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Kevin Carson's response to John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer (“The Flight to the Ephemeral,” The Archdruid Report, Oct. 2) was kind enough to address an earlier post of mine on this blog a few weeks back (“When Ephemeralization is Hard to Tell From Catabolic Collapse,” P2P Foundation Blog, Sept. 19). Here are my responses, in no particular order of importance.


1. Greer complains that I conflate his theory of catabolic collapse with similar arguments in Jared Diamond’s Collapse and James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency. I apologize if I appeared to give either of those writers credit for the term “catabolic collapse” or Greer’s particular formulation of it. (I also have the embarrassing admission that I actually meant Joseph Tainter when I wrote “Diamond”). Yet there is an area of commonality between Greer’s argument and those of Tainter and Kunstler: that our civilization overbuilt infrastructure in the age of cheap oil and other inputs that it cannot afford to maintain now; and that it is responding to crises of Peak Oil and other inputs, fiscal exhaustion, etc., by gradually consuming the seed corn — catabolizing — of previous infrastructure investments. I consider it entirely valid to lump them together in the same way that it’s valid (say) to lump together Keyes, J.A. Hobson and the Monthly Review neo-Marxists as “stagnationist” or “underconsumptionist” theories of late capitalism. And “catabolic collapse” is as good an umbrella term as any.

2. Greer does some conflation of his own. For example, he seems to equate the “demand-pull distribution” I discuss with today’s “just-in-time” corporate supply chains (computerized inventory management, “warehouses on wheels,” etc.). But in fact I see the latter as an attempt to put new wine in old bottles — namely the old bottles of a centralized, large-scale corporate economy. And I see it as totally dependent on artificially cheap, subsidized, large-scale long-distance transportation infrastructure. I have written extensively elsewhere that “just-in-time” supply chains are really not lean at all. They just sweep inventory under the rug, into trucking fleets and container ships. Even some of the more popular writers on lean manufacturing, like John Womack (The Machine That Changed the World) argue that genuine lean manufacturing is incompatible with trans-oceanic supply chains.

H. Thomas Johnson, in his introduction to William Waddell’s and Norman Bodek’s The Rebirth of American Industry, sees local industrial districts as the ideal embodiment of lean manufacturing:

Some people, I am afraid, see lean as a pathway to restoring the large manufacturing giants the United States economy has been famous for in the past half century.

Overlooked in this picture are the unfortunate environmental consequences of building such global production systems. The cheap fossil fuel energy sources that have always supported such production operations cannot be taken for granted any longer. One proposal that has great merit is that of rebuilding our economy around smaller scale, locally-focused organizations that provide just as high a standard living [sic] as people now enjoy, but with far less energy and resource consumption. Helping to create the sustainable local living economy may be the most exciting frontier yet for architects of lean operations.

My own view of the lean/demand-pull model is basically a more thoroughgoing version of Johnson’s. The main influences on my view were not the fashionable management theorists of the ’90s or even Taichi Ohno, but thinkers like Lewis Mumford and Ralph Borsodi. My vision of a demand-pull economy goes back, ultimately, to the Second Industrial Revolution, and to people like Kropotkin who envisioned the integration of small-scale electrical machinery into craft production for local markets. In this vision, lean production and demand-pull distribution are achieved, not through computerized management of long-distance supply chains (fundamentally a contradiction in terms), but from siting production as close as technically feasible to the point of consumption, scaling production to local demand, and scaling individual pieces of machinery to production flow. This would mean production mainly in small job shops either for neighborhood and local community retailers, or perhaps even in for primary social units in the informal economy (extended family compounds, neighboring cohousing and sharing systems, squatter communities, etc.) in many cases.

And such relocalized small shop industrial economies would be considerably more resilient than the corporate JIT model strawman Greer attacks. Its components would be less monocultural and less dependent on long-distance transportation for their integration into a single system, and would instead exist as a diversified local economic system in which most of the components coexisted within a relatively small spatial sphere.

That’s not to say that there would not still be some bottlenecks dependent on larger-scale, capital-intensive production — microprocessors are an obvious example. Rare earth metals are another. But the bottlenecks would be fewer and less immediate. And even here, I expect economic pressure to lead to technological developments that increase slack against such bottlenecks still more, like reusable/repurposable microprocessors and cradle-to-cradle recycling of rare metals. Incidentally, the envisioned ecosystem of production tools at the Open Source Ecology project seriously pushes the boundaries of conventional perception when it comes to localizing former technological bottlenecks like extracting aluminum from clay and the like.

Open-source hardware design principles — e.g. modular design for easy repair and reuse and eliminating planned obsolescence — can also make the technology ecosystem considerably more resilient.

3. I used Fuller’s example of communications satellites because it is the best known. But I have some differences with Fuller’s starting assumptions about ephemeralization. He saw ephemeralization as something that became possible only because it piggybacked on earlier, more capital-intensive, mass-production technologies. On the contrary, I do not see 20th century mass-production as a necessary step on the path toward technological progress. I see it as a long detour. 20th century mass-production capitalism was a diversion from the more ephemeral — and efficient — path of industrialization in local districts that we might have followed if electrical power had been integrated into manufacturing in the most optimal way, instead of being hijacked by paleotechnic institutional interests.

4. Greer makes unwarranted assumptions about how ephemeral high tech fits into my larger view of reducing our ecological footprint and resource consumption in an age of resource scarcity. Walkable communities and an end to the car culture may not be ephemeralization, as such — as Greer points out. But that’s not to say they won’t coexist as part of a larger process, and result in mutual synergies.

I do not by any means see ephemeral high technology as a one trick pony to be promoted in preference to parallel strategies of more traditional Schumacheresque intermediate or appropriate technology. I do not see it as mutually exclusive with shifting a large share of production to underutilized capital assets (sewing machines, home brewing equipment, ovens, and other ordinary low-tech appliances) in the household economy. In fact I was heavily inspired by Borsodi’s treatment of it, and have written extensively about it elsewhere. And I do not, by any means, see it as mutually exclusive with a whole host of things like Permaculture and other forms of soil-intensive horticulture, composting toilets, earthships, passive solar heating and cooling, and the like.

In many cases I see lower tech as the optimum efficiency. For example, there are potentially comparatively efficient alternatives to photovoltaic power for solar electricity generation that are far more anenable to purely local production capabilities and don’t involve rare metals. The obvious example is using passive solar water heating to power a steam generator. And the most labor-efficient form of vegetable production (as it was 80 years ago when Borsodi wrote about it) is probably still human muscle augmented with modern soil science and microbiology in raised beds.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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