Tag Archives: Collapse

Toward A Living Economy: Self-Reliant Local Adaptation

I am exploring the tension between the conservation of natural systems and the need for development to improve the lives of people in poverty. Out of this tension arises the need to transition from our current model which pits these two against each other to another economic system that is not in contradiction to these systems. I am using some ideas from an article by David Korten in which he points to three rules or principles from nature that would shape such an economy: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. This post will consider the second.

The second rule, “Self-Reliant Local Adaptation”, values adaptation and local wisdom and knowledge.

The biosphere’s cooperatively self-organizing fractal structure supports a constant process of adaptation to the intricate features of Earth’s distinctive local microenvironments to optimize the capture, sharing, use, and storage of available energy. Local self-reliance is a key to the system’s ability to absorb and contain most system disturbance locally with minimum overall system disruption. So long as each local subsystem balances its consumption and reproduction with local resource availability, the biosphere remains healthy and dynamic.”

This is one of the major implications of Darwinian theory. It’s not just that species adapt, but that they are adapted to very specific local conditions. It’s about the interaction between species and the environment in which they survive and thrive. An economy based on this principle would have to be decentralized, relying on the expertise of local people to make decisions about how they are organized, what changes to make and how to implement them.

Rather than attempting to control the economy from the top down, monkeying with interest rates at the Fed or passing federal legislation, this approach means that the rules must be made in a way that encourages innovation, adaptation, flexibility and change. Unfortunately history seems to say that this runs counter to the whole project of human civilization. The Founding Fathers of the United States wrote into founding documents the idea that the people should get rid of the government and/or change the system when it no longer functioned or served the people. We pretend that we do that every two or four years when we press buttons on a touchscreen or punch a ballot, but the truth seems obvious that rather than change, or revolution, the bureaucratic behemoth continues to gorge itself on the system we maintain by passing the political buck at the ballot box.

I think this principle is best summed up by the word “empowerment” which I have discussed at length in terms of development and my work in Bolivia. Empowerment has some problematic connotations of asymmetrical power relationships, but the idea is still right. If there exists an inequality of power, then those with more power must find ways, not only to relinquish it, but help others learn the proper exercise of it. The knowledge of local and indigenous people that has been devalued in practice for so long must become the most highly prized and important form of knowledge.

This is a major shift in values for the current system. When we begin to truly value local and indigenous knowledge, we will shift our priorities and rewrite the rules to reflect this. In order to live out this principle local communities need autonomy. They must have the power to make decisions for themselves without the intervention of outside forces. This sounds like a new form of tribalism, which is scary for some and hopeful for others.

Outside of the most dire collapse scenario (which I admit could still happen) we will not simply go back to the jungle and hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We will, however, be forced to learn, or re-learn, what they knew about how to live in balance with their environment. The reason these kind of communities were and will be stable and secure is their close relationship with their bioregion which makes local adaptation possible. For a civilization used to central control this shift toward decentralization take a huge amount of trust, because we have been sold the narrative that the strong central authority is the only way to hold it all together. The other option, which is what I’ve been describing here, is to stop trying to hold it all together and trust people and communities to know what’s best for them.


Does Capitalism Need an Upgrade?

Peter Barnes book Capitalism 3.0 (which is available as a free PDF under a Creative Commons License at onthecommons.org) is a thought provoking and interesting read about the future of capitalism and the future of our world. Barnes vision both of what went wrong in the past and for how to create a more sustainable future within a capitalist structure are compelling. That’s coming from someone who tends to be pretty skeptical of capitalism’s potential to sustain us in the long term. The main idea of Capitalism 3.0 is that we have left the commons out of our economic equation and therefore need to create a commons sector to balance out the private sector that dominates our current model. Capitalism needs an upgrade.

The one-two punch of enclosure and externalizing is especially potent. With one hand, corporations take valuable stuff from the commons and privatize it. With the other hand, they dump bad stuff into the commons and pay nothing. The result is profits for corporations but a steady loss of value for the commons. (20)

One of the main points Barnes hits again and again is that private corporations are already using the commons for their own profit. The commons includes nature, community and culture. Nature is the example everyone thinks of when they hear “tragedy of the commons”, but streets, playgrounds, libraries, museums, laws and other shared gifts make up our communities. There are also cultural commons. One example of corporate abuse of cultural commons is all the stories in the public domain that Disney has turned into movies and profited from (Aladdin, Atlantis, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella to name a few) without adding anything back to the public domain. So, the commons is generally unaccounted for in our economics (except in the case of a few trusts and permanent funds which is, in large part, Barnes’ solution to the problem).


I found Barnes’ history of the evolution of capitalism very helpful in thinking about how we might move forward within the current system (see chart on the right).

Demand, in other words, exceeded supply, and we lived in what might be called shortage capitalism. We could also call it Capitalism 1.0. After the change, we shifted into surplus capitalism, or what I call Capitalism 2.0. In this version, there’s no limit to what corporations can produce; their problem is finding buyers. A sizeable chunk of GDP is spent to make people want this unneeded output. (23)

Understanding this evolution of capitalism puts our current problems in perspective. The scarcity in shortage capitalism of aggregated capital led to the formulation of the modern corporation. This made it possible to aggregate more capital, but there were limits because of other factors. Modern corporations with abundant credit and seemingly infinite aggregated capital were not the more limited entity that were intended under shortage capitalism. By overcoming the limitations of credit and aggregated capital under shortage capitalism, surplus capitalism was able to create our global economy. However, this also created new problems and exacerbated others.

Almost all of the property rights under capitalism so far have been allocated to individuals and corporations. Federal management of forests and other natural resources has fallen heavily on the side of permitting corporations to extract resources for private gain without giving back or caring for the commons. There are some examples of trusts that function in the long-term interest of future generations on the state level. At the heart of this shift is another way of thinking about ownership, property and rights. Barnes’ description of trusteeship sounds a lot like the first chapters of Genesis.

First, ownership isn’t the same thing as trusteeship. Owners of property—even government owners—have wide latitude to do whatever they want with it; a trustee does not. Trustees are bound by the terms of their trust and by centuries-old principles of trusteeship, foremost among which is “undivided loyalty” to beneficiaries. (45)

Beneficiaries include future generations, which don’t factor in to our current economic system. Beneficiaries should also include non-human animals and ecosystems in terms of the natural commons. We all claim to value community, nature and culture. So, why haven’t we included the commons in the economic equation?

Capitalism and community aren’t natural allies. Capitalism’s emphasis on individual acquisition and consumption is usually antithetical to the needs of community. Where capitalism is about the pursuit of self-interest, community is about connecting to—and at times assisting—others. It’s driven not by monetary gain but by caring, giving, and sharing…It’s rarely imagined that community can be built into our economic operating system. In this chapter I show how it can be—if our operating system includes a healthy commons sector. (101)

I’m working on a post about Stephen Jay Gould’s book Ever Since Darwin. Even when he wrote that book in the 1970s it was becoming clear that competition was only part of the Darwinian equation describing the adaptation of species to their environment. We have selected only (or at least primarily) the mutations related to competition as we have developed our capitalist system. Without further adaptation this system will cause its own extinction and possibly our own. Barnes illuminates the possibility of including the altruistic aspects of our human nature through trusts, permanent funds and rights delegated to a commons sector.

As a final note, I was very struck by the idea and possibilities of “predistribution of property”.

The late John Rawls, one of America’s leading philosophers, distinguished between predistribution of property and redistribution of income. Under income redistribution, money is taken from “winners” and transferred to “losers.” Understandably, this isn’t popular with winners, who tend to control government and the media. Under property predistribution, by contrast, the playing field is leveled by spreading property ownership before income is generated. After that, there’s no need for income redistribution; property itself distributes income to all. According to Rawls, while income redistribution creates dependency, property predistribution empowers. (105)

In my mind this changes the whole conversation about a more equitable distribution of resources. It frames the question of inequality of wealth in terms of property rights. It also transforms the concept of property rights into the right to property which is what we find in the Jubilary laws of Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15. The obvious question is what the mechanism would be for creating such a predistribution.

The answer lies in the commons—wealth that already belongs to everyone. By propertizing (without privatizing) some of that wealth, we can make everyone a property owner. (105)

Barnes goes through a lot of detail about how all of this would work including specific trusts and permanent funds at local, state and federal levels, how they might function and what they would manage. I would encourage my economically-minded friends to read more of the detail and give me some feedback. As I said before, even though I tend to be doom and gloom about capitalism’s track record and future possibilities, I don’t have much negative to say about Barnes’ upgrade. It answers many of my questions and the historic problems of the capitalist experiment. The main question seems to be whether or not the current system has the capacity to make these kinds of changes. Barnes is hopeful, but cautions that the window for action in implementing these rights is narrow. I remain skeptical, but Barnes challenged me to envision possibilities I hadn’t imagined and that’s always a good thing.

When The Lights Go Out

I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of podcasts lately on issues of collapse, peak oil, post-civilization, anti-civilization, etc. lately. I am convinced that the history of civilizations and empires tells us pretty clearly that collapse is inevitable. The collapse of a global civilization based on oil is unprecedented and the implications for our lifestyles can be pretty overwhelming. I have primitivist friends who try to learn skills like tanning, making clothes, moving quietly in a forest, foraging edible plants, etc. that will help them when all the oil is gone and we need to eat, clothe ourselves and find shelter. They also attempt to live in community and share possessions which is currently lacking and will certainly be a much needed skill. But they live in a house that uses electricity, plumbing, flushing toilets and drive cars (though one has been converted to run on waste vegetable oil). My aim is not to point fingers. I, too, fall short of some ideal lifestyle that may not be possible at the moment and may not exist at all.

I have tried to imagine what a post-collapse world will actually be like and what kind of things will help and what things won’t. Derrick Jensen talks about taking out dams, the electricity grid and other infrastructure that he believes is ultimately destructive to ourselves and the earth. What things

I wrote a while back about our first experience of a few days without running water in Bolivia. It was an eye-opening experience, something felt in the body more than the head. The other night I had a similar experience. It is winter down here in the Southern hemisphere. Though it might not get as cold as it does back home in Texas, there is no central heating here. So, the few weeks of really cold winter weather you are cold all the time. We try to use the oven as much as possible because it warms up our kitchen nicely. We also have two small space heaters that work pretty well. However, since all of our doors lead outside, our bathroom is not attached to our house and much of life here is lived outside, the cold is impossible to escape. We also live pretty far out in the country.

The other night as we were putting the kids to bed, the lights went out. Everything was pitch black, the heater was not on and I thought, “I’m not ready for collapse!” Even with all the electricity on I can see more stars here than I have ever seen and the Milky Way is often very clearly visible in the night sky. It was close to the new moon as well. So, when the lights went out it was about as dark as I have ever experienced. My heart jumped. I was not at all prepared. I felt caught completely off guard. We scrambled for flashlights and headlamps as I tried to figure out if it was just us or everybody.

Our town is working on completing a water tower to supply the town with water more consistently. This particular night they were working, I think, on the building to house the pump, when somehow they knocked out the power. It was only off for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, but it was one of those moments that shocks you awake. It made me realize how much I was still connected, attached and perhaps addicted to these things (as I write this on my laptop which is dependent on the same system) that depended on the grid. Questions flashed in my mind. How will we find our way around when the batteries run out? How will we stay warm tonight in this cold? What will we do tomorrow if it’s still not on?

In a profound way I felt a sense of loss and grief at the theoretical passing of this huge chunk of my identity which is bound up in this system that sustains me. I think that is a healthy response to the idea, the possibility or the inevitability of collapse. One of the villages I work with got electricity for the first time within the last year. I thought that was an interesting fact, but now I try to imagine my friends living with the darkness that I experienced the other night for their entire lives. Their identity is not wrapped up in this grid and all that it brings. If the grid collapsed tomorrow their experience would be vastly different from mine. It would have very little effect on them, but I would be scrambling to reconfigure my whole existence around this new reality.

P.S. As I was writing this post the lights went out again (this time at 4pm). This time it was the electric company shutting us off for not paying for the last two months… oops. The only gas station in the area has not had gasoline for the last week which has hampered my plans to go pay our account since our truck is out of fuel. How nice would it be to have one less bill to pay and thing to worry about. There is a lot of freedom in untangling ourselves from the system. What I have realized is that it is a long journey in which we slowly uncover how entangled we really are.

May the truth of Christ and the liberating presence of the Spirit continue to lead us into true freedom.

Small Is Beautiful: Urban vs. Rural

I read an article from the Guardian that asked “Which is greener urban or rural living?” Treehugger also picked up the conversation, and the consensus seemed to be that urban life was clearly greener. In the city you often don’t need a car. You live in smaller housing units in tall buildings that take up less space. You have more options for consumer products that are environmentally friendly, organic or otherwise more sustainably produced. There were a few commenters that didn’t want to just throw out the benefits of rural living, but no one really seemed to think rural living could be greener.

I read the whole conversation in light of the section in E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful on development. Schumacher addressed the mentality of much development work which still continues today.

Before we can talk about giving aid, we must have something to give. We do not have thousands of poverty stricken villages in our country; so what do we know about effective methods of self-help in such circumstances? The beginning of wisdom is the admission of one’s own lack of knowledge. As long as we think we know, when in fact we do not, we shall continue to go to the poor and demonstrate to them all the marvellous things they could do if they were already rich. (199)

This could also be applied to this way of thinking about whether urban or rural living is greener. Environmentalism has its own unspoken creed containing dogmas that often remain unquestioned and uncritically swallowed and regurgitated. There are certain assumptions about what is “greener” that attempt to slip the premise by us. One of those is the divide between rural and urban.

Yet it remains an unalterable truth that, just as a sound mind depends on a sound body, so the health of the cities depends on the health of rural areas. The cities, with all their wealth, are merely secondary producers, while primary production, the precondition of all economic life, takes place in the countryside. (203)

This dualism between urban and rural is and always has been a fiction. This was one of the most stunning thoughts for me in reading this book. It is only more relevant as the world continues to urbanize and face the same problems of Schumacher’s time (the book was first published in 1975) on an ever increasing scale.

When Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful the majority of people still lived in rural areas. Therefore, he argued, we should be putting as much, if not more, emphasis on rural development. That is not what happened. The emphasis on urban development made cities much more attractive places than the increasingly difficult life in rural areas. This drove migration to the cities and the increasing urbanization that continues today. The UN predicts that 70% of the world population will live in cities by the year 2050 and we have just recently crossed the 50% mark (I don’t have a link, but I think it was in a recent State of the World report from the UN). Urban development can’t keep up with the needs of all the rural people migrating to cities as rural economies tank. Yet, the opportunities are better in the cities. Thus we end up with the massive slums that seemed to pop up overnight around Manila, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and all the major urban centers in the “developing” world.

Yet, what is our answer for this problem of urbanization? It is to create better cities that can handle the increase in population, instead of creating rural development that makes it possible for people to stay in rural areas. What the question about whether urban or rural living is greener fails to address is the continuing, dynamic relationship between these two sectors. It’s also evident when we try defining these two terms that they are not very clear. What size community should be considered rural? At what point does a city transition from being rural to urban? 20,000? 50,000? 100,000?

Derrick Jensen defines cities as “a collection of people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources” (from a YouTube video on his book Endgame). This definition means that our definition of “urban” will be relatively small compared to the largest cities in the world. However, it does account for what the discussion of how green urban living is neglects. While certain metrics make urban living appear greener, because of the economies of scale, it does not account for the dependence on outside resources to sustain the “greener” urban way of life.

Unless you are living off of your urban/community garden, the majority of your food, no matter how organic or sustainably produced, must come from somewhere else. Likewise for all the other products no matter how organic or sustainably produced that you consume in a city. All of the water you use is imported from elsewhere, as well as the coal, oil and/or natural gas you use to use electricity, drive your car, cook and heat your studio apartment. Another quote from Derrick Jensen undermines the kind of thinking that makes urban living seem “green”.

Rational people will go quietly meekly to the end of the world, if only you’ll allow them to believe that recycling is going to make a difference.

We choose the metrics that make our lives seem “greener” so that we can ignore the reality that we cannot help but participate in an economy based on extraction and the importation of resources to support our preferred lifestyle in communities called cities that require this arrangement. Perhaps there is a balance between urban and rural populations that could be sustainable. I’m open to that possibility, but it would look radically different from the current order.

So, instead of asking which is greener we should be asking which way of life is self-sustaining. Rural living, if it involves industrial monocropping or extractive lifestyles, is not self-sustaining either. But, I would argue that living in smaller rural communities has the potential to be self-sustaining, while cities require an arrangement that imports resources from outside its borders.

Collapse: It’s the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine

One of my favorite parts of Jarrod Diamond’s book, Collapse, was the final section where he takes on many of the most commonly heard one liner arguments against any impending collapse:

“The environment has to be balanced against the economy”Diamond says that this is exactly backwards; I agree. Environmental problems are very costly, but our system has tended toward the habit of externalizing certain problems and not accounting for them in the costs of production or sale
“Technology will solve our problems” I’ve spent significant time on this blog talking about this argument in particular. New technology both creates and solves problems. Some technologies succeed and others don’t. Successes take decades to phase in. Diamond says, “Advances in technology just increase our ability to do things which may be either for the better or the worse. All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology.” He uses the example of CFCs which are still being phased out globally even while they have been illegal in the First World for decades. The impact of what is already present in the atmosphere will last for decades longer. CFCs solved a previous problem of dangerous chemicals that were used in refrigerators and other appliances. Predicting the future and the consequences of new technologies seems a risky place to put your faith.

“If we exhaust one resource, we can always just switch to some other resource meeting the same need”This involves many of the same problems mentioned concerning new technologies. There will likely be unforeseen difficulties and transition time involved in switching to new resources including secondary infrastructure needed to support these technologies. Renewable energy technologies will certainly have a role in an energy economy not based on fossil fuels, but predicting what that looks like and what the unintended consequences will be is difficult. It also distracts us from the changes in energy consumption that must be made to make life on this planet possible for everyone.

“There really isn’t a world food problem there is already enough food.We only need to solve the transportation problem of distributing that food to places that need it.” or “The world’s food problem is already being solved by the Green Revolution with its new high yield varieties of rice and other crops, or else it will be solved by genetically modified crops.” Probably because this is my specific area of interest, I thought Diamond unfairly lumped these arguments together. The first statement is true in a global sense, and I think it’s important to recognize that we continue to focus on production issues without dealing with the problem of distribution. However, Diamond clarifies his point by saying, “First world citizens show no interest in eating less so that Third world citizens could eat more.” This points out the connection between population pressures and the issue of whether or not there is enough. It also is a reminder that, though global production will continue to be high for a while, the problem of hunger has local and regional causes, and will need local and regional solutions.
In terms of the second part Diamond points out that the primary four GM crops are soybean, corn, canola and cotton, none of which is eaten directly by humans. The majority of these crops are sold to wealthy farmers in North America. Notice that there has been little work or interest in developing GMO cassava, millet or sorghum which would actually benefit farmers in the tropics, where the majority of the world’s poor live.

“As measured by common sense human indicators like human lifespan, health and wealth conditions have actually been getting better for decades” or “Just look around you the grass is still green, there’s plenty of food in the supermarkets, clean water still flows from the taps and there’s absolutely no sign of imminent collapse.” This is the view from the top. Diamond also points out that lifespan is not a sufficient indicator. An increasing fraction of the population is at the poverty level in the US. He uses the analogy of a bank account. It’s not just the size of the bank account that matters, but the direction of cash flow. If you have $5,000 in the bank that looks great. If you realize that you’ve been spending $200 a month above your income, then you realize that you only have 2 years before you will be broke unless something changes. Our prosperity is based on spending down our environmental capital. One major lesson to draw from the decline of the Maya and Anasazi: “A society’s steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the society reaches its peak numbers, wealth and power.”

“The population crisis is already solving itself, because the rate of increase of the world’s population is decreasing such that the world population such that the population will level off at less than double its present level.”The problem is not just population, but also per capita human impact. Even if population growth suddenly stopped this year at 7billion we would already be at an unsustainable level based on the per capita impact of our rates of consumption. If the poor in developing countries achieve their aspirations of similar rates of consumption, the problem of population will be moot. I still believe that population growth is a significant part of the equation that is not adequately considered or understood, but I also agree that even with population growth slowing or declining we will continue to face problems of overconsumption of our resources.

“The world can accommodate human population growth indefinitely. The more people the better, because more people mean more inventions and ultimately more wealth.”Diamond seemed to think this was kind of a silly argument, but offered a comparison between two top ten lists. Top Ten countries in population: China, India, US, Indonesia, Brasil, Pakistan, Russia, Japan, Bangladesh and Nigeria. Top Ten countries with highest affluence above $20,000 per capita: Switzerland, Luxembourg, Finland, Japan, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Canada and Nouru. Only country on both lists is Japan. The lists would seem to indicate the opposite; the higher the population of a country the higher rate of poverty. Population growth rate is the difference between the two lists.

“Environmental concerns are a luxury affordable just by affluent First world yuppies who have no business telling desperate Third world citizens what they should be doing.”I sometimes have this sentiment, but for different reasons as I explored in the series on development. Diamond points out that the Third world is more aware of and understands how environmental problems affect them. These issues affect everyone on the planet and disproportionately affect the poorest of the poor, who make their living from the land and live closer to the effects of environmental degradation and climate change.

“We’re managing just fine despite all those environmental problems which really don’t concern them because the problems fall mainly on Third world people.”The rich are not immune. However, this does point out how easy it is for the wealthy and powerful to keep themselves insulated from the effects of their decisions. This was often the case in the examples of collapses where the rich and powerful acted in their own interest to preserve status and power rather than prevent the coming collapse, even when it seems obvious. Diamond points out that the rich and powerful in collapsing societies buy themselves the privilege of being the last to starve or die.

“If those environmental problems become desperate it will be at some time off in the future after I die and I can’t take them seriously.”– The twelve problems that Diamond lists (eight present in historical collapses and four new ones that we face) will become acute during the lives of young adults today. If we do so many things to plan for the future of our young people (insurance, saving, education, etc.), it makes no sense to ignore the very world that they will live in. It’s also important to recognize that these issues are not as far off as we would like to think they are.

“There are big differences between modern society and those past societies of Easter Islanders, Maya and Anasazi who collapsed so that we can’t straightforwardly apply lessons from the past.”The risks are increased rather than decreased in our current situation, because of globalization and the scale of environmental damage. Diamond also imagines asking an ecologist, “Which overseas countries are facing problems over environmental stress, overpopulation or both?” The ecologist lists Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Madagascar, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, The Phillipines, Rwanda, Solomon Islands and Somalia plus others. Then he imagines asking a politician, “Which countries are the world’s worst trouble spots?” He then lists the same countries. Such collapses have happened and are happening right now. We are seeing the influence of the five factors Diamond lists in countries as we speak. These things are happening before our eyes, even if we decide to ignore them and say that what happened to those ancient societies can’t happen to us.

Any other thoughts about these arguments or other one-liners that you hear often?