"The Unplugged" - a speculative fiction
A Video News Report from 2030.
Anchor: Touting their movement as a combination of the economic theories of Mahatma Gandhi and the political science of Buckminster Fuller the Unplugged have now reduced the GDP of the United States of America by 20% over their 15 year programme.
Opponents of the movement call Unplugging an unscientific and cult-like political movement, but proponents say that "Unplugging" was the best decision they ever made. Let's hear from Jack Huston, a former investment banker...
Cuts to video
[Screen opens to Jack Huston, a muscular early-40s New Yorker.]
Presenter: Jack, could you explain what Unplugging did for you?
Jack: Well, first we've got to cover briefly how Unplugging works. The core of the theory is that we can all live off the interest generated by our savings, or the profits from our investments, if we possess enough capital - and generations of Capitalists have dreamed of "getting off at the top" - making enough money to cash out of the workplace and live as they like for the rest of their lives.
Presenter: But what does that have to do with living in a housing pod in the middle of Oregon?
Jack: Well, it comes down to the nature of capital. Wealth stored as dollars was essentially a share in America's national economy - a credit note backed by the US Government. But Buckminster Fuller showed us that wealth-as-money was a specialized subset of Wealth - the ability to sustain life.
To "get off at the top" requires millions and millions of dollars of stored welath. Exactly how much depends on your lifestyle and rate of return, but it's a lot of money, and it's volatile depending on economic conditions. A crash can wipe out your capital base and leave you helpless, because all you had was shares in a machine.
So we Unpluggers found a new way to unplug: an independent life-support infrastructure and financial archtecture - a society within society - which allowed anybody who wanted to "buy out" to "buy out at the bottom" rather than "buying out at the top."
If you are willing to live as an Unplugger does, your cost to buy out is only around three months of wages for a factory worker, the price of a used car. You never need to "work" again, although there are plenty of life support activities to keep you busy, and a lot of basic research and science to do. Unplugging is not an off-the-shelf solution, it's a research career!
Presenter: So tell us about your house over here? It looks pretty weird!
Jack: Unpluggers don't have our own manufacturing facilities for these yet, so we shop them out to fabs in Turkey. The shell is aluminium and aerogel, 50% collector panels, 12 volt appliance wiring, super-insulated windows with liquid crystal shades for internal temperature control. Heat comes from either a wood stove or a peltier solid state heat pump running off ground heat, depending on how much power we need. Cooling, similarly. We cook in the solar oven on the side sometimes, but mainly on woodgas or in the microwave.
The houses - or "Pods" as you call them - have a reputation as being "one size fits all poorly" but, in fact we found that 90% of people got on very well with one of three basic designs. The economies of scale made mass manufacture of those models more cost effective but people still do custom work for about one unit in ten. We're working towards local fabs for a lot of this stuff now, but that's hard to organize without winding up with internal industries which run on grid power and commercial supply chains, both of which are no-nos for our way of life: you can't be an alternative if you still rely on the National Infrastructure for your metabolism. A one-time switching cost - the "Final Purchase" - is one thing, but we can't run our economy inside of the national economy! That would just be dishonest!
Presenter: Can you explain what this has to do with Fuller and Gandhi?
Jack: Gandhi's model of "self-sufficiency" is the goal: the freedom that comes from owning your own life support system outright is immense. It allows us to disconnect from the national economy as a way of solving the problems of our planet one human at a time. But Gandhi's goals don't scale past the lifestyle of a peasant farmer and many westerners view that way of life as unsustainable for them personally: I was not going to sell my New York condo and move to Oregon to live in a hut, you know?
Presenter: Ok.... with you so far.... what about Fuller?
Jack: Gandhi's Goals, Fuller's Methods, if you like.
Fuller's "do more with less" was a method we could use to attain self-sufficiency with a much lower capital cost than "buy out at the top." An integrated, whole-systems-thinking approach to a sustainable lifestyle - the houses, the gardening tools, the monitoring systems - all of that stuff was designed using inspiration from Fuller and later thinkers inspired by efficiency. The slack - the waste - in our old ways of life were consuming 90% of our productive labor to maintain.
A thousand dollar a month combined fuel bill is your life energy going down the drain because the place you live sucks your life way in waste heat, which is waste money, which is waste time. Your car, your house, the portion of your taxes which the Government spends on fuel, on electricity, on waste heat... all of the time you spent to earn that money is wasted to the degree those systems are inefficient systems, behind best practices!
Presenter: Wow! So tell us about the Humane Human Footprint.
Jack: The Human Footprint is simple: it's the share of the world's resources you can use without really harming anybody simply by existing. We call it the Human Footprint as opposed to the Inhuman Footprint. You take the sustainable harvest of the earth - the bounty we can consume without reducing next year's harvest or reducing the resilience of the earth in other ways - and your share of that is one Human Footprint. The earth's Wealth - its lifegiving power - is like a trust fund split between seven billion humans and a gazillion other living creatures. That which consumes more than its share is defrauding all the rest of their right to life. And this isn't religion, this is common sense: if there are winners and losers, we're in a race for survival. If there are only winners, we're all artists, scientists, lovers and scholars.
I know how I want to live.
Presenter: So how close to your Human Footprint are you, Jack?
Jack looks uncomfortable.
Presenter: I've heard five times over is a typical number for Unpluggers...
Jack: Well, it depends how you measure it but yes, about that. I have three children, so my family footrprint is about 11.2x HF but my personal footprint is about 7.3x. I'm working on it, though. It's hard to make the adjustment, and we only have a few tens of thousands of people at 1.0x or lower.
Presenter: So let's talk politics. Unplugging is also a political movement - you yourself are mayor of a township here, and your "town" is the local Unplugger population plus a few hold outs in ghost suburbs east of here. Why play at politics if all you wanted to do was drop off the Grid?
Jack: Because political assumptions wire everything. Building codes dictate how you can build, which dictates the size of your housing cost, which is the primary factor in your Unplug Cost. Our sanitary systems are greatly more effective than those of the Grid but, because we fertilize food with human waste after extracting what energy we can from it, some say our food isn't suitable for human consumption - even though, in fact, there is no scientific evidence what-so-ever of any disease organisms in the fertilizer stream. Just the idea of fertilizing using processed human waste freaks people out, even though it is how humans always lived. And this pattern repeats for water, our medical practices, all of it. You would think that preventative medicine was a crime!
Because we are different, the existing legal infrastructure works against us at every hand and turn. To create change, we have to play politics. But we are careful to simply use our small-but-growing clout to open doors for our chosen lifestyle, not to close doors on other people's choices. We aren't ecostalinists. Gandhi's approach: voluntary enlistement in the army of truth, if you want to think about it that way, has proven to be the only effective model of political change which is consistent with all of our shared values. We embrace some parts of Gandhi's model more than others - as with Bucky - but you can't argue with the historical success of his approach: India, South Africa, America, Poland, Mexico... the list goes on.
Presenter: Even my kids have an Obey Emperor Gandhi bumper sticker. What's that about?
Jack: It's an Unplugger joke. We call Gandhi "Emperor Gandhi" because in our way of looking at things, he was the political leader of India - a network of Kingdoms - and therefore technically he was an Emperor ([laughs]). In that role, he organized collective defense against the invasion of India by raising a volunteer army of people who bought nothing from the invading colonials, made salt, and got beaten while maintaining rigid discipline - just like an army. All they did not do was leave home or use violent methods to resist their invaders. The fact Gandhi himself didn't own much of anything and advised self-reliance as a keystone of freedom makes him the John Locke of our movement. But we don't take the Emperor Gandhi thing seriously, you know. It's just a bit of our cultural humor.
Presenter: The threat of "Mom, keep yelling at me and I'll get a job delivering chinese food and then Unplug when I've saved up!" has kept many a parent up at night...
Jack: Unplugging isn't really something you can sustain from youthful rebellion: kids who don't choose this way of life for themselves as adults are usually really poor Unpluggers - they don't take soil metrics seriously, they don't really understand the invest-in-your-lands model of labor, and so on. It's not really something for punks and anarchists, even though there is superficial appeal.
Presenter: There's a lot of science here!
Jack: Oh yes. We monitor everything we have proved pays, and more: soil bacteria genetics, nutrient levels in the soil, nematode populations, you name it. We have such excellent yields and pest control because we don't move around much - we get to know our land as scientists and artists and designers - we share knowledge and models. Of course, not everybody contributes equally to this knowledge base - I have a neighbour who is a molecular biology professor by (former-) trade and, well, I use his numbers a lot ([grins]). But we all do what we can, and the results are proof that our farming techniques - "high monitoring biointensive agriculture" or "Technical Permaculture" depending on where you live and which school you follow - our farming methods work, and will continue to work for at least a few hundred to a few tens of thousands of years. And that's enough for us: leave it to our children to figure out how to get their own lives to be even more integrated morally, ethically and socially.
Presenter: Some say that Unplugging is a cult because of your "Unplugger Morals" doctrines...
Jack: Acting as if the god in all life mattered is radical politics. But we have people from every faith and tradition living as Unpluggers, as well as those with no beliefs but a deep moral conviction that this is the right thing to do. But as with Satyagraha - Gandhi's social change approach - this takes everything you have and more and you can't do it without a solid internal framework, a deeply personal commitment to this as Right Action in a Buddhist sense, as Dharma from a Hindu perspective, as The Life Divine if you are a Christian. We have radical Benedictine monks - on the edge of getting booted out of the Catholic Church - who have updated the lifestyle passed down from Benedict himself to use Unplugger Farming and who became part of the Unplugger Community as a result. But we also have anarchosyndicalist atheists.
All it takes is a belief you can act on which helps you make personal changes for global reasons. And a political faith isn't ususally enough to do that, but it can be. Religion has proven over time that it can move people in ways that nothing else can, and Unplugging is the biggest change a society can make.
Living up to your values is hard. Faith helps some people do it, so we tend to see more of those kinds of people making the switch. It's just a selection bias.
Presenter: What do you mean "a change that society can make?"
Jack: Unpluggers now constitute 5% of the United States population. At first, we were the very ideologically motivated, and there was a lot of interface with older communitarian groups and prior generations who had attempted to make this transition. But as we became more defined, and our thinkers elucidated our case more clearly - as our farmer-scientists began to really get the yields predicted in theory, on a per-square-foot basis... it became clear that we were talking about a partial solution to the problems that have faced the human race from the beginning of time: how do I live myself, and how does my family live. And a society is just individuals and families, and sometimes families of families, all the way up to States and Governments and the International Agencies and so on. If you solve the problem for a single family, and it's something which can compete in the evolutionary marketplace of ideas, then eventually you can solve the entire problem.
You know why GDP has gone down 20% because of Unplugging? Unpluggers are entrapreneurs. We used to start businesses because we wanted to buy out at the top of the game, now we usually buy a fairly lavish Pod, and some really, really good quality land, unplug by 30, and some of us expect to spend the rest of our lives learning, teaching and exploring what it is to be alive. Farming five or six hours a day seems like a lot of work, but you do it with friends, and you're doing science and research some of the time, and you eat what you make. The basic activities of life are so much more satisfying that earn-and-spend-and-eat-carry-out when you actually respect them as basic human activities, as links we share with everything that is alive.
Presenter: Tell me about the Endowment.
Jack: The Endowment is how we help the poor to Unplug, and it is easily the most controversial part of our programme. We encourage the developing world to Unplug as the untimate form of Leapfrogging: skip hypercapitalism and anarcocapitalism and democratic socalism entirely and jump directly to Unplugging. Many Unpluggers take their excess capital, keep investing it in the system, and use the proceeds to fund private Unplugging programmes. Others simply took their capital and added it to funds managed by a Grameen-bank like institution called the Unplugging Bank which lends people money to unplug, and has them pay for their Pods by selling excess farm goods and teaching agriculture for us. The leverage of these approaches has yet to be verified but - judging by the political repression of Unpluggers in China and India and some parts of Africa - judging by that resistance, I think we are going to be successful.
As the Mahatma said: "First the ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
Software used to be an industry, you know?
Presenter: Thank you, Jack, for telling us about your life.
Vinay Gupta is a biracial hindu living five thousand miles away from home. He never settled down to being anything in particular, and is not a fireman, a doctor, a lawyer, a farmer, a designer or anything else. Stints as a graphics engineer for airforce projects, a freight train riding bum, a geodesic dome builder, a technical writer, a cryptographer, a database programmer and a dozen other things have left him a well-rounded if eccentric thinker with a strong interest almost everything.Similar visions:
- Ecotopia, a 70s vision of a sustainable society by Ernest Callenbach (interview).
- The Way It Could Be: A visit to a sustainable society by Ted Trainer (the other five parts of this online novel can be accessed through Trainer's website.
- Possum Living: How to live well without a job and with (almost) no money by Dolly Freed (Simple living with an attitude from 1978; deserves to be re-published)
- The Paid Avoidance Areas in John Brunner's 1975 science fiction novel The Shockwave Rider.
- "Venturing off the grid: Innovative families save money, gain power with solar, propane, other energy sources" (SF Chronice, Feb 21 2006