Saturday, 2 July 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 5: Life in the Age of Scarcity

This is a direct continuation of my last post, and if you haven't read that post yet, now would be a good time, especially if you want to make much sense of this one. In that post I was talking about "a reality based approach to life in that age of scarcity", which is the tagline for this blog. I talked about the end of that tagline, "the Age of Scarcity" and how it seems inevitable that if BAU continues on "as usual", it will lead to a collapse. Then I talked about the start of it, "a reality based approach". People, both BAU and Crunchy, buy into a lot of woo to support their ideologies. I'd like them to give up on that, accept reality and start talking steps to prepare for it.

If we do nothing, we may be "lucky" enough to survive and find ourselves coping with the devastating effects of randomly eliminating half or more of the population. That's certainly where BAU is heading and I would like to avoid having to picking up the pieces as part of the shell shocked remainder still alive after collapse is well under way.

To Life

And that leads us to the "to life" part of my tagline. As I've just said, I think the human race is about to fall on hard times. But unlike some, I don't think that mankind is about to be completely wiped out. Those of us who pull through will do so because we've found a way to adapt "to life in the age of scarcity" and keep going under very different conditions from what we are now accustomed to. We'll have to learn to be satisfied with "just enough" instead of always wanting more, and we'll have to get much better at working together in groups for mutual support instead of separately as lone individuals or nuclear families. And the sooner we start making these changes in our lives, the better off we'll be.

I find myself especially drawn to "working together in groups for mutual support". This idea has immense potential to insulate the members of such groups from the chaos in the world around them and to meet their human needs in ways that BAU does not do well even now and will do less so as time passes. Indeed I would say that the formation and operation of such groups is at the heart of the response we need to make to the collapse of BAU.

I think many different variations on this theme need to be tried in order to see what works and what doesn't. And even when it has become clear what doesn't work, there will still be many more or less right ways of doing it. I am a big fan of "dissensus", which is the opposite of consensus, and consists of agreeing to disagree and wishing the other guy well while he does so. In the coming decades, as energy become less available and the economy contracts and can no longer support the current level of centralization and complexity, we will be forced to decentralize, relocalize and simplify our society. Under these conditions, dissensus will become somewhat easier—we simply won't have the wherewithal to force our ideas on other groups, nor they on us.

Having said that, it is important within your own particular group to have a clear idea of what you are trying to do. As an example, here's a rough outline of what I'd like to try.

  • The group should be small. Less than Dunbar's number , which is basically the largest number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships, between 100 and 250. I would aim for the lower end of that range at most.
  • It should not be too small, since it needs to have people who are competent in the necessary skills to maintain a certain level of technology. More than a dozen, one would certainly think. What that "certain level" of technology will be is determined by the resources and skills available and what the people involved are willing to sacrifice to hang on to some particular technologies. Realizing that in the circumstances we will find ourselves, progress can be the enemy of prosperity.
  • A larger group also has more purchasing power than a nuclear family, which can be useful when times are tough. They should plan on taking advantage of this.
  • It's members should be people of like mind, roughly speaking. It would be best if they already know each other and know the community where they are setting up.
  • They should be living in fairly close physical proximity. An internet group made up of widely dispersed people isn't going to work for this, although it might useful in getting things started.
  • If not actually rural, the group needs ownership or at least access to some nearby acreage, with farmland, woodlot, water and things like clay, sand, gravel and stone. People who already own homes in a small town could form such a group and involve a nearby farmer. This would keep the capital required to get started down to a minimum. No doubt there are many other possible approaches, as dictated by your circumstances and preferences.
  • I don't think large cities are sustainable in the long run, especially when energy intensive transportation is no longer available, so the group should not be in or near such a place. What's large? That's a judgment call and depends on geographic and social circumstances of the individual city. Obviously a city surrounded by farmland, with good water supply and good water transportation connections is more viable than one in the middle of a desert. And a city where the social fabric has already largely broken down should be avoided. The "zombie hoards" that survivalists talk about are not a realistic scenario, but big cities are still death traps.
  • It should be in an area likely not to suffer too badly from climate change. Not near sea level, or expected to suffer too badly from drought or flooding.
  • The group should be organized on a basis of small scale "socialism/communism", where the group supports its members, and the members support the group. It would provide meaningful work for people with a wide range of capabilities and cradle to grave security for people with a wide range of needs. It would not necessarily provide a very high standard of living (just enough), but the standard would be the same for everyone. One does what one can to help others and expect they will do the same for you, without any need for money or formal score keeping. Because this is a small group, everyone knows who is contributing and who is slacking off.
  • The group needs to set up some sort of business to provide income. For a while yet it will still be necessary to interface with BAU and money is needed to do so.
  • It should provide preparedness for and protection from disasters, especially infrastructure failure, economic recessions and social unrest. And, eventually, an alternative to BAU for when it ceases to function and can no longer provide us with the necessities of life.
  • This group needs to do crunchy things but without the woo. Things that actually work and don't waste our efforts on solving fake problems.
  • I would hope the group would be strong enough to welcome friends and family who are displaced from BAU, to adopt orphan children and take in homeless people and refugees.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel here, one can study up on intentional communities, eco-villages or as they are known among the "collapse aware"—lifeboats. If you do this, you'll see that there are some serious challenges involved.

There are, of course, the practical difficulties of finding a place, a business to start and capital to get this all going. This will be especially hard in a contracting economy, and if you insist on doing it to BAU standards, setting up an eco-village or lifeboat community can cost millions of dollars—the sky is the limit. But if you are willing to work to a "just enough" standard, it will be much more do-able.

I think the more serious challenges will be on the people side of things, though. Fortunately, as BAU gets to be less and less a hospitable place to live, we'll have more incentive to solve these problems. Currently only a few are interested, but that will change.

First, finding the people. I say this from the viewpoint of a fellow who is a Crunchy himself. I find myself looking among Crunchies for like minded people, because the BAU folks will just laugh at you if you bring up anything but their party line. And of course, I am looking for people who indulge in as little woo as possible. They can be hard to find. Unfortunately, it is easy to make this harder than it needs to be. If you want to get picky enough with your definition of "like minded", you can find a reason to exclude the whole rest of the human race. This cannot be our aim.

"As little woo as possible" is the key here. Aiming for no woo at all would guarantee failure—even the most rational among us has a few irrational beliefs. At this point let me say that just because I have a considered opinion on most everything, I don't think that I know everything for certain. I'm only human and while I've put quite a lot of effort into figuring out what's what, I have to admit that I may have made some errors. Keeping this in mind is, I think, a good start.

In many cases disagreement on a theoretical level is irrelevant to what you are trying to accomplish. People don't have to think exactly like you, as long as you can work together and share a common goal. People are not all of one piece and can be absolute fools about embracing woo in one area while being completely practical, reality based and highly skilled in another area. The woo may be aggravating, but the skills a person brings to the table can make it worth overlooking a certain amount of woo. If everyone in the group is thinking like this, regardless of what else they may believe, they can work together surprisingly well.

There are a number of Crunchy people who I do consider to be friends. They don't completely buy into my strictly materialist, science based approach, but neither do they completely reject it. We are willing to rub along and can actually work together.

There are also Crunchies I can't abide: alternative medicine practitioners who make a living pushing woo and activists who want to waste my time supporting bogus causes, for example.

Though I don't believe in good and evil in any absolute sense, I have learned the hard way that there is a small minority of people who are best avoided—call them "evil" if you will. The trick is to learn to recognize these folks before getting too involved with them. One has to attain a balance in this, aiming neither to be too exclusive or too inclusive.

Having found some people who want to set up a group for mutual support we will be faced with the task of getting along with them. Or perhaps having waited too long, we'll find ourselves thrown together in a disaster more or less by chance with people who need mutual support.

In emergencies and disasters, this is known to happen and it can work amazingly well. I would recommend reading Rebecca Solnit's book, A Paradise Built in Hell—The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, which examines how people behave in disasters and how different that is from what most of us expect.

As Solnit says, "In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing or major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbours as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky or regressively savage human beings in times of disaster has little truth to it."

After reading Solnit's book I was skeptical—it just seemed too idealistic. So I did some studying and found it to be solidly supported by researchers in the field of disaster response. Unfortunately, the "disaster mythology" is a widely accepted and enthusiastically spread by the media. It would have us believe some very negative things about how people act in disasters, but they are simply not true. With the one except that when there is a disaster in an area where the basic fabric of society has already broken down, then things just get worse.

When working together in groups what you really need is a clear, common, immediate and practical goal and people who can do things to achieve that goal. It seems to me that this is why the victims of disasters have such success at working together to deal with their immediate problems. What they believe in is largely irrelevant, so long as they don't make a big deal about it, especially when it doesn't bear immediately on solving the problem at hand.

But there is reasonable doubt that this sort of "getting along" can work on a long term basis. When the disaster is over, things go back to normal. Within BAU, normal means that such relationships are monetized and you don't have to actually get along with these people at all, just pay them for what they do for you or accept their payment for what you do for them.

Throughout most of this blog I've been talking about resource depletion, climate change and economic disruption as the main challenges we face. But in another sense, our main challenge lies in the fact that growing up immersed in BAU we have not learned how to live together in communities and reach the sort of working agreement needed to keep a community functioning. The emphasis is always on individuality, being "right", being in control and getting what you are entitled to.

In BAU, about the closest you'll come to the kind of "getting along" that I'm talking about is in the kind of job where you work in a crew and actual teamwork is required. This can be a great situation and can give you a taste of "getting along". But often not so much. Someone is clearly in charge of such a team, appointed from above with the support of the organization behind him, and paid extra to do the job. And even though there are penalties for not playing along, there are lots of people who would rather make work miserable for their fellows (and themselves) rather than co-operate with the boss and their co-workers. In BAU, so much prestige is associated with leadership and individualism is so strongly encouraged that this is almost inevitable.

Even when people do share an ideology and a methodology that works (like the scientific method) there will still be communication problems, differences of opinion and personality issues that make it hard to work together. Or it may come down to each of us thinking that he should be the one running things. These sorts of things can be overcome with training and counseling, but only if the individuals involved want to overcome their differences.

I think it is important to see leadership as a burden rather than an honour. When you have someone who knows what he is doing in a certain area, let him lead when you're working in that area, and step back when it is done. General direction needs to come from the community as a whole, whether it is determined by formal consensus or by leaders who have worked out what the group's consensus is before taking the group in that direction. Consensus is foreign to most of us and as such we are not very good at, but it is a skill that can be learned.

For the first two or three million years of our existence as something more or less human, we did live in small groups and got along in exactly the fashion I am talking about. Indeed it seems likely that our ability to live successful in such groups evolved in parallel with the social structure of those groups.

Then about ten thousand years ago people at a number of locations around the world invented agriculture and not too long after that, re-organized themselves into states with a ruling class to run things, a working class to do the work and something more or less like money to mediate their relationships. Bluntly put, work to get money to pay for food—or starve. Or in the case of slaves, work or be beaten and starve—it simplifies things by eliminating the money.

This idea of "civilization" is great if you are one of the privileged few who are running things. Not so great if you are one of the rank and file workers or, worse yet, a slave. And indeed there is a long history of people leaving civilization when it got too oppressive. Sometimes this amounted to a collapse, with the civilization disappearing while the remnants live on in small groups with greatly simplified organization.

At other times, people left the state controlled area in smaller groups and headed for "the hills", areas too rugged for the state's enforcers to successfully track them down and march them back. Read James C. Scott's book The Art of Not Being Governed for detailed information on this. It turns out that a great many peoples who western science had originally thought were "primitives" who had occupied their area before civilization arose, are actually people who chose to escape the local civilization when it became too oppressive.

There may be something to be learned from these folks by those of us who are thinking about escaping BAU. There is also something to be learned by the few remaining hunter gatherers who are just now being "civilized" as they encounter BAU culture for the first time.

Of course, within BAU a great deal of effort is expended to distract people from looking at these examples of alternative ways of living and to make those ways of life appear inferior to BAU. I am sure that the mouth pieces of BAU will say that I am romanticizing primitive societies. But I am not suggesting that we go "back", but rather in a different direction altogether, beyond civilization rather than away from it. We may indeed find ourselves moving a level of energy consumption similar to what was common decades or even hundreds of years ago. But this does not mean that we have to adopt a similar level of social justice or scientific/medical/nutritional ignorance. We have learned a lot since then that can be successfully applied to a society that uses much less energy and gets by with much less stuff. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

And, beyond all that, I would say that they are romanticizing BAU, which is doing a poor job of caring for most of its members, and a good job of convincing them that there are no better alternatives.

Which brings us back to the alternative I was discussing above: living in groups providing each other mutual support in a way that BAU cannot do. And back to the major challenge of learning to live together in such groups, which life in BAU has left us woefully unprepared for. But, having evolved in such groups, we do have the innate ability to overcome this challenge. We need to throw off the bad habits we got from growing up in BAU, and learn some better and more human habits. For guidance, we can look to the few remaining people living in small groups outside of BAU. We can also look to the people who are living in intentional communities within BAU, and learn from both their successes and failures.

There is lots of literature on this. From my own bookshelf I can recommend:

In closing, I should just say that if I had thought of the phrase "Crunchy Without the Woo" four years ago when I started this blog, I would likely have used it as the title, instead of "The Easiest Person to Fool". I think it ties in better with the tag line "A reality based approach to life in the age of scarcity" which, as I've been saying here, is really the heart of the matter. Oh well, that's water under the bridge. And also a wrap for this series of posts on BAU, Crunchiness and Woo.

The books I've read during my life have done a great deal to shape my thinking. In my next few posts I'll be sharing some of those books with you. If my elementary school self had heard that I am volunteering to write book reports, he would have shaken his head in amazement. I guess we all change with time.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 4: A Reality Based Approach

In this series of posts about BAU (Business as Usual), Crunchiness (those who oppose BAU) and Woo (pseudoscience and magical thinking) I've been promising that I am going somewhere with all this and that I would finally get there. Well, here we are.

The tagline for this blog is, "A reality based approach to life in the age of scarcity." And that is where I've been headed. There's a lot more meat in that one phrase than you might think. I'll break it into three parts and explain what I mean by each, starting with the tail, then the head and finally (in my next post) the middle, which is really the heart of the thing.

"In The Age of Scarcity"

So first, "the age of scarcity", a term that I am borrowing from John Michael Greer. It refers to where we now find ourselves, trying to sustain a growth economy as the resources it relies on become ever more depleted. Thus the term scarcity. The mouthpieces of BAU would object to this, claiming that things are now better than they ever have been and that technology can bail us out of any problems we may run into. I find that amusing--BAU caused the situation that it refuses to acknowledge and continues to make it worse.

I talked about this in the second and third posts in this series, but I'll recap briefly.

Progress is a religion for BAU, its raison d'etre. It defines progress as increasing material prosperity, physical comfort and convenience for an ever growing human population. The economies within BAU are set up to work well only when growing. Even with the improved efficiency provided by technology, ever increasing amounts of natural resources are being consumed, to the point where the resources that are left are of lower quantity and less concentrated, making whatever is made from them more costly. At the same time, more and more pollution is being created.

All this results in situations like Peak Oil, Climate change and Economic Contraction, of which I've spoken at some length. Since I started writing here four years ago, it has become clear that a shortage of fresh water (Peak water?)should be added to the list. And in an effort to keep business profitable under these conditions, people are being replaced with technological wherever possible, resulting in growing "technological" unemployment. To top it off, the relentless growth of our human population makes all these things worse.

I am convinced that if BAU continues "as usual", over the next few decades we will see a gradual and bumpy collapse of BAU's ability to provide us with the necessities of life. Modern agriculture and industry are unsustainable, and environmental degradation (including climate change, but not limited to it) will place both under ever worsening stress. We can expect a significant reduction in their outputs, leading to a reduction in human population.

In addition to happening unevenly over time, this collapse will be varied in how it is felt across the world's regions, with the result that migrations of refugees will become the defining events of this century. The collapse will also be felt differently across the strata of society. It has already arrived today for those who are homeless and begging for food, with no reasonable hope for improvement in their lot. At the same time the upper crust are enjoying the fruits of progress and living better than they ever have before. Not only can we expect this gap to widen, but the numbers of the unemployed and homeless will grow while that upper crust gets thinner.

As I pointed out in my "Political Fantasy" series of posts, there is much that could be done to fix things within BAU and in the process change BAU into something less destructive. This might have worked 40, 30, perhaps even 20 years ago. But today? It seems unlikely and gets more so as time passes.

When I vote in elections (mainly to preserve my complaining rights) I try to support whichever party looks to be the most aware of this situation and likely to do something about it. But I don't for a moment believe that much will actually be done to change BAU or fix any of the problems it is causing. I prefer to spend the majority of my time and energy getting ready for the more likely (though less pleasant) future.

We're stuck in the age of scarcity and we must learn to adapt. In my case this falls within the realm of crunchiness, not survivalism. And, while you may not like the term "crunchiness", it is the one I have chosen to use here to describe those who would withdraw their support from BAU and try to build something different and better. In fact, of course, people are all mixtures of crunchy and BAU attitudes, and act differently in different circumstances.

A Reality Based Approach

That brings us to "a reality based approach". Which is simply accepting things as they actually are and acting accordingly. The alternative being denial and believing in whatever sort of "woo" it takes to support your favourite ideological position. This applies to both BAU and Crunchiness.

BAU style woo allows people to believe in progress and growth continuing forever on a finite planet. And it convinces them that there is no acceptable alternative.

Crunchy style of woo provides a simplistic route to rejecting BAU for those who are convinced by much of BAU's propaganda, even though they don't like the direction it is taking us. Just reject anything that comes from big business or government, even if it is clearly supported by science. And uncritically accept anything that seems to oppose BAU.

In my last post I talked about the pseudoscience and magical thinking (woo) that is in vogue among Crunchies. I included a bunch of links that where intended to show that in their rejection of science, Crunchies persist in believing things that science has already proven wrong, and refuse to believe in much of what science has proven right. Not stuff that is out at the frontiers of science where there might be some wiggle room, but stuff about which there is a solid scientific consensus, which will no doubt be refined as time passes, but is unlikely to undergo major change.

Crunchies tend to reject the positive achievements of BAU along with its downsides, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. I would say the biggest challenge facing the Crunchy movement is to succeed in rejecting the woo which is the essence of BAU without rejecting the scientific method and the valid scientific consensus that has come out of BAU. This is tricky since much of the woo in BAU is part of our common culture and it is difficult to question or even recognize for what it is.

In their rejection of BAU and their intention to turn away from it and do less harm to the planet and their fellow man, Crunchies are definitely on the right track. There is no need to glom onto a bunch of woo in order to differentiate themselves from BAU.

Back in the first post of this series, I spoke briefly about the pitfalls of binary thinking and how much of the woo that both BAU and Crunchy people subscribe to exists to maintain their separate positions and convince themselves that the other side is wrong. I'd like to see both of those positions abandoned and a reality based approach adopted by everyone involved. Of course I know that there is little hope of changing minds that are firmly made up, but I hope there are a few minds out there that aren't made up--or at least not too firmly. I've engaged in enough social media link wars to know that there's no winning them--everything seems black and white to both sides, and they both have lots of so called "evidence" to support their positions. But in reality, away from the keyboard and screen, things are not so--there are many shades of gray, and alternatives that neither side is willing to consider.

To take a more balanced and nuanced approach is challenging, but well worth the effort. First, look at the current scientific consensus and use that information to evaluate the position in which we find ourselves. And then look at what we can realistically do about it, since we are constrained not just by what is scientifically possible but also by the practicalities of the actual situation.

If we do nothing, we may be "lucky" enough to survive and find ourselves coping with the devastating effects of randomly eliminating half or more of the population. That's certainly where BAU is heading and I would like to avoid having to picking up the pieces as part of the shell shocked remainder still alive after collapse is well under way.

In my next post, I'll tackle the third part of my tagline, "to life" and talk about how we might approach the challenge of actually living in the age of scarcity.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 3: Focusing on the Woo in Crunchiness

In my last post I talked about what's wrong with BAU (Business as Usual—the "culture of maximum harm") and how Crunchies are those who want to do less harm, to their fellow men and to the planet.

I chose to use the terms "Crunchy," "Crunchies" and "Crunchiness" in this series of posts to reflect the degree of derision heaped by BAU culture upon those who are looking for solutions outside that culture. I know full well that many people who are seeking alternatives to BAU will be offended by the term "Crunchy", but I would urge them to wear the term proudly, to make it clear that they are withdrawing their support from BAU. That withdrawal is a very important step to take.

In any case, such people should take heart, because I am about to be pretty hard on the standard sort of flakey Crunchy, pointing out that there is a whole lot of woo bound up with their position, too.

BAU's "religion of progress" teaches that cultural change for our species takes place along a single path, from the "caves to the stars", so to speak. The intended direction is "forward" and anyone who questions this is accused of wanting to go "backwards". This is nonsense, of course, since cultural change can in fact take place along many dimensions, the great majority of which we have not yet explored. Indeed finding a different path is what much of Crunchiness is about.

Of course, another large chunk of Crunchiness is a reaction to what BAU is doing wrong. This is totally appropriate, but it's also a source of the major weaknesses in Crunchiness. Crunchies largely reject the scientific method, I think mainly because of the great degree to which it seems to have been co-opted by BAU. When they don't rejected it, they use it the way a drunk uses a lamppost—for support, rather than illumination.

The trouble with this, of course, is that when you reject or misuse the scientific method you have no reliable way of checking to see if your ideas are correct. Ideas which are not correct then get adopted and propagated with great enthusiasm, just because they seems to support the ideology. If you really want to succeed at saving/changing the world, it would be a good idea to make sure your methods actually work.

Being susceptible to woo also leaves you open to predators who will use your credulity to take advantage of you and make a profit in the process. Indeed there is a great deal of supposed crunchiness that is really just greenwashing by unscrupulous businesses who are clearly part of BAU.

Related to the rejection of science is the personification of nature, including the Gaia hypothesis and the default, but erroneous, assumption common among Crunchies that whatever is natural must be good. And along with this goes technophobia—fear of the many new things created by modern man.

And, ironically, Crunchies often seem to accept BAU's "single path" woo and try to move backwards in order to avoid the consequences of moving forward along that path. Unfortunately there is just as much in BAU's past that we should avoid as there is in its present and future. It may prove beneficial or even necessary to move to a level of energy consumption similar to what was common decades or even hundreds of years ago. This does not mean that we have to adopt a similar level of social justice or scientific/medical/nutritional ignorance. We have learned a lot since then that can be successfully applied to a society that uses much less energy and gets by with much less stuff. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Rejecting science and what's good in the modern world leads to problems in several areas and I think it would be useful to look at a few specific examples. I've included links to further details about many of the areas I mention below. If you are a "flakey crunchy", but your mind is even a little bit open, they are worth following. Maybe not the very best that is available on the internet, but good.

One of the best examples is alternative "medicine" which, sadly, is quite popular with Crunchy folks. When an alternative medical technique is proven to work, it becomes part of conventional medicine and is no longer alternative. What's left behind is all the techniques that don't work. But because conventional medicine is very much a part of BAU and because alternative medical practitioners don't really get the scientific method, they keep pushing techniques that are no better than placebos. Naturopathic medicine, homeopathy, herbal medicine, reflexology, reiki, acupuncture, chiropractic. and the anti-vaccination movement are all examples , but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

One of the wrong-headed ideas common in alternative"medicine" is that the human body is a perfect creation—that its default, normal state would be complete health. In fact, we are a chance product of evolution, the least worst of all the competing alternatives—just barely good enough to do the job, and with all kinds of built in problems.

There is a lot of money to be made by practitioners of alternative medicine, so it seems very likely that at least some of the people involved are well aware what they are doing, but don't care one bit.

A related area is that of food, nutrition and farming.

There is so much controversy these days about nutrition that it is difficult to sort out, even if you try hard to go with the science. If you don't, then you are open to a great deal of nonsense. All sorts people are making a living promoting fad diets, telling us what we should and shouldn't eat, with little or no science backing it up. Many Crunchies seem to lap this stuff up. The current concerns about gluten and high fructose corn syrup are good examples of this.

Part of the problem is being too eager to accept any single scientific finding that seems to support what you already believe, instead of looking at the overall consensus in the field. Trouble is, there doesn't seem to be a very strong scientific consensus in this area and what consensus there is, is changing rapidly. Best to wait and see, rather than committing to ideologically based nonsense.

Crunchies tend to reject modern industrial farming and the food it produces because it's "not natural". I've spoken at length elsewhere on this blog about what's wrong with modern farming—mainly that it isn't sustainable.

But there has been nothing natural about agriculture since it was invented 10,000 or so years ago. Agriculture is a human creation which isolates us from natural sources of food. Traditional farming techniques are no more natural than modern agriculture.

Organic agriculture started out with a set of techniques to promote healthy soil, which is surely a good thing. But to do agriculture on a commercial scale and produce uniform, blemish the free fruits and vegetables that today's consumer expects, you have to use pesticides. Conventional agriculture chooses its pesticides to maximize effectiveness and minimize harm. But in order to be a certified organic farm, you have to use naturally sourced chemicals rather than synthetic ones. This is based on the fallacious idea that natural is automatically better. With apologies to friends who are practicing what they call organic agriculture (but I would call sustainable agriculture) today's "organic agriculture" is a marketing technique more than anything else, aimed at getting higher prices from people who have been fooled into thinking that "organic " is more natural and produces food that is safer and more nutritious. I am referring, of course, to the large scale industrial organic type of farming, which is no more sustainable than conventional farming and uses "chemicals" with similar abandon, even if they are "naturally" sourced.

Then there is the "bee thing"—the persistent myth that honeybees are about to be wiped out, their decline often being attributed to synthetic pesticides.

Crunchies also seem to fall pretty uniformly on the "anti" side of the genetic engineering controversy. This is a great pity, because it completely ignores the scientific consensus and rejects a technology that has great promise for enabling a more sustainable agriculture.

A good example of the sort of flakiness I am talking about here can be found in "permaculture", a branch of organic agriculture that aims to make agriculture permanent (thus the name)—that is, sustainable on an ongoing basis. This is certainly a laudable goal and one that I would really like to be able to support. Unfortunately I have some serious reservations, because "permies don't do numbers". That is, the promising techniques these folks are so enthusiastic about never get tried out in the sort of way that could determine whether they work or not. This sort of testing involves actually measuring and quantifying results, and would allow the techniques that don't work to be identified and discarded and even more important, allow the ones that do work to be refined and improved upon. Interestingly there is quite a bit of disagreement on this subject even in Crunchy "organic" circles, so it's possible that the "permies" may someday get their act together. One can hope.

When it comes to potential harm from toxic substances, Crunchies' lack of a scientific approach and discomfort with numbers leave them prey to a great deal of fear mongering. The party line seems to be that if something is toxic, then it is toxic even in the tiniest concentrations. The word "chemical" is used to mean something entirely different from its dictionary definition, something like "scary sounding synthetic compound". Of course, all matter is make up of chemicals—many of them, even synthetic ones, are quite beneficial and, in any case, the basic foundation of toxicology is that dose determines toxicity. That is, in sufficiently small doses a chemical may be harmless or even beneficial, while in sufficiently large doses the same chemical may be deadly.

The Crunchy attitude toward radiation is similar to their approach to toxic substances, and is driven by fear and ignorance. Again, understanding that dosage is what determines the harm is critical to understanding what sort of a threat radiation really is. We are all exposed to a background level of radiation and have evolved to cope with this level of radiation rather well.

The long term effects of radiation on the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are a good example of how the same numbers can be used to support widely different conclusions. Anti-nuclear people will tell you that there was a measurable increase in the incidence of cancer in those survivors, and that sounds like a confirmation of our worst fears about radiation exposure. Pro-nuclear people will tell you that this measurable increase amounted to a little more than 1%. Considering that this was exposure to a nuclear weapon going off and there have been over 70 years for cancers to show up, this sounds amazingly minor to me.

Whenever you get a case of ideology trumping scientific fact, you find some people making a living writing books, giving speeches and essentially being cheerleaders for the ideology. There is also a tendency to toward telling outright lies to support the ideology. Crunchiness is no exception. A couple of names that spring to mind are Vandana Shiva and Rachel Carson. There is much that both these ladies have (or had, in Carsons's case) to say that I agree with, but in their efforts to support their ideologies, they have both played fast and loose with the facts, which detracts considerably from their credibility. One can see how this sort of thinking develops from "it would be great for our cause if that was true", to "it must be true because it would be great", to "of course it's true". This is a shame in so many ways.

Why would Vandana Shiva lie about her educational credentials or about farmer suicides in India? Why does she spout nonsense about Monsanto subverting the whole scientific establishments concensus on the safety of GMOs. Especially when the oil companies, who are larger and more powerful, have had no luck doing this when it comes to climate change. Clearly because in the short term it advances her cause. In the long term, though, she will surely be seen as a fraud.

For details, check out these links:

Note that the argument in favour of DDT use against disease carrying mosquitoes is weak since mosquitoes soon evolve resistance to DDT if it is used regularly. DDT has been used in many areas and then abandoned when it become ineffective. My concern is that Carson's pseudoscientific approach detracts from the credibility of the environmental movement. Why not stick with the facts and present a case that is iron clad, instead of a superficially stronger case built on a flawed foundation?

I could go on for quite a while yet with examples of the woo that is embraced by many Crunchies, but I'll stop here, having covered the sort of things I have most often encountered. You might say, "Well no one is getting hurt, so what's the problem if a few people have confused ideas about how the world works."

But if you look carefully at the examples I have chosen, you'll see that in each case, there is harm being done, sometimes to the folks involved, sometime to those around them and, if nothing else, resources, effort and time are being applied to solve false problems while real, serious problems are being ignored.

Here are some links to a few good sources that will help you sort out science from flakery and woo:

I imagine there are some people ready to fill the comments section with counter arguments proving that their favourite bit of pseudoscience is really legit. Save your breath (or wear and tear on your keyboard)—I'm not here to change the mind of anyone who is already convinced, or to have my own mind changed by anything short of solid scientific evidence. And by the way, when there is one study out of 100 that supports your position, this does not mean your position is proven—in fact just the opposite. I regularly see the purveyors of woo quoting the one outliner study that supports their position, as if that makes everything OK, even though there are many, many other studies which stand against their position, effective disproving it.

There is also a strategy common among Crunchies to discredit science based on where it was done. Scientific results that come from government or corporation labs are viewed as being suspect, if not outright biased. But if they are peer reviewed as part of the publication process, and can be reproduced by other labs, such results are not invalid. They should probably be reviewed with extra care as there is likely more conflict of interest involved than there would be in an academic setting. But the scientific method gives us a way to eliminate that sort of bias. Scientific fact is scientific fact, regardless of the source.

Back at the start of this series of posts, I promised that I was really going somewhere with all this. In my next post, I'll make good on that promise and bring the series to a finish.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 2b: More on what's wrong with Business as Usual

In my last post I talked about some of the problems with Business as Usual (BAU), particularly that it is based on the Religion of Progress, which is nothing but woo (pseudoscience and magical thinking). That post was getting close to long enough and I still had quite a bit more to say about what's wrong with BAU, so here we are.

Pseudoscience in BAU

For some people the ongoing economic growth aspect of BAU has been a real bonanza. They tend to be the people in power and they aren't about to admit that anything is wrong or there is any need for change that would jeopardize their position. Much of the woo common to BAU is directly linked to the position in which these people find themselves.

They feel a huge incentive to maintain the status quo, to stay in their privileged positions. It's only natural these people want to deny things that would threaten their profits or require them to abandon the profit motive. They believe (and would have us believe) that there is no way to back down gracefully from a growth economy, and that the inevitable results of trying to do so would be disaster. This is pure woo, and it leads to some strange thinking and strange behaviour.

One example of this is the tobacco industry's response when the news about tobacco's health effects came out in the mid-twentieth century. They could have faced up to reality, reinvented their business in a less harmful form and been ahead of the game. Instead, they denied the findings of medical science, spent a lot of money to promote pseudoscience about tobacco's health effects and did everything they could to keep as many people addicted to tobacco for as long as possible.

Another example is the fossil fuel industries' response to the news about climate change, which they became aware of in the 1970s. They could have become leaders in a switchover to low carbon energy sources. Of course, this would have led to some pretty fundamental changes to BAU. The kind of changes that I am always advocating, actually. Instead they spent a lot of money to spread pseudoscience denying anthropogenic climate change and keep the demand for fossil fuels growing for as long as possible.

There are many other examples of BAU denying inconvenient facts so they can continue to make a profit in the short term.

Because many businesses are set up so that what really matters is the next quarterly report, they have a great deal of trouble taking a long range outlook on things. Probably the best example of this is the depletion of fossil fuels. Depending on how you interpret the resource and reserve numbers, we won't be running short of oil, for instance, for several decades yet. Of course, it may well end up being sooner and in the meantime what oil is left is more expensive, often disastrously so. The solution would have been to lead the switchover to renewable energy sources. As already mentioned, this would have led to some pretty fundamental changes to BAU. Seeking to avoid such changes the BAU response is that there is really nothing to worry about, by the time we get there, we'll have found a solution for that problem. And then they go on "as usual", not even starting to look for a solution. "We've got enough trouble making growth targets for this year, the next generation can worry about what is basically their problem anyway."

Continued economic and population growth means conversion of ever more of nature to human uses. BAU sees nature as something outside the economy, as source of material resources and a sink for pollution and wastes. Because BAU sees itself as separate from nature, what happens to nature has no consequences for BAU. Again , this is woo—the economy is in fact a subsystem of the natural environment, and relies heavily on "biosphere services"—thing like air, water, soil, forests, fisheries and so forth—without which it would be much more expensive to operate a business.

Neo-liberalism, the only remaining political party

Neo-liberal politics and the economics that goes with it is an organized effort to deny the problems with BAU and to continue on "as usual" for as long as possible, regardless of the consequences. This sort of politics has become the default for most developed nations and the ideal that developing nations are expected to strive for. According to this ideology the value of a thing is determined by its price in monetary terms and things which do not have such a price have no worth—if it doesn’t have a price tag on it, it’s not worth anything. More and more, even personal relationships are "monetized" and reduced to individuals paying other individuals for services.

That it would be "bad for business" is reason enough to avoid any change, no matter how vital, regardless of the damage to people and the environment.

Rich people are seen as superior to poor people, and poverty is seen as a moral failing. Financial success is everything. No unprofitable enterprise is worth pursuing, even if it provides great benefits that don't show up on the profit and loss statement. And all profitable enterprises are worth pursuing, even if they cause great harm to society and/or the environment. Economies must grow no matter what the cost.

The strategy of "externalization of costs" is used to reduce the expenses a business is held responsible for, and thus improve its profitability. Typical externalized costs are the effects a business' operation has on the environment or on the community it operates in. Usually those costs are transferred to the public (via government and taxation) or to future generations.

The free market is held to have essentially magical powers to regulate the economy, when in fact it is mainly valued as an excuse to free businesses from cumbersome regulations (so they can be competitive) while at the same time they strive to control the market as much as possible to protect themselves from competition.

One of the consequences of all this is ever greater economic inequality. Despite its faith in human progress, BAU has relegated most people to the role of consumers/workers. We are encouraged to concentrate on our own individual success and gratification, rather than our relationships with other people. Our primary motivations end up being fear, greed and selfishness. This is not really what people need from the society they are living in. Still, this was "fine" (in some strained sense of that word) as long as growth continued and we consumers could rely on improved working conditions, better wages and better toys to spend our earnings on.

But as depleted fossil fuel resources began to supply less surplus energy, business had to turn to automation and globalization to stay profitable, leaving fewer and worse jobs for most people. Without work (and money) it is hard to fulfill one's role as a consumer. We are left wondering how long the leaders of BAU think this can go on. Clearly they have bought into the woo that it can continue forever.

The load we are putting on the environment, our reliance on the "biosphere services" it provides, has continued to increase while at the same time we are destroying more and more of the biosphere that provides those services. The result is that we are in an overshoot situation, using more than the planet can supply in any sustainable way. With our population continuing to grow, there will inevitably come a point where what's left of the environment won't support us and the human population will begin to collapse. BAU is blind to this, striving ever harder to use up more resources to support a growing population with increasing prosperity, regardless of where this may lead.

As we wait for this unpalatable future to play out, it becomes less and less comfortable for ordinary human being to live as part of BAU. We spent the last few million year evolving to live in small groups in which people mutually supported each other, providing for their material and psychological (spiritual, if you insist) needs throughout their lifetimes. We are ill suited to live in BAU where the needs of business must always come first and those of people second at best. It's hard on our sanity and it brings out the worst in us.

What's worse, it seems very likely that this is not at all necessary—people's needs can come first if we simply decide that is the way we want to live and apply our resources to that instead of generating ever increasing economic growth. But we are paralyzed by BAU woo that says we are already on the right path, the only path.

Author Daniel Quinn refers to what I've been calling "BAU" as "the culture of maximum harm". That would make Crunchies those who want to do less harm, to their fellow men and to the planet. This definition leaves room for a pretty wide range of opinions within this movement, and I think that is a very good thing.

In my next post I'll talk about some of the problems with Crunchiness and the challenges this leads to for those of us who would like to take a reality based approach to doing less harm.

Once again, thanks to my son Dan Mills for his help in writing this.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 2: BAU and The Religion of Progress

In my last post I talked about our growth and consumer based industrial society (Business as Usual, BAU), the people who are working to oppose it (Crunchies) and the woo (pseudoscience) involved in that sort of binary thinking, on both sides. Having brought up pseudoscience, I went on to discuss science as the only reliable way we have of knowing things about the material world (nature), and looked at the spectrum of ways that people do look at nature, noting that BAU and Crunchiness are at two extremes. I finished up by promising to look deeper into those two positions in future posts. Today I'll be talking about BAU.

On the surface, BAU is very practical and down to earth, interested only in what works—the farthest thing from woo. Its proponents would have us believe that they use exactly those reliable thinking tools I talked about in my last post, and proceed as indicated by science and reason. They have to a great extent co-opted science into their ideology, convincing us that their ideology is not just completely supported by science, but really is science, period. Of course, if you are allowed to pick and choose results, you can make science say anything you want.

They would also have us believe that everything is going fine with BAU and our industrial civilization is the best way to live, really the only way anyone would want to live. While they do acknowledge that there are some minor problems with the way BAU is working at the moment, they are sure that a little tinkering should fix them up in no time. And even if the big problems that I am always going on about are real, technology can no doubt be developed to solve them before it is too late.

Underneath that optimistic wallpaper, though, there are some pretty big cracks. Rather than being purely rational, BAU is based on the religion of progress. Supposedly, humanity is special—not strictly a part of nature like other species. Because of our intelligence, and our ability to evolve culturally as well as genetically, we have a clear destiny which places us on a path from the caves to the stars. Limits are something we are made to transcend via technology, not to live within. And however bad our current situation, we can always trust that things will improve, if not for us, at least for our children.

"What's so bad about that—what's wrong with progress?" you may ask. Or more pointedly, "what have you got against progress, Irv?"

I have nothing particular against things getting better, which must surely be what one means when talking about progress. What I am against is "progress as a religion", which involves several problematical ideas:

  • Progress is predestined.
  • Progress must continue, regardless of the consequences and despite any limits we may encounter.
  • Progress occurs in one direction, along a single path. If you don't like where progress is taking us, the only alternative is to move in the other direction, "backwards".
  • Cultures which are not part of BAU are "undeveloped", and that is a bad thing. Their only option is to start moving forward along the path of progress, to begin "developing" and eventually become "developed".

In the developed and developing world, all of us (even Crunchies) are immersed in a culture that worships progress, where those ideas are so obvious that we aren't even aware of them as such. It's like water to fish. I am no different, and I have to work hard to even consider the idea that progress may not be taking us to a good place. But I have done so and I would invite you to join me for a moment and have a closer look at those ideas and where they lead.

First, predestination.

The thing is that the belief in predestined progress is a religion. In North America, it seems to me that the majority of main stream Christian churches are little more than fronts for the religion of progress. For those folks, I guess that means progress is predestined by God. Health, happiness and success in business/work are the rewards of the faithful.

For those of us that aren't religious, though, the word "predestined" seems to mean that the nature of human beings, or perhaps more precisely, of human societies, is to progress. If you want to remain a true believer in progress, it's probably best not to look too closely at what "progress" means. But it's pretty clear that within BAU, it means that the human population grows and attains an ever higher level of material prosperity, comfort and convenience. Since health these days is maintained by the fruits of modern medical science and happiness consists (or so we are told) of ever increasing material prosperity (the fruit of success in business/work), this isn't very different from how the religious (Christian) folks see things. Not surprising, since we are talking about the religion of progress.

But let's take a more skeptical look at this. Is progress really part of human nature?

This idea is based on our ability to pass on advances via language—to evolve culturally as well as genetically. We've had this ability for two to three million years and during all but the last bit of that period, progress has been very, very slow. Cultural evolution during that period led to a wide variety of fairly stable small scale societies adapted to the many environments we encountered as we spread across the surface of the earth to every continent except Antarctica. About 10,000 years ago agriculture was invented in a handful of societies across the world, and the pace of progress in those societies "picked up" to just very slow (one less very).

Then a few hundred years ago the pace of progress began to accelerate dramatically. Looking back on this, those who believe in the inevitability of progress conclude that we finally got our act together and began to realize our potential. Many would credit much of this to the Enlightenment and the technological advances that came with it. I would say they are confusing cause and effect.

Something changed, for sure, but what? In the period leading up to when the change started, European society had just about run out of empty land to expand into and had maximized its use of the energy available from biomass (mainly firewood). Then the "New World" was discovered with great expanses of "empty land" and vast as yet untapped resources. Not long after this, coal began to replace firewood and heat engines (burning coal) began to replace muscle power.

And yes, a great deal of progress came about as a result of these changes. It probably was in some sense "inevitable" that this would happen, that some culture would eventually undergo the changes that European culture did. But this was progress driven not by destiny or human nature, but by the consumption of finite and non-renewable resources. The Enlightenment (while no doubt a good thing) was an effect of this progress, not the cause.

Now we find ourselves in the position of having already filled up essentially all the empty land on this planet and reaching the point of diminishing returns for fossil fuels. It appears that this period of progress will be of limited duration and is already starting to falter.

This is what makes me say the religion of progress is just woo. And the worst kind of woo, since it holds out the hope of continued progress which distracts us from the reality of our situation and the challenges we need to face up to.

Next, the necessity of continuing progress, regardless of the consequences.

BAU defines progress as increasing material prosperity and equates this to economic growth. This is a wonderful thing since there is money to be made in that business. For the financial industry this is literally true, since this industry creates money as debt to allow rapid economic growth. And growth must continue in order for the loans to be paid back with interest and the businesses involved to continue operating profitably. In order for economic growth to continue natural resources are consumed and pollution and waste (the by-products of the process) are created, both in ever greater quantities.

Unfortunately, we live on a finite planet, with strictly limited natural resources and limited sinks to absorb pollution and waste. BAU propaganda would have us believe that this is not so, that technology will always give us a way to surmount the limits we face. But the fact is that, in BAU, progress must continue because anything else is bad for business in the short run, and what happens in the long run isn't a concern in the short run.

BAU propagandists hold up examples of technology enabling continued growth, such as the success we've had in refining ever more depleted ores to get the metals we need and in getting oil and natural gas from deposits that formerly weren't economically accessible. We are told that when one resource runs out we will always find another to substitute for it.

There is even a movement, "eco-modernism" dedicated to this kind of approach.

Ted Trainer, a de-growth advocate, has this to say in an article debunking eco-modernism:

"Central to this sort of thinking is the claim that the economy can be “decoupled” from nature, from resource demands and ecological impacts. That is, technical advance can enable output and consumption to go on growing, presumably forever, while resource demands and ecological impacts are reduced way down to tolerable levels."

Sometimes all you have to do is hear a program's goals so clearly stated to realize how bizarre they really are and how unlikely their success really is.

Clearly, eco-modernism is more BAU woo. It seems very likely that the consequences of continued economic growth will be more unpleasant than we are willing to accept. But accept them we must, since there is no way to change the direction the BAU is headed. Or so it seems.

Then, the idea that progress is one dimensional.

If we object to any of the negative consequences of progress we are told that we can accept progress and go forward to better things or turn away from progress and go back (presumable to worse things), but those are the only choices. That is why Crunchies are painted as "dirty hippies" who want to go off grid and forego the benefits of modern society. It is even true in many cases, since having grown up in BAU society, it is very hard even for Crunchies to imagine any other alternative. It's no wonder that it is difficult to imagine change in other directions, when we have no clear examples of such and are continually told it is not possible. But this does not mean that such change is truly impossible, just that BAU desperately wants us not to head in any such direction.

Again from the same article by Ted Trainer:

"This world-view fails to grasp several things.... There can be many paths towards many end points, and we might opt for other end points than the one modernization is taking us to. In addition we might deliberately select desirable development goals rather than just accept where modernisation takes us, and with respect to some dimensions we might choose not to develop any further. Ecomodernism has no concept of sufficiency or good enough...."
"... we could opt for a combination of elements from different points on the path. For instance there is no reason why we cannot have both sophisticated modern medicine and the kind of supportive community that humans have enjoyed for millennia, and have both technically astounding aircraft along with small, cheap, humble, fireproof, home made and beautiful mud brick houses, and have modern genetics along with neighbourhood poultry co-ops. Long ago humans had worked out how to make excellent and quite good enough houses, strawberries, furniture, dinners and friendships. We could opt for stable, relaxed, convivial and sufficient ways in some domains while exploring better ways in others, but ecomodernists see only two options; going forward or backward. Modernity is a whole package we move further towards or retreat from and you must take the bad with the good. They seem to have no interest in which elements in modernism are worthwhile and which of them should be dumped. The Frankfurt School saw some of them leading to Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Why on earth can’t we design and build societies that embody the good ideas and ways humans have figured out over thousands of years, taking some from high tech arenas and some from hunter-gatherer societies (e.g., that we thrive best in small face-to-face communities)?"

It seems to me that the path a society follows is determined largely by what it does with its surpluses. BAU's path is one dimensional path because in BAU there is only ever one thing to be done with a surplus—invest in more "progress" and make sure the profit from that goes to the investors and those who are in charge of things. But in fact there are many choices, which one we choose is determined by what we think is important and this can lead us in many different directions.

And lastly, cultures outside of BAU are undeveloped and need to progress.

The picture we are given of the remaining non-BAU cultures is a very negative one, focusing on all the things we have that they don't. I can recommend Jared Diamond's book "The World Until Yesterday" for a more balanced treatment of life in traditional societies.

And to borrow some ideas from Daniel Quinn, as expressed in his book Ishmael it seems that during those 2 to 3 million years before the invention of agriculture people were evolving genetically while their societies evolved culturally and the result was something that worked. Of course I am not saying that these societies were perfect or even particularly "nice" from our modern viewpoint, but they did provide their members with just enough of what they needed, both materially and in the more "spiritual" sense of having a "place"—worthwhile work which contributed to the group they lived in, and lifelong security provided by the group they lived in.

Note that I am not talking about the sort of societies that arose with the invention of the state not long after the invention of agriculture. These societies mark the beginning of BAU, and I find there is little good to be said of them. Although the argument can be made that in some ways, even those societies were better that the way most of us live now. If you are a North American, compare the number of days you get off work in year with a serf in medieval Europe. You may be surprised to find yourself on the short end of the comparison, though admittedly, most of his days off were church holidays.

Still, it is very hard to get away from the idea that positive change must be in the direction that BAU defines as progress. Surely, the people in those "primitive" societies would be better off if we could help them to progress.

Well, maybe not. An honest look at BAU makes it clear that the fruits of progress aren't very evenly spread around and that the promise of things getting better is, for the majority of people (or even their children), an empty one. If you don't already have a secure position in the upper levels of BAU, your prospects here in the early twenty first century aren't very good.

But beyond BAU's failure to deliver the fruits of progress as promised, there is the plain fact the BAU's kind of progress may not be what is really needed for us to live happy and fulfilling lives. Yes, it is true that if you are struggling just to get by, some improvement in your material prosperity will make life better for you. But once you have just enough, further increases yield diminishing returns, until eventually we find ourselves officially part of the rat race and begin asking if it is all really worth the effort.

To sum up all this talk about the religion of progress, it is the third religion that I have embraced and then been forced to abandon when confronted with reality.

It turns outs that I have somewhat more to say about what's wrong with BAU, so my next post will cover that, and then I'll finally go on with a closer look at Crunchiness.

Thanks to my son Dan for ideas and inspiration.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 1

I do mean something by that rather oddball title, something quite specific. Which I will explain, eventually. And be aware that the conclusion I reach at the end is not what it's going to seem like I am leading up to, so hang in there. This started out as a single post of over 6000 words, enough to try the patience of even my most loyal readers, so I've divided it into 3 parts, which will appear over the next few weeks.

Much of what I have been talking about on this blog for the last four years has been the damage being caused by our growth and consumer based industrial society (Business as Usual, BAU) and what can be done to cope with it and oppose it. The people who are working on that opposition are what I would call "Crunchy". I intend to cast a wide net when I speak of "Crunchies". Some people when asked to define "Crunchy" will say, "ah, they're just dirty hippies." While I do mean to include hippies (washed and unwashed) in my definition, I mean to include a whole lot of other people as well.

So it would seem that BAU and Crunchiness are two opposing ideologies. Of course, whenever you see binary thinking like this, framing a situation in terms of two opposing sides, you can bet that someone is benefitting from the conflict and is doing everything he can to keep it going. Examples from the industrial workplace, where I spent most of my life, would be management encouraging disputes among factions within the workforce to distract the workers from whatever management is up to, or during contract negotiations when both management negotiators and union negotiators emphasize differences between workers and management, making it more difficult to come to an agreement. In both bases, this is to the detriment of both workers and stock holders, but to benefit of management and the negotiators.

In the case of BAU versus Crunchiness, many of the leaders on both sides benefit from maintaining the conflict, in that it keeps our attention focused away from what might be done to actually change human society into something more sustainable and render that leadership redundant. And almost no one involved, at any level, really wants to make any of the major changes in lifestyle that would be necessary. We have been convinced that such changes would make life "no longer worth living".

That's nonsense, of course, but it is typical of the kind of nonsense that supports such binary thinking. Along with it comes quite a bit of "woo" (magical thinking and pseudoscience), as well as considerable doubt and confusion and some outright lies, all necessary to paper over the holes in the two positions, to avoid admitting there might be some common ground between the two, or a third approach that might work even better.

There is usually a lot to be gained by abandoning the binary thinking and looking past the woo to see what's really behind it all and that is what I hope to do in this series of posts. Originally, I was going to call this post "Save us from the flakes" and talk mainly about the unfortunate flakiness of Crunchy people. But then I was reminded that Business as Usual people are pretty flaky too, just sneakier about it. And of course, as always when one strays into binary thinking, it is important to remember there are many different types of BAU people and many different types of Crunchies. And all of these people are a mixture of various quantities of sound thinking and flakiness. Sorry if this seems complex, but that's the world I live in—nothing here is simple.

I'm using the word "flake" here in the sense of someone who is so fixated on his ideology (his side of the argument) that he will embrace any sort of magical thinking or pseudoscience that seems to support it, regardless of how irrational that may be. Such people end up believing in some very strange stuff. Of course, we are living in a very strange world where much of this stuff is widely accepted.

The Urban Dictionary defines "flake" as someone who is an unreliable person; someone who agrees to do something, but never follows through. That is not the sense that I am using here, but it has been my experience that many who are flakey in the ideological sense are so far out of touch with reality that they are pretty unreliable as well.

I like to think of myself as "Crunchy without the Woo." Many of you will ask, "Is there anything left when you take out the woo?" Others will be concerned that I not come down too hard on their favourite brand of woo. Some (the honest ones) will do both. Anyway, I do think it is not just possible, but necessary, to be Crunchy but without the woo.

Fence sitting is part of my nature—I seem to be pretty good at seeing the pros and cons of both sides of a thing, and I always suspect that there are only two sides to a thing because someone wants it to be seen that way. If anyone who worked for me at Hydro One is reading this they will be chuckling at the moment. I got this way by spending time on both sides of a number of situations, becoming unsatisfied with first one side and then the other, and finally looking for other ways of seeing the situation. There are usually many other ways, and some of them are more accurate and more useful.

I've been lied to on occasion and frequently led astray by genuinely deluded people. As a result of this, I began to question how anyone knows anything for sure. Accepting what the supposed authorities tell you certainly doesn't work. I finally concluded that the scientific method is the best tool we have at present for finding out the facts about the material world.

Here are some links to several good introductions to the scientific method:

What makes this method unique is that it calls for actually testing the ideas we have about the material world, to see if they are supported by the evidence or not, and changing those ideas if the evidence doesn't support them Then it calls for sharing your ideas and the evidence for them with others who will criticize your reasoning, the tests you did and your interpretation of the results and then try to duplicate your tests and see if they can get the same results. Over time this eliminates the sort of bias and fallacies that seem to be built into human thinking, and leads to a body of knowledge that might be called scientific facts, and a set of theories explaining those facts.

I am not suggesting that we should all become scientists, but rather that when a question is raised, we should make ourselves aware of what science sees as the facts in that field of endeavour and base our opinions on this scientific consensus. Here is some links on what the scientific consensus is and why we can trust it:

Of course, scientific knowledge is always provisional in nature, subject to revision as more evidence, and better understandings of it, become available. And we may find that science, especially out at the edges, doesn't have definite answers for us as yet. But the bottom line about science is that it works and you can rely on it. There is a lot of controversy going around these days on subjects where the science is already quite clear. Don't be fooled by this, by people who push pseudoscience to support their ideologies. Have a look at these links and see what I mean:

Many people say they are looking for absolute truth and can't believe in something like science that may change or be proven wrong. For me that is the great advantage of science—being able to adapt as we learn more, which we always do. Anyway, it's not about "belief". For me belief is a last resort to turn to when the currently known facts and the best available explanations of them don't yet answer your questions. And the best thing to do in those situations is not to pick a position and just believe in it, but simply to admit that you don't know, and then keep looking for real answers.

Some people object that science only applies to the material world and can only decide upon testable or falsifiable points. What about things outside the material world? Or that are not testable? Well, I've tried religion (more than once) and my eventual conclusion was that the material world is all there is, propositions that aren't testable are just nonsense and anyone making absolute, final statements about anything is not to be trusted. My statements here are not intended to be absolute— they are subject to modification should evidence to the contrary be found.

Here's a quote from the notable skeptic Michael Shermer that nicely sums up my thinking on the natural versus supernatural worlds: "If one were to argue that God exists outside of our world (or outside of the universe, or outside of nature), and that God’s forces are non-natural (or supernatural) and they can still affect the world but in a non-measurable way (because our scientific nets only catch natural fish), then what’s the difference between an invisible God and a nonexistent God?"

"Thus, it seems to me that once we have carefully defined our terms, it is clear that there really is only the material world, methodological naturalism is the only means to understand it, and science is the only form of reliable knowledge that we have."

Along with the scientific method, a few additional tools are helpful. Although the argument could be made that they are really integral parts of the scientific method....

Literacy is probably the first to consider. There is all kinds of good information out there in books and on the internet, and there is no point in reinventing the wheel. But of course there is also a great deal of nonsense, "woo" if you will, out there as well and you have to learn to sort it out from the good stuff. Because science has a well deserved reputation as a reliable source of knowledge, those who are pushing woo try to make their case sound as scientific as possible. Thus the term "pseudoscience".

Fortunately, there is also a good deal of information, written at a level suitable for the layman, which will help you sort out the science from the woo.

Numeracy is the next tool I would recommend. Math education is so bad in North American schools that people end up asking why they even bother to learn something they will never use. If you learn it badly (or not at all), then of course you won't use it. But a good grasp of high school level math (and even a bit of calculus), along with a good solid gut feeling for how numbers work in the real world is, in my experience, an important life skill—something you will use on a daily basis and which will give you a leg up on those around you, to whom numbers are probably a bit of a mystery. Numeracy is a great help in detecting woo, because the purveyors of woo tend to have a very weak grasp of numbers. This becomes obvious when they try to use numbers to pull the wool over the eyes of the defenseless public, and end up spouting numerical nonsense. It helps, of course, to be able to recognize numerical nonsense when you see it.

One of the reasons that science has done so well in the last few centuries is its use of numbers and the invention of tools which enable us to measure the world around us and express our knowledge about it in numerical terms.

Critical thinking is the next logical step after numeracy. Basically this means becoming familiar with the many biases and logical fallacies that human beings fall prey to, so that you can you can recognize when others are doing so and, perhaps more importantly, prevent yourself from doing so.

Which brings us to skepticism, which is characterized by a questioning attitude towards opinions or beliefs that others state as facts. Simply put, it is based on the idea that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Being familiar with the scientific consensus will help you recognize when someone is making an extraordinary claim. Of course a good skeptic has the scientific method, literacy, numeracy and critical thinking skills in his tool box. For more information check out these links:

I strive to be a good skeptic, but occasionally I stumble and I'm always questioning myself, concerned that I have been taken in by some sort of woo.

This may all seem rather academic. But what I think we should be aiming for here is a good practical understanding of how the natural world works, and where we fit into it. So many of us today live in cities and have very little exposure to anything but a human built environment. This leads to some inaccurate impressions about man's place in the world, and also about the workings of real world (nature) itself.

These ideas run along a spectrum. At one end are those who feel that nature is something to be mastered, conquered and risen above. Part of this is a fear of nature and a conceit that we can render ourselves independent of it. At the other end are those who personify nature, seeing "her" as a benevolent mother, and equating her with all that is good, trusting that by doing things the "natural way", we can live in harmony and prosperity.

Neither of these extremes is a very realistic. We are definitely part of the natural world and completely dependent on it for our survival. We are no different than any other species in that we are not exempt from the rules of ecology and population dynamics (or any other natural law). Nature can be as harsh or gentle as the realities of the situation dictates, but to personify nature, to say that it is either hostile or loving to mankind is to have missed the whole point—which is that nature is not an entity with feelings. As far as the "natural way" of doing things, for humans there hasn't been such a thing since we started taming fire and using tools, 2 to 3 million years ago.

As it happens, those two extreme ways of looking at nature line up rather well with BAU and Crunchiness in its more flakey incarnations. In my next two posts I'll be taking a closer look at both those positions, and using the thinking tools I've been talking about, I'll try to sort the good sense out from the woo.

Friday, 29 January 2016

A Political Fantasy, Part 8: Agriculture -- What Lies Ahead

In my last post I summarized the state of agriculture leading up to the present, and promised that in this post I would talk about where agriculture seems to be going and where it needs to go if we are going to be able to feed humanity. This, of course, brings us back to the "Political Fantasy" theme that I've been riffing on for quite a while now.

That theme leads us to two questions:

1) what can governments do to ensure that enough food is grown in a sustainable way, based on reality, rather than ideology--neither techo-optimism nor technophobia.

2) what can governments do to make sure that food gets to the hungry people of the world--that no one is left undernourished when there is enough food to go around. We have a pretty terrible record in this department--hungry people are almost always poor people with little or no political or economic power and their needs get considered last.

First, let's consider question 1.

If left alone, modern agriculture will no doubt continue on its present course. More automation, better labour efficiency, higher yields and an intensification of the arms race with pests. Some of this will incidentally lead to minor sustainability improvements along the same lines as have already been made. And of course modern agriculture will continue its spread to the developing world, driven by the promise of higher crop yields. There is no doubt whatsoever that in the short run, modern agriculture can produce more food.

All kinds of people believe this is the way to go, based on the assumption that things will stay pretty much as they are today. But to assume that, you have to completely ignore a set of realities that are collectively known as "the limits to growth". A great many people are in denial about those limits, and huge efforts are being expended to treat them as minor problems, which can be solved to allow us to continue with business as usual. But of course, the essence of the limits is that they have no solution as such--we simply have to learn to adapt to life within the limits. The rest of what I have to say here is based on that reality. If you're sure that "they" will come up with a solution any day now, a solution based on technology, which will allow us to continue with our growth based consumer economy, then you're going to find the rest of this pretty unpalatable.

It is clear to me that if modern agriculture does continue on its present course, it will eventually fetch up against the hard limits of resource depletion--running short of fossil fuels (for energy, nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and other synthetic chemicals), potash, phosphorus, water and soil. Not to speak of losing its arms war with pests. All this is inevitable if we don't switch over to more sustainable agricultural techniques.

But even before then, the economic consequences of resource depletion and climate change will make themselves felt and necessitate a change of direction. Indeed they have already begun to do so.

The economy is really about energy--money is just a set of tokens for keeping track of energy. To be more precise, the economy is really about surplus energy. It takes energy to access energy, and what's left over after we do whatever it takes to get that energy is what is available to make our economy work and grow. Surplus energy is quantified as "EROEI", energy returned on energy invested, and you can read about the concept and its consequences elsewhere on this blog. Expressing this idea in monetary rather than energy terms leads to all sort of misunderstandings, but to put it simply, what makes an economy work is cheap energy. Having great quantities of energy available at a higher price does no good.

The growth based economy we've had for the last couple of hundred years was made possible by cheap, abundant fossil fuels, which supplied lots of surplus energy. This started to change in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Up until that point we'd been picking the lowest hanging fruit in the fossil fuel "orchard". Gradually we were forced to start using fossil fuels that afforded us with less surplus energy and our economy started to slow down. And, unfortunately, the alternatives to fossil fuels also deliver disappointing amounts of surplus energy.

As the average EROEI of a country's energy sources begins to drop, economic growth slows, it becomes difficult to raise capital to start new business ventures and eventually even to maintain infrastructure. With real economic growth slowing, investors look desperately for anything that will yield good returns. This results in financial bubbles, where speculation drives up values to extremely unrealistic levels. In the last couple of decades we've had bubbles in tech stocks (2000), real estate (2008) and tight oil and gas (happening currently). It looks like we are headed for another tech bubble, and probably one in renewable energy. The unfortunate thing is that people invest a lot of money when a bubble is being inflated, money that disappears when the bubble bursts.

Already we are seeing these effects of decreasing surplus energy, and because of them, an increased volatility in the markets, including markets for agricultural products. This has made it harder to farm profitably. Some governments have responded with supply management schemes to maintain prices, keep farmers in business and guarantee the supply of food. Even so, farming has not been hugely profitable and we are very fortunate that many farmers love what they are doing and have kept doing it under conditions that would have caused most other businesses to simply shut down. It is very common for farmers to have a job off the farm to put food on the table and enable them to continue farming. And no, these are not hobby farmers.

Since we all have to eat, agriculture is a business that is too important to fail. Based on continually growing unemployment and demand destruction, falling prices for commodities and reductions in the international shipping of goods, it seems the world economy is now in a deflationary spiral, which may well prove to be what I have been calling the "Great Contraction". Efforts to get off fossil fuels (spurred by climate change) by switching to large scale but low EROEI renewables ( grid tied solar and wind, both with storage) are likely to make this much worse, and use up the last financial and energy resources, might have been devoted to smoothing out the period of degrowth that lies ahead of us.

We had a financial crash in 2008, brought about by spiking energy costs and a bubble in real estate markets. It seems very likely that the current deflationary spiral will lead to another financial collapse, or a series of them, despite frantic efforts by governments worldwide to prevent it.

How will this effect agriculture? Because modern agriculture uses a great many inputs which must be purchased from off the farm, farmers are often dependent on credit to get each year's crop in, paying the bank back after the crop is harvested and sold. In the aftermath of a financial crash, banks become very conservative in their lending. If the crash is severe enough, many banks go out of business. Under such conditions, farmers will find it difficult to get the credit they need to get crops in, even though they have the land, the machinery and the will to do so.

Governments can help in such circumstances, guaranteeing farm loans or actually loaning money directly to farmers to keep the agricultural system working.

Of course, farming is not the only business that will be having a hard time after a financial crash. The business environment ahead will not be friendly to any large, industrial scale enterprise. It may become hard to even get many of the supplies needed to put in a crop and even if you do, and manage to harvest it, getting the food to where it is needed may not be possible. I'm not talking about some "Mad Max" apocalypse here. Even a partial and intermittent collapse of financial and commercial services is serious enough because everything is so interconnected, and optimized to the point where it is very brittle. In addition, infrastructure is not being maintained and is already starting to fail randomly. This will continue and increase, making it even more difficult for "business as usual".

A conventional response would be for governments to ration materials needed by agriculture, encourage more efficient use, discourage waste and eventually even ration food. But none of these measures constitute a long term solution. The first thing to do is acknowledge that there isn't a solution in the sense of a way to allow both population and economic growth to continue on in a "business as usual" world.

It seems pretty clear that the human race is an overshoot situation. The planet simply cannot support 7 billion people, much less the 9 billion that we are headed towards. Yes, we are getting fed, more or less, for the moment. But that's primarily because modern agriculture is pretty good at converting non-renewable resources into food. And because we've been using up the existing capital of the environment--soils, fossil water, forests, fish stocks and other wildlife (resources that are potentially renewable)--at a rate faster than they are naturally replenished, the overall carrying capacity of the planet is being reduced. This can't go on forever or, in fact, very much longer at all.

When it comes to agriculture, we don't need another "Green Revolution" which relies on non-renewable resources to increase yields. This would only push us further into overshoot, just like the last one did. We definitely do need a revolution that produces sustainable solutions, but we also need to reduce our population. We can take the first step in this direction by educating and empowering women everywhere, and assisting them with family planning. Beyond that, we face a few very chaotic decades--war, famine and disease will have their way. I am surely not saying that this is a good thing, but the alternatives are even worse. The larger our population gets, the harder it will crash when the time comes, and the worse mess will be left for the survivors to recover from.

So, governments need first to acknowledge the limits to growth. And yes, this is clearly the most fantastical element of my political fantasy. Then they need to change the way agriculture works to match the conditions that we will be facing. And, of course, practically every other aspect of our society as well. At first, governments will need to prop up the modern system of agriculture to prevent needless famine. But they will also have to facilitate a gradual shift over to something that uses fewer inputs and is more sustainable. And this will be particularly true in the developed world where modern agriculture is the primary source of food.

People who are successfully feeding themselves using low input traditional agriculture should be left alone. True, their methods are not 100% sustainable, but we in the developed countries have a very poor record in our attempts to modernise farming in the developing world. When we have converted our own agriculture into a sustainable system, then perhaps we will have something worth sharing with the rest of the world.

Of course, the urban population in the developing world don't feed themselves, and they are in a very precarious situation. I think one promising partial solution is to put the urban poor back on the farms their fathers came from and help them to feed themselves. Land reform will be necessary, but those who are practicing modern agriculture won't be able to continue and the land they are using could certainly be put to better use.

Meanwhile, back in the developed world, we will be busy with our own problems. As time passes, all the inputs that modern agriculture needs will be less reliably available.

Fossil fuels are probably the most important of those inputs. We will start to see shortages long before there is any real shortage of fossil fuels in the ground. It may seem odd to say this at a time when the price of oil have been dropping for over a year, but that is exactly the problem. We are caught in what has been called "the energy-economy trap".

As I was saying earlier, it seems that the great contraction has already started, with the first sign being the dropping prices of commodities, especially oil, coal and natural gas. These low prices are being caused by a glut in fossil fuels, but that glut is largely due to demand destruction. Why has demand fallen off? High prices for oil for the last few years strangled the world economy, which had never really recovered from the crash of 2008. There are lots of unemployed and under-employed people who aren't spending money like they used to, with predictable effects on our consumer economy. While low energy prices are great for consumers in the short run, oil, coal and natural gas are all too cheap to be worthwhile getting out of the ground--you can't make much of a profit at it, certainly not enough to finance the development of new resources.

It may be that when the price of oil gets low enough the economy will take off again. This is less likely than one might think because the oil industry is a major part of our economy and it is in very bad shape because of the low prices. But if the economy does recover and start growing again, the first thing it will need is energy. That demand will drive the price of energy back up again, especially since we are still using fossil fuels and what's left is ever harder to get at. Eventually higher energy prices will strangle the newly revived economy and bring us back to where we are now or perhaps lower. I don't think it is at all clear how many times this cycle will repeat, or even if it will happen more than once. But in any case, the economy will spiral down until it reaches a level that can be supported by the sort of renewable energy that is fairly low tech and high EROEI.

For the present, while commodity prices are going down, prices for necessities are increasing or at least not dropping nearly as much as commodities, because demand for them is much less elastic. Food is an example of this because we have to eat. Gasoline and diesel fuel prices on North America is another--they haven't gone down proportionally to the drop in the price of oil, because our towns and cities are set up so that most people must drive unless they drop out of the economy and the trucks must keep rolling to deliver goods to where they are needed. When necessities stay pricey as the rest of the economy falters, it can be a very serious problem for the poorest people.

Doing modern farming without a reliable supply of diesel fuel and gasoline will be quite a challenge. Bio diesel and alcohol have too low an EROEI to even bother with--we'll be farther ahead to use the land to feed draught animals, or hungry people who need work. A limited amount of power will be available from biomass (firewood), falling water, wind, solar thermal and a few other sources in locations where they are plentiful (tides, waves, geothermal, etc.), but most of that does not come in the form that modern agriculture needs most: liquid fuels with a high energy to weight ratio, suitable for powering heavy machinery.

The agricultural tasks now done by such machinery will mostly have to be done using muscle power. And since we have a surplus of humans and have not yet bred up an adequate supply of draft animals, that will initially mean using mostly human muscle power. Fortunately we do have a surplus of unemployed people. As in the developing world, our urban poor will be needed on the farm. Without powered machinery more people will be involved per acre, probably 20 to 25 percent of the population.

It would also be a good thing if farms were smaller, since it is well established that smaller farms get better yields. I think this is largely because small farms are usually worked by the people who own them, who have a great deal invested in the farm's success. So when moving urban people to farms, it would be better if they ended up as owner/operators rather than as laborers (serfs). Again, some land reform will be needed.

At the moment it would be difficult to get many of the unemployed to take agricultural jobs but after the first winter of shortages and rationing, that will change. People with concave bellies will be more interesting in securing their food supplies by becoming personally involved in farming and even those who don't take farm jobs will be ready to get serious about urban gardening.

Also let's be clear that the switchover to muscle power need not happen all at once. One tractor among several small farms, to be used when fuel is available would be a big help, especially during the transitional stage of this effort.

Long distance shipping of food will be largely impractical. Most food will have to be grown and processed locally. Of course this exposes the local population to famine when there are crop failures. It would be good to set up storage facilities to maintain emergency supplies of food that stores well (primarily grains). Excesses from good years could be held in reserve to see us through bad years. And it would be ideal if there was some small amount of medium to long distance shipping to help move those reserves around to where the need is greatest.

Large cities are probably not viable in a low energy situation, since an awful lot of food needs to be shipped into the city and there may not be adequate farm land nearby. Many cities are currently sited where water is a problem as well, especially without power to pump water in from far away.

The reliable supply of many other industrial products needed for modern farming will also be disrupted because of lack of energy and fossil fuels feed stocks, the effects of financial chaos on business and crumbling infrastructure. Some consequences flow directly from this. We won't be making synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in large quantities, and mining and long distance shipping of the minerals needed to make phosphorous and potash fertilizers will be quite limited. Instead we will have to use composted organic waste, including human and animal "waste".

This may look like going back to traditional agriculture, but that is a deceiving appearance. There is definitely a place for advanced (but appropriate) technology in the agriculture of our future.

Pesticides, natural sourced or synthetic will not be available in large quantities, so we will have to implement integrated pest management techniques, which require a detailed, science based knowledge of the ecology the crops are being grown in and the pests that need to be controlled.

Hybrid seeds will not be reliably available either, because the big seed companies will be in serious difficulty or out of business altogether, and it is not practical to breed hybrid seeds on a small, local basis. It is my opinion that genetic engineering will have an important role to play in providing improved seeds. We can no doubt do without genetically engineered seeds, but not nearly as well. The varieties we need most have not yet been commercialized, but are in the process of being developed at universities and by small companies across the world. The emphasis for modern agriculture has been on high yields under optimum conditions, rather than resilience and adaptations to varying conditions. This means great yields under ideal conditions and very bad yields in bad years. But whatever plant breeding techniques we use to get them, we need crops that can give good yields under less than ideal conditions.

Confined animal feeding operation (CAFOs) are not likely to be workable under these conditions. The land currently being used to grow corn and soy beans to feed animals in CAFOs will be freed up to grow food for people. Our staple foods will once more be grains and there will be much less meat in the average person's diet. Meat, diary and eggs will still be produced, especially in areas where the land is more suited to growing pasture than feeding people directly, instead feeding animals who then feed people.

We will need to do everything we can to minimize the waste of food. The developed world currently wastes more food per capita that the developing world, in both the production and consumption phases. I think that switching to smaller farms and localizing the food supply has a lot of potential for improvements in this area, along with abandoning the current idea that we have lots of food and don't have to worry about waste.

We will also have to cope with and remediate the damage done to the environment during our period of overshoot. This especially means conserving soil and water and restoring wildlife habitats.

The effects of climate change will make all this much harder and we must be prepared to abandon areas spoiled for agriculture by climate change and move into new areas opened up by warming temperatures, even though they are likely to be smaller.

On the other hand, agriculture has a huge potential to sequester carbon and thus start to reverse climate change. Modern farming techniques have reduced the amount of organic matter in the soil. Correcting that deficiency will take a great deal of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Good governments, who have acknowledged the limits to growth, can surely help with all these changes. Among other things they can support the research needed to determine a reality (science) based path to sustainable agriculture, and avoid the many pseudoscientific approaches being advocated by the anti-science, techno-phobic people these days.

These changes will not happen overnight or even in the course of a single year, and there will be ever shrinking areas that go on practicing something more or less like modern agriculture for decades if not longer.

Over time, the contracting economy will leave governments much less powerful than they are now and less centralized. So they need to do what they can sooner rather than later and then pass the torch to more localized governments.

Eventually we will get switched over to a much more sustainable type of agriculture and we'll be able to grow enough food to feed a somewhat reduced population. My guess would be somewhere between one and two billion people, but that is just a guess. The number will largely be determined by how much more damage we do to the environment before we get around to making the transition.

But of course, growing enough food to feed a certain number of people and managing to get that food equitably distributed to those people so that none of them are going hungry are two very different problems. It's time now to consider the second question I posed back at the start of this post.

Despite the fact that we are currently producing adequate amounts of food to feed everyone in the world, hunger is quite common and famines still occur. This is because hunger is an economic/political phenomenon, caused by poverty and powerlessness.

I would argue that people need meaningful physical work, for both physical and mental health, as well as in order to make a living. This work which should allow them to supply themselves with food, clothing and shelter, and the more directly they can be involved in that, the better. Society needs to be set up so that it affords people with such work and a variety of it to suit people with varying amounts of talent. Society also needs to provide (within the limits of its capabilities) for the needs of those who, through illness, accident or age, are not currently able to provide for themselves.

I use the phrase "society needs to" because there are unpleasant consequences, both for individuals and for the society itself, when it does not do these things. While many people claim that capitalism and the free market are the best ways to achieve these ends, I would argue that modern capitalism has had a couple of centuries to prove itself and has failed to do so. Over the last few decades as the energy crisis has deepened, it has done even worse.

During that time neo-liberalism has taken over as the only political party in most countries. Its emphasis on consumerism, individualism and the free market has resulted in ever increasing inequality, with the poor get poorer and even less powerful and the rich get richer and more powerful. There is even a tendency to treat poverty as a moral failing of the affected individual and to make it practically illegal for such individuals to be alive. Certainly many cities take that approach with their homeless.

This needs to change and I think it can change as we transition to smaller communities which are to a great extent self sufficient.

In the developing world localized famines are fairly common. Some natural event such as a drought causes a poor crop in a particular area. It is not bad enough that anyone actually need go hungry, but the price of food on the free market goes up due to dropping supply, creating what amounts to a famine for those who cannot afford the higher prices. This applies not only to those who are consumers of food, but also to the producers whose crops are hardest hit, so hard that they are short of food for themselves and have nothing left to sell in order to buy food. They may be forced to give up their land and go to the city in search of work to feed their families, swelling the ranks of urban poor, whose situation is pretty dire as well. The land left behind may end up in the hands of those practicing modern agriculture, which is great in the short run, but as I've said, has no real future.

Charitable organizations from the developed world have stepped in with food aid in many cases. But that food has to come from somewhere and producers aren't going to grow it unless they can make money at it, at least enough to cover their expenses. The generosity of people in the developed world is dependent those people having some discretionary income to give away, and as our economies continue to contract, there will be less and less of that. Some other mechanism must be found for distributing food more equitably, especially during hard times.

At this point it is challenging to come up with advice for cash strapped governments in developing countries. But borrowing money to modernise and set up a growth based economy is certainly not a good idea, whatever development banks might tell you.

In the developed world things are a little different. We are just emerging from a long period of economic growth that provided lots of jobs. True, our market based economy had the odd glitch and there was more unemployment during depressions and recessions, but for the most part the rising tide lifted all boats. But now that the economic tide is falling things have changed. Labour is seen as an expense and a burden. Business are doing everything they can to automate and reduce the amount of labour they need, even though automation is expensive and energy hungry.

Because the capitalist system is set up to make profits for shareholders, those who are jobless or, worse yet, homeless, have no role to play. The system would just as soon they quietly disappeared. But as unemployment increases, this isn't going to happen and the problem of what to do with these people is going to intensify.

Rehumanisation is the answer, both to the question of what to do with the unemployed and how to run businesses in the face of a growing energy crisis. I've already spoken about the need to switch agriculture over to muscle power, but the same will have to happen in many other sectors of the economy.

This series of political fantasies ends here. In my next post I'll talk about being "Crunchy Without the Woo", and after that I'll start talking about political realities for a change.

I'd like to thank Doug and Linda Peebles and my youngest son Dan Mills for their input to this blog post and their continuing support of my efforts here.