vaults, cemented and tiled to protect from the sea. During Hurricane Wilma, the entire cemetery, and the town, went a meter or more under the waves and although the cemetery wall had to be repaired, relatively few of the vaults were badly damaged. Maria's family names, Coral and Sabatini, are on several of headstones.

Afterward, the mourners gather back in our street for a meal and reception. This is a time for levity, good food, and comforting those who are still dealing with their grief. Then, after two or more days awake, the family gets to sleep a short while and Maria Coral de Sabatini is gone but not forgotten.

The tent remains for the next 8 days, and each day there are visitors. Twice each day the front room of the house is filled with voices raised in hymn and the recitation of the rosary. On the final day, it is an all-night ceremony.

The cemetery is particularly poignant because this is a town that is built on the coral sand of a barrier island. The highest point of land is no more than 3 meters above the sea. Wetlands approach the edge of the cemetery and trash is being dumped there to fill the sinkholes. Some of that trash includes old monuments and broken crypts of the departed whose names have been forgotten, the marks on their stones and crosses rubbed out by time and salt air.

It might be denied by the government or wishful thinkers, but this is an entire town on death watch. The vigil begins every June, when it enters hurricane season, because one more Wilma could erase everything but the memories. Already regular tides that coincide with the moon are bringing seawater inland to places it has not reached in the memory of the elders. Many seawalls that were constructed after Wilma are now nearly obsolete. The population here continues to grow on the strength of tourism and Catholic fecundity, but where it will go when the town vanishes is anyone's guess. It is likely that many of these families could break apart. This is a community of place.

How long does it have? That's anyone's guess too. It could be a decade. Maybe two. Three seems unlikely, because both the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico are warming dramatically and molecular thermal expansion of the water, combined with the westerly currents at this latitude which dictate that sea level rise here will be stronger and faster than most other parts of the Earth. Southeastern Mexico, Galveston, New Orleans and Miami are on the front lines of climate change. Miami Beach, like here, has been sinking one inch each year, one foot every 12 years, and that is accelerating.

Some here believe that some supernatural event will spare this place its preordained fate. Denial is common among our kind of sapient apes and faith in the supernatural — angels, aliens, and economists — exposes our deeper fear of overdue reckonings. Still, not even the most hopeful provisions of The Paris Agreement can alter the fate of coastal cities and low islands now.

In the not-too-distant future the only way to visit Maria will be with a mask and snorkel. Unless the government decides to relocate everything, an unlikely prospect, she will still be here, and probably alongside Carmelo, when the rest of us have moved to higher ground. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Collapse Cafe 8/23/2015: TSHTF IV Futurology

Discuss this Vidcast at the Diner TV Lounge inside the Diner

gc2

Audio Only Podcast:

Well, we certainly timed this Vidcast well! 🙂

It's a marathon between the 3 parts we got recorded, we skipped over Part 3 to record at a later date on Climate & Geopolitics.  Part 4 here focuses on Economics,  Part 1 was on Energy and Part II on Economics.

All 3 parts are currently up on the Collapse Cafe You Tube Channel.  We will hopefully record Part III at a later date.

Thanks to all the participants, Nicole Foss, Gail Tverberg, Steve Ludlum, Tom Lewis, Norman Pagett, Ugo Bardi & my co-host Monsta.

RE

The Boundaries and Future of Solution Space

gc2smOff the keyboard of Nicole Foss

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Published on The Automatic Earth on August 20, 2015

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Join Nicole Foss, Gail Tverberg, Ugo Bardi, Tom Lewis, Steve Ludlum, Norman Pagett, RE & Monsta LIVE on Sunday at High Noon Alaska Time for a comprehensive discussion of the latest in Collase Dynamics on the Collapse Cafe You Tube Channel.

Intro

A great deal of intelligence is invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.
Saul Bellow, 1976

More and more people (although not nearly enough) are coming to recognise that humanity cannot continue on its current trajectory, as the limits we face become ever more obvious, and their implications starker. There is a growing realisation that the future must be different, and much thought is therefore being applied to devising supposed solutions for that future.

These are generally attempts to reconcile our need to make changes with our desire to continue something very much resembling our current industrial-world lifestyle, with a view to making a seamless transition between the now and a comfortably familiar future. The presumption is that it is possible, but this rests on foundational assumptions which vary between the improbable and the outright impossible. It is a presumption grounded in a comprehensive failure to understand the nature and extent of our predicament.

We are facing limits in many ways simultaneously – not surprising since exponential growth curves for so many parameters have gone critical in recent decades, and of course even more so in recent years. Some of these limits lie in human systems, while others are ecological or geophysical. They will all interact with each other, over different timeframes, in extremely complex ways as our state of overshoot resolves itself (to our dissatisfaction, to put it mildly) over many decades, if not centuries. Some of these limits are completely non-negotiable, while others can be at least partially mutable, and it is vital that we know the difference if we are to be able to mitigate our situation at all. Otherwise we are attempting to bargain with the future without understanding our negotiating position.

The vast majority has no conception of the extent to which our modernity is an artifact of our discovery and pervasive exploitation of fossil fuels as an energy source. No species in history has had easy, long term access to a comparable energy source. This unprecedented circumstance has facilitated the creation of turbo-charged civilization.

Huge energy throughput, in line with the Maximum Power Principle, has led to tremendous complexity, far greater extractive capacity (with huge ‘environmental externalities’ as a result), far greater potential to concentrate enormous power in the hands of the few with destructive political consequences), a far higher population, far greater burden on global carrying capacity, and the ability to borrow from the future to satisfy the insatiable greed of the present. The fact that we are now approaching so many limits has very significant implications for our ability to continue with any of these aspects of modern life. Therefore, any expectation that a future in the era of limits is likely to resemble the present (with a green gloss) are ill-founded and highly implausible.

The majority of the Big Ideas with which we propose to bargain with our future of limits to growth rests on the notion that we can retain our modern comforts and conveniences, but that somehow we will do so with far less resource use, and with a fraction of the energy we currently employ. The most mainstream discussions revolve around ‘green growth’, where it is suggested that eternal economic growth can occur on a finite planet, and that we will magically decouple of that growth from the physical basis upon which it rests. Proponents argue that we have already accomplished this to an extent, as the apparent energy intensity of developed state economies has fallen.

In actuality, all that has happened is that the energy deployed to provide developed world comforts has been used in the emerging markets where goods destined for our markets are manufactured, so that the consumption falls within someone else’s energy budget. In reality there has been no decoupling at all. Economic growth requires energy, and there is an exceptionally high correlation between the two. Even the phantom growth of the bubble era, based on the expansion of virtual wealth, requires energy in order to maintain the complexity of the system that generates it.

It is crucial that we understand the boundaries of solution space, in order to be able to focus our finite resources (in every sense of the word) on that which is inherently workable, at least in theory. ‘Workable In theory’ implies that, while there is no guarantee of success given a large number of unpredictable factors, there is also no obvious prima facie barrier to success. If, however, we throw our resources at ideas that are subject to such barriers, and therefore lie beyond solution space, we guarantee that those initiatives will fail and that the resources so committed will have been wasted. It is important to note that ‘success’ does not mean being able to maintain anything remotely resembling business as usual. It refers to being able to achieve the best possible outcome under the circumstances.

Sculptors work by carving away excess material in order to reveal the figure within the block they are working with. Similarly, we can carve away from the featureless monolith of conceivable approaches those that we can see in advance are doomed to fail, leaving us with a figuratively coherent group of potentially workable ideas.

In order to carve away the waste material and get closer to a much smaller set of viable possibilities, we need to understand some of the non-negotiable factors we will be facing, each of which has implications restrictive of viable solution space. Many of these issues are the fundamental substance of the message we have been propagating at the Automatic Earth since its inception and will therefore constitute a review for our regular readership. For more detail on these topics, check out our primers section.


Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression

As we have maintained since the Automatic Earth’s launch in early 2008, we have lived through a gigantic monetary expansion over the last 30 years or so –  the largest financial departure from reality in human history. In doing so we have created a crisis of under-collateralization. This period was highly inflationary, as we saw a vast increase in the supply of money and credit versus available goods and services. Both currency printing and credit hyper-expansion constitute inflation, but the outcome, and therefore prescription, for each is very different. While currency printing cuts the real wealth pie into many more pieces, each of which will be very small, credit expansions such as this one create multiple and mutually exclusive claims to the same pieces of pie, hence we have generated a vast quantity of excess claims to underlying real wealth.

In other words, we have created a bubble of virtual wealth, with no substance to back up the pile of promises to repay that it rests upon. As we have said before, this amounts to playing a giant game of musical chairs where there is perhaps one chair for every hundred people playing the game. When the music stops, those best positioned to understand the rules of the game will grab a chair as quickly as possible. Everyone else will be out of the game. The endgame of credit expansion is always a credit implosion, where the excess claims are rapidly and messily extinguished. This is, of course, deflation by definition – a contraction in the supply of money and credit relative to available goods and services – through the collapse of the credit supply, where credit is of the order of 99% of the effective money supply.

A credit implosion crashes both the money supply and the velocity of money – the rate at which money circulates in the economy. Together these factors determine how much economic activity can be sustained. With both the money supply and the velocity of money very low, a state of liquidity crunch exists, where there is insufficient liquidity in the economy to connect buyers and sellers, or producers and consumers. Nothing moves, so there is little or no economic activity. Note that demand is not what one wants, but what one can pay for, so with little purchasing power available, demand will be very low under such circumstances.

During the expansion, both the money supply and the velocity of money increased dramatically, and the resulting artificial stimulation of demand led to an increase in supply, with the ability to sustain a much larger than normal amount of economic activity. But once the limit is reached, where all the income streams of the productive economy can no longer service the debt created, and there are no more willing borrowers or lenders, the demand stimulation disappears, leaving a great deal of supply without a market. The demand that had been effectively borrowed from the future, must be ‘repaid’ once the bubble bursts, leading to a prolonged period of low demand. The supply that had arisen to service it no longer has a reason to exist and cannot be maintained.

The economy moves into a period of seizure under such cIrcumstances. We have frequently compared attempting to run an economy with too small a money supply in circulation to trying to run an automobile with the oil warning light on, indicating too little lubricant. Engines seize up when run with too little lubricant, a role played by money in the case of the engine of the economy. The situation created can also be compared to a computer operating system crash, where nothing functions until the system has been rebooted. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, people noted that they had plenty of everything except money. Liquidity crunch creates a condition of artificial scarcity, where even being surrounded by resources is of little use for a period of time once the operating system has crashed and has yet to be ‘rebooted’.

We will be looking at a period of acute liquidity crunch followed by a long period of chronic financial instability. The initial contraction will be driven by fear and that fear will persist for a long time. This will result in little credit being made available, and only at high cost. In other words, interest rates, which are a risk premium, will be very high as we move beyond the initial phase of contraction and fear is in the drivers seat. Deflation and economic depression are mutually reinforcing, hence once that downward spiral, or vicious circle, dynamic has taken hold, we will remain in its grip for many years.

Given that the cost of capital will be very high, and there will be little purchasing power, proposed solutions which are capital-intensive will lie outside solution space.


The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon

The collective mood shifts rapidly from optimism and greed to pessimism and fear as the bubble bursts, and as it does so, the financial system moves from expansion to contraction. Financial contraction involves the breaking of promises right left and centre, with credit instruments drastically revalued downwards in the process. As the promises that back them cease to be credible, value disappears extremely rapidly. This is deflation and the elimination of excess claims to underlying real wealth.

Instruments once regarded as money equivalents will lose that status through the loss of confidence in them, causing the supply of what retains sufficient confidence to still be regarded as money to collapse. The more instruments lose the confidence that confers value upon them, the smaller the effective money supply will be, and the more confidence will become a rare ‘commodity’. Being grounded in psychology is the primary reason that deflation cannot be overcome through policy adaptations which are inherently too little and too late. Nothing moves as quickly as a collective loss of confidence in human promises, and nothing destroys value as comprehensively.

The same abrupt change in collective mood will also drive contraction in the real economy, but more slowly, since the time constant for change in the real world is much slower than in the virtual world of finance. This process will also result in broken promises as structural dependencies fracture when there is no longer enough to go around. There will be wage and benefit cuts, layoffs, strikes, strike-breaking, breaches of contract, business failures and more on a huge scale, and these will fuel further fear, anger and the destruction of trust.

In the political realm, trust, such as it is, will be an early casualty. Political promises have been regarded as highly suspect for a long time in any case, but considering that the electorate tends consistently to vote for whomever tells them the largest number of comforting lies, this is not particularly surprising. Our political system selects for mendaciousness by design, since no party is normally elected by telling the truth, yet we have still collectively retained some faith in the concept of democracy until relatively recently. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly clear that the political institutions in supposedly democratic nations have largely been bought by big capital. More often than not, and more blatantly than ever, the political machinery has come to serve those special interests, not the public interest.

The public is increasingly realizing that ‘representative democracy’ leaves them unrepresented, as they see more and more examples of austerity for the masses combined with enormous bailouts guaranteeing that the large scale gamblers of casino capitalism will not take losses on the reckless bets they made gambling with other people’s money. In the countries subjected to austerity, where the contrast is the most stark, a wave of public anger is already depriving national governments, or supranational governance institutions where applicable (ie Europe), of political legitimacy. As more and more states slide into the austerity trap as a result of their unsustainable debt burdens, this polarization process will continue, driving wedges between the governors and the governed which will make governance far more difficult.

Governments struggling with the loss of political legitimacy are going to find that people will no longer follow rules once they feel that the social contract has been violated, and that rules no longer represent the public interest. When the governed broadly accept that society functions under the rule of law, in other words that all are equally subject to the same rules, then they tend to internalize those rules and follow them without the need for negative incentives or outright enforcement. However, once the dominant perception becomes that rules are imposed only on the powerless, to their detriment and for the benefit of the powerful, while the well connected can do as they please, then general compliance can cease very quickly.

Without compliance, force would become necessary, and we are indeed likely to see this occur as a transitional phase as social polarization increases in a climate of increasing anger. The transitional element arises from the fact that force, especially as exercised technologically at large scale, requires substantial resources which are unlikely to remain available. Force produces reaction, straining the fabric of society, quite possibly to breaking point.

As contagion propagates the impact of financial and economic contraction, we will rapidly be moving from a long era of high trust in the value of promises to one of low trust. The trust horizon will contract sharply, leaving supranational and national governments lying beyond its reach, as stranded assets from a trust perspective. Trust determines effective organizational scale, so when the trust horizon draws in, withdrawing political legitimacy in its wake, larger scale entities, whether public or private, are going to find it extremely difficult to function. Effective organizational scale had been increasing for the duration of our long economic expansion, forcing an across the board scaling up of all manner of organizations by increasing the competitiveness accruing to large scale. As we scaled up, we formed structural dependencies on these larger scale entities’ ability to function.

While the scaling-up process was reasonable smooth and seamless, the scaling-down process will not be, as the lower rungs of the figurative ladder we climbed to reach this pinnacle have been kicked out as we ascended. Structural dependencies are going to fail very painfully as large scale ceases to be effective and competitive, leading to abrupt dislocations with ricocheting impacts.

Proposed solutions to our predicament that depend on the functioning of large-scale organizations operating in a top-down manner do not lie within viable solution space.


Instability and the ‘Discount Rate’

The pessimism-and-fear-driven psychology of contraction differs dramatically from the optimism-and-greed-driven psychology of expansion. The extreme complacency as to systemic risk of recent years will be replaced by an equally extreme risk aversion, as we move from overshoot in one direction to undershoot in the other. The perception of economic visibility is gong to change substantially, as we move from a period where people thought they knew where things were headed into an era where fear and confusion reign, and the sense of predictability evaporates abruptly.

This is an important psychological shift, as it affects an aspect known as the ‘discount rate’, which reflects the extent to which we think in the short term rather than the long term, or the extent to which we value the present over the future. The perceived rate of change is an important factor in determining the discount rate, and fear, being a very sharp emotion, causes the rate of change to accelerate markedly, driving the discount rate sharply higher in contractionary times.

True long term thinking is relatively rare. We manage an approximation of it at times when all immediate needs, along with many mere ‘wants’, are met and we are not concerned about this condition changing, in other words at times when we take a comfortable situation for granted. At such times, the longer term view is a luxury we can afford, and we find it relatively simple to summon the presence of mind to think abstractly and constructively, and to ponder circumstances which are are neither personal nor immediate. Even at such times, however, it is not particularly common for humans to transcend mere contemplation and actually act in the interests of the long term, especially if it involves aspects beyond the personal, or perhaps familial.

As the financial bubble bursts, and we rapidly begin to pick up on the fear of others and feel the consequences of contagion in our own lives, our collective discount rates are going to sky-rocket. In a relatively short period of time, a large percentage of the population is going to begin worry about immediate needs, let alone wants, not being met. A short time later those worries are likely to transition into reality, as has already happened in the countries, like Greece, in the forefront of the bursting bubble. As discount rates go through the roof, the luxury of the longer term view, which is always quite ephemeral, is likely to disappear altogether.

Where people have no supply cushions and find themselves abruptly penniless, cold, thirsty, hungry or homeless, the likelihood of them considering anything much beyond the needs of the day at hand is very low. Under such circumstances, the present becomes the only reality that matters, and societies are abruptly pitched into a panicked state of short term crisis management. This of course underlines the need to develop supply cushions and contingency plans in advance of a bubble bursting, so that a greater percentage of people might be able to retain a clear head and the ability to plan more than one day at a time. Unfortunately, few are likely to heed advance warnings and we can expect society to shift rapidly into a state of short-termism.

Given the coming rise in collective discount rates, if proposed solutions depend on the ability for societies to engage in rational planning for longer term goals, then those solutions are not part of solution space.


The Psychology of Contraction and Social Context

Expansionary times are times of relative peace and prosperity. If those conditions persist for a relatively long time, trust builds slowly and societies become more inclusive and cooperative, tending to perceive common humanity and focus on similarities rather than differences. In such times we reach out and interact with distant people, even if we have no relationship of personal trust with them, as we have, over time, vested our trust in stable institutional frameworks for managing our affairs. This institutional trust replaces the need for trust at a personal level and is a key factor in our ability to scale up our economies and their governance structures. Individuals raised in such an environment tend to show a presumption of trust towards others, and their inclination is generally to act cooperatively.

There is a sharp contrast between this stable state of affairs and the circumstances which pertain when suddenly the pie is shrinking and there is not enough to go around. As difficult as it can be to share gains in a way perceived to be fair, it is infinitely more difficult to share losses in a way that is not extremely divisive. As elucidated above, a deflationary credit implosion involved the wholesale destruction of excess claims to underlying real wealth, meaning that a majority of people who thought they had a valid claim to something of tangible value are going to find that they do not. The losses will be very widespread, but uneven, and the perception of unfairness will be almost universal.

Under such circumstances a sense of common humanity is much less prevalent, and the focus shifts from similarities to the differences upon which social divisions are founded and then inflamed. An ‘us versus them’ dynamic is prone to take hold, where ‘us’ becomes ever more tightly defined and ‘them’ becomes an ever more pejorative term. People build literal and figurative walls and peer suspiciously at each other over them. Rather than working together in the attempt to address concerns common to all, division shifts the focus from cooperation to competition. A collectively constructive mindset can easily morph into something far more motivated by negative emotions such as jealousy and revenge and therefore far more destructive of perceived commonality.

The kind of initiatives which capture the public imagination in expansionary times are not at all the type which get traction once a contractionary dynamic takes hold. Attempts to build cooperative projects are going to be facing a rising tide of negative social mood, and will struggle to get off the ground. Sadly, negative ideas are far more likely to go viral than positive ones. Novel movements grounded in anger and fear may arise to feed on this new emotional context and thereby be empowered to wreak havoc on the fabric of society, notably through providing a political mandate to extremists with an agenda of focusing blame on to some identifiable, and marginalizable, social group.

While it will not be the case that cooperative endeavours will be impossible to achieve, they will require additional effort, and are likely to succeed only at a much smaller scale in a newly fractured society than might previously have been expected. It is very much a worthwhile effort, and will be far simpler if begun prior to the end of the period of cooperative presumption. All the more reason to adapt to a major trend change adapt in advance. There is nothing so dangerous as collectively dashed expectations.

If proposed solutions depend on a cooperative social context at large scale, they will not be part of solution space.


Energy – Demand Collapse Followed by Supply Collapse

As we have noted many times, energy is the master resource, and has been the primary driver of an expansion dating back to the beginning of the industrial revolution. In fossil fuels humanity discovered the ‘holy grail’ of energy sources – highly concentrated, reasonably easy to obtain, transportable and processable into many useful forms. Without this discovery, it is unlikely that any human empire would have exceeded the scale and technological sophistication of Rome at its height, but with it we incrementally developed the capacity to reach for the stars along an exponential growth curve.

We increased production year after year, developed uses for our energy surplus, and then embedded layer upon successive layer of structural dependency on those uses within our societies. We were living in an era of a most unusual circumstance – energy surplus on an unprecedented scale. We have come to think this is normal as it has been our experience for our whole lives, and we therefore take it for granted, but it is a profoundly anomalous and temporary state of affairs.

We have arguably reached peak production, despite a great deal of propaganda to the contrary. We still rely on the giant oil fields discovered decades ago for the majority of the oil we use today, but these fields are reaching the end of their lives and new discoveries are very small in comparison. We are producing from previous finds on a grand scale, but failing to replace them, not through lack of effort, but from a fundamental lack of availability. Our dependence on oil in particular is tremendous, given that it underpins both the structure and function of industrial society in a myriad different ways.

An inability to grow production, or even maintain it at current levels past peak, means that our oil supply will be constricted, and with it both the scope of society’s functions and our ability to maintain what we have built. Production from the remaining giant fields could collapse, either as they finally water out or as production is hit by ‘above ground factors’, meaning that it could be impacted by rapidly developing human events having nothing to do with the underlying geology. Above ground factors make for unpredictable wildcards.

Financial crisis, for instance, will be profoundly destabilizing, and is going to precipitate very significant, and very negative, social consequences that are likely to impact on the functioning of the energy industry. A liquidity crunch will cause purchasing power to collapse, greatly reducing demand at personal, industrial and national scales. With production geared to previous levels of demand, it will feel like a supply glut, meaning that prices will plummet.

This has already begun, as we have recently described. The effect is exacerbated by the (false) propaganda over recent years regarding unconventional supplies from fracking and horizontal drilling that are supposedly going to result in limitless supply. As far as price goes, it is not reality by which it is determined, but perception, even if that perception is completely unfounded.

The combination of perception that oil is plentiful, falling actual demand on economic contraction, and an acute liquidity crunch is a recipe for very low prices, at least temporarily. Low prices, as we are already seeing, suck the investment out of the sector because the business case evaporates in the short term, economic visibility disappears for what are inherently long term projects, and risk aversion becomes acute in a climate of fear.

Exploration will cease, and production projects will be mothballed or cancelled. It is unlikely that critical infrastructure will be maintained when no revenue is being generated and money is very scarce, meaning that reviving mothballed projects down the line may be either impossible, or at least economically non-viable.

The initial demand collapse may buy us time in terms of global oil depletion, but at the expense of aggravating the situation considerably in the longer term. The lack of investment over many years will see potential supply collapse as well, so that the projects we may have thought would cushion the downslope of Hubbert’s curve are unlikely to materialize, even if demand eventually begins to recover.

In addition, various factions of humanity are very likely to come to blows over the remaining sources, which, after all, confer upon the owner liquid hegemonic power. We are already seeing a new three-way Cold War shaping up between the US, Russia and China, with nasty proxy wars being fought in the imperial periphery where reserves or strategic transport routes are located. Resource wars will probably do more than anything else to destroy with infrastructure and supplies that might otherwise have fuelled the future.

Given that the energy supply will be falling, and that there will, over time, be competition for increasingly scarce energy resources that we can no longer take for granted, proposed solutions which are energy-intensive will lie outside of solution space.


Declining Energy Profit Ratio and Socioeconomic Complexity

It is not simply the case that energy production will be falling past the peak. That is only half the story as to why energy available to society will be drastically less in the future in comparison with the present. The energy surplus delivered to society by any energy source critically depends on the energy profit ratio of production, or energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).

The energy profit ratio is the comparison between the energy deployed in order to produce energy from any given source, and the resulting energy output. Naturally, if it were not possible to produce more than than the energy required upfront to do so (an EROEI equal to one), the exercise would be pointless, and ideally one would want to produce a multiple of the input energy, and the higher the better.

In the early years of the oil fuel era, one could expect a hundred-fold return on energy invested, but that ratio has fallen by something approximating a factor of ten in the intervening years. If the energy profit ratio falls by a factor of ten, gross production must rise by a factor ten just for the energy available to society to remain the same. During the oil century, that, and more, is precisely what happened. Gross production sky-rocketed and with it the energy surplus available to society.

However, we have now produced and consumed the lions’s share of the high energy profit ratio energy sources, and are depending on lower and lower EROEI sources for the foreseeable future. The energy profit ratio is set to fall by a further factor of ten, but this time, being past the global peak of production, we will not be able to raise gross production. In fact both gross production and the energy profit ratio will be falling at the same time, meaning that the energy surplus available to society is going to be very sharply curtailed. This will compound the energy crisis we unwittingly face going forward.

The only rationale for supposedly ‘producing energy’ from an ‘energy source’ with an energy profit ratio near, or even below, one, would be if one can nevertheless make money at it temporarily, despite not producing an energy return at all. This is more often the case at the moment than one might suppose. In our era of money created from nothing being thrown at all manner of losing propositions, as it always is at the peak of a financial bubble, a great deal of that virtual wealth has been pursuing energy sources and energy technologies.

Prior to the topping of the financial bubble, commodities of all kinds had been showing exponential price rises on fear of impending scarcity, thanks to the human propensity to extrapolate current trends, in this case commodity demand, forward to infinity. In addition technology investments of all kinds were highly fashionable, and able to attract investment without the inconvenient need to answer difficult questions. The combination of energy and technology was apparently irresistible, inspiring investors to dream of outsized profits for years to come. This was a very clear example of on-going dynamics in finance and energy intertwining and acting as mutually reinforcing drivers.

Both unconventional fossil fuels and renewable energy technologies became focii for huge amounts of inward investment. These are both relatively low energy profit energy sources, on average, although the EROEI varies considerably. Unconventional fossil fuels are a very poor prospect, often with an EROEI of less than one due to the technological complexity, drilling guesswork and very rapid well depletion rates.

However, the propagandistic hype that surrounded them for a number of years, until reality began to dawn, was sufficient to allow them to generate large quantities of money for those who ran the companies involved. Ironically, much of this, at least in the United states where most of the hype was centred, came from flipping land leases rather than from actual energy production, meaning that much of this industry was essentially nothing more than an elaborate real estate ponzi scheme.

Renewables, as we currently envisage them, unfortunately suffer from a relatively low energy profit ratio (on average), a dependence on fossil fuels for both their construction and distribution infrastructure, and a dependence on a wide array of non-renewable components.

We typically insist on deploying them in the most large-scale, technologically complex manner possible, thereby minimising the EROEI, and quite likely knocking it below one in a number of cases. This maximises monetary profits for large companies, thanks to both investor gullibility and greed and also to generous government subsidy regimes, but generally renders the exercise somewhere between pointless and counter-productive in long term energy supply terms.

For every given society, there will be a minimum energy profit ratio required to support it in its current form, that minimum being dependent on the scale and complexity involved. Traditional agrarian societies were based on an energy profit ratio of about 5, derived from their food production methods, with additional energy from firewood at a variable energy profit ratio depending on the environment. Modern society, with its much larger scale and vastly greater complexity, naturally has a far higher energy profit ratio requirement, probably not much lower than that at which we currently operate.

We are moving into a lower energy profit ratio era, but lower EROEI energy sources will not be able to maintain our current level of socioeconomic complexity, hence our society will be forced to simplify. However, a simpler society will not be able to engage in the complex activities necessary to produce energy from these low EROEI sources. In other words, low energy profit ratio energy sources cannot sustain a level of complexity necessary to produce them. They will not fuel the simpler future which awaits us.

Proposed solutions dependent on the current level of socioeconomic complexity do not lie within solution space.


Blind Alleys and Techno-Fantasies

The majority of proposals made by those who acknowledge limits fail on at least one of the previous criteria, and often several, if not all of them. Solution space is smaller than we typically think. The most common approach is to insist on government policies intended to implement meaningful change by fiat. Even in the best of times, government policy is a blunt instrument which all too often achieves the opposite of its stated intention, and in contractionary times the likelihood of this increases enormously.

Governments are reactive – and slowly – not proactive. Policies typically reflect the realities of the past, not the future, and are therefore particularly maladaptive at times of large scale trend change, particularly when that change unfolds rapidly. Those focusing on government policy are mostly not thinking in terms of crisis, however, but of seamless proactive adjustment – the kind of which humanity is congenitally incapable.

There is a common perception that government policy and its effect on society depends critically on who holds the seat of power and what policies they impose. The assumption is that elected leaders do, in fact, wield the power to determine and implement their chosen policies, but this has become less and less the case over time. Elected leaders are the public face of a system which they do not control, and increasingly act merely as salesmen for policies determined behind the scenes, mostly at the behest of special interest groups with privileged political access.

It actually matters little who is the figure-head at any given time, as their actions are constrained by the system in which they are embedded. Even if leaders fully understood the situation we face, which is highly unlikely given the nature of the leadership selection process, they would be unable to change the direction of a system so much larger than themselves.

Where public pressure on elected governments develops around a specific issue, for whatever reason, the political response is generally to act in such a way as to appear to do something meaningful, while actually making no substantive change at all. Often the appearance of action is nothing more than vacuous political spin, assuaging public opinion while doing nothing to threaten the extractive interests driving the system in the same direction as always. We cannot expect truly adaptive initiatives to emerge from a system hostage to powerful vested interests and therefore locked into a given direction.

Public understanding of the issues agitated for or against tends, unfortunately, to be limited and one-dimensional, meaning that it is essentially impossible to create public pressure for truly informed policy changes, and it is relatively simple to claim that the appearance of action constitutes actual action. A short public attention span makes this even simpler. People are also extremely unlikely to vote for policies which, if they were to make a meaningful difference, would amount to depriving those same people of the outsized consumption habits to which they have become accustomed. The insurmountable obstacles to achieving change through government policy become obvious.

Planned degrowth assumes the possibility of a smooth progression towards a lower consumption future, but this is not how contractions unfold following the bursting of a bubble. What we can expect is a series of abrupt dislocations that are going to wreak havoc with our collective ability to plan anything at all for many years, by which time we will already be living in a lower consumption future arrived at chaotically. Effective planning for an epochal shift requires the capacity for top-down policy implementation at large scale, combined with social cohesion, the ability to maintain complexity, and the energy to maintain control over a myriad distinct aspects simultaneously. It is simply not going to happen in the manner that proponents envisage.

Similarly, a steady state economy is not a realistic construct in light of many non-negotiable realities. Human history, and in fact the non-human evolution which preceded it, is a dynamic history of boom and bust, of niches opening up, being exploited, being over-exploited and collapsing. It is a history of opportunism and the consequences following from it. In the human experience, boom and bust in the form of the rise and fall of empire is an emergent property of civilizational scale. A steady state at this scale is prima facie impossible.

An approximation of steady state can exist under certain circumstances, where a population well below ecological carrying capacity, and surrounded by abundance, is left in isolation for a very long period of time. The Australian aboriginal existence prior to the European invasion is probably the best example, having persisted for tens of thousands of years. The circumstances which permitted it were, however, diametrically opposite to those we currently face.

Proponents of the steady state economy do not seem to appreciate the extent to which we have long since transgressed the point of no return from the perspective of being able to maintain what we have built. Even if we were merely approaching limits, instead of having moved substantially into overshoot, we would not be able to hold society in stasis just below those limitations.

Populations grow and expansion proceeds with it. Intentionally preventing population growth globally is unrealistic. Even China, as a single country, has struggled with population control policies, and has had to take drastic and dictatorial measures in order to slow population growth. This clearly relies on strong top-down control, which is only barely possible at a national level and will never be possible at a global level.

In China we are also going to see that the outcome of population control has challenging consequences, and that a policy supposedly designed to foster stability can have the opposite effect. The desire for a male child has dangerously distorted the gender ratio in ways which will leave the country with a large excess of young men with no prospects for either work or marriage. That is a guarantee of trouble, either at home or abroad, or possibly both. There will also be far too few employed young people to look after a burgeoning elderly population, meaning a rapid die-off of the elderly cohort at some point.

Even then China is unlikely to have managed to get itself back below the carrying capacity it has done so much to destroy during its frantic dash for growth. The tremendous modernity drive China has engaged in essentially undone any benefit curbing population growth might have had, by increasing energy and resource consumption per capita by an enormous margin. It is population times consumption which determines impact, and in China the ecological impact has in many ways been catastrophic. That has to some extent been compensated for by obtaining access to a great deal of land in other countries, but economic colonialism has done nothing for global stability.

While it is possible to conceive, as some steady-state and degrowth proponents do, of a world in which civilization and large-scale urbanism have been dismantled in favour of autonomous, yet networked, village-scale settlements, that does not make it even remotely realistic. Humanity may, in the distant future, after the overshoot condition has been resolved by nature, as it will eventually be, find itself living in villages once again, but they would not be networked in the modern, technological sense, and the population they housed would be very smaller smaller than at present.

If it is below carrying capacity, then it will grow again, restarting the cycle of expansion and contraction rather than settling for a steady-state. Reaching for the stars again would not be possible however, as the necessary energy and resources have already been consumed or dissipated.

People are often inclined to think that a different trajectory is a matter of choice – for instance that we must collectively choose to live differently in order to prevent an ecological catastrophe. In fact it is not a matter of choice at all. There is no basis for top-down control capable of delivering meaningful change, nor would humanity ever collectively choose to scale back its consumption pattern, although individuals can and do. Given opportunities as a species, we take them, as evolution has shaped us to do.

Groups which made a habit of forgoing opportunities in the past would quickly have been out-competed by those who did not. We are the descendants of a long long line of opportunists, selected over millennia for our flexibility in turning an incredibly wide range of circumstances to our advantage. But, in this instance we will have no choice – the shift to lower consumption will be imposed on us by circumstance. The element of choice will be only in how we choose to face that which we cannot change.

Another class of ideas for ways forward is grounded in techno-optimism, suggesting that because human beings are clever and creative, and have tended to push back apparent limits before, that we will be able to do so indefinitely. The notion is that changing our trajectory is unnecessary because limits can always be circumvented. Needless to say, such a view is not grounded in physical reality. These ‘solutions’ are entrepreneurial rather than policy-driven, although they may expect to be facilitated through policy.

Ideas in this category would include such things as smart renewables-based power grids, high-performance electric cars, high-tech energy storage systems, thorium reactors, fusion reactors, biofuels, genetically modified (pseudo)foodstuffs, geoengineering, enhanced automation, high-tech carbon sequestration, global carbon trading platforms, electronic crypto-currencies, clean-tech, vertical farming skyscrapers and many other notions.

Notice that all of these presume the ready availability of cheap energy and resources, along with large quantities of capital, and all assume that technological complexity can be maintained or even increased. Options such as these also have a substantial dependence on the continuation of globalized trade in both goods and services in order to satisfy their complex supply chains. However, globalization depends on the ability to operate at large scale in extremely complex ways, it depends on cheap energy, it depends on maintaining trust in trading partners, and it depends on the ability to travel without facing unacceptable levels of physical risk from piracy or conflict.

Trade does very poorly in times of financial and economic contraction. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, trade fell by 66% in two years. Trust collapses, and with it the contractual ability to agree on risk-sharing arrangements. Letters of credit become impossible to obtain in a credit crunch, and without them goods do not move.

Many goods will in any case have no market, as there will be little purchasing power for anything but essentials, and possibly not even sufficient for those. As we move from the peak of globalized trade, there will be an enormous excess of transport capacity, which will drive prices down relentlessly to the point where transporting goods becomes uneconomic. Much transport capacity will be scrapped. Without credit to oil the wheels of trade, our highly leveraged economic system will grind to a halt.

It is natural that we regard our current situation as being normal, and take for granted that the march of technological progress – the only reality most of us have known – will continue. Few question very deeply the foundations of our societies, and even those who do recognize that change must occur rarely realize the extent to which that change will inevitably strike at the fundamental basis of modern existence. Globalization has peaked and will shortly be moving into reverse. The world will be a very different place as a result.


Solution Space

To use the word ‘solution’ is perhaps misleading, since it could be said to imply that circumstances exist which could allow us to continue business as usual, and this is not, in fact, the case. A crunch period cannot be avoided. We face an intractable predicament, and the consequences of overshoot are going to manifest no matter what we do. However, while we may not be able to prevent this from occurring, we can mitigate the impact and lay the foundation for a fundamentally different and more workable way of being in the world.

Acknowledging the non-negotiable allows us to avoid beating our heads against a brick wall, freeing us to focus on that which we can either influence or change, and acknowledging the limits within which we must operate, even in these areas, allows us to act far more effectively without wasting scarce resources on fantasies. There are plenty of actions which can be taken, but those with potential for building a viable future will be inexpensive, small-scale, simple, low-energy, community-based initiatives. It will be important to work with natural systems in accordance with permaculture principles, rather than in opposition to them as currently do so comprehensively.

We require viable ways forward across different timeframes, first to navigate the rapid-onset acute crisis which the bursting of a financial bubble will pitch us into, and then to reboot our global operating system into a form less reminiscent of a planet-killing ponzi scheme. The various limits we face do not manifest all at the same time, and so to some extent can be navigated sequentially. The first phase of our constrained future, which will be primarily financial and social, will occur before the onset of energy supply difficulties for instance. Some initiatives are of particular value at specific times, and other have general value across timescales.

Moving into financial contraction is going to feel like having the rug pulled out from under our feet, and all the assumptions upon which we have based our lives invalidated all at once. Preparing in advance can make all the difference to the impact of such an event. At an individual level, it is important to avoid holding debt and to hold cash on hand. It is also very useful to have prepared in advance by developing practical skills, obtaining control over the essentials of one’s own existence where possible and being located in an auspicious place. Human skills such as mediation and organizational ability will be very useful for calming inevitable social tensions.

However, community initiatives will have far greater impact than individual actions. The most effective paths will be those we choose to walk with others, as even in times when effective organizational scale is falling, it does not fall far enough to make acting individually the most adaptive strategy. Even in contractionary times, cooperation is not only possible, but vital. In the absence of lost institutional trust, it must occur within networks of genuine interpersonal trust, and these are of necessity small. Building such networks in advance of crisis is exceptionally important, as they are very much more difficult to construct after the fact, when we will be facing an unforgiving social atmosphere.

Cohesive communities will act together in times of crisis, and will be able to offer significant support to each other. The path dependency aspect is important – the state we find ourselves in when crisis hits will be an major determinant of how it plays out in a given area. Anything people come together to do will build social capital and relationships of trust, which are the foundation of society. Community gardens, perma-blitzes (permaculture garden make-overs), maker-spaces, time-banks, savings pools, local currency initiatives, community hub developments, skills training programmes, asset mapping and contingency planning are but a few of the possibilities for bringing people together.

Essential functions can be reclaimed locally, providing for far greater local self-sufficiency potential. The existence of locally-focused businesses, with local supply chains and local distribution networks for supplying essential goods and services will be a major advantage, hence establishing these in advance will be highly adaptive. Choosing to form them as cooperatives is likely to increase their resilience to external shocks as risks are shared. Where they can function at least partially through alternative trading arrangements, or as part of a local currency network, they can be even more beneficial.

Alternative trading arrangements are a particularly important component of local self-sufficiency during times of financial crisis, as they are able to mitigate the acute state of liquidity crunch which will be creating artificial scarcity. Implementing alternative means of trading will allow a much larger proportion of economic activity to survive, and this will allow many more people to be able to provide for themselves and their families. This in turn creates much greater social stability. Alternative currencies in particular are already being relied on in the countries at the forefront of financial crisis, which already find themselves facing liquidity shortage.

It is by no means necessary to wait until crisis hits before establishing such systems. Indeed they can have considerable value locally even in stable times. Since they only constitute money in one area, and, being fiat currencies, must necessarily operate within the trust horizon, they help to retain purchasing power locally, rather than allowing it to drain away continually. Once well established, alternative currencies can go from being parallel systems to being the major form of liquidity available locally.

Beyond a close-knit community, it will be very helpful to have an informed layer of local government, as this confers the potential for a top-down/bottom-up partnership between local government and the grass roots. Local government is capable of removing barriers to people looking after themselves, assisting with the propagation of successful grass roots initiatives and acting facilitate adaptive responses with the resources at its disposal, even though these will be for more limited than currently.

Contingency planning in advance for the distribution of scarce local resources would be wise. With the trust horizons drawing inwards, local government may be the largest scale of governance still lying within it, and therefore still effective. It operates at a far more human scale than larger political structures, and is far more likely to have the potential for transparency, accountability and reflexive learning.

That is not to say local government is necessarily endowed with these qualities at present. The odds of it becoming so will increase if informed and public spirited individuals get involved in local government as soon as possible, rather than setting their sights on regional or national government. Presiding over contraction will, however, be a thankless task, as constituents will tend to blame those in power for the fact that the pie is shrinking. The job will be a delicate balancing act under very trying circumstances as the fabric os society becomes tattered and torn, but as difficult as it will be, it will remain essential, and getting it right can make a very substantial difference.

Higher levels of government may currently appear to be the relevant seats of power, but are far less likely to be as important in a period of crisis as their response time is far too slow. It is possible that higher levels of government may temporarily be involved in useful rationing programmes, but beyond a certain point, the most important initiatives in practice are likely to be those profoundly local. National governments are more likely to generate additional problems rather than solutions, as they crack down on angry populations during an on-going loss of political legitimacy.

Given the fragility of trade in the future we are facing, programmes of import substitution could be useful, if there would be time to implement them before financial crisis deepens too substantially for the necessary larger-scale organizational capacity to fucntion. Being able to provide for the essentials, without having to rely on vulnerable international supply chains, is extremely beneficial, and food sovereignty in particular is critical.

Once trade withers, we will once again see tremendous regional disparities of fortune, based on differing local circumstances. It would be wise to research in advance what one’s own local circumstances are likely to be, in order to work out in advance how one might live within local limits. Getting expectations aligned with what reality can hope to deliver is a major part of adaptation without unnecessary stress.

In the longer term, we can expect to move through economic depression into some form of relative recovery, although we may see large scale conflict first, and will not, in any case, see a return to present circumstances. We will instead be adapting to the age of limits, mostly in an ad hoc manner due to on-going instability and consequent inability to plan for the long term. The bursting of a bubble on the scale of the one we have experienced has far reaching consequences that are likely to be felt for decades at least. In addition, our current condition of extreme carrying capacity overshoot means that we will actively be tightening our own limits, even as the population declines, by further cannibalizing remaining natural capital.

The operating system reboot which could lead to relative recovery would involve the restoration of some level of trust in the financial system, following the elimination of the huge mass of excess claims to underlying real wealth, and very likely the subsequent destabliization of a currency hyperinflation some years later (timeframe location dependent). We are very likely to see financial innovation, which is nothing more than another name for ponzi scheme, banned for a very long time, and likely the creation of money as interest bearing debt as well.

Humanity is in the habit of locking the door after the horse has bolted, so to speak, only restoring financial regulatory controls once it is too late. Once restored, regulations requiring plain vanilla finance will probably persist until  we have once again had time to forget the inevitable consequences of laissez faire. This will be measured in generations.

The small-scale initiatives which we need to navigate the crunch period could be scaled up as trust is slowly re-established. The speed at which this might happen, and the scale that might eventually be workable, are unclear, but it is not likely to be a rapid process, and scale is likely to remain small relative to today. Society will be lower-energy and therefore significantly simpler by then, with far smaller concentrations of population.

While some fossil fuels will no doubt be used for essential functions for quite some time to come, the majority of society will be excluded from what remains of the hydrocarbon age. We will likely have renewable energy systems, but not in the form of photovoltaic panels and high-tech electricity systems. Diffuse renewable energy can give us thermal energy, or motive power, or the ability to store energy as compressed air, all relatively simply, but at that point it will not be a technological civilization.

We are heading for a profoundly humbling experience, to put it mildly. Technological man is not the demigod he supposed himself to be, but merely the beneficiary of a fortuitous energy bonanza which temporarily allowed him to turn dreams into reality. We would do well, if we could summon up sufficient humility in advance, to learn from the simple and elegant technologies of the distant past, which we have largely discarded or forgotten.

We could also learn from present day places already constrained by limits – places which already operate simply and on a shoe-string budget both in terms of money and energy. It takes practice to learn to function without the structural dependencies we have constructed for ourselves, and the sooner we begin the learning curve, the better off we will be. Focusing on solution space for our ways forward would save us from countless blind alleys in the meantime.

 

The Evoneers

Off the keyboard of Albert Bates

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Published on Peak Surfer on July 12, 2015

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"Each of us has an inner diversity of interests and talents but none of us can succeed as solitary individuals."
 

"I'm kind of anti-utopian myself, although I am in favor of the human project continuing."  
– James Howard Kunstler
 
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at.”
 – Oscar Wilde
 

This past week the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) celebrated its 20th anniversary with a week-long conference in the Findhorn community in northernmost Scotland. Because of scheduling conflicts we were not able to attend but were grateful a small portion of the conference was live-streamed (and archived). Between sessions of our Permaculture Design Course here in Tennessee we were able to wade into that stream and recommend others do as well.

As incoming GEN president Daniel Greenberg said, ecovillages are not about living together, they are about “the impulse … this longing for inter-beingness. How can we be intimate with all life, with each other?”


Ecovillages are not a new phenomenon, they are just made more relevant by the times. Efforts to turn fictional visions of utopia (literally "no place") into real, grounded eutopias ("good places") go back to at least Ubaid (4000 BCE)

When a whole new continent was first discovered by an off-course Italian navigator using maps purloined from the Chinese, Europeans did not do as the Chinese did a few centuries earlier and set up a few coastal settlements only to abandon them, but rather, they acquired native peoples' lands through trickery, slavery, pestilence and genocide and then invited religious fanatics of every stripe to come across the ocean and try out the wildest schemes.

See, e.g., Bethehem, PA; New Harmony, IN; Oneida, NY; Amana, IA, or Nauvoo, IL.  In permaculture we call it “wild design.” You take a blank page and fill it. No rules, anything goes. From that process you get mostly duds and a few real gems.

 

Solheimer

The oldest ecovillage affiliated with GEN is in Iceland, home of the world's oldest continuous parliament. Sólheimar ("home of the sun") will be one of the venues visited in the PDC we are teaching next month with Robyn Francis. It was started in 1930 by a young Sesselja Sigmondsdottir as a sort of Steiner School for developmentally challenged children. The farmland she acquired was graced with a hot spring and so she built greenhouses and began producing winter vegetables. Today Iceland is Europe's larger exporter of bananas.

The word "ecovillage," as far as we know, was coined by architect George Ramsey, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright who became a prototypical "New Urbanist" in the 1960s after observing the waste and ruin wrought by automobile culture. By the 1970s Ramsey was writing prescriptions for a reboot of the built environment to bring humans back into the natural world, hopefully before petrocollapse or climate change cans that whole unsustainable civilizational thingy, in the most painful way imaginable.

In an interview with John Shuttlesworth, editor of The Mother Earth News, in 1974, Ramsey said:

“As we rush toward the limits of our natural resources, our system — which is based on the increasing consumption of such resources — faces a serious threat of breakdown. Every aspect of life in the United States must be reevaluated in terms of the energy it consumes.”

His prescription:

  • Roads and parking should be eliminated wherever possible
  • If a building—even a one- or two-story, solar-heated structure—is placed so that its usage requires long-distance travel in privately owned vehicles by the public, it would not receive a construction permit
  • Building heights, in general, should be limited to three- and four-story walk-ups, thus eliminating elevators and simultaneously permitting the sun to reach street level.
  • Light industries and businesses should be encouraged to move into existing bedroom communities.
  • New villages and towns must be prohibited from agricultural land
  • Streets should be reserved for bikes only
  • Every possible non-polluting source of energy must be tested and—whenever possible—used in preference to fossil fuels, nuclear power, and other polluting sources.
Declan Kennedy, Ross and Hildur Jackson,
and Robert Gilman at the GEN Summit, 2015

In 1977 in Germany, during the political resistance against disposal of nuclear waste in the town of Gorleben, anti-nuclear activists attempted to build a small, ecologically based village. On the 23rd of May, 1980, a micronation, the "Free Republic of Wendland" was founded. They called their hut village an ökodorf (literally ecovillage). In the largest police action seen in Germany since the lead-up to the Second World War, the camp was forceably removed, but the concept lived on, and small ökodorf experiments continued in both eastern and western Germany. The magazine Ökodorf Informationen began publishing in 1985 and later evolved into Eurotopia. After reunification of Germany, the movement coalesced and became part of GEN.

In 1991, Robert and Diane Gilman, founders of In Context magazine, wrote an overview, Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities, for the Gaia Trust in Denmark. They came up with a definition that still works pretty well. An ecovillage is:

“…a fully-featured human settlement, with independent sources of initiative, in which human activities are integrated into the natural environment in a way that is sustainable into the indefinite future.”


 

Kosha Joubert and Robin Alfred

At the summit this week, outgoing GEN President Kosha Anja Joubert modestly estimated the number of actual practicing and aspiring ecovillages worldwide at 10,000 with more than one million residents. We say modest because if you merely examine one country, Sri Lanka, you would learn about the Sarvodaya Shramadana Societies  self-help initiative, begun by a follower of Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne,  in the 1950s that presently counts more than 4 million members in 15,000 villages. The founder's son, Vinya Ariyaratne, has sat on the GEN board and all of those 15,000 villages would consider themselves ecovillages, with an equal number aspiring to be.

In the closing session of the GEN summit, President Joubert and her partner, Robin Alfred, a business trainer and regular contributor to The Guardian whose clients include Microsoft, Nokia, Motorola, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Daimler, McDonalds, the UK Cabinet Office, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, Johnson & Johnson, the Bank of Abu Dhabi, and others, took a hard look at the problems GEN faces with dissemination of the ecovillage meme. They took that closing moment to unveil a new project.

We will take a few of your minutes to describe that project here with the caveat that it is as yet a work in progress. As we read the material out loud to our permaculture class, we could see some eyes glaze over. Of course, we lack the passionate delivery of Kosha and Robin, but you can judge for yourself.

The problem, as Kosha outlined it, is a common one. You become aware enough of the challenges facing us as a society, or civilization, or species, to want something to change, to stop the oncoming trainwreck. So you attend a week-long Transition Training seminar, or take a 2-week Permaculture Design Course, or a month-long Ecovillage Design Education course and you become inspired and fired-up and you leave those events just full of energy and ideas and ready to change the trajectory of our planet's future. But if we check back 6 months later, what we see, most times, is frustration, despair, resignation. You are back in your prior life. Why? Because the existing order that you inhabit, the way things work, is designed to frustrate you. There is economic blackmail (called "making a living"); cultural bribery (your data plan, your friends who want to take you out for a night on the town, the consumer society); and a dearth of guides, stepping stones or halfway houses to smooth your transition.

What are you going to do, start an ecovillage? You and what Rockefeller family member?

Enter the Evoneers. We could instantly see this as a perfect marriage between Robin's business consulting background and Kosha's nurturing of a movement in its infancy, daintily bound up with a Findhornesque gift bow. Evoneers is 9-step therapy for post-traumatic permaculture course adjustment.

Running under the umbrella of SIRCle (Social Innovation for Resilient Communities) and drawing upon GEN's growing Solutions Library, Evoneers is an advanced 2-day training in how to get beyond frustration (Step 5: Facing the Dark Night), find the others, cull the chaff from your life and get something serious going. When you get done, you are supposed to leap out of bed in the morning with a bounce in your step and a song on your lips.

The first step, Answering the Call / Igniting the Fire, is about getting past thinking about possibilities and starting to plan actualities. It is recognizing that each of us has an inner diversity of interests and talents but that none of us can succeed as solitary individuals. We need homo gestalt – a like-minded group. Step One is building an authentic, open and supportive team.

We could carry on to describe the whole methodology, but we will leave that to our readers to get from direct sources now online such as this video:


Efforts to turn fictional visions of utopia into real 3D paradise need not fail. We come from a well-watered garden planet and it is long past time we remembered our roots. As Thoreau said,

"In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them."

The Myth of Self Reliance

Off the keyboard of Toby Hemenway

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Pulished on Pattern Literacy on May 18, 2015

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A mass emailing went out a while back from a prominent permaculturist looking for “projects where people are fully self sufficient in providing for their own food, clothing, shelter, energy and community needs. . .” There it was, the myth of “fully self sufficient,” coming from one of the best-known permaculturists in the world. In most US permaculture circles, the idea that anyone could be self sufficient at anything past a very primitive level was abandoned a while ago, and the softer term “self reliant” replaced it. But even self-reliance is barely possible, and, other than as way of expressing a desire to throw off the shackles of corporate consumerism, I don’t think it’s desirable.

I took a Googling cruise around the internet and found that “self sufficient” shows up as a desirable goal on several top permaculture websites. I’d like to hammer a few coffin nails into that phrase. My dictionary says that self sufficient means being “able to maintain oneself without outside aid.” Who lives without outside aid? No one. Let’s unpack that a bit further. The meaning of “self sufficient in food” is something most of us can agree on: supplying 100% of your food needs from your own land and efforts. I have never met anyone who has done this. I’m sure there are a few people doing it, but even subsistence farmers usually raise, alongside their food, a cash crop to buy the foods that are impractical for them to grow.

I hear people say they are growing 30%, 50%, even 70% of their own food. What they usually mean is that they are growing fruits and vegetables that make up some percentage of the total cost or weight—but not calories—of their food. Vegetables are high in wet weight, but low in calories. If you are growing 100% of your own vegetables, they provide about 15-20% of your daily calories, unless you are living mostly on potatoes or other starchy veggies. Most daily calories come from grains, meat, or dairy products. So if you’re not raising large-scale grains or animals, it’s unlikely that you are growing more than one-quarter of your own food, measured honestly by nutritional content. In that case, it’s not accurate to claim you are “70% food self-sufficient.” If you are getting most of your calories from your land, you’re almost certainly a full-time farmer, and I salute you for your hard work. Now we begin to see how difficult, and even undesirable, self sufficiency is. You won’t have time for much else if you are truly food self-sufficient, even in a permaculture system.

But even if you grow all your own food, can you claim you are self sufficient if you don’t grow all your own seeds? Provide all your fertility? Where do your farm tools and fuel come from? Permaculturists understand as well as anyone how interconnected life is. At what point do you claim to be disconnected from the broad human community in anything? Is there really a way to be “fully self sufficient” in food?

Let’s take a quick pass at clothing, shelter and energy. Even if you sew all your clothes, do you grow the cotton, raise the sheep? If you milled all the lumber or dug the stone for your home, did you forge the glass, fabricate the wiring? In the off-the-grid house, what complex community of engineers and factories assembled the solar panels? We’re reliant on all of that.

Claiming self sufficiency in almost anything insults and ignores the mountain of shoulders we all stand on. US permaculturists are a pretty politically correct crew, and it became obvious to some of us that “self sufficient” was not just impossible, but was a slap in the face to all those whose sweat provides for us, and was another perpetuation of the cowboy ethic that puts the individual at the center of the universe. So the term morphed into “self reliance,” to show that we know we are interdependent, but are choosing to be less reliant on others. At its best, self reliance means developing skills to provide for basic needs, so we can stop supporting unethical and destructive industries. But I see much less need for self-reliant people who can do everything themselves, and much more need for self-reliant communities, where not everyone knows how to weave or farm, but there is clothing and food for all.

There is still a deep prejudice in permaculture, as websites and emails show, that doing it all ourselves, and on our own land, is the most noble path. And insofar as our skills make us less dependent on corporate monopolies, developing the abilities that we think of as self-reliant is worth doing. However, the more we limit our lives to what we can do ourselves, the fewer our opportunities are. Each connection outside ourselves enriches us. When we create a web of interdependencies, we grow richer, stronger, safer, and wiser. Why would you not want to rely on others? To fully probe that would take us down a psychological rabbit-hole, but some of it is grounded in a belief that others are unreliable or unethical, and that we weaken ourselves by interdependencies. But the old saying “if you want a job done well, do it yourself” simply shows poor management skills.

If you’re still skeptical, I’ll resort to scripture: a quote from the Book of Mollison, Introduction to Permaculture, page two: “We can also begin to take some part in food production. This doesn’t mean that we all need to grow our own potatoes, but it may mean that we will buy them directly from a person who is already growing potatoes responsibly. In fact, one would probably do better to organize a farmer-purchasing group in the neighborhood than to grow potatoes.”

As veteran permaculture designer Larry Santoyo says, go to the highest generalization to fill your needs. Thinking “I must grow my food” is painfully limited. Thinking “I must satisfy food needs responsibly” opens up a vast array of possibilities, from which you can choose the most stable and appropriate. Individual efforts are often less stable and resilient than community enterprises. And they’re bad design: self-reliance means that a critical function is supported in only one way. If you grow all your food and get hurt, you are now injured, hungry, and watching your crops wither from your wheelchair. That won’t happen in a community farm. And for those worried about an impending collapse of society, the roving turnip-bandits are much more likely to raid your lonely plot while you sleep exhausted from a hard day of spadework, and less likely to attack a garden protected by a crew of strong, pitchfork-wielding farmers who can guard it round the clock.

Creating community reliance gives us yet another application of permacultural zones: Zone zero in this sense is our home and land. Zone one is our connection to other individuals and families, zone two to local commerce and activities in our neighborhood, zone three to regional businesses and organizations, zone four to larger and more distant enterprises. Why would we limit ourselves to staying only in zone zero? We can organize our lives so that our need for zone-four excursions—say, to buy petroleum or metal products—is very limited, while our interactions with the local farmers’ market and restaurants are frequent. This builds a strong community.

Self reliance fails to grow social capital, a truly regenerative resource that can only increase by being used. Why would I not want to connect to my community in every way that I can? If we don’t help fill our community’s needs, there’s more chance that our neighbors will shop at big-box stores. An unexamined belief in self reliance is a destructive myth that hands opportunity to those who are taking our community away from us.

If you love being a farmer, then yes, grow all your own food. And sell the rest for the other things you need, in a way that supports your community. But is there really a difference between a farmer exchanging the product of her labor—food—for goods and money, and me selling the product of my labor—education—for goods and money? We both are trading our life energy within a system that supports us, and I’d like to think that we are both making wise ethical choices.

A good permaculture design is one that provides for the inhabitants’ needs in a responsible and ecologically sound manner. But there’s nothing in permaculture that says that it’s important for all yields to come from the owner’s site! If I can accomplish one thing in this essay, it is to smash that myth. Permaculture design simply says that our needs and products need to be taken care of responsibly in our design, not on our own land. That design can—and must—include off-site connections. If you are an acupuncturist whose income is provided by your community and you are getting most of your needs met from mostly local sources you believe to be ethical, then that’s excellent permaculture design. Your design will be stronger if your needs and products are connected to many off-site elements and systems.

It’s very permacultural to develop skills that will connect you more deeply to land, home, and community. And sometimes the skills that we gained in search of self reliance are the same ones we need to be more community-reliant. But self reliance, as a goal in itself, is a tired old myth that needs to die. It’s unpermacultural.

GO FUND SUN!

Pray for Calamity: Interview with td0s

logopodcastOff the microphones of td0s, RE & Monsta

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Aired on the Doomstead Diner on April 7, 2015

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Part 1 of our discussion with td0s focuses on awakening to collapse, formation of community, nation-states versus tribalism, age demographics, social security and many other topics.

Hope you all enjoy the chat, td0s is a great talker as well as gifted writer.  We hit on just about everything a Kollapsnik ponders on in this one.

RE

Boomer Doomers

Off the keyboard of RE

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on March 1, 2015

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http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20120313041703/creepypasta/images/b/bd/The_end_is_nigh_(1).jpgBack when I first discovered the world of oncoming Doom back in 2008 in the Aftermath of the Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers collapses, I had no idea about Peak Oil, and my only knowledge or recollection of Doomers were what I had thought of as “psychos” at the time, the folks back in the 70s who walked around with placards declaring “The End is Nigh”.  Turns out here they weren’t wrong or psycho, just way ahead of their time.

DDlogoMy first internet communications and discussion on Doom concepts came on the Peak Oil Forum in 2008-2009, and there I ran into the whole panoply of Doomer Archetypes, Survivalists, Nazi Eugenecists, Permaculturists and of course the Doomsteaders, which is where the Doomstead Diner title for this Blog comes from.

What is a Doomsteader?

Doomsteaders are people who have sort of exited the regular economy and moved out into the boonies on a patch of property they are trying to make resilient and survivable when the final crash of the industrial economy arrives.  There are quite a few variations on the theme, depending on how much the Doomsteader wants to keep things like Electricity running and how much money they actually have to set the place up.

Some will fit out with Solar Panels, Generators that will run on a variety of fuel inputs, Battery Banks for storing the juice, Charge Controllers, the works here.  They have hydraulic log splitters too, and tractors they plan to run with biodiesel to keep the whole operation running after TSHTF.  Others try a more 18th Century model, trying to fit out with Wood Stoves, Candles and Horse drawn plows, in the Amish model.

Here’s a short Bio for some of the Doomsteaders I have run into since the Peak Oil Forum days.  By no means is this complete, there were many more, but this is a basic cross section.

Duke

Duke was a Peak Oil commenter who was very full of himself and liked to brag about all his preps, which included every techno gimmick he could buy to make his Doomstead resilient.  Besides having the hydraulic log splitters and all the rest, Duke ALSO had an Armory the National Guard would be proud of, with automatic weapons, night scopes, rpgs, the WORKS here.  The only thing he did not claim to own was a Tactical Nuke.  Insofar as I could tell though, this Doomstead was only occupied by the Duke and Duchess, and it was hard to imagine he had any friends who would join him there since he was insufferable even online.  LOL.  So I never figured out exactly how Duke was going to defend this place from the hordes of Zombies he himself projected as coming out of the wood work once TSHTF.

Pops

Pops was a Peak Oil Forum moderator (I think he still is) who caught on pretty early to the Peak Oil problem, and presciently sold out of his California home prior to the crash in 2008, and used the proceeds from this to buy himself around a 20 acre Doomstead in Missouri, not all that far from where my sister lives in Springfield.  As a result, during one of my vacations visiting the relatives down there in the Lower 48 before mom died, I had a chance to drive out and meet up with Pops IRL.  His farmhouse was quite nice, but the place is not that removed from the population at large, and unlike Duke, Pops was not collecting an Armory to try to defend it with.  So this place also assumes a kind of BAU will take place after TSHTF.

BC2K

BC’s Doomstead is somewhere in Maine, and he is EXTREMELY careful about revealing its actual location to anyone. Careful is being polite here, really he’s totally PARANOID about this. LOL. Unlike some of the more recent Doomers, he has been a Doomer himself and building on this location since the 1970s.  he’s very conversant with all the techniques talked about in the permaculture community, and in fact teaches on it when he ventures off the Doomstead periodically.  His security plan is to be hidden and far enough off the beaten path that the Zombies won’t find the place.  The problem with that is that it is probably not Zombies he has to worry about, but local Cops and National Guard, all of whom know exactly where his place is.  Even I was able to deduce where the place is, and I don’t have all the tricks available that the military and police do, just good deductive ability and a knowledge of how the internet works.  This freaked out BC2K so much that he dropped off the internet entirely, but I am sure he still has his phone operational, so there is no real way to hide here and still participate in some manner in the economy.

Doug Casey & Simon Black

These two Doomers fit another category, the Uber Rich Doomers who aren’t just setting up a subsistence farm somewhere in Amerika, they have enough money to build and develop entire compounds which they are selling Condo style to other rich folks, sprinkled around the Globe from Argentina to Chile.  South and Central America seem to be the locations of choice for this bunch of Doomsteaders, which includes the Bush family which has its Doomstead in Panama.  Things are so bad here in the FSoA in terms of Taxation and accelerating Fascism that these folks figure to escape to these much SAFER and MORE FRIENDLY  locations.  Except one kind of has to wonder exactly how Safe or Friendly such places will be when the economic system TANKS and the impoverished Argentinians surrounding the compound decide to come for a visit, and knock down the compound walls?

There are many more examples of various types of Doomsteaders, Albert Bates who was a founding member of The Farm in TN fits the category, so does Orren Whiddon who is founder of the 4 Quarters Interfaith Doomstead in Pennsylvania.  Running a somewhat different idea and paradigm is Ray Jason, the ex-Street Juggler who runs the Sea Gypsy Philosopher Blog.  Ray’s concept is to remain Mobile, and to use small sailboats as the ticket to Freedom & Sustainability.  Problem with this is that most all sailboats are chock full of technology, they are terrifically insecure when moored anywhere, and you just can’t carry all that much on them unless they are quite large.  So this paradigm has its own set of problems.

What do ALL of these Doomsteaders have in common though?  They are all BOOMERS, aka the demographic of people pursuing this paradigm generally is from around 50 years old to 70 years old.  There are some older ones than that as well, but once into the 80s they tend to stop discussing their Doomerism with others on the net.  LOL.  Have a look at a photo from the Age of Limits conference where for the last 3 years  Doomers gathered to discuss oncoming Doom

http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/IMG_20130523_212744.jpg

Now, there are a few younger folks sprinkled in there, but the preponderance of this crowd is Gray Hairs.  I can tell you also that the general demographic of Diner readers are Gray Hairs also, though we do have sprinkled in at least 1 20-something in Monsta, 2 30-somethings in Lucid Dreams and Gypsy Mama and a 40-something in WHD.

Why is the Doom Community so overwhelmingly OLD?  More than a few reasons for this.

The first one is Economics.  Just about everyone who sets up a Doomstead has to have pretty substantial money to do this to start with, and then to be able to live on it without having a job in the regular economy (since even the close in ones are in areas where there is not much employment to be found), they have to have an Income coming from Investments, Pensions and Social Security, etc.  VERY few people who have Doomsteads grow or raise 100% of their own food, and they still have taxes and other expenses to keep the place running.  You can cut down the amount of outgoing FRNs you need with a subsistence farm to pretty small numbers, but you can’t cut it out entirely.  Nor can you usually entirely feed yourself and family on what such a subsistence farm can produce each year.

http://narural-energy.com/wp-content/uploads/solar-power-for-off-grid-homes.jpgMoreover, if your Doomstead relies on things like Solar PV Cells and Batteries, pumping motors and the like to bring up water from wells or run Hydroponic Systems, most of this stuff will start to fail on you within 5-10 years, its not sustainable outside of a supporting Industrial Economy.

Most 30-somethings do not have money enough to even get GOING on one of these Individual Doomsteads, much less make it work to raise a family on it.  So they are shut out of this economically, and being so shut out you don’t even want to think about or consider what you will do when TSHTF, because there is nothing realistic you CAN do.  At best, you become as Self-Reliant as possible and learn as many skills as you can, but otherwise to dwell on Doom is pretty counter-productive.  Much as you might WANT to move out to a Doomstead in the Boonies, it is out of reach economically, and it’s somewhat depressing I think for people who are so shut out to read about how some retiree is building a Windmill on his property to pump water to his Raised Beds.  You would like to do that too, but you can’t.  It costs MONEY you don’t have to set up a Doomstead, even the El Cheapo variety.

Other major reasons are Experience and Psychology.  If you have been around 50 or more years, you have had a chance to observe what is really a long ongoing downspin, and to extrapolate out from there where we are headed is not too hard.  You are also quite a bit closer to your own personal trip to the Great Beyond no matter what occurs, so it’s a bit easier as a result to accept that everyone is Doomed.  If you are 30 years old with some young children, you definitely do not want to believe everybody is Doomed, and will resist this idea as long as you can.  Even if it is not Everybody but just MOST people you do not want to accept this idea, since because you cannot afford your own Doomstead to try and ride it out, you are probably one of the ones who gets a Ticket to the Great Beyond TM.  Your kids too.

What is the outcome of this dynamic?  Well, it seems that the vast preponderance of people who are in some way prepared for an oncoming collapse are all the OLD FOLKS! Great Doomsteads with all the preps to keep them going for another 20 years, but THEN what?  If they do have kids, the kids think they are Nutty Doomers and they don’t spend time on the Farm learning how to care for the pigs and chickens and harvest the heirloom seeds to keep growing the squash from one season to the next.  In fact, probably 90% of the people who have subsistence farms don’t save their own seeds, they just buy new ones each year from some heirloom seed distributor on the internet!

The bottom line on this is that this type of Doomsteading is itself Doomed, you are not going to get a sustainable culture from mostly Gray Hairs past reproductive age who are running small “sustainable” Doomsteads.  These Doomsteads are not sustainable because THE FOLKS INHABITING THEM are not Sustainable!  20 years from now, they are gonna be DEAD no matter WHAT, or best case drooling octogenarians who can’t even find the switch to turn on the Solar PV system.  LOL.

http://blog.newscom.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/farmer-milking-cow-in-field.jpgThe very people you really NEED to make a sustainable system here are precisely the people who are SHUT OUT from making it happen, the 20-40 year olds who still are fit and of reproductive age!  Even if you ARE an Aging Boomer Doomer, the likelihood is that your kids do NOT want to join you on the Doomstead to milk the cows, their psychology hopes things will get better and they will eventually get a better job than working as a Starbucks Barrista.  Even worse if they are currently successful Doctors and Lawyers, are they gonna give that up to go cow milking on your Doomstead?  Highly Unlikely.

How does this paradigm play out after TS actually DOES HTF?  The Old Fogeys with the Doomsteads can’t keep operating them, and the Young Whippersnappers who should have been out there learning how to milk cows and save seeds and keep a Doomstead running have no knowledge of how to do that, so even if they drop in and dispatch the Old Folks and take over, the system fails because they don’t have knowledge enough to keep it running!

Besides that is the fact the vast preponderance of these well-outfitted Doomsteads are built with plumbing systems that can go awry, roofs covered with tar paper that need to be replaced or resurfaced every 5 years or so, septic systems that need to be pumped out periodically, not to mention of course the possibility of various types of weather related damage from Tornadoes to Hurricanes to Snowstorms to Flooding to Wildfires to just your own Personal Fire from the Wood Stove malfunctioning.  OOOPS!  Bye, Bye, Doomstead!  lol.

My favorite unsustainable system is water pumping from deep wells.  OK, you have off grid power from your Chinese manufactured Solar PV cells guaranteed by Kwai Chang Solar Industries for 20 years, but what do you do to get the water up from 200′ under ground when the impeller gives out on your pump?  Hope you have several back up pumps and parts in your Barn/Warehouse!  Home Depot has been Outta Biz for 5 years by now.  Even if your well is shallow enough to use a Hand Pump from above, the gaskets on these things wear out too!  If you can’t operate your well with a rope and bucket arrangement, you are SOL in this location.

http://i2.cdn.turner.com/money/dam/assets/130301162811-t-solarcity-home-depot-honda-00014515-620xa.jpg

Given that these “sustainable” Doomsteads are supposed to be living arrangements for the post-SHTF world, exactly where in that world are you going to get replacement plumbing parts, new roofing materials, new batteries for your Off Grid Solar PV setup, etc?  Even if some of these things are available to Scavenge from abandoned McMansions, how are you going to get them from the now vacated suburbs to your Doomstead in the Appalachian Mountains?  You’re going to hitch up the horses to your Wagon and mosey along the decaying roads to the Alexandria VA suburbs, strip some McMansions of plumbing and then with your now loaded wagon have your trusty team of horses Nellie and Betsy pull the load back to the Doomstead?  Remember here, by this time you are around 70-80 years old!  lol.  This is Magical Thinking at work.

Basically, the whole notion of individual Doomsteads run by age 50+ Doomers is totally ludicrous, and it’s only slightly more realistic if they have their children and grandchildren on board to help them, which few do these days.

Is there a SOLUTION to this?  There is, but insofar as I can see at this moment, it is not being undertaken anywhere.  You can’t set up Individual Doomsteads and make them Sustainable, particularly not if you are 50+ years old.  What needs to be done is to develop entire COMMUNITIES with a full range of demographics from children to old folks, and these communities and their living arrangements cannot be dependent on the various types of plumbing and electrical systems that we take for granted today.

http://i.c-b.co/is/image/Crate/CastIron12InchSkillet/$web_zoom$&/1308302308/lodge-cast-iron-round-skillet.jpgPeople need to re-learn how to live in very simple housing, use outhouses for bathrooms, make clothing from hemp fibers etc.  It doesn’t need to be complete Stone Age for quite some time, since many things like Cast Iron Cookware made today will likely last another Century.  There isn’t much that can Fail in a Cast Iron Skillet.  Similarly, quality Damascus Steel Axe Heads and Knives also have a good long lifespan if well maintained, oiled or greased daily to slow rusting etc.

This is not to say that if you do set up such a community TODAY, it can’t or shouldn’t have Off Grid Solar, Indoor Plumbing etc.  If you can afford all that stuff in setting the community up, GO FOR IT! Keep the creature comforts of the Age of Oil as long as you can, but set up the BACKUP systems that work without any of the fine manufactured parts that will disappear as the industries that produce them shut down.  Do NOT set up your Sustainable Community in a location where the only water available is 200′ (or even 100′) under the ground.  That is NOT SUSTAINABLE!

What the Boomer Doomer is doing in setting up one of these Doomsteads is not developing a sustainable living paradigm, they simply are trying to finish out their lives in as close to the comfort they had during the Age of Oil as might be reasonably possible if collapse is fairly slow , and the next 20 years just sees gradual diminshing of services and products, but still the core elements of society keep functioning to one extent or another.  The main core there is Law & Order & Property Rights of course, since once those fail few Boomer Doomers could Protect & Defend their Doomsteads from either roving gangs of Zombies OR the local Sheriff or National Guard commander turned Warlord.   However, really these things do not have to fail completely for the paradigm to fail, all that has to fail is the Impeller Pump on your well.

The question for all of us is how to join together to build sustainable communities, not how to go out and buy your own little Dream Retirement Home and die in peace out in the boonies of Appalachia while the World Burns.  That is the question we have to answer here on the Diner, and with the SUN project.

SunWebGraphic3

Degrowth

Off the keyboard of Brian Davey

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Published on December 18, 2014 on FEASTA

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Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

Degrowth – A Vocabulary for a New Era: Review

Degrowth. A Vocabulary for a New Era, just published by Routledge, is quite a slim volume of 220 pages and 51 short chapters.

Before anything else it seems important to say that there are lots of chapters in this book that I think are quite excellent as short pithy descriptions of the key concepts of degrowth. If in this review I have not mentioned many of these chapters it is usually because I have no quarrel with the choice of the word or phrase, the way that is elucidated, the way that it is related to the other words and combined with a short reading list. An attempt has been made by the editors and by the individual authors to relate the words in the vocabulary together so that they are not isolated chapters about stand alone ideas. This puts the idea of “Degrowth” on the intellectual map as a wide ranging discourse, a movement of thinkers about the future of society that needs to be taken seriously…and yet….

…because it is supposed to be a “vocabulary” of degrowth my inclination has been to try to get an idea of which words and concepts relating to degrowth the authors consider to be important enough to be given explanatory chapters, and then to compare this choice of concepts with the vocabularies used by other analysts. Do the words that have been chosen for inclusion cover the constellation of concepts which match the range and types of degrowth ideas that there are and the degrowth idea as I have understood it?

In fact there is only a partial overlap with my own ideas. In this review I will try to explain some of the differences.

No chapter on climate change

http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/01/140122_FT_Degrowth.png.CROP.original-original.pngOn this first point the most striking absence is that there is no specific chapter for climate change. Although climate change is mentioned throughout there is no chapter for the topic as such.

In their introduction to the book the editors write that one of the “foundational degrowth claims” is “the inevitability of disastrous climate change if growth is to continue”. One would think that, if this is such a central issue, it requires proper elucidation. Perhaps the editors thought people would already know about climate change and there was no need to cover it. However this is not really what I am getting at. I am not stating a case for a thumbnail sketch of elementary climate science; I am arguing for an exploration of how the climate crisis contextualises the way one perceives degrowth. For example, given the policy failure of the growth enthusiasts to mitigate climate change at the rate and scale required is “degrowth” now, in any case, too late? If degrowth ideas are not too late, then how much time is left to implement them? Exactly how desperate is the situation that the degrowth agenda is supposed to address? A related question is “how quickly must degrowth proceed, how deep must it be and how could it possibly be delivered?”

It is now widely recognised by people involved in climate politics that only with a level of CO2 in the atmosphere of under 350 parts per million, perhaps much less, will the planet be safe from runaway climate change. Since the actual level of CO2 in the atmosphere is nearly 396 parts per million we are already well on the way to a catastrophe in the absence of emergency action. I have always assumed that a core rationale for degrowth was to be found here.

Degrowth could be driven by climate policy

http://blogs.worldwatch.org/sustainableprosperity/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/degrowthVsGrowth-Desazkundea.jpgNot only that – in my own vision for degrowth, and I guess for others associated with Feasta, degrowth would actually be ‘driven’ by an adequate climate policy. Many chapters in this book draw attention to the role of energy as central to the metabolism of the economy. Most of that energy is currently derived from fossil fuels so if there is a mechanism to screw down the available fossil energy entering the economy it should be possible to force an amount of degrowth on the economy appropriate to averting catastrophe.

To use an metaphor – we need a climate policy regime that is akin to the process of turning down the tap through which carbon fuels enter the economy until no more carbon energy is available to be burned. Were the political will there, and the general political support for degrowth, this would be easy to administer. One would simply require all companies that extract fossil fuel to have permits for the tonnage of carbon in the fuel that they extract before they are allowed to sell this tonnage. Some agency would limit the tonnage of carbon permitted out of the ground each year and would only make available for sale a rapidly reducing number of permits. The money that the fossil fuel companies paid to buy the permits would be distributed on an equitable basis to the general population. That’s called “cap and share” and if I had edited a book on degrowth then ‘cap and share’ and/or similar climate policies would have a chapter as the driver of any voluntary degrowth process.

Voluntary and involuntary degrowth

I write “voluntary degrowth process” because there is an argument that I think ought to have been explored in this book that degrowth will mainly be an involuntary process. Let me try and explain what I see as being the difference.

http://clubfordegrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/450px-Degrowth_strategies.jpgBy “voluntary degrowth” I mean a vision for the future that is promoted because it is regarded as preferable to a growth economy. It is preferable, for example, because it encompasses a number of proposals for change that get no attention in the growth economy where more output is seen as the solution for all problems. An example would be Ivan Illiich’s tools for conviviality – creating the kind of tools that would make possible “space for relationships, recognition, pleasure and generally living well, and thereby, reducing the dependence on an industrial and consumerist system” as Marco Deriu explains in his chapter. Thus what I might term “voluntary degrowth” is a mainly French idea that is sometimes termed “décroissance conviviale”, a cultural and social critique of society – an alternative “imaginary” of how society might be.

By “involuntary degrowth” I mean a view of the future that the production economy will contract anyway, whether we like it or not, perhaps in a chaotic fashion, perhaps through collapse, so that the task of the degrowth movement is to prepare for, and ameliorate, that contraction as best as we can. It is not so much communities and societies making a choice against growth – but communities finding means to cope with difficulties that they will inevitably face when the economy contracts anyway. For example the Transition Movement (that is barely mentioned in this book) has had an idea that “energy descent” is going to happen in the near future and that it is an urgent task to prepare communities so that they will be able to cope.

Now in trying to cope with this process that people like me think will happen anyway the Transition Movement have had a strong idea of making the most of the situation. They have wanted to “make a virtue out of necessity” and to look for the silver linings around the storm clouds. There is the suggestion that people might be surprised to find that the quality of life might actually be better. The Transition Movement thus works towards the revival of community, relationships and different kinds of creativity too. The kinds of projects advocated for – like urban gardening – are the same as for décroissance conviviale. However, the starting point is not a choice for a different kind of society compared with the growth economy – so much as making the best of what will happen in the difficult conditions associated with future contraction.

To my mind it is a weakness of this book that it does not draw out and emphasise these distinctions enough. In fact different kinds of future are possible. Thus we can consider the possibility that involuntary degrowth happens (in the sense of a contraction of material production) but not quickly enough to reduce carbon emissions at an adequate pace. In this situation cap and share to drive a faster pace of emissions reduction – and a process of voluntary degrowth of material production would still be needed to speed up the involuntary contraction.

Reducing the allowable extraction of fossil fuels in order to leave most fuels in the ground would degrow the economy. However, on its own this is unlikely to be enough to avert runaway climate change. That’s because CO2 is already over the limit and any more will add to the danger. So a lot of CO2 will have to be taken out of the atmosphere. This is another urgent future task. However, any draw-down of CO2 will probably only be possible, if at all, by extensive land reclamation and re-vegetation, locking up the CO2 in biomass – using ecological design methods (like permaculture). In my view draw-down or sequestration ought to be another idea with a chapter. It isn’t. There is no consideration of enhancing carbon sinks.

http://www.barcelona.degrowth.org/uploads/media/maclurcan.jpg

Overshoot and collapse – some more missing words

https://panosz.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/degrowth.jpgOf course academics at the University of Barcelona, who have played a leading role bringing this book together cannot be expected to know everything but the failure to address these urgent practical issues is serious. Or that is my point of view anyway. We need to remind ourselves that the original authors of the 1972 Club of Rome sponsored study “Limits to Growth” worked with a model in which growth could continue for some time beyond the carrying capacity of the planet in a phase that they termed “overshoot”. Overshoot was analogous to living beyond ones personal means by running down the family savings or running up debts. It can be thought of as a delay in adaptation to ecological realities which would mean that eventual adjustment, when it comes, will be that much more of a shock. An overshoot that goes on too long eventually leads to collapse – a chaotic reduction in complexity likely to involve a great deal of insecurity. You can think of collapse as involuntary degrowth and it is much more serious than stagnation, recession or even depression. That’s because it is a much longer and irreversible process of transformation in humanity’s relationship with the planet likely to be associated with rising death rates and falling populations. Unfortunately words like “overshoot”, “collapse” or “involuntary degrowth” are not part of the vocabulary either. To my perception this “vocabulary” lacks a continuity with the “Limits to Growth” thinkers of 1972. It is a southern European and French choice of words even though the book is written in English.

Many of the actions and policies that are proposed under the heading of “degrowth” might conceivably help in a collapse – but one feels that most of the authors in this book do not conceive their proposals for action as emergency measures. They are not being proposed as survival arrangements; they are still being proposed in an alternative paradigm in a future which is rather like the present. They are being framed on the assumption that “developed economies” are entering “a period of systemic stagnation” in which “an abandonment of growth will revive politics and nourish democracy, rather than animate catastrophic passions” as it says in the introduction. I find this framing to be rather too complacent.

Not all of the contributors share the same ideas. Christian Kerschner has written the chapter on peak oil (and other resource peaks). He thinks “Economic degrowth is no longer an option but a reality”. For him it is starting to happen involuntarily.

Another author not on the editors’ wavelength is Alevguel Sorman who has written the chapter on ‘Societal Metabolism’. Sorman concludes “ The biophysical view of social metabolism warns about the limitations of degrowth strategies based on voluntarily consuming fewer resources, less energy or less capital. These will not suffice on their own”. In particular Sorman warns against the assumptions of many thinkers that worksharing will enable a trade of income in exchange for more free time because “In a future scarce in energy we will have to work more, not less”.

There is also an indirect and partial consideration of collapse in a chapter by Serge Latouche titled the “Pedagogy of Disaster”. This is a discussion about whether future disasters will allow a sociopathic elite to exploit the vulnerability of shocked, disorientated and frightened people ( ‘disaster capitalism’) or whether the coming shocks will shake people free of their complacency so that they wake up in time to forestall an even worse future. Latouche concludes that both are possible, depending on context.

An version of degrowth flawed by optimism bias?

http://theoverthinker.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/lemmings.jpgOne way of summarising these points is to say that the editors have drawn together a mainly optimistic version of degrowth. It is not a view that I share. I find it is interesting to contrast the approach of the editors with the attitude of Dennis Meadows, a surviving member of the ‘Limits to Growth’ study of 1972. Meadows stopped believing that humanity would be able to adequately respond to the limits to growth crisis in the 1990s and feels that a collapse is now inevitable.

“In 1972 there were two possible options provided for going forward — overshoot or sustainable development. Despite myriad conferences and commissions on sustainable development since then, the world opted for overshoot. The two-leggeds hairless apes did what they always have done. They dominated and subdued Earth. Faced with unequivocable evidence of an approaching existential threat, they equivocated and then attempted to muddle through.

Global civilization will only be the first of many casualties of the climate the Mother Nature now has coming our way at a rate of change exceeding any comparable shift in the past 3 million years, save perhaps the meteors or super volcanoes that scattered our ancestors into barely enough breeding pairs to be able to revive. This change will be longer lived and more profound than many of those phenomena. We have fundamentally altered the nitrogen, carbon and potassium cycles of the planet. It may never go back to an ecosystem in which bipedal mammals with bicameral brains were possible. Or, not for millions of years”.

Graham Turner, an Australian academic has now done 30 and a 40 year follow-ups to see how the business as usual predictions of the 1972 ‘Limits to Growth’ computer model compare with what actually happened. He concludes that they are pretty much on target – and that the turning point will occur in 2015.

“With significant capital subsequently going into resource extraction, there is insufficient available to fully replace degrading capital within the industrial sector itself. Consequently, despite heightened industrial activity attempting to satisfy multiple demands from all sectors and the population, actual industrial output per capita begins to fall precipitously, from about 2015, while pollution from the industrial activity continues to grow. The reduction of inputs to agriculture from industry, combined with pollution impacts on agricultural land, leads to a fall in agricultural yields and food produced per capita. Similarly, services (e.g., health and education) are not maintained due to insufficient capital and inputs.

“Diminishing per capita supply of services and food cause a rise in the death rate from about 2020 (and somewhat lower rise in the birth rate, due to reduced birth control options). The global population therefore falls, at about half a billion per decade, starting at about 2030. Following the collapse, the output of the World3 model for the standard run shows that average living standards for the aggregate population (material wealth, food and services per capita) resemble those of the early 20th century.[1]

The distinction between voluntary and involuntary transitions matters. Without a transition that is at least partly involuntary it is highly unlikely that sufficient people will voluntarily adjust their lifestyles in the directions that degrowthers see as vital. At the same time what we are describing an unpleasant historical epoch in which death rates will be rising.

Risk aversion, prospect theory and the collapse of lifestyle packages

http://thetyee.cachefly.net/Life/2010/05/04/Degrowth.jpgIn order to understand the inertia in current systems and peoples reluctance to change their lives towards degrowth the work of Daniel Kahnemann is helpful.

Kahnemann’s “prospect theory” is another idea absent from this book. It shows that people organise their lives around ‘reference points’ and are very “risk averse” when it comes to retreating away from those reference points. A reference point might be something like the income level to which one has grown accustomed and therefore the amount that one spends in day to day life, the expenditure associated with a lifestyle that is more or less adjusted to the income. My interpretation of this is that a fall in income is not welcome not only because one has less but because the organisation, the management of life’s details, must be adjusted so as to create an adjusted expenditure pattern and this requires thought and attention. One spends less money but spends more time thinking about what one spends money on. This is unwelcome extra mental effort. For a significant change one must adjust a whole pattern of hourly, daily and weekly purchases with possible consequences for habitat, relationships, routine transport arrangements etc.

It is all very well to write, as the editors do in their epilogue, that scarcity is social, and that society can produce more than enough for our basic needs – but that does not address the main issue that people worry about when they manage their day to day lives. This is how to maintain their “lifestyle package” in sufficient balance so that their lives are not at risk of descending into chaos. Most individuals whose lives are in balance will be living in a set of circumstances where their income is more or less appropriate to match their habitat needs, which must match their relationships (accommodation suitable to living with their partner and dependents). These must match their job with its income – and with its time and travel commitments. These must match their job skills and domestic commitments. There is mental and emotional work involved in balancing one’s life and it is scary if it seems like unravelling.

The biggest fear is of a generalised life crisis in which all of these things unravel together. For example because they lose their job a person might find that they cannot service their debts (mortgage) or pay the rent and thus lose their accommodation. During the stress and practical chaos of this their relationships might break apart. During the last crash many ended up homeless living in tents or cars on their own. Many people also lost their minds – i.e. became totally disorientated, extremely emotional and unable to function.[2]

The practical projects as “lifeboat arrangements”

https://jaqastan.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/adeptes-de-la-decroissance1.jpgThe point about a generalised crisis is that large numbers of people could find themselves in situations like these – and thus need the urban farms, the food co-ops, the repair and maintenance workshops, the back to the land projects, the alternative currencies as “lifeboat” arrangements to keep them afloat. They will need these kind of projecsts to give them new social relationships and enable them to begin again, to regain confidence, to “recycle their lives”. It seems implausible to me that most people will join these projects and organise their lives around them as a choice of rejection of the growth economy – although some will. It is however not implausible that if and when the growth economy is breaking down that people will join these projects. (I have seen how valuable a community garden can be for people who have mental health problems.)

Until a generalised breakdown occurs most people will remain too tightly tied into the economic mainstream. When a breakdown does occur however the times will be very dangerous and the projects must be there ready to include and support people. This is because it is when all their options seem bad that people lose their risk aversion and are prepared to take gambles – like for example betting what little they have left or, in a more fundamental sense, gambling with their life by joining a criminal gang or an extremist movement.

Resilience – another missing word

The word to describe this set of issues is “resilience”. Unfortunately resilience is another missing concept in this book. Resilience is about how much stress an individual’s ‘lifestyle package’ or a community or a society can take and still function before it breaks down catastrophically. It is about the tipping points or thresholds within systems that reflect their levels of complexity and interdependence.

This ought to have been clear from the chapter by Sergio Ulgiati on “Entropy” which is about what role low entropy energy has in the maintenance of systems. The availability of low entropy energy in economic and social systems is not just in order to be able to produce enough “stuff”. The conversion of energy in “hub interdependencies” – in transport systems, transactions and financial systems, computer controlled production systems and global supply networks is used to maintain the continued functionality of an immensely complex set of organisational structures. If the energy is not there then the complexity degrades – systems cease to function – the organisation falls to bits.

The crucial issue here is how resilient are these interrelated structures to disruptions in hub interdependencies brought about by energy and resource supply shocks? Systems can cope with reductions in inputs of energy and other resources up to a point but beyond that point they may break down completely. When organisational arrangements break down altogether nothing at all may get produced because workers are unemployed, production systems stand idle, banks are bust, nothing moves. There would not be stone age levels of production but no production at all. Gar nicht. Rien du tout. Res en absolute.

Here’s a quote from a colleague in Feasta, David Korowicz, which reveals the issue at stake:

“In September 2000 truckers in the United Kingdom, angry at rising diesel duties, blockaded refineries and fuel distribution outlets. The petrol stations reliance on Just-In-Time re-supply meant the impact was rapid. Within 2 days of the blockade starting approximately half of the UK’s petrol stations had run out of fuel and supplies to industry and utilities had begun to be severely affected. The initial impact was on transport – people couldn’t get to work and businesses could not be re-supplied. This then began to have a systemic impact.

The protest finished after 5 days at which point: supermarkets had begun to empty of stock, large parts of the manufacturing sector were about to shut down, hospitals had begun to offer emergency only’ care; automatic cash machines could not be re-supplied and the postal service was severely affected. There was panic buying at supermarkets and petrol stations. It was estimated that after the first day an average 10% of national output was lost. Surprisingly, at the height of the disruption, commercial truck traffic on the UK road network was only 10-12% below average values.”[3]

It will be noted here that 10 to 12 % less commercial truck traffic and British society was about to fall to bits. It is easy to imagine particular kinds of emergency where the “life style package” of a lot of people would disintegrate.
Climate change, climate policy, overshoot, involuntary degrowth, collapse, risk aversion, inertia, resilience…here are a whole series of concepts and words that in my view ought to have appeared in the vocabulary but did not. As I said at the beginning of this review the constellation of concepts or the words in this vocabulary do not cover the issues to my point of view.

http://www.sustainabilitysc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/EconomicGrowthCartoon.jpg

A French book written in English?

The Degrowth book is a collection of 51 very short essays, almost all of which are by academic authors – 16 of whom are at the University of Barcelona. Although it is claimed to be the first comprehensive collection about degrowth in English it is very much a southern European academic view of what degrowth means. This is reflected in the choice of topics by the editors who have clearly been very influenced by thinkers on the French left. Thus, to my mind, many chapters sit uneasily alongside the chapters by some of the English and American authors some of whom have started from a different pre-analytical framework. I have no problem with a book whose authors start from different points but it places a particular responsibility on the editors to give the reader some orientation to the differences. It makes me wonder what the English and American authors have made of the parts of the book that they had no hand in writing.

In a footnote early in the book the editors explain why some words have not been translated into English:

“In this entry we leave the original titles in French, not only for reasons of language pluralism or practicality but also because many of the words involved sound more inspiring in French!”.[4]

My response to this is that it is not always practical not to translate. It is not practical for readers when it makes it more difficult for them to understand the meaning. Indeed if one does not understand what a word is supposed to mean then I for one don’t find that word inspiring. This is particularly the case with words that do not translate easily because they come out of a different intellectual tradition, background and patterns of thought.

An adjective used as a noun – “the imaginary”

http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/wp-content/uploads/polyp-org-uk-No-Economic-Growth-cartoon-e1298661998815.jpgThroughout the book many authors write out of a left wing French intellectual tradition about the “social imaginary”. The use of the adjective “imaginary” as a noun, as “the imaginary”, I have now learned has a long intellectual tradition in France. Novelists like Gide, philosophers like Sartre and Castoriadis and psychoanalysts like Lacan all used “L’Imaginaire” in different contexts. The idea seems to be that the words and symbols used in human communication, as well as in our thinking, do not necessarily match or correspond to actually existing realities.

The words and symbols that we use may have an invented component that corresponds to nothing ‘out there’ in the world. In fact the imagination is necessary to thought. Our ability to shape patterns of words, images and symbols in creative writing or painting is not merely an ability we have to create fictitious realities. The mind has to have this capacity to imagine if it is to be able to think at all. How else can a scientist theorise except by imagining what might be the explanatory causes for some phenomena? The imagination can later be tested and found to be true or false but the initial act of making a hypothesis is an ability to construct what might be, to imagine.

Furthermore it is through our ability to imagine the way in things might be otherwise arranged that our freedom to act in the world lies. Our imagination can create visions of how future social, economic and political realities might be constructed differently. We can use our imagination to invent things. This is why, according to Cornelius Castoriadis, history cannot be analysed in a determinist way. A significant role in the historical process originates from the creative imagination of people in societies. Thus, once we surrender to the idea that “there is no alternative” (e.g. to neo-liberal economics) we have not only got a failure of the imagination but have allowed our freedom to disappear. We are, to use the concept of one of the other chapters, relinquishing our autonomy – our ability to set rules and laws for ourselves in co-operative and hopefully convivial arrangements with other people. Hence the case made by Serge Latouche in this book for the need to “decolonise” our “imaginaries” from the ideas of market economics.

Unfortunately one meaning of “imaginary” in the English language is “existing only in the imagination”. (Oxford English Dictionary) That’s why I don’t personally like the adoption of “the imaginary” as a noun. It is too ambiguous. In the context it also reads like a word that has suddenly become fashionable among intellectuals.

I can imagine that I can raise a bag of ten apples one metre into the air with one joule of energy but that is “an imaginary” that only exists in my imagination. (An apple of an average weight takes one joule to raise one metre). While some imaginaries have some connection to reality, some imaginaries, on closer inspection, appear to be too-off-the wall and rather more in the nature of fantasies. Some imaginaries are nice to look at in a surrealist painting but non functional and some imaginaries are not only crazy but criminally insane and plain dangerous. As a matter of fact “economic growth” is a mainstream “social imaginary” that is collectively suicidal. Imaginaries have to have some connection to practical possibilities and actual developments in material reality and it’s important to note that current mainstream ‘economic imaginaries’ are delusionary.

Ecological economists have given a lot of thought to this issue by seeking to ground economics in energetics and physics. Cultural critique has to check its groundings otherwise it is waffle.

La depense sociale – what is it actually?

This brings me to one of the words that do appear in this book and one in particular that the editors seem particularly keen on – that word is “dépense”. This concept is discussed more than any other by the editors particularly in their epilogue where the authors break into French slogans in their last two sentences:

“Vive la décroissance conviviale. Pour la sobriete individuelle et la dépense sociale.”

With social dépense so clearly highlighted it is obviously important to understand it. If the idea is to be ‘operationalised’ we need to know how to recognise “dépense” when we see it. In fact I’ve been left feeling that I am unclear what it means.

Part of the problem for me with understanding ‘dépense’ is that it is another word coming out of the French tradition with which I have not been familiar. When the word “dépense” is left in French and not simply translated as “expenditure” then the reader is left assuming that it has a more complex meaning which I need to make some more effort into getting a grip on. My assumption is that I have no choice but to do extra work digging back into the history of that concept to try to capture all its connotations in the intellectual background in which it was created. In this book ideas are introduced in very small chapters that are no longer than 4 pages and that is not long enough to pick up all the nuances and assumptions of the tradition. For that reason I felt compelled to do additional google searches in order to try to understand “dépense”. I also searched around to find some more about George Bataille who originated the idea. It was on my bookshelf that I found the most useful succinct description of Bataille’s ideas in an old edition of the Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy:

“For Bataille, much modern thought and many social and economic structures are modes of denial of the fundamental nature of being as a Dionysian process without stable identity or meaningful direction, an expenditure and squandering of force that is no more than its own end – compare the second law of thermodynamics….”

So this is a crucial idea for degrowth? Digging in other texts to try to understand what kind of idea this is, and what its author was about, I discovered not just an economic theory but a writer of surrealist texts, a particular angle on psychoanalysis and Marxism and a deeply disturbed and traumatised man. I write this at this point not to disqualify the dépense idea but only to point out that I am reluctant to embrace any concept with this amount of baggage before I have carefully examined it because there isn’t enough in the Degrowth book to get a grasp of the idea.

Unfortunately after a lot of work I am still not completely sure that I have understood what the word means. Nor am I sure that I have understood how the dépense chapter author, Onofrio Romano, and the editors want the word to be understood in the context of degrowth – because this is not necessarily identical to the way Bataille understood it. What follows is my attempt to convert the idea into a terminology that would make some sort of sense to me but I am not completely sure that I have got it right.

Underlying the motivational foundations for the ideology of growth is the mainstream economics idea of scarcity. If there can never be enough goods and services to meet human needs it seems to follow that the more we produce the better. Here is the simple case for growth. It would therefore be understandable if advocates of degrowth were drawn to Bataille who turned the scarcity idea on its head – the problem for the economy in his way of thinking is not how to deal with scarcity but how to deal with “excess”.

According Bataille that there is a “superabundance of energy” and more than enough to meet the basic material needs for organisms/humans. That part of work using energy to meet these basic needs which enable us to survive can be regarded as ‘servile’ serving and merely re-creating our animal existence. It is when we are deciding what to do with the surplus which is more than we need for very basic needs that we enter a realm of freedom where we are truly exercising our freedom in “forms of energy beyond the servile”.

For Romano, and for the editors here is a key concept that they want to put at the heart of “degrowth”. Scarcity, the editors assure us, “is social. Since the stone age we have had more than we need for a basic standard of living.”

The problem is that, instead of staying with our basic individual standards of living and democratically organising how we are going to “waste” the surplus together, for non servile purposes that develop our humanity, we have accumulated and invested the surplus in new technologies that expand production even more. We have thereby grown the capacity of “the economy” to produce ever more until it is threatening the eco-system. At the same time we have privatised and individualised the process of waste making of the surplus. “Given the individualisation of society, single individuals take on the burden of waste through small trade offs: from perverse sexuality to alcoholism, gambling and flashy consumption”. [5]

The alternative then is guaranteeing a modest living for all individuals and socialising “dépense”, the non productive use of society’s surplus.

This is a superficially attractive idea could perhaps alternatively be expressed like this. If we want to stop growing we must stop accumulating productive capital. (Creating more technical devices and infrastructures that convert energy while turning more throughputs into what eventually become larger waste streams). With a modest income most individuals would not have enough to save and any surplus would go to democratic institutions to dispense – though not on anything productive that would grow the economy. According to the editors:

“Our message to the frugal ecologists is that it is better to waste resources in gold decorations in a public building or drink them in a big feast, than put them to good use, accelerating even more the extraction of new resources and the degradation of the environment. It is the only way to escape Jevon’s Paradox. Accumulation drives growth, not waste. Even in a society of frugal subjects with a downscaled metabolism, there will still be a surplus that would have to be dispensed, if growth is not to be reactivated.”

I think that I get the main drift of the argument here but I am not absolutely sure I have understood it fully. This is partly because I am not sure that is meant by the word “energy” – is it the same energy that is actually becoming scarce because of peak oil or is there a looser use of the word? I am also not sure that I have understood partly because there is an implicit psychology under the analysis that I don’t get either. For example, Romano argues that “individualised dépense” does not happen on an adequate scale.

“A large amount of energy remains unused, it continues to circulate and to stress human beings. Lacking tools of deliberate and symbolic catastrophe (i.e. the ritual collective dépense) the inhabitants of growth societies begin to dream them and to desire a ‘real’ catastrophe.”

What is this supposed to mean? Is it supposed to be the same idea as “catharsis”? I don’t understand what this ‘energy’ is that is stressing people and how it is stressing them. However I have tried to guess at what the author means in a conceptual framework that makes sense to me so, once again, here goes with my attempted ‘translation’:

Is this trying to describe a situation where, while people have time on their hands and a wish to do things, they are stressed and frustrated because they don’t actually know what to do with their time and ‘energy’? Is this because they don’t have purposes to give structure and meaning to their lives and to use their personal ‘energy’ on (like the sacred)? Is this what frustrates them? Does it mean that they are frustrated because they have spare time on their hands and they are bored because they don’t have a meaningful “game” to play with their lives? Is this what it is supposed to mean? Does it mean that people need to be able to collectively express the negative feelings that arise out of their bored purposeless – feelings like anger and destructiveness? Does it mean that without collective rituals of destructiveness to which resources must be devoted that they will end up wishing for real catastrophes? Is this, for example, about angry young men (and women) needing rituals like football matches with punch-ups thrown in – because otherwise they will sign up to go and fight for causes and go to war?

What seems to be being said here is not only that dépense is a means to dissipate resources so that they are not accumulated economically but also that dépense has a function in the management of mass emotion. If I have got that right then what is being described here is what therapists call “catharsis” – the release, and therefore relief from, strong emotions which would otherwise be channelled into real destruction.

How do you administer the dépense idea? How do you operationalise it?

If I have understood these ideas correctly then what opens up for me is a huge number of questions. For example how is the social depense to be organised/administered? How is it to be decided, and by whom, what is an acceptable level of basic provision and what is to be destroyed as “excess”? How is “excess” to be identified and then “socialised” prior to its “waste” in a useless fashion? I suppose that by guaranteeing a basic income and a maximum income and then taxing all the rest away that one could say that that rest was “excess” but would the authors really want to spend this excess without any investment whatsoever? For example all buildings as well as other forms of public infrastructure would be depreciating as they always do – should provision be set aside to maintain their upkeep and replacement? “Growth” can happen because when equipment needs replacing and the replacements are “upgrades”. Where does that fit into dépense?

Further to that, what exactly is “dépense sociale”? On the last page the editors give a list of examples – collective feasts, Olympic Games, idle ecosystems, military expenditures and voyages to space and they refer to pressure on democratic and deliberative institutions choosing between these.

I will put aside at this point the question of what an “idle ecosystem” is and raise some other points instead. The implicit faith in the ability of “democratic and deliberative institutions” to be able to stand up to the military industrial complex and prevent it claiming the surplus surprises me. Given the pre-existing power structures it would be very surprising if the idea of individual sobriety and social depense did not to turn into the latest version of bread and circuses. The masses would have, at best, a very basic standard of living while the political elite would organise banquets in honour of the latest head of state, rope everyone into large scale theatrical events with everyone wearing a uniform and carrying torches while they listen to rants from their betters. Alternatively resources could be “wasted” in jolly festivals in which ‘civil people’ (who are obedient) are entertained while those who are disobedient and uncivil, and thus ‘obviously’ the cause of all the problems in society, are put in the centre of ampitheatres and torn apart by lions. This would be wonderfully effective in channelling and managing mass emotions and getting rid of the surplus too. Wouldn’t these qualify as social dépense? They appear to have done in the thinking of George Bataille for whom socialised dépense also included human sacrifices organised by the state in the Aztec empire.

http://image.slidesharecdn.com/happydegrowth1-140122071546-phpapp02/95/happy-degrowth-1-14-638.jpg?cb=1390396617

In conclusion

In conclusion, it seems important to me to know whether Degrowth is a voluntary or an involuntary process and to build that distinction into the vocabulary about it. If it is a voluntary process then certain things follow – like the need to know how it is going to be driven/motivated and administered, at what pace and in what manner, in order to respond to the climate crisis. It is also possible here that even if degrowth is involuntary, because of energy descent, that if it is not fast enough then, once again certain things follow from that about climate policy. As I have argued degrowth could be driven by climate policy by reducing the amount of fossil fuels allowed out of the ground.

To the extent that degrowth is an involuntary process then another set of issues arise – will the society and economy withstand the process without catastrophic breakdowns and what can the many kinds of projects and policies described in this book do to make energy descent a survivable process for the population? A great many people will be finding that their lifestyle packages are severely stressed and breaking apart and this will generate a great deal of fear and ‘negative’ emotions.

Notions like “dépense” are useful for drawing attention to fact that “surplus resources” can be ‘invested’ in things that have consequences for mass emotions and therefore for social stability or conflict. However, one must ask how much “surplus” or excess there will be on the way down given that energy descent is likely to take society through a variety of thresholds and tipping points and be an exceedingly bumpy ride. It is true that to “invest” resources in “capital accumulation” might in theory start the economy growing again – but only if new energy sources were found.

Growth is unlikely in a society where energy inputs are rapidly shrinking. Instead what is needed for the resources that are there is investment in the community level projects and activities which help people cope – an investment directly in the lifeboat projects as I have called them. There is a danger that the rather vague call for “socialised dépense” can be interpreted as a support for state centralisation of the remaining surplus – for the maintenance of remaining resources in the hands of the military, the state bureaucracy and privileged insiders whose claim to maintain “order” in difficult times is also buttressed by the use of resources to display their power and add theatrical embellishment to their authority. I don’t think this would be a very good idea…..

Read the response to this review by Giorgos Kallis, one of the book’s editors

Endnotes

[1] Turner, G. M. (2012). On the Cusp of Collapse. Updated Comparison of the Limits of Growth with historical data. GAIA 21/2 , 116-124.
[2] See my paper produced for Economic De-Growth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, Paris, 18/19th April 2008 at http://events.it-sudparis.eu/degrowthconference/en/themes/ I did not attend this conference because, not being an academic, I could not afford to.
[3] http://www.feasta.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Catastrophic-shock-pandemic2.pdf
[4] footnote on page 5
[5] Onofrio Romano p 88

Featured image: community garden in Denver, Colorado. Author: emerson12. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2007_community_garden_DenverCO_787214962.jpg

Tiny Houses

Off the keyboard of Dr. Geoffrey Chia

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on February 2, 2015

Tiny_Home

Discuss this article at the Doomsteading Table inside the Diner

DESIGN FOR AN OFF-GRID, PASSIVE-SOLAR, TINY HOUSE ON WHEELS

(includes a blueprint for a low consumption lifestyle and a proposal for a robust community)

G. Chia, Brisbane, Australia, February 2015

BACKGROUND

The tiny house movement arose in the USA after many people lost their houses in the wake of the subprime mortgage scam. My motivation for designing an off-grid passive-solar tiny house on wheels arose from various frustrating delays and impediments experienced when trying to obtain council approval for a cottage, particularly with respect to the composting toilet system. Other reasons people may choose a tiny house may be affordability, short build duration and transportability. Personal involvement with the build enables future ease of maintenance by the owner whether it be electrical (which anyone can perform with a low voltage DC system1), plumbing or structural repairs. Gas connections however must be done by certified gas fitters.

This particular design arose from my views regarding the drawbacks of living aboard a boat or a standard caravan, while also adopting some of the space saving innovations of such mobile dwellings. Internet research was also immensely valuable, especially viewing the numerous video clips of tiny houses on the web.

Dimensional constraints of the road legal tiny house are outlined within the regulations of each country, in Australia the width being <2.5 metres and total height <4.3 metres. Allowable length of the trailer is apparently up to 12.5 metres, however that is far longer than is needed in practice, a trailer base length of less than 8 metres being sufficient for most folks2. Any longer may result in a heavy structure exceeding the towing capacity of the most powerful 4WD/SUV ie. 8 metres (or even 7 metres, depending on materials used for construction) may be the longest practical trailer base, without having to resort to a Mack truck. Although personally opposed to the purchase of a 4WD for trivial commuting (eg one person driving10km to buy one litre of milk), I acknowledge the necessity for the one-off rental of a 4WD (or towing cab) for the single journey of the tiny house from the site of construction to the permanent destination.

Note: Australian regulations require at least one door be located on the left hand side or at the rear of the mobile home, presumably to allow safe ingress/egress when stopped by the side of the road. For countries with traffic on the right, presumably their regulation will require at least one door on the right hand side or at the rear of the structure.

This is not just an article about a type of house. It is an article about a change in lifestyle. It describes the special components which make up the house and the (trivial) lifestyle modifications required to drastically reduce one’s ecofootprint. For those who purchase the building materials (rather than salvage offcuts from building sites) the upfront cost may seem a little high, however never having to pay utility bills will result in huge lifetime savings3. More importantly, if and when the central utilities fail, you will be living comfortably while others are suffering.

Freedom from a mortgage. Freedom from utility bills. Freedom from the disruptions of grid failure. Freedom of movement. Ethical living without sacrificing comfort. This article promotes ongoing use of (low energy) electronic gadgets and electrical appliances for as long as we are able. It is not about reverting to the stone age and wearing sack cloth. It is not about deprivation.

BASIC PRINCIPLES:

The key to minimising your ecofootprint is to reduce consumption by increasing efficiency and turning waste into a resource (granting that high safety and health standards must be maintained). If everyone in the rich world had vigorously pursued this principle twenty years ago (combined with reducing the rate of human reproduction) we would not be headed for global catastrophe now4. However voluntary mass reduction of consumption was never likely to happen, being in direct opposition to the “infinite growth on a finite planet” agenda of the psychopaths who control the establishment.

Nevertheless, the principle of making a little go a long way is also of prime importance when devising a lifestyle which will enable one to survive, even thrive, through the upcoming collapse of industrial civilisation and the die-off of the majority of humanity.

The major objection by the endless growth ideologues to the principle of reducing consumption, was their claim it would compromise the quality of one’s life, even lead to impoverishment (the same argument they used against reducing carbon emissions). Utter rubbish. It does involve some degree of lifestyle modification, however as will be shown, there need be no reduction in your quality of life, particularly as we are now able to access brilliant technology such as high output LED lights, photovoltaic panels (which have markedly fallen in price) and evacuated tube solar hot water heaters. Furthermore living in a small space is immensely liberating because it forces you to dispose of all non-essential crap in your life so you are no longer a slave to your possessions. Having said that, storage space in the tiny house is limited, hence it is expected you should also have a large external community lockup shed (at least the size of a triple garage) which may also serve as a workshop, a meeting place, a place out of the rain for your clotheslines and a storage place for boxed items (winter bedding, valued books, long term food stores, gardening tools etc). The large shed roof will be essential for additional rainwater collection. This shed, being a very basic structure, can be rapidly approved by council (building application submitted as a shed or a garage) and quickly and affordably built from a kit by a contractor to your specifications eg able to withstand 200km/h winds.

The tiny house diagrams are displayed just after this paragraph. You may wish to intermittently refer back to them as you continue reading, to better understand the ideas being described. The original scale was 1:50 which is not the case with these reduced pictures:

TinyHome_Chia

TinyHome_Chia2

 

TinyHome_Chia3

TinyHome_Chia4

 

FEATURES OF THIS TINY HOUSE:

Disclosures and disclaimers: I mention certain brands and models of items in this article because I have personal experience with them and know that they work, however I have no pecuniary interest in any of those companies. I have invented none of the items described here but have merely put things together in a package I deem most logical, efficient and suitable for my purposes. Readers are welcome to adopt any or all the ideas here for their personal use for free, but obviously need to conduct their own research and due diligence. Implementation will be at their own risk. They are not to use my design for commercial gain. This article can be freely copied and distributed ad infinitum for private use.

The first and most important key component of the offgrid tiny house in my view is this one:

The urine separating composting toilet:

There is a “yuck” factor among the uninitiated who imagine that a composting toilet located within a tiny house will result in terrible smells permeating the entire dwelling. This is completely untrue with regard to the modern well designed urine separating composting toilet. The “Nature’s Head” model designed for boats and caravans works very well. Other brands/models with similar features may work just as well. The “major” lifestyle modification required? Males must sit down when they pee. Get over it guys.

Top priority is the sanitary processing of human waste. The standard centralised flush sewage system has been immensely successful in this regard and any transition to a different method must be at least as hygienic, to ensure health safety.

Features of this composting toilet:

  1. Separation of liquid from solid waste is key. Old designs which mix urine and faeces in one chamber generate foul smelling pathogenic anaerobic bacteria, due to decomposition in an unaerated, liquid medium with a low carbon and high nitrogen mix (this can be useful if the intent is to harvest methane in a biodigester, but that is beyond the scope of this article). The simple act of diverting the urine away is revolutionary. Faeces and toilet paper are deposited in a “solids” bin, previously activated by peat moss or coconut coir. Immediately after deposition, the mixture is churned by a turning handle, then sawdust or wood shavings (preferably mixed with wood ash to reduce clumping and to aid smell neutralisation) are sprinkled on top, to seal off smells and increase the carbon content. A high carbon to nitrogen content promotes aerobic over anaerobic organisms. Continuous exhaust ventilation by an ultralow energy (computer type) fan promotes aeration and expulsion of odour to the exterior. A double lid system further ensures no smells escape into the toilet cubicle at all. If tiny fruit/vinegar flies inadvertently enter the system they can be controlled by adding diatomaceous earth.
  2. Urine may be collected in a bottle or drained away. On the rare occasion odour occurs, this can be abolished by sprinkling sugar in the bottle. When the tiny house is permanently sited, the urine tube can be connected directly to the gray water piping for immediate drainage to the exterior, perhaps to a gravel bed. Ideally however gray water should be biologically processed in a reed bed then used to irrigate plants. Urine, being nitrogen and phosphate rich, is an immensely valuable fertiliser and should not be wasted.
  3. High volume use is not a problem. Even though the solids bin looks small it has ample capacity for continous use by a couple, especially because no liquid is stored within and the faeces compacts down as it decomposes. After 2-3 months as the “active” solids bin (bin 1) fills, it is replaced by an empty bin (bin 2). Bin 1 is covered by a lid with a vent and is put aside (outside the tiny house, say, in the shed) to quietly continue composting,. If bin 2 fills up after a couple of months but bin 1 has not completed its composting duration (at least a year) then waste from bin 1 (now quite innocous with an earthy consistency and odour), is tranfered to a heavy duty rip-proof waterproof bag and allowed to continue composting. Bin 1 and bin 2 are then swapped. Composted waste more than a year old can be used to fertilise plants eg fruit trees but never applied directly to edible crops eg the veggie patch. The only limitation to the volume of usage is the number of heavy duty bags available (high quality bags must be obtained which can be reused).
  4. Being a non-flush toilet, fresh water savings are immense. Standard “water saving” flush toilets use up to 6 litres for a half flush and around 9 litres for a full flush, valuable high quality fresh water being discarded down the sewer. In the case of a urine separating composting toilet, if flecks of faeces fall on the rim of the solids aperture, they are easily dispatched by a spray of fresh water with a water pistol, no more than 100ml per use. Some amount of fresh water in the solids bin is helpful to enable a slightly moist environment for biodegradation.
  5. Warming the solids bin. This last point is one I am personally addressing by a method not mentioned by the toilet manufacturers nor councils as far as I am aware. Aerobic decomposition of faeces proceeeds much faster at higher temperatures. Some systems (eg certain SunMar models) use electrical heating elements which may consume 100 Watts, a huge drain on one’s precious electrical resource and completely unviable for the offgrid low energy system. Substantial heat is generated by the decomposition process itself and the slightly insulating sawdust/wood ash layer sprinkled on top helps retain some heat. Nevertheless the process may be impaired in a cold climate especially in winter. One way to overcome this is to configure your toilet cubicle such that the solids bin is directly heated by the sun’s rays through a large double glazed window. Configuring your toilet cubicle as a greenhouse, so to speak5. This mandates that the cubicle be sited on the North side of your tiny house in the Southern hemisphere (South side if you live in the Northern hemisphere). Obviously you will install a retractable opaque screen inside the window, deployed during toilet use.

Solar principles:

It is expected the house will be moved very rarely and will be stationary almost all the time. When parked long term, weight should be taken off the tyres by placing multiple jackstands under the chassis. If the wheels are removed, Council will regard it as a fixed dwelling, subject to all Council regulations and approvals, hence leave the wheels on. Footings can be concreted into the ground near the corners, with anchor points to chain the chassis down and render the structure cyclone resistant.

Sited on a fixed location, the design can and should incorporate solar principles. Orientation of the broadside of the house toward the sun is key, North facing if you live in the Southern hemisphere and South facing if you live in the Northern hemisphere. Hence my design will have to be laterally inverted for Northerners (unless you like the evening rather than morning sun in your lounge).

It is important to have a tree free margin around the home for many reasons. Shading will defeat the aims of passive solar heating6 and reduce insolation for your PV panels and evacuated tube array. Overhanging branches can pose a risk of deadfall damage. Birds perched on the branches may leave droppings which enter your rainwater system. Leaves falling on your roof and sliding into your gutter may clog your rainwater collection system and promote bacterial contamination. Perhaps most crucial of all in the Australian context, nearby trees may pose a high risk of bushfire damage in the summer.

The three main aspects of passive solar heating are high insulation, large double glazed windows and thermal mass within the house. Extreme passive solar house designs in Scandinavia and Canada demand near airtight sealing to prevent hot air escaping and cold air entering – which will result in suffocation unless there is also heat recovery ventilation (which requires energy). Annoying condensation also occurs without adequate ventilation. We will not delve into such an extreme design here.

Traditional passive solar houses have depended on concrete floor slabs for thermal mass, which is obviously not feasible for a mobile house on a chassis with limited weight capacity. Furthermore, copious use of concrete, with its high embodied energy and carbon emissions during manufacture, may be anathema to the readers of this article. The thermal mass used in this design takes the form of water contained within the internal tanks of the house. Any of you who have a greenhouse with a huge tub of water sitting in the centre will appreciate this feature. Optimally the water tanks will be made of stainless steel (rather than, say, fibreglass) and painted matt black to facilitate rapid transfer of heat to and from the air of the cabin. The lounge seats will be located over the tanks but no weight will be borne on top of the tanks. The lounge base will consist of upright posts supporting the seats, but this base will have no side panelling, to allow direct contact between the walls of the steel tanks and the atmosphere of the house.

Obviously when the house is towed, the tanks should be empty.

Electrical system:

A 24V DC system is the most efficient for this size of dwelling and avoids excessive complexity. It is best to source as many appliances as possible which run directly off 24V DC, in particular the fridge/freezer which ideally should use an ultra efficient Danfoss type compressor. The market for such appliances is however much smaller than the mains voltage AC appliance market and you will still need a pure sine wave inverter (rated at, say, 3kW) to intermittently power certain other appliances eg washing machine, home theatre system etc. Use of portable electronic devices (smart phone, tablet and laptop computer – which, with a USB tuner can double as a TV) is encouraged as they consume little energy. Adapters to convert 24V DC to the charging voltages of these mobile devices are readily available.

These days, very few new home occupants bother with fixed telephone lines because mobile phones adequately meet their communication needs and the declining cost of mobile broadband internet access enables most web based needs to be met.

Some may advocate a 12V DC system because more 12V DC appliances are available on the market than those that run on 24V DC, however for a 12V DC system, heat energy losses in wires longer than the length of a car will be excessive unless you resort to expensive and unwieldly thick cables.

Some may advocate a system where all appliances are run off mains voltage AC, fed from a central inverter which is in turn fed from the batteries, a DC source. Even though inverters these days are fairly reliable with good longevity, the central inverter powering everything does represent a single point of weakness in the system, failure of which will render the entire household paralysed. Furthermore there is continuous drain of power from the inverter in the form of heat loss, even when all other appliances are off. Additionally, AC appliances themselves tend to be ultimately DC powered (AC power goes into the device, eg an LED light, then is rectified to DC, which then powers the light). The rectifier is another source of energy loss (as heat) and another layer for potential failure (if it fails, the whole appliance fails, even if the LED is still perfectly functional).

Power sources and batteries:

By far the most important source of power will be photovoltaic panels which may be placed on the roof or ground (higher risk of shading if located on the ground but easier to clean, adjust and if necessary fold and pack away should a storm threaten).

My preferred specifications are:

PV panels: 1kW in total (perhaps four 250W@24V panels)

Deep cycle7 lead acid batteries: 520Ah@24V in total (two separate sets of two 260Ah@12V batteries connected in series). AGM is preferable if you can afford it.8

The lead-acid capacities cited above are around 3 to 4 times that of most sailboat electrical systems. Standard caravans tend to have only one 100Ah@12V battery (less than one tenth of this system) as they are meant to be continuously recharged by the electrical system of the towing vehicle or a mains supply. The system specified here should suit the needs of any cautious users, apart from those enduring the prolonged darkness of winter at very high latitudes. The only devices with continuous drain are the fridge/freezer (however there will be minimal electrical drain in deep winter, especially if the fridge is relocated outdoors under cover) and the composting toilet fan (the latter consuming next to nothing). The washing machine will consume the greatest power intermittently. However if only used once or twice per week and only during sunny days, it should not significantly deplete the batteries. Obviously you should choose a front loading machine with the best energy and water savings ratings.

Rooftop PV panels can be angled during the Spring equinox to suit the summer sun and during the Autumn equinox to suit the winter sun. Angling them more frequently may not be worth the hassle unless they are ground based. MPPT voltage regulators/chargers are about 25% more efficient than PWM chargers but significantly costlier. I intend to use 40Amp smart MPPT chargers, one for each battery bank and have personally used the “Tracer” brand which has also been described in ReNew magazine. I used it for a 12V system although it can “autosense” if the system is 12V or 24V. Some chargers are falsely advertised as MPPT but are actually PWM. Try to find reviews on the web of the brand and model that you intend to purchase, buyer beware.

Ideally the negative terminals of each battery bank should be grounded.

Low voltage cutoff devices between the batteries and the central battery switchboard/bus will help prevent inadvertent overdischarge damage of the batteries.

Top-up charging after several overcast days may require use of a diesel or petrol generator (hopefully only on very rare occasions) however if a marine type 24V DC microwind turbine is incorporated into the system9, it is very unlikely top-up charging using fossil fuels will ever be needed, unless your location is devoid of wind.

Shallow cyclic draining of your battery system should extend its life well beyond ten years. Abuse will kill it within two years.

If one has access to a a stream which never runs dry, then a microhydro system providing a continuous electrical supply will be more than sufficient to run your space heating, electric hot water heating, a microwave oven, electric toaster, electric kettle and induction cooktop10. In the absence of this rare luxury however, it seldom makes sense to convert precious electrical energy to heat. Becoming dependent on microhydropower can be a problem though. Such a mechanical system is less robust and less dependable than PV panels. Breakdown of the microhydrosystem will be much more disruptive to the lifestyle of the inhabitant who is used to a surfeit of continuous power.

Fresh water usage:

Only one raingutter at the low edge of the roof is needed as the longitudinal ridges and troughs of the corrugated roof will direct rainwater flow accordingly. The “first flush” system will eliminate gross contaminants. The area of the roof and the size of the internal watertanks may or may not provide sufficient fresh water for the inhabitants, depending on how the water is consumed and the amount of local rainfall. An additional 2000 litre external rainwater tank will be useful and any alternative backup sources of fresh water eg dam, streams, springs, bore water etc will always be welcome. Your external shed (which should have a much larger roof area, being a communal building) should also have the largest feasible rainwater tanks attached, perhaps 40,000 litres, which will be needed for permaculture purposes. Australian council regulations specify that for offgrid properties at least 10,000 litres must be preserved for firefighting in a separate tank. In some council areas the 10,000 litres can be preserved at the bottom of the drinking water tank by having the off take for drinking above the preservation level.

The first principle must be to reduce consumption. Huge water saving (compared with a standard dwelling) will already have been accrued by adoption of the non-flush composting toilet.

More water conservation can be achieved by one’s method of washing. Lazing for half an hour under the shower is obviously not an option. Ever since the severe drought affecting Brisbane some years ago, I have adopted a method which uses less than 3 litres for a complete, thorough hair and body wash. The key item is a wash cloth about a fifth the size of a bath towel. The hair is wet first, then thoroughly scrubbed with soap or shampoo, then rinsed, the soapy water from the hair now wetting the entire body. The wash cloth is now wet and impregnated with soap and the whole body is thoroughly scrubbed with this cloth. The cloth is wet with fresh water again and the body is scrubbed again. This can be done a third time with further dilution of the soap. Final rinse from the shower over the hair and whole body eliminates any soapy residue. Less than 3 litres in total easily!

What if the first flow of water from the shower is uncomfortably cold? Simply collect the first flow cold water in a bucket while the tap is in “full hot” position till the water becomes warm, then turn the tap to the warm setting for your body wash. Put the initial cold water in the bucket aside to use for washing dishes later. Due to the close proximity of the hot water cylinder to the shower compartment in this design, there will be very little time lag till you receive hot shower water anyway, so this may not actually be an issue.

Drinking water: generations of rural Australians have lived healthy lives drinking unfiltered water directly from their rainwater tanks, however I personally prefer to filter tank water before drinking. Some ceramic filter systems are designed to last many years, the filter being “recharged” by scraping material off the ceramic filter every so often. Some may wish to boil their drinking water if there is concern of contamination from the roof or tank. I have personally used diluted bleach to “disinfect” water tanks previously, which kills most but not all microorganisms.

Gray water: Effluent from the kitchen, bathroom (including urine) and washing machine cannot be stored in a tank without rapidly turning manky and should be immediately drained externally. During initial setup of your tiny house, the gray water can be drained into a gravel pit but ideally in the long term, the waste water “experts”11 recommend draining gray water to an open reed bed for bioprocessing, then sent onwards to irrigate plants in a permaculture enclosure or greenhouse. Gray water is a valuable resource which should not be wasted. Low phosphate detergents and soaps with no additional chemicals (eg perfumes) should be chosen.

Solar hot water (evacuated tube) system:

In high latitudes in winter, the evacuated tube system is more efficient than a flat panel system and can cope with frost levels down to minus 20 degrees C. This will obviously only be deployed after the house has been transported to its permanent destination as the tubes are fragile and easily broken during transportation. Rather than locate the heavy hot water cylinder atop the tube array, which may require rooftop reinforcement, it is best to keep all heavy items low in the house, to ensure a low centre of gravity and improve stablility, which is important when encountering strong winds.

The tubes are best permanently angled steeply to suit the winter sun to prevent them overheating in summer. In locations with excessive insolation eg the outback or desert, tubes can overheat and explode and a flat panel system may be more suited there. With exponential global warming, living in the outback or desert, even if you have a borehole with limitless water, is probablly inadvisable. Even if you can survive the heatwaves by retreating to a hole in the ground, those heatwaves will devastate your crops and livestock.

Circulation of the water may be best achieved by a pump system that I have personal experience with (albeit a flat panel system: the “Heliatos”): A small 10W photovoltaic panel is mounted adjacent to the evacuated tube array. This PV panel is dedicated to run a small electric pump which is active only when the sun shines sufficiently. Water is pumped from the cold water tanks to the evacuated tube array then to the hot water cylinder. When the latter is full, the water keeps circulating between tubes and cylinder. When the sun goes down the pump stops and hot water remains stored in the cylinder. I am unaware if a thermosiphon system which does not require an electric pump has been invented (and proven to be reliable). If so, that would be a great option.

I have no plans for a “boost” system with supplementary LPG, because evacuated tubes work well even on semi-overcast days and the idea is to reduce complexity and reduce use of fossil fuels. Furthermore extra hot water can always be prepared atop the wood stove if there have been extremely overcast days.

LPG stove and wood stove/heater:

Even if/when the global economy collapses down to a tenth of its present state, in between episodes of turmoil we should still be able to obtain LPG or CNG cylinders for the next 15 years or so. Conventional gas (not shale gas or coal seam gas) is the least CO2 emitting of the fossil fuels. An LPG cooking system is therefore included in this design. However there is an important space adjacent to the LPG stove dedicated to a mini wood stove, which will be used to keep the cabin warm on winter evenings if the “greenhouse” heat from the water tanks has depleted after an overcast day. Just as greenhouse solar heat can be transferred to the water tanks in the day, heat from the wood stove can also be transferred to the water tanks at night and enable residual cabin warmth after the fire is out.

Safety considerations are vital. Apart from designing the setup such that heat from the stove can never ignite anything indoors (eg heatproof tiles under and around the stove, safety sleeve around flue as it passes through the roof etc), it is essential to ensure there is never any risk of oxygen depletion or CO2 poisoning within the cabin. External intake of air into the combustion chamber will prevent the former and an airtight vertical flue will prevent the latter. If there is risk the flue may serve as a lightning conductor, it is simple to ground it externally by means of a broad copper strip. Alternatively you may wish to install a dedicated lightning rod, especially if you also have a TV aerial which may attract lightning as well.

Of particular interest is the “rocket” wood stove/heater. This was originally designed to benefit people in the third world by reducing harmful smoke emissions and increasing combustion efficiency (it uses less than a quarter the amount of wood of a conventional fire). This brilliant device can help save our lungs and our forests. Unfortunately at this time no rocket stove model is certified for indoor use by councils or the EPA and can only be adopted at individual risk.

The multipurpose lounge/dining/study/entertainment area:

TinyHome_Chia5

The plan views of the lounge shown above are self explanatory. The standard cushion sizes are based on a particular “Ikea” outdoor cushion type and extra cushion covers are therefore easily and affordably obtainable, however the reader will obviously have their own cushion preferences. The back cushions, being vertical, do not allow for lumbar curves, hence scatter cushions will be necessary which, with fresh covers, can double as pillows for the guest(s).

The table, with folding side flaps and detachable legs, has to be custom made and will have two heights:

  • long table legs for dining table height allowing ample clearance above knees, when used for dining or study purposes
  • short table legs, where the table surface is below that of the seats such that when cushions are placed on the table top, their surface is flush with the seat cushions and a double bed is created.

The lounge can be converted into a home theatre by appropriate placing of retractable projection screen, LED projector, bluray player (or laptop computer) and speaker system.

Other design comments

Windows and doors:

The reader may have noted my obsession for numerous windows and transparent doors. Effective ways to prevent claustraphobia in a tiny dwelling are:

  • to ensure that you can enjoy external panoramic views through many large windows
  • to ensure that plenty of light streams in during the day and
  • to use light coloured walls

Excessive direct sunlight through the North facing windows can be controlled by external awnings and/or by internal pulldown blockout screens (the former being much more effective). Abundant opening windows allow for cross ventilation on hot days.

Full-width staircase along end wall (rather than ladder) to access loft:

This is a unique configuration as far as I am aware (although I have seen designs with staircases along the long wall of the tiny house, or transversely half-width across the mid section). To me, the novelty of a ladder wears thin after a couple of uses and I much prefer the convenience of simply walking up broad steps. The substantial area under the steps must not be wasted and is used to house the washing machine, hot water cylinder and shelving for pantry items. To maximise under-stair space, some of the steps are supported by vertical posts suspended from a horizontal structural beam (the vertical posts double as safety rails).

Slots for kitchen waste (for composting) and other waste (for recycling or burning):

Here is a simple system adapted from a boat:

TinyHome_Chia6

Al fresco enjoyment:

A timber deck can be built on the sun facing side, under a retractable awning.

Construction materials:

Construction materials used must be the choice of the owner (who may leave it up to the builder, if they are not the same person). Needless to say, quality components must be chosen for longevity, durability, strength and the structural flexibility to cope with road journeys. Optimal strength to weight ratio must be considered, both for the sake of towing the tiny house, as well as avoiding excessive long term load on the chassis, even when stationary. Caravan windows tend to be double layered acrylic rather than double glazed glass, for good reasons. It may be advisable to build the house to basic lockup stage only, then transport it to the final destination as an empty shell, where it will be properly fitted out (heavy batteries, washing machine, fridge etc only installed at final location).

Those of you who may know house builders may have access to the excess offcuts from their building sites. Such high quality, brand new but “surplus” offcuts may be sufficient to construct even two or three tiny houses, material which would otherwise be discarded.

The tiny house community:

Below is one possible layout for a tiny house community:

TinyHome_Chia7

Residents will come together frequently for many reasons: to grow crops and care for livestock in the common permaculture enclosure, to provide mutual help for maintenance and repairs, to meet and decide on community matters, for entertainment, companionship and for celebratory meals. It is helpful however for participants to have their own private dwellings that they can retreat to in the evenings, rather than be in everyone’s “hair” 24/7 if they all lived in a single large communal dwelling. Furthermore separate dwellings ensure that residents take responsibility for their own resource consumption and will face the consequences of their own profligacy and carelessness. For example if one irresponsible individual in a large communal household depletes the cooking gas, depletes the batteries by leaving appliances on, or depletes the water supply, this affects everyone and could lead to disaster and major conflict. Separate tiny houses enable resilience and if one household inadvertently faces a problem such as water depletion from a ruptured pipe, the other households will remain completely unaffected and can help with repairs and support the household facing difficulty.

Potential criticisms:

I am not a technocornucopian. I view centrally controlled utilities (particularly “big” electricity eg nuclear fission or coal) as doomed in the long term (possibly even short term). On the other hand I can imagine some criticisms from “hard core hairshirt collapsitarians” who may object to my advocacy of low energy, distributed technologies. Whereas I do view the eventual collapse of industrial society as inevitable, the process is likely to be stuttering (short of global nuclear war). As long as we are able to utilise LED lights, fridges and washing machines etc with minimal carbon emissions, it will be foolish not to do so. Going cold turkey is always more painful and may be potentially fatal, compared with gently weaning ourselves off our industrial/fossil fuel addiction and I advocate the latter. Survival is certainly more likely with a soft landing than a hard one.

Geoffrey Chia, February 2015

Acknowledgements:

Many thanks to the Architects: Will Gray for drafting the beautiful architectural diagrams (I made some crude alterations, also the ugly cartoonish diagrams are mine), Lara Nobel who has patiently and generously offered immense help over the past couple of years with regard to passive-solar off-grid cottage and tiny house concepts and designs (as well as physical help carrying materials and installing composting toilet and solar battery systems) and Andrew Carter for thoughtful ideas and practical help.

Also thanks to Dr Doone Wyborn, Geologist, Engineer and energy expert and Dr Jane O’Sullivan, Agricultural Scientist, for their helpful critiques and corrections regarding this article.

All remaining errors in this article are the sole responsibility of the author.

Footnotes:

  1. No risk of electrocution with low voltage DC, however there is always a risk of short circuits and fires, hence robust connections and abundant safety fuses are always required.
  2. An 8.0m long and 4.3m high (throughout the entire length) tiny house with double loft design can comfortably accommodate a couple with two children (or two couples). Access to the second loft will have to be by ladder rather than a second set of space consuming stairs. A larger family (a couple with up to six children) can build two tiny houses which will still cost far less then half of a standard small house, even using the best quality materials.
  3. Mass adoption of tiny houses will result in the councils and local utilities going bankrupt from lack of revenue, which is why in the near future governments may outlaw or over-regulate them. Hence it is best to get in now under the radar.

  4. Some may cite Jevon’s paradox as an argument, to which I reply: Jevon’s paradox is not applicable to those of us determined to reduce consumption. It is not some inviolable natural law but a historical observation about the behaviour of certain people, behaviour which can and will inevitably change. Jevon himself was obsessed with the idea that economic cycles coincided with sunspot cycles and when this was disproved, he insisted that the astronomers had got their data wrong. If reality did not conform to his view then he insisted that reality must be wrong. He was a pioneer of trying to quantify economics mathematically, assuming perfectly free markets, perfectly free information and rational participants. History has proven such assumptions to be complete bunkum. Nevertheless many neoclassical economists still try to promote their field as a science, which it most certainly is not and continue to teach such rubbish in universities.
  5. Paraphrased question from Dr Jane O’Sullivan: Why turn the entire toilet cubicle, rather than the solids bin itself, into a “greenhouse”? Wouldn’t it be better just to have black coloured thermal mass on the outside of the bin? Or just insulate the bin, to preserve the heat it generates itself? My answer: On another project where the solids bin is located in a separate chamber under the toilet cubicle, I am indeed turning that chamber alone (which has thermal mass within the black coloured chamber walls) into a minigreenhouse. Due to the design of the caravan model of the Nature’s Head toilet, this is not possible for the tiny house project. Insulating the bin won’t work because the ventilating fan ensures that air in the bin is constantly changed, which will rapidly dissipate any heat buildup in the bin. However, if the air of the toilet cubicle is heated up and that is drawn into the bin for ventilation (then expelled to the exterior), that should keep the composting temperature several degrees higher than it would otherwise be (compared with if external cold air is drawn in the bin then expelled).
  6. The exception being if you live in a high latitude and have a deciduous trees in front of your sun-facing windows, hence providing shade in summer. These trees will shed their leaves in autumn and allow the winter sunlight in, enabling passive solar heating.

  7. Ordinary car/truck engine starting lead-acid batteries are not suitable, make sure they are deep cycle batteries.

  8. Lithium iron phosphate batteries are continuing to reduce in price and may be the best option soon. It is important to only shallowly discharge lead-acid batteries for the sake of longevity (discharge by not more than 30% on most days, occasionally discharge by 50%, where the 24 volt system will show 24 volts at rest). Lithium iron phosphate batteries can cope with 90% discharge every day. Thus smaller amp hour storage is required. “LiFe” batteries are much lighter and great for mobile dwellings where weight may be an issue eg catamarans. However they require an electronic battery management system to ensure proper voltage balance between batteries, which is an additional layer of complexity.
  9. Even if the wind turbine produces high voltage alternating current at source, which is then rectified to DC after the dump load resistor, I have been advised that these AC turbines are specifically designed to ultimately feed either only 24V or 12V DC systems and the two types of turbine are mutually exclusive and not interchangeable. The advantage of high voltage AC being produced at the turbine means that thin cables can be led long distances from the wind tower to the point of use without significant energy loss before being rectified to low voltage DC.
  10. My tiny house kitchen will not include any of these heat producing electrical appliances as I have no access to microhydro.
  11. At any rate, the “experts” approved by the Council I have been dealing with. On the other hand I have been informed that nitrates denature quickly and rapid application to crops is preferable.

Love and Survival

From the keyboard of Morris Berman

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Published on Dark Ages America on August  3, 2014

 

“When we have inner peace, we can be at peace with those around us. “

The Dalai Lama, Nobel acceptance speech, 1989


By late July, 2014, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had been living in Mexico for almost eight years with Washington, D.C., license plates on my car, and if I wanted to apply for permanent resident status in Mexico, which I did, I would have to drive up to a Customs station at the border and “nationalize” my car, i.e., get Mexican plates. Frankly, I have never cared what passport I was carrying, or what driver’s license plates I had, as long as I could move around freely; but as I had no intention of returning to the U.S. except to visit, it seemed that the time was ripe for sorting things out with Mexico. The plates would enable me to become a permanent resident; or so my immigration adviser told me.

A little background info here: when I moved to Mexico in 2006, I was quickly “adopted” by a family in the town where I set up shop. It has been a very close relationship; I drop in on them at least once a week, and they would, and have, give(n) me their left arm if I needed it. I have already described (in A Question of Values) how they showed up in full force at the hospital, an hour away, where I had surgery in 2009, literally sleeping in my room to make sure the nurses were taking good care of me. Now, in the case of the placas (license plates), my “hermana” Raquel (not her real name) had a niece in the border town where the Customs office was located, whom (Raquel said) knew everyone and would be able to help me with the whole nationalization process. So, off I went.

Before continuing with this story, I need to say that just “coincidentally,” I was at the time reading a book by Dean Ornish called Love and Survival. It’s an intriguing study, arguing that there is much evidence to show that being immersed in a network of loving relationships significantly prolongs one’s life, strengthens one’s immune system, counteracts illness, and so on. It was first published in 1988; in the intervening years, I doubt Ornish’s data managed to impact the American medical profession in any serious way. As Ornish makes clear, this is not how the profession thinks. But let me review some of his stats and examples, in any case.

■The Roseto Study

This is an examination of an Italian-American town in eastern Pennsylvania that was found to have had a very low mortality rate for heart attacks during the first thirty years it was studied, as compared to two nearby towns. Citizens of all three towns smoked, ingested cholesterol, and in general exhibited the same physical behaviors that would be expected to impinge on human health, at roughly the same rates. But what Roseto had that the other two towns didn’t was close family ties and very cohesive community relations, including a host of traditional values and practices (religion included). However, in the late sixties and early seventies, all of this broke down. Roseto saw a loosening of family ties and a fragmentation of community relations. Concomitant with this was a substantial increase in death due to heart disease. The mortality rate rose to the same level as that of the two nearby towns.

■The Ni-Hon-San Study

This was an examination of 11,900 Japanese individuals who lived in Japan, as compared to those Japanese who had immigrated to Honolulu and San Francisco. Scientists found that the incidence of heart disease was lowest in Japan, intermediate in Hawaii, and highest in California. The closer they came to the American mainland, in other words, the sicker they became. None of this was related to differences in diet, blood pressure, smoking, cholesterol levels, and so on. The crucial factor was the degree to which each group retained a traditional Japanese culture. The Japanese-Americans who maintained family ties and community had a rate of heart disease as low as those living in Japan, whereas the most Westernized group had a three- to-fivefold increase in same.

■Ornish recounts several other studies with similar results, all indicating that beyond any physical factors, social and emotional factors—love, in a word—were No. 1 in promoting health and longevity. As an aside, I should mention a study conducted by William Vega of U.C. Berkeley that found that Mexicans living in the United States had twice the rate of mental illness as Mexicans living in Mexico:

http://berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/1998/1021/immigrant.html

It really comes down to the way we live.

This brings me back to my adventure with the license plates. I expected it to take two days; I wound up staying with the family of Raquel’s niece, “Brenda,” for nearly a week. The Mexican bureaucracy is something to behold, possibly worse than that of India. Just when you think you’ve got all your ducks in a row, one more obstacle pops up for you to deal with. Clearly, this was not going to be a two-day operation.

But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I don’t think I was quite prepared for what I was about to experience. Despite the fact that the family had Raquel’s word for it, that I was a fabulous guy (and who, really, could deny it?), I was a total stranger to these folks: we had never met. Yet from the moment I arrived at the front door, I was folded into the warmth of Brenda and her family as though I had been living next door to them for twenty years. It kind of took my breath away. The love that permeated this family was both dense and palpable, and I was suddenly part of it. They were literally kissing and hugging each other (and me) almost constantly. The small children related to me in the same way, not at all afraid of a strange adult, as is usually the case with American (i.e., U.S.) children. There was a coffee mug in the house that had the word “Family” printed on it (in English), with slogans like “celebrates together,” “eats together,” “laughs together,” “stays together”—a gigantic cliché, except that this family was living that cliché. If this were a U.S. sitcom, it would be regarded as a joke, a kind of satire. But this was no fantasy of some nonexistent loving community in New York, along the line of Friends. No, this was the real enchilada. (In fact, I suspect shows like Friends are popular because they depict what Americans badly want, but cannot have.)

It also turned out that family connections extended to the local bureaucracy. Without this, I could have wound up spending a month or so with Brenda & Co. (which would have been fine with them). But because business relations and official relations are not (as in the U.S.) contained in sharply different categories from family relations, Brenda was able to finesse the bureaucracy and get the job done. Within a week I had the plates, even though on the official level the obstacles were formidable. Once again, I was amazed at how the family went all out for me, ignoring their own schedules, schlepping me from one government office to another, and translating the bureaucratese into normal Spanish for me. Since they didn’t expect a peso for their efforts, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever be able to repay them. But they weren’t thinking in those terms, in any case.

A few vignettes may serve to drive home the point.

■Three doors down from Benda was a neighbor, “Elena,” who lost her daughter-in-law in a car crash fourteen months before I visited, and who (since her son was working full-time) took the two surviving grandchildren in, to raise by herself. As luck would have it, several months after that her husband of forty-one years died, and she was left alone with the two kids. Brenda’s family then swung into action, basically taking Elena and the children into their house. Elena came over several times a day, and often slept over with her grandchildren. I wish to emphasize that there was no blood relation between Elena and Brenda or her family. She was “merely” a neighbor. In the U.S., people typically don’t even know the names of the people living next door to them.

■While I was there, Brenda’s brother-in-law and his wife, who were currently living and working in China, were back in Mexico for a month’s holiday. After they came over, and after the usual flurry of hugging and kissing, “Emilio” gave each of Brenda’s kids 200 pesos. The next day, Brenda told me that “Ricky,” her seven-year-old, had wanted to give her the 200 pesos. “I don’t need it, Mami,” he said to her, “and I know you have to struggle a lot.” Brenda told me it was all she could do to keep from crying. I tried to imagine a U.S. child doing something similar, but I couldn’t. The data on the sharp decrease in empathy in America during the past three decades are well-established.

■Half an hour ago, while I was sitting in the living room writing this essay, Ricky came through, went to the kitchen, fetched himself a popsicle (bolis) out of the fridge, and then asked me if I wanted him to get me one. This to a foreigner sixty-three older than himself, whom he knew for all of three days.

■Emilio, his wife, and I had a long and interesting discussion about life in China. They were extremely intelligent and articulate; it was the kind of discussion that is generally hard to have in the United States anymore, because Americans are, by and large, not very articulate, not particularly interested in other nations, and given to “thinking” in slogans. On another occasion, Brenda’s husband, “Jorge,” said to me: “I mean no disrespect, but can you tell me why the United States always has to go to war with someone? And why it supports Israel, which is massacring women and children in Gaza?” Why indeed. Should I have replied, “Because we are a collection of ignorant, and quite violent, people, who are suffering for lack of the kind of family life you and Brenda have, and thus need to hurt other human beings as a result”? But of course, I respected his honest questions, and we had a good discussion of issues that most U.S.-persons don’t give a damn about.

Brenda told me that every time she goes to the U.S., she has the impression that Americans believe that Mexicans sit around under trees wearing sombreros and drinking cerveza all the time. But that’s only part of the stereotype, of course; overall, it’s that Mexicans are backward, inferior, living a million miles from the “progress” exhibited by the go-go capitalism of their northern neighbors. And yet, what is the family and social life of that “superior” civilization? A divorce rate of 50 percent; kids who are abandoned, both emotionally and literally; the highest number of single-person dwellings of any country in the world; the greatest amount of antidepressant use of any country in the world; and—as many studies have by now affirmed—a large population living lives of quiet desperation. In the occasional “world happiness studies” that appear from time to time, Mexico typically ranks in the top five, whereas the U.S. is much farther down the list.

All of this is not to suggest that life in Mexico is perfect. It’s not, by a long shot, and an annoying bureaucracy is a minor issue compared to the poverty, corruption, and racial bias that are depressingly rampant in Mexican society. But on the interpersonal level, the country has got things right. It doescelebrate family, as that coffee mug says; its priorities are not ones of hustling, trying to make huge amounts of money, being “important,” or getting “ahead” (of what, exactly?). I have a saying I like to repeat, from time to time, that in Mexico nothing works and everything works out, whereas in the United States, everything works and nothing works out. That’s been my experience after eight years of living here.

So yes, dear reader, I got my plates. But that was the least of what I got. Gracias, Brenda; voy a regresar.

 

©Morris Berman, 2014

Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

 

 

An Unlikely Convocation

Off the keyboard of Lucid Dreams

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Published on Epiphany Now on May 14, 2014

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There’s a Knight standing next to me now. He’s got a peace necklace on and he’s holding two black and white feathers found in Texas. Before that, while he was still in Texas, he was holding flowers. He was a gift given to me by a stoned and druken WASP shaman from Minnesota. What he was doing in Texas is hard to say, but so is saying what I was doing there. I was there to meet people I’ve been in written communication with for the last several years. Those in attendance included a shaman, two ritual magicians, a Dentist, a webmaster hermit shut in from Alaska, a Druid, a Shaman Witch (for now at least, and born during the Convocation), and two Druid/Shaman Witch children.
There were wigs, and boomerangs, and 50 year old Texas spider monkey dentists 30 feet up in a tree trying to retrieve a stuck boomerang, and weather magic, and shamanistic happenings, and a 200 year old pecan tree that was actually Old Man Time, and tractor joy rides ending in busted hydraulic lines, and Monolithic dome building, and out door showers erected complete with a Diner noose, hugel beds constructed, gray water retention snake heads (I dug a big ass hole), and my wife walked naked down a limestone dry creek bed by full moonlight…ohh, and I had an actual fox run across my path. Ayden Zen was in communion with the fox just before I walked up and interrupted.
You should have been there for this meeting of minds and souls. I can speak to what I was doing there now. I was there with my family looking for some hope. It’s looking pretty hopeless out there these days, what with the writing on the wall and whatnot. BAU continues until it doesn’t. So some Diners got together in Bum Fuck Egypt Texas to figure on some hope, and to learn how to build Monolithic domes, which are earthquake, hurricane, tornado, and fire proof domiciles that can be built for less money than a stick built piece of shit of the same square footage. These are domiciles that have withstood 300 mph winds and American Apache helicopter strikes, and simply need you to shut the door when a fire breaks out (they’re so air tight that the fire will starve for oxygen before it can do much damage…and anyways concrete doesn’t burn).
What’s the point of a fox crossing my path, or any of the other oddities encountered during the first Diner Convocation? I’m still trying to figure all of that out, and there’s a lot that happened that I won’t be writing about (including what happened after I found my wife walking naked down the limestone creek bed by moonlight). Interestingly, while all of this real life magic was going down in Bum Fuck Texas, trolls were hard a work lambasting the very thing that was allowing all of the real world magic to occur. Why is that? I think it’s because they are afraid. They don’t want to admit that it’s come to a group of internet forum friends meeting in Texas for difference to be made in this rigged catastrophe of a petroleum dependent clustercuss. They don’t want to admit that technotriumphalism is not going to save a damn thing…accept maybe some people from dealing with the thermodynamic constraints we’re all forced to adhere to.
Will we build domes as a result of this meeting? Is there a chance for prosperity for normal people in the near future? Is the Orwellian New World Bravely going to persist and even evolve into draconian dystopians unimagined by the doomerist doomers? Why does BAU continue unabated?
For my part, and the part of my family, we’ve only just begun on this journey that started here at Epiphany Now and migrated to the Doomstead Diner, and now the SUN. My family is planning a trip to California soon. We’ll be burning a lot of petroleum by way of the internal combustion engine in our Saturn Vue to make it there. We’ll be camping in state parks just like we did to and from the Convocation. I’ve got a cousin getting married, and we’ve got a tribe to meet in Fresno. The tribe is a coven of magicians. While at the Convocation I had visions filled with symbols I’m not ready to understand yet. My family slept outside of the Toothstead house in an REI tent titled the “Hobitat.” I awoke from these mysterious visions at the beginning of the Convocation to a monstrous clap of thunder followed by a torrential downpour. The day before this I saw intentional weather magic being worked, as well as a group rain dance in which I supplied the shamanistic beats. Beats I didn’t even know I had. Beats accompanied by impromptu musical instruments made by using common kitchen utensils (I was using a 3 gallon bucket myself to drive this thing). This downpour happened amidst a terrible Texas drought.
I was confused by all of this meaning. I was depressed after it was over and we returned to our trailer park Whoville everywhere America. I’m still depressed by how beautiful it could be and yet isn’t. How it could all just mean nothing, and how we could remain stuck here where the Zombies will eat our table for lunch. Some things in life do not make sense, and yet they are magical in spite of Cartesian, Newtonian, and Apollonian logic. I chose to believe that all of the Convoction magic was just that, magic. It’s not as if anyone can prove me wrong, not when we know that the act of scientific observation changes the outcome of the observation. Not when the truth is that we make our own meaning, our own myths, and our own minds. What’s your mind doing about infinite growth on a finite planet? Mine is creating 21st century living tribes out of the virtual reality of the net. We’ve met, in person, in Bum Fuck Egypt Texas, and we still like each other. We’re all who we said we were. Here’s to the first Diner Dome we’re gonna build. Here’s to a future where some of us survive and even thrive. Some of us…likely not many…but at least my new tribe is trying. How about yours? RIP Mike Ruppert. I’m already not the slowest camper. It may be that my tribe is the fastest. However unlikely our Convocation.

The 1st Diner Convocation

Off the keyboard of RE

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Published on SUN4Living on March 22, 2014

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Bonus Track: Amerikan Hologram

Amerikan Hologram is #18 in the new Frostbite Falls Daily Rant Podcasts on the Doomstead Diner.

The last few rants have been focused on the Kabuki theatre playing out across the pond between Russia and NATO along with, swimming in the other direction, the implosion of the Chinese Credit Market. For tonight I’d like to return home here to the Land of Good & Plenty to look at some of the persistent myths, lies and just plain old BULLSHIT many Amerikans of my generation believe WERE true at some time in the past, even if they do grant they probably aren’t true anymore.

When I talk about my generation I’m talking about Boomers of course, who are crawling all over the web these days like cockroaches since they are retiring by the truckoad and got nothing better to do with their time. Or rather nothing better most of them can afford to do with their time, since only a relatively small minority have fat pensions to supplement Social Security. At the price of gas these days, Motoring around in an RV to visit the grandkids between stops at golf courses isn’t happening so much anymore. If they are fortunate to own an RV, it’s likely sitting in a trailer park in Yuma with the A/C on full all day while they do their cruising around the Blogosphere complaining about how Amerika has gone down the toilet and how great it was in the Old Days. To be fair, it’s not just the Boomers, it’s also the real Oldster population of Silent Generation folks who were kids during WWII doing this sort of bullshit complaining…

For the rest, listen to the Podcast!

In a bit over a week from now, after a couple of years jawboning collapse on the Doomstead Diner, the Knights of the Round Table on the Diner are finally going to meet up IRL down in Texas.  “In Real Life” is the meaning of that acronym for people who don’t frequent Cyberspace that much, in contrast to the In Virtual Life you pursue as an Internet Junkie, where often people have Identities and Personalities not precisely like their IRL ones.

Whether you pursue an Anon paradigm or not, the way in which you react to people and discuss your ideas is generally a good deal different IVL as opposed to IRL.  People tend to be more Strident about their beliefs IVL, social niceties are not as commonly kept to IVL as IRL.  Usually IRL you pursue a Politeness paradigm, you don’t INTENTIONALLY try to piss people off for instance.  What this means though also IRL is that often people do not discuss the things most BUGGING them or most crucial to their World View, because they don’t want to deal with the CONFLICT that comes from that IRL.

So, IRL the general paradigm is “Don’t Discuss Religion, Politics or Sex“, because all of these topics tend to get the emotions running hot, particularly if the people chatting them up have diametrically opposed viewpoints, which in a “Multi-Cultural” society they often do.  It is of course highly unlikely you can get a “civil” discussion going about Sex IRL between a Fundy Christian, a Fundy Muslim and a Gay Rights Activist.  In fact you generally do not get such civil discussions going even IVL over the Net, but at least it cannot break out into Fisfights in Cyberspace.  Nor can anybody pull a GUN on you over the net either! LOL. You get what we on the diner call “Napalm Contests”, otherwise known as Flame Wars.  As intense as these things often can become,  you still are in relative SAFETY to pitch out your opinions over the net, and the worst that happens generally speaking is if you make too much of a nuisance of yourself on somebody else’s website you get banned, or if it is your own website you ban the person making such a nuisance of themself.  I make the effort not to Ban anyone, but that is not to say I do not make life difficult for nuisance creators of this sort, I most certainly do that.  In fact I have developed a whole bevvy of means to make life difficult for Trolls and Napalm Artists without Banning them. 🙂

Anyhow, with that general knowledge in mind here, over time on a website such as the Diner, people of Like Minds do come together, in our case discussing AT LENGTH just WTF to do about a Collapsing Civilization we all see occurring around us on a basically Daily Basis?  How do YOU personally deal with this now, what PLANS have you made for the day TSHTF?  Will those plans WORK, and if so, for how long?  The flaws in everybody’s plans are discussed at length as well, then ideas get pitched out how to fix those flaws.  In our case, we developed a Construct called SUN, for Sustaining Universal Needs as the IVL idea for handling the many problems we already see evident here, and as a result gave birth to a new website and Nonprofit 501c3 company to further develop these ideas IRL.  This all occurred with none of the principals involved EVER meeting each other IRL, up until NOW.  It is remarkable we got even THIS far here, given the fact that in all the discussions NEGATIVE WAVES always crop up as various Diners chip in their 2 cents on why the whole idea is bullshit and can’t work.

Not only our local Diners will occassionally remark it is useless to try to prepare for a Collapsing Civilization, we constantly get even more depressing input from our friends over at Nature Bats Last, where it is not just Civilization Collapse they consider inevitable now, it is Near Term Human Extinction,  along with probably every other living organism above the level of the Tardigrades.  In the face of so much Negativity, it’s not always easy to keep Spirits Up amongst the Heliopaths, our nomeclature for the Diners who are involved in turning SUN from a cyber-idea into reality.  We do Soldier On though regardless, as in the words of Illuminati Scumbag Winston Churchill

If you find yourself going through Hell, KEEP GOING!

Image: Sweet Dome Alabama  is the Monolithic Dome home of Beverly and Kenneth Garcia in New Hope, Alabama.Anyhow, after a couple of years of discussion of the problems, we are going to meet up in Texas at the “Toothstead” to begin with, which is the ongoing project of a retreat location one of the Heliopaths, Eddie the Dentist is constantly working on to develop its self-sufficiency in terms of food and energy production.  After a couple of days of celebration there, 5 of us are heading over to Monolithic Domes in Italy, TX to participate in a 5 Day “Crash Course” in how to construct Ferrocement Domes, which are probably the sturdiest structure you could ever build and also come in a relatively low prices per square foot of usable interior living.  Useful for everything from Domiciles to Grow House and storage units, and pretty easy to erect anywhere without a massive amount of heavy equipment, though of course if you are spraying Shotcrete you do need access to some higher tech equipment.  Which is why if you are going to get such things built, NOW is the time to build them rather than AFTER TSHTF, when doing so will be a whole lot more difficult.

As part of this group Adventure, we are going to be recording much of what goes on and presenting the material on our Collapse Cafe and Podcast pages as Vidcasts and Podcasts, and we also hope to bring live discussion on as well for the duration of the Convocation, courtesy of such marvelous technological Gimmickry currently available like Livestream, Google Hangouts and GoToMeeting.  Here on the Diner, we will be Announcing these Live Broadcasts during the week inside the Diner in the Convocation thread that this article is linked to.  If you wish to join with us in discussion about the various topics and problems currently Ongoing and very likely to get a whole lot worse in the not-to-distant future, stay tuned to the thread and look for the Links that will bring you into them.  You’ll need a working Webcam and Mic of course, and may need to download some Client software or Plugins also.  The Geeks on the Diner will be available to assist you in this if you are a technological Luddite. 🙂

SAMSUNG CSCFor me, this is a very exciting adventure, though every time I leave the Last Great Frontier for an excursion to the Lower 48 nowadays it makes me nervous.  Any given day the ATMs could lock up; any given day a “Terrorist Attack” or “False Flag” could go down instigating Martial Law, the Airlines could be grounded and I would not be able to make it back to my Perch here in Alaska, which I still consider to be among the best places left on Earth to be when it all goes to Hell in a Handbasket.  A risk worth taking though, and you can’t stop living or let your fears get the better of you in a situation like this.  For myself also, even if it did occur I could not make it back here, I know I have my Fellow Heliopaths in the Lower 48 who will give me a bit better location to park my butt before I head for the Great Beyond than a FEMA Death Camp.

I look forward to meeting IRL my IVL Heliopath friends from the Diner, WHD, Lucid Dreams, Gypsy Mama, Eddie the Dentista and Haniel the Tech Wizard who picked up the Ball from my friend Peter in Ocean Falls who set up the Diner software and who now keeps it running and relatively free from too many glitches or sabotage by the NSA.

The Doomstead Diner and the SUN website continue to grow and develop here, we have in the works coming also Moodle Education Software for bringing yourself up to speed on means and methods for better securing yourself for the hard times to come, and we hope to soon also begin the process of transferring these ideas into IRL communities, sprinkled all around the FSoA, and the rest of the Globe as well.  We will be engaging in Demonstration Projects IRL in Texas, South Carolina and Minnesota to begin with, and we welcome inquiries into setting up Demos wherever you are located also.  You can contact us on the SUN website to find out more about that.

Following the Convocation in TX beginning next week, at the end of May on the Memorial Day Weekend, Diners intend to be present as well at the Age of Limits Conference held at the 4 Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Pennsylvania.  We hope to be able to bring you more Vidcasts and Podcasts from there as well, with interviews and discussions with some of your favorite Doomer Pundits like Gail Tverberg of Our Finite World, John Michael Greer of the Archdruid Report, Dmitry Orlov of Club Orlov and Albert Bates from The Farm in TN, along with many other who will be attending this conference.

Coming through the rest of the week here leading up to the Convocation will be more Blogs from the other Heliopaths, with their thoughts on the coming Collapse as well as their perspectives on what it takes to transform IVL life IDEAS like SUN into IRL Communities that can make it possible to bridge to the Future in a BETTER TOMORROW, not a worse one or none at all.  Check in on the Diner Blog this week to read more about that.

After that, I hope to see some of you via the Magic of the Internet while we proceed to Burn that Hotel Down in Italy TX.  We are an Amerikan Band of Doomers, and we will Party Down here as we walk into the waning days of Industrial Civilization.  It’s not too late to join us there either, contact us on the Diner and we will give you all the specifics.

BE THERE, OR BE SQUARE!

(at least IVL, anyhow)

RE

Here Comes the SUN!

Off the Keyboard of RE

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Published on SUN4Living on November 12, 2013

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SUNround * Genesis of the Sustaining Universal Needs Project:  Birth of the SUN *

A few years ago I became a Blogger on the topic of Economic Collapse. I did not start my own Blog back then, rather I blogged on Message Boards and Forums concerning themselves with the topics of Economic collapse and Energy Depletion issues, most specifically the PeakOil.com message board. I migrated around quite a bit over the intervening time, to OPBs (Other People’s Blogs) and my own little Yahoo Group Reverse Engineering before setting up the Blog & Forum Doomstead Diner in 2012 with my friend Peter and a few other friends I got to know over the years of Collapse Chat on the internet.

http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/depression/images/migrantmother.jpgAt first I saw the problem mainly through the lens of Economic Collapse of a Monetary System, I had not back then really worked through yet all the problems which accrue from that, particularly once you factor in Energy Resource Depletion. At first I thought of it something like the Great Depression of the 1930s, but after not too long I saw that the problems were much greater now because of Population Overshoot and depleted Energy Resources. At first I thought like many still do even inside the Collapse Community that we could Reverse Engineer to some earlier technologies like Railroads and Sail, and develop a Sustainable Living paradigm from that. I no longer think so, for a variety of reasons too complex to go into here.

At a certain point in this timeline, not sure precisely when, I realized that simply writing about what was occuring was not sufficient, something more active and constructive was necessary. After many long discussions with friends on the Diner, we developed the idea of the SUN Project. It is built around the concept of Community Action on the small to medium scale. Large Government structures are no longer either responsive to the real needs of people, nor are they very effective in meeting them either. One Kludge after another is dropped into place to keep the system we have running another day, but it is living on Borrowed Time. It is a difficult thing to accept that the way of life we have known here with easy travel by car and jet plane will not persist, harder still to grasp that within many of our lifetimes we likely will not have electricity on demand either. Again, the reasons why this is so are deep and complex, though over time here on SUN we will make further explanations of the problems involved. Not today though in this introduction to SUN.

Creating a structure to harbor resources and Develop Community in our current environment is very difficult. People come from widely disparate economic means, and for most people it is economically out of reach to buy their own patch of land, grow their own food and try to live by more sustainable methods. Even if you DO have means though, and Individual “Doomstead” is not in itself really a very sustainable paradigm. You require quite a few people working in Cooperation to make any type of Sustainable System for Homo Sapiens, just on the lowest level of being able to Protect and Defend your patch of land you need quite a few. So early on in our discussion our core members pitched the idea of small Doomsteads in favor of trying to build a larger Community, with many people involved. The problem here is that in our fractured society as it stands, bringing together many people of disparate means and life experience is pretty difficult. The Infant Project of SUN is designed to try to overcome these problems.

The first and biggest problem for most is one of MONEY, they just don’t have much (in fact quite often NONE). So Fundraising is Primary as a goal to make SUN a reality, and to do that we formed our 501c3 Non-Profit corporation, Sustaining Universal Needs. We created a membership system that allows people to “buy in” at a nominal cost, or to gain similar membership through “Sweat Equity”, working to build the organization in numerous ways.

http://www.cam.ac.uk/sites/www.cam.ac.uk/files/styles/content-580x288/public/news/research/news/tile-vaulting-credit-michael-ramage.jpg?itok=zjEK25rLThe paradigm for living is one much simpler and less dependent on energy input than the current one, which includes much more simple housing as well. Mostly we do not believe in putting up permanent structures for housing, but rather smaller and more portable ones. This is not to say we think everybody should be living in Tents either though! There is a middle ground to be struck here which is sustainable, and still has a decent amount of Creature Comforts most of us are used to. Even if some of these middle ground housing arrangements are not long term sustainable, they are less energy intensive and can hopefully provide a bridge toward long term sustainable living.

Similarly, though long term it may be impossible to keep Electrical systems working, that does not necessarily mean you can’t keep some electricity working in your community some of the time, even if your local electrical grid goes down. Most of us would prefer not to give up this marvelous invention of the Industrial society sooner than we absolutely have to.

The greatest problems faced are in terms of Food & Water Security. Access to these most basic needs for life is essential, and in a failure of our larger system of Just In Time delivery and the monetary system that serves to distribute these products, it is necessary to build your own resilient local system to replace that. Here on SUN, we seek to find and develop the best means for doing that with the lowest energy inputs possible and least damage to the surrounding environment possible. This is ongoing work for SUN members at all levels.

In the end, the goal is to disseminate the knowledge, to teach more people to be self sufficient while at the same time securing our own needs in this world. Following beneath this page you will find the Prospectus for the SUN Non Profit, its directions and goal, its means and methods as we begin to change our way of living, together. We hope to find many more people through the SUN Website who will join with us in this project and contribute what they can as they can to its success.

No Man is an Island. There are hard times ahead, and though the society at large probably will not change direction until it is too late, Individuals and small communities CAN come together to make the necessary changes. Read through our Prospectus if this interests you, and talk with us. Help us to pave the way to a Better Tomorrow.

RE

For Whom the Bell Tolls
XVII. MEDITATION.John DonnePERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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My new book, Abolish Oil Now, will talk about why the climate movement has failed and what we can do [...]

A new climate protest movement out of the UK has taken Europe by storm and made governments sit down [...]

The success of Apollo 11 flipped the American public from skeptics to fans. The climate movement nee [...]

Today's movement to abolish fossil fuels can learn from two different paths that the British an [...]

Top Commentariats

  • Our Finite World
  • Economic Undertow

A similar problem affects not-for-profits. They need to get contributions. Often, the workers for th [...]

Thank you, Gail. Good hygiene (not eating foods from contaminated soil) might account for humans nee [...]

Thank you, Robert. I wholeheartedly agree. As a practicing scientist, I believe that the grant fundi [...]

As I think about it, inflation seems to occur primarily when there is a new economy, and there is a [...]

I don't remember the sweater speech but I remember the Moral Equivalent of War speech https://e [...]

Trump was born in 1946 so he's another stinkin' Boomer. Bernie and Biden were born during [...]

The millennial consensus is that Boomer is more a state of mind than an age. A lot of older millenni [...]

Bill Clinton was first boomer president, followed by Bush, Obama, and Trump. True, neither candidate [...]

Biden and Bernie are members of the Silent Generation. Neither one is a boomer. I think Trump is on [...]

RE Economics

Going Cashless

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Simplifying the Final Countdown

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Bond Market Collapse and the Banning of Cash

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Do Central Bankers Recognize there is NO GROWTH?

Discuss this article @ the ECONOMICS TABLE inside the...

Singularity of the Dollar

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Kurrency Kollapse: To Print or Not To Print?

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SWISSIE CAPITULATION!

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Of Heat Sinks & Debt Sinks: A Thermodynamic View of Money

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Merry Doomy Christmas

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Peak Customers: The Final Liquidation Sale

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Collapse Fiction

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Technical Journals

Thermal environmental design in an outdoor space is discussed by focusing on the proper selection an [...]

The present work shows the experimental evidence carried out on a pilot scale and demonstrating the [...]

Climate change is expected to affect the occurrence of forest pests. This study depicts a method to [...]

The grapevine (Vitis vinifera, L.) has been long since recognized as an ozone-sensitive plant. Ozone [...]

Climate change imposes great challenges on the built heritage sector by increasing the risks of ener [...]