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.