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Peak oil, power & potatoes

Balancing Old & New, Big & Small As Money & Energy Decline

The power of concentrated money - capital as we usually call it - is clearly enormous. Some things have to be done with collected resources if you want civilisation to continue, especially things to do with transport. But then there is the fact that if someone is doing it (using concentrated resources) and you are not, you will most likely be pushed out of the game, which is what the Luddites were protesting against. They have been much maligned, but they were not against technology or the future per se, they were against losing their jobs and a modest way of life that was probably a lot more sustainable than the Industrial Revolution which pushed them out. Capital, be it wielded by state socialism or more likely capitalists, is hostile to certain kinds of diversity, both human and bio.

That in itself is enough of a conundrum, but the mindset - for example of those following Warren Buffett - of only trying to get concentrated resources may well be toxic, since it takes us away from the daily business of provisioning ourselves reliably and resiliently. There are a number of ways of concentrating capital with minimal effort and the stock markets and the Internet have greatly facilitated the process - for some. Back in ancient history (say 2001), day traders used to sit at their terminals punting stocks back and forth like latterday jitterbugs, hoping to emulate their heroes - Buffett or Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (made in the pre-cambrian era - 1987).

During the heyday of the dot com era (somewhat shorter by the way, than, say, the Jurassic or Triassic eras of dinosaur fame and when much of our oil was being generated), in the dusky glens of Silicon Valley, and even on the rainy streets of London, there was much febrile fidgeting amongst nerds and geeks about how to become the next eBay or Google, companies able to explode into billion-dollar giants in a matter of minutes apparently.

People had noticed that unlike software, there is no exponential 'breakout potential' in mundane hardware like kale or potatoes. Potatoes don't flow and whilst they do grow, they can't multiply exponentially with little effort - they always need concomitant nutrients, old-fashioned things like water, nitrogen, phosphorous and sunlight. Exponential growth just means that the rate of growth keeps on increasing in a way that is proportional to the current value, thus the bigger the growing entity the more it will tend to grow bigger.

Exponential growth is a very infectious mindset but I worry that, apart from the fact that in the real world exponential growth eventually meets earthly limits (eg now), this way of thinking eats away at our capacity and will to provide for ourselves. It does this especially in a way that respects carrying capacity - the ability of the planet to support a particular population of creatures or whole ecosystems.

The rise of Google or even Microsoft, despite appearances to the contrary, is the opposite of growing or developing anything in the old fashioned way, be it potatoes or pottery. Software companies, and especially Internet software companies, can expand to fill almost 100% of a monetised space with 'linear' or even less effort. They are very often very clever, and their products may or may not be superbly made and very useful and just about everyone in the industrialized world uses software directly or indirectly every day, whether they know it or not. Just for the record, even though I am not running for President of the United States, I should mention that I was a software engineer in 2001. Though I failed to become a multi-billionaire, I maintain great respect for software developers.

To conclude: we are stuck with some difficult and surprising contradictions. Like it or lump it we need concentrated resources - such as lots of money - to do useful things, even though it is quite clear that we so often use such resources for bad things, such as wars and other forms of violence. At the same time, because we are reaching the limits to growth, have exceeded Earthly carrying capacity, and are tipping over peak oil into petroleum decline, we also now need rather urgently to rebuild a system of distributed generation of food, fuel and other vital needs. So we need some big and a lot small, and currently the big gets in the way of the small.

One of the ways this happens is that our systems of big economy, big education and exaggerated division of labour - virtually our whole culture in fact - are fairly hostile to notions of anything which is not, well, big! How can we engender the culture and teaching and ethos that a rebirth of the local (relocalization) will require, especially when that new 'local' will still need to be part of the regional, the nation and the international?

It is going to be tough to promote a kind of step-by-step, traditional zeitgeist in a world where it is also clear that there are great advantages in the tempting tools of exponential growth and where might is nearly always 'right' and where right means winning at all costs. However, there may be a silver lining: there are signs that at last even free market dominated governments (such as the US & UK) are reacting to the chaos that is reigning (raining?) in the financial world by starting to overtly rein in the obesity of giant financial corporations and say that they are too large.

If this were to mean that untrammelled 'big' was no longer the automatic convention, then that could both give some light and oxygen to carefully thought through 'small' and see the development of the right kind of larger organisms at the regional level and above, which will help both relocalization and build larger sustainable structures and institutions where the large helps the small - and vice versa.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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