“The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.”
“Increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”
These two quotes from the Roman philosopher Seneca sum up in a nutshell the themes of a talk I gave in Nottingham. The talk was given in late 2018 and it is now 2019. Everywhere I looked signs indicating that there would be a “Happy New Year” were in short supply. The climate news always seems more dramatic with extreme weather events. The stock market is very volatile – as if market players could not decide whether the trend was still upwards or is now downward. International tension between nuclear armed powers is rising, and politicians and military men are acting recklessly.
It is the role of the priests is to predict the future – that includes the economic priests. Their holy rite is to create a forecast for “risk-taking entrepreneurs” to use when making their investment decisions and for governments to use when formulating their policies.
However, part of the grim character of today’s situation is the overwhelming complexity – of ecological, economic, social and political processes. The more complex the more unpredictable. There are many interlinked sources of potential instability that could reverberate around the globe – and stability has been undermined by the fragility of the economic system, the fragility of the political system and the fragility of the ecological system. Instead of the financial and economic system having the resources to withstand shocks it is deeply in debt. More credit creation in response to shocks does not seem desirable or possible – indeed an indebted economy that suffers shocks is in a dangerous state as one bankruptcy can lead to another. Meanwhile, instead of the ecological system being robust it has seen natural capital buffers eroded – for example, while ice sheets in the Arctic are melting the energy from climate change goes into this melting process. Once the ice has gone, without a buffer, the heat will rise more rapidly.
Expediting the inevitable – but what is inevitable?
In the apparently simpler world two hundred years ago, the foreign minister of Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754 – 1838) could opine wisely like a Taoist sage that the “The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence.” It sounds good until you realise that it begs the question of how you can foresee what is inevitable.
Inevitability usually appears with greatest clarity only in retrospect and political conflict always takes the form of contest about what form the future will take. Groups with an agenda try to convince people with a rhetoric that implies inevitability for their aspirations. The neo-liberal worship of the great God “Free ( ie unregulated ) markets”, and an ideological campaign for their quasi-religion waged over several decades which corresponded to the rise of debt and the finance sector, created a temporary mainstream consensus, at least among the chattering classes, of TINA – for “There Is No Alternative”. If there is no alternative to something it is inevitable. That’s the apparent logic even if it is turns out not to be true.
Scenarios of the Future
One way of envisaging the future is to think about it using “scenarios” – alternative visions of the future based on alternative assumptions.
For example, assuming the future as a continuation of current trends and policies – not just business as usual, but increased growth causing depletion of resources and/or pollution. This is the economic growth perspective held by the economic and political mainstream in which technologies brings more people more powerful toys to buy in the shops of a consumer society.
Another scenario is like the above but with some ecologically inspired policies and adaptations made in democratic processes to respond to the ecological crisis.
Another scenario is an accentuation of current trends to inequality in which the depletion of resources are cornered by a tiny elite who are protecting themselves and a privileged lifestyle from the rest of the population by gated communities and walled cities – and heavy security arrangements and imposed order that excludes most people.
Then there is a possible future which is of generalised chaos and ruin – the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse – a generalisation of what is happening in Syria plus uncontrolled diseases – as political and military adventures and oppressive conditions create ideal environments for the proliferation of untreatable diseases.
A scenario based on abrupt climate change has sea level change, drought and flood producing radical declines in food harvests, economic collapse and rapid rises in the death rate.
Finally, there are growing geo-political tensions and nuclear war. One scenario is of the ruling elite blaming foreign powers for the growing problems at home – for example blaming unrest and breakdowns of infrastructure on “Russian interference” to displace unrest and blame away from themselves – while seeking using military strategy abroad to try to secure access to dwindling energy and other resources.
Of course these scenarios are artificially separated by the telling whereas each of them may unfold in different geographical spaces simultaneously and/or at different times.
Whatever happens, it is unwise to make predictions that are highly precise. The current situation is characterised by one thing above all else – uncertainty. This is inevitably so because of the highly interconnected character of the ecological, economic, social and political arrangements, and they are all under strain. It is not just that there are many problems – it is that all these problems are highly interrelated and thus have multiple potential knock on consequences for other parts of the ecological, economic, social and political system. That is why there is also a creeping paralysis of the political system – a swamp in which policy makers get bogged down.
Panarchy – vulnerability through breakdowns in hub interdependencies
A helpful generalisation for understanding the current situation is supplied by group of academics called the “Resilience Alliance” who seek to describe common features in the evolution of human and natural systems. They describe their way of thinking about system change as “Panarchy”. That is “Pan” as in the God of nature but also Pan as in Panorama, the broad view. The other part of the word. “archy” means a system like anarchy or hierarchy.
The thinkers of the resilience alliance describe systems as evolving in 3 dimensions – complexity/interrelatedness; productive capacity and resilience/vulnerability. During a period of development in which the productive capacity of a system develops it becomes more complex – if it is an economy it develops more division of labour, exchange relations and technological features. If it is a governing system it develops more laws, institutions and specialist departmentss. If it is an ecological system if develops more biodiversity. Beyond a certain point however this makes the system vulnerable. It loses its resilience because problems in one part of the system, particularly in hub interpendencies, have multiple knock-on consequences of a serious character.
For example a break down in the banking system can paralyse the system that organises trade and transactions. Trade disruptions – of the sort that Trump is unleashing or what will hit Britain if there is a no deal Brexit are other examples.
Given that a quarter to a third of all the goods on sale in Britain are imported and disruptions to trade and the exchange rate will have a massive knock on impact on everyone in the country. A big increase in the cost or imports of imported food and essentials or their total unavailability will have a massive effect – with millions unable to pay their bills, service their debts, pay their mortgages and rent and feed their families. An economic collapse might ensue.
A breakdown in the power grid would paralyse virtually all functions of society and the grid too is put in doubt by a hard Brexit. To have trading arrangements for the import and export of gas and electric power involves agreeing a set of rules, including dispute procedures – but Britain does not want to be bound by market rules agreed by the EU27, nor does it want settle disputes in the European Court of Justice. That, in turn means a risk is steeper power and gas prices, and less reliable supplies during emergencies.
A paralysis in the political system is also possible – as we are seeing with Brexit. There is a policy gridlock because the variety of entrenched and opposed policy protagonists hold each other in check.
When Complexity becomes too great – Brexit as an example
Another theorist, Joseph Tainter, argues that complex societies collapse because their complexity becomes too great. Too many “wicked problems” or predicaments overwhelm the political system. A predicament is not like a problem that has a solution. As Chris Martenson puts it:
“…solutions only apply when we face a problem – not when we face a predicament. Predicaments do not have “solutions,” they only have outcomes. Teetering near the edge of a cliff is a problem with a solution. Finding yourself in the air after falling off a cliff is a predicament with a range of possible outcomes, but no “solutions.” Problems are generally reversible. Predicaments are not.”
Brexit is an example of multiple unresolvable dilemmas e.g. the Northern Irish border problem. If there is a border it is likely to re-ignite the political conflicts that occurred during “The Troubles”. If there is no border when Britain leaves the customs union and common market how are the trade arrangements between a country no longer in the EU and one inside it to be managed? The wrangling about “the backstop” – maintaining Britain so that it is in harmony with European trade arrangements so there does not have to be a hard border – is simply an unresolvable dilemma to split up politicians and public.
Sometimes there really are no solutions. It is utterly complacent to believe that there are always solutions for problems. It is often easier to resolve problems during a period of growth when resources for solutions are plentiful and compromise can be afforded. In times of contraction this is not the case. Apparent “solutions” are then purchased at the expense of others – whose interests are invalidated by demonising and scapegoating them or by dishonest PR strategies spread in the corporate media and bought politicians that only argue one side of the picture.
Too big to fail – too important to jail – elite criminality
In this context hoping that “policy” and “policy makers” in government will rescue a floundering populace is likely to disappoint. Instead politicians are pre-occupied by rescuing “too big to fail” institutions – run by managers who are too important to jail. They are trapped – needing to rescue the very people whose recklessness appears to be a major source of the difficulties. The term economists give for this is “moral hazard”.
Situations of moral hazard are compromising and deeply unpopular. The impression that the people who created the mess get away unscathed while everyone else loses leads to a collapse in the moral authority of government itself – and generates a “criminogenic environment” as managers get a sense of their impunity. In order to create that impunity what often happens is that white collar criminals deliberately create complexity to hide their dishonesty – elite fraud and endemic corruption. Worse still lobbyists write the rules – as happened in the UK in regard to the regulation of fracking. At a further stage along the path the rules are unenforced – people are appointed who ensure a de-supervision process. The only people against whom the law and regulation is enforced are the people who protest. Meanwhile inequality accelerates because those at the top are rescued whatever they do – while those at the bottom are left to eat the losses – paying for the rescues.
This problem of elite criminality is particularly a problem in London which the financial authorities have made a centre for tax evasion and the evasion of financial regulation – in conjunction with a network of overseas tax havens like the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and, further afield, remnants of the British Empire. London is also the bolt hole for a variety of oligarchs and mafias – who use the purchase of property in London as a “wealth preservation” and money laundering opportunity. This bids up the cost of living and makes London unaffordable for ordinary people – while corrupting the British political elite .
In this context to expect policy makers in central governments to rescue ordinary people is naive. They are there to rescue the system of which they and their friends are the beneficiaries. Indeed in recent years there has been a culture change in the UK and the US in which there is not only de-regulation but de-supervision – a largely invisible process in which the rules are not enforced and the people put in charge of supervisory agencies think it is OK to use public office to enrich themselves and to protect their cronies from prosecution. With people like this in charge we cannot expect that the people who have refused to acknowledge climate change in 30 years – and have obstructed awareness of problems where action would be to their detriment.
Disaster capitalism – profits earned by producing “bads” rather than “goods”
Worse still, they seek to profit from the growing chaos and have a vested interest in even worse problems – producing “bads” rather than goods – armaments, security technologies and services, prisons and arrangements to use prison labour, drugs (legal and illegal), merchants of spin and misleading propoganda, loan sharking and use of odious debt to enslave desperate people.
The policies that are needed would focus on security and safety for ordinary people and their success would be measured in the winding down of these “disaster capitalist” business sectors, in the need of their managers and workers to retrain for socially and environmentally useful and benign forms of production. As it is however we can expect any government coming to power with a serious agenda for social and environmental change to be hit by a barrage of dirty tricks, media disinformation and smears as a criminal elite uses its well connectedness and resources in the mass media to defend itself. We have already seen that in abundance in the smear campaigns about the possibility that a government led by Jeremy Corbyn could be elected in Britain. The organisation to prevent electoral victory by a Left Labour Government includes covert activity by military intelligence via shadowy organisations like the “Integrity Initiative” who work behind the scenes to whip up a bogeyman hysteria against foreign powers like Russia to distract from domestic issues and failings.
Granfalloons – and escaping from old ideas
Being distracted from its goals is not the only thing a government focused on environmental and social justice would have to worry about. Getting the policies right is not as straightforward as one might think because of the proliferation of vested interest coalitions that seek to capture the policy making process to further their own businesses. Their own preferred solutions for a variety of problems are heavily influenced by specialist viewpoints – but from industries and professions that have become outdated by the onward march of the ecological and economic crisis. Unfortunately the actors in those industries and professions have not noticed it yet – and neither have the regulatory departments and politicians who are used to working with them.
Thus it was easy for the senior business leaders like Lord Browne and Baroness Hogg from the oil and gas industry to capture the policy making process to promote fracking – arguing that gas would be “low carbon” and an onshore solution in the UK to offshore depletion. Likewise farming lobbies in the EU and the US have got themseles subsidies to produce biofuels – despite the fact that, on a large scale, they consume almost as much energy in the growing and production as they yield in gross terms – with little or no net energy to show for using large areas. Wind and solar too yield little net energy. However you look the variety of “new energy technologies” are expensive in the commercial sense and expensive in their negative environmental, social and health impacts.
John Maynard Keynes expressed this when he said “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones” . The idea that there is a techno-fix for all problems dies hard. For over 200 years the application of more energy derived mostly from fossil fuels to more sophisticated machines and infrastructures has produced solutions to problems and greater capacities to do things. It has become a default assumption shared by almost everyone that where there is a problem there is a technological fix for it – including the problems caused by the energy system itself.
This shared default assumption is wrong and because it is wrong the viable future will often appear back to front or upside down to mainstream thinkers – for example degrowth rather than growth, ways to achieve the same welfare with less energy by sharing rather than competing with ones neighbours and profiling oneself by ones consumption choices.
Not high technology but appropriate technology
Although technological fixes as panaceas are not going to be available it will be necessary to adopt technologies adapted to the changing times. These technologies will not be “high tech” for the simple reason that high tech is itself often energy and carbon intensive to develop and usually requires other resources in an abundance that will not be available or affordable – like fresh water or rare metals. Since it is unlikely that technologists will solve the problem of energy storage at a scale sufficient to balance large scale grids at an affordable cost it seems likely that a non carbon electricity supply will be an intermittent one. A future of power cuts is not at all unlikely. Accordingly we need intermittent tolerant technologies – an idea proposed and then developed, for example, by the website of the Low Tech Magazine which goes offline where there is not enough solar generated energy to power it.
Other techniques for coping will involve re-discovering techniques previously used in history that disappeared when energy intensive teechnologies replaced them. As the Low Technology Magazine shows there are multiple examples. Walls to grow fruit against absorbed solar energy and gave it off at night creating a micro-climate in northern latitudes. Glass against such walls then improved the energy efficiency of the arrangement. A later variation took away the wall to create greenhouses or polytunnels which however, now needed heating at night. There is much to re-discover and respond to with design appropriate to each unique place. This precludes blanket solutions decreed at national or international level made in a deal between a politician and a multi-national company and requires tens of thousands or millions of designs to match each place – an intrinsically democratic kind of regeneration that big politics cannot order from above – although it can destroy from above.
Not much can be expected from central government but local government might help
For some time to come yet it is the inability of politicians (and most others ) to break away from their fixations and slow to erode assumptions that will render their policies futile at best – or governments will makes things a lot worse.
For those who are able to see the real root of the problems in the limits to economic growth the conclusion to be drawn is that innovative solutions must be developed with ones fellow thinkers. At best a few local authorities might understand ideas that seem relevant to their social and leisure services, community, education, health and well being agendas.
Ethical choices – an economy with an ethic of community safety rather than growth
The central issue here is one of ethics. Economics was originally a branch of moral philosophy because economic choices are ethical choices. Adam Smith’s and Mandeville’s rather trivial insight that people supplying goods to markets that other people wanted were pursuing their own self interest has been built upon to the point that economists appear to believe that no act of self interest needs to be challenged – an ideological licence for an economic system dominated by psychopaths and gangsters – the military industrial security and media complex that conceals its agendas through secrecy jurisdictions and a huge PR industry and produces “bads” far more than it creates “goods”. Economics as a branch of moral philosophy has been thoroughly corrupted.
Counterposed to this intellectually bankrupt ethic of “greed is good” we need a society based on fundamentals expressed succinctly by permaculturists as Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share.
Such a counterposed ethic is not merely a prescriptiopn for the actions of indviduals – it needs to be embedded and embodied in organisational and institutional structures and their policies and actions. In a period of economic contraction people care and earth care is primarily prudential. Whereas capitalist entrepreneurs are generally concerned to grow as quickly as possible to become as big as possible – to maximise short term gains which are siphoned off by a privileged elite – these principles are turned on their head on the way down. The priority is not reckless growth which, as ecological problems and resource depletion occurs cannot be sustained, but long term safety for communities of people and communities of species (eco-systems). This includes a place for the most vulnerable people and species on the principle that economic arrangements are there ultimately to serve the needs of communities – not the other way round.
When safety and community security are counterposed to growth many common features of psychopathic economics must be turned on their head. Among other things individuals, communities and companies hold more stocks and stores to buffer times of shortage and disruption which become more frequent.
Revival of share management of shared resources – the commons
It is one of the unethical features of contemporary economics that so called “external” risks are imposed on communities while at the same time being covered up, downplayed or denied by the dishonest PR strategies of the companies responsible – while at the same time compromised regulatory agencies which are supposed to protect the environment and public health are too poorly resourced and weakened by politicians beholden to the well connected and wealthy business interests concerned. An example is the public health and pollution risks of fracking. This is a case where organisations dealing with common resources – like the atmosphere, water and land/soils need to be managed for the common good with all stakeholders, including workers, adjacent communities and future generations – as well as other species represented in some way in the strategic management arrangements.
What we are talking about here is the revival of shared management of common resources. The research of the late Elinor Ostrom shows this not to be an anachronistic or exotic policy but something that is eminently practical. What Professor Ostrom showed is that communities all over the world find ways of managing water, fisheries, pastures, forests and other landscapes as commons – and do so in institutions that can survive hundreds of years. The rules that people created and used over centuries protected the shared resource for future generations in recognition of what could be harvested and shared without degrading the eco-system. Her research also indicated that the commons arrangements were usually superior to anything organised by the state or by privatisation. The idea of commons management does not fit at all with a growth economy perspective because the whole point of a commons is to manage it in such a way as not to over-use it, setting limits on production and then sharing what can be harvested sustainably.
Co-operatives – why their ethical principles can help produce stability in difficult times
Co-operatives in various forms (production, retail, housing, credit ) are another organisational form in which ethics are embodied and embedded. The co-operative principles, shared by all co-ops, are not about virtue signalling so much as principles that confer a greater resilience – which matches the priority for safety and security in difficult times. Although there are no panaceas and co-ops can fail too it is also true that co-ops have a track record of longevity and survival that is superior in many cases to private companies that is vital in times of contraction and turmoil.
The co-operative principles all add strength to where, in the case of private companies, one often finds weakness. There is an explicit concern for community recognising that the co-op has wider ethical obligations and its neighbours are not there to be dumped on or polluted. There is co-operation with other co-operatives – which entails practical and ideological support. For co-operative management to be genuinely shared and participative co-ops have recognised and provided appropriate education, training and information. This is important so that co-ops can act independently and autonomously, with democratic member control and economic participation by a voluntary and open membership.
A particularly important reason for the stability of co-ops is that because of democracy and more checks and balances in the management systems they are not so vulnerable to control fraud – which happens in large private corporations where managers run the company in their own short term interest, for example recklessly growing a company without regard to risks in order to earn bonuses.
The fact that co-ops take a wider view of who the stakeholders are mean that they pay greater attention to and care about “externalities” – recognising adjacent communities and others as having rights. This is, in turn, recognised and pays off in greater stakeholder loyalty which helps co-ops through difficult times.
The systems of financial administration and distribution also tend to be stabilising influences. Co-ops cannot be taken over without demutualisation. Further to this co-ops usually fund their operations by internally accumulated finance because the capital markets are not open to them in the same way and are thus less susceptible to debt arrangements which are crippling in periods of contraction. Indivisible reserves must be used for comparable purposes if a co-op is wound up. This makes them difficult to asset strip.
“Disaster collectivism” – a counterposition to disaster capitalism
These are examples of long term organisation appropriate to difficult times. Difficult times are characterised by crises events of various kinds – extreme weather events, infrastructure breakdowns, financial crashes, public health crises, military action, refugee flows. The response of a psychopathic ruling elite is to use these crises to pursue their own agenda while people are disorientated and distressed – the shock doctrine approach of disaster capitalism. However disaster capitalism can be, and has been turned on its head for responses of “disaster collectivism”.
An example is “Occupy Sandy”, a grassroots relief effort that came about when Hurricane Sandy hit New York in October 2012. This arose from the networks and strategies of Occupy Wall Street which were re-applied to empowering poor and working class communities based on mutual aid rather than charity. With nearly 60,000 volunteers at its height, its own Amazon relief registry, legal team, medical team, prescription drug deliveries and meal deliveries every day, it was able to make a significant impact in the days and weeks following the disaster.
Collective responses like this to disasters can be the basis for launching longer lasting projects that go way beyond disaster belief. For example Occupy Sandy inspired some of the people involved to help organise a worker co-operative incubator programme that has helped launch 4 worker co-operatives in New York City.
The kinds of responses to the on-coming crisis can be either oppositional or pro-active. The anti-fracking movement is an example where a movement of opposition is needed because, as already explained, the responses of the mainstream are increasingly destructive. The negative impacts, the harms and the risks of harm are so much greater than any possible benefits as to necessitate opposition – otherwise pro-active responses will no longer be possible. For example a fracking-related industrialisation of the countryside can poison landscapes, soils, water and public health in a lasting way that cuts off the possibility of regeneration through organic agriculture.
Projects like the Environmental Justice Atlas show that around the world there are now very many environmental conflicts involving poor people. In the global north the environmental justice movement tends to involve people who have had had environmentally toxic waste dumps or polluting industries located close to where they live – as well as landscapes scarred and poisoned by fracking, pipelines and oil sands development. In the global south there is what has been called an “Environmentalism of the poor”. This often involves indigenous peoples defending the lands with which they identify and to which they feel that they belong – including their sacred places.
Zones for Intervention
The permaculture concept of zones helps us to think about and categorise the different kinds of tasks in responding to the growing tide of problems. In the permaculture scheme the zones are considered as habitats for people, plants and animals and activities in relation to them.
- Zone Zero Zero is about individual people – and inside them – their emotional and cognitive make up and their knowledge skills and emotional resilience to cope with challenges.
- Zone Zero is where they live – their house or flat aor other dwelling and settlement
- Zone One is the immediate environment around or adjacent to the dwelling needing most frequent observation and activity.
- Zone Two is less intensively managed and observed areas
- Zone three is occasionally visited areas that still form a part of the system
- Zone Four is for wild food gathering and collection of fuel from wild areas
- Zone Five are unmanaged wild areas.
The focus as described puts the individuals, their emotional and care relationships and their households at its heart. A collapse has started when homelessness, mental health problems and addictions start to rise – it is a measure of collapse. This is not at all the current way of thinking in mainstream economics and politics in which households and individuals are supposed to subordinate their arrangements to an obligation to get employment and give that employment priority in their day to day life arrangements. The seriousness of current crises is expressed however in an increasing number of homeless people suffering from mental health crises and drug addiction. The problems are of non viable arrangements for Zone Zero Zero, Zone Zero and Zone One.
One approach to this has been put by permaculture theorists like David Holgrem who sees the suburbs as having the gardens and the houses that could be re-designed and renovated through ecological design principles into mini permaculture zones. This is fine as far as it goes but it is a very middle class vision for dealing with the crisis. It does not provide answers for the billions of people whose living accomodation are tiny, who have no garden or who are homeless and dislocated.
Reviving economics as an approach to household management
Economics was originally about household management – but for millions of people this is breaking down leaving them sleeping in tents, under bridges and having recourse to a variety of legal and illegal drugs. The recreation of a genuine social security and health system is fundamental otherwise the ideal conditions will be created for the spread of diseases and new types of illnesses for which there are no cures, often because they have developed resistance to medication. In addition where large scale migration flows take place collapse has taken place – again this is a measure of a collapse – even if this happens somewhere else from where “we” live, it is a collapse of part of the world system. Making arrangements to cope with and live through collapse also means making arrangements and living through mass migrations of desperate people. Thought of in this way collapse is already underway.
Periods of turmoil and collapse are not new in history and every society has people whose lives are in turmoil and must make arrangements for them. Similar arrangements are also provided for people who are in need of temporary accomodation or who want to join a community dedicated to some common purpose – perhaps of a religious character. Almost always these arrangements are what I term a big house of some kind – or a cluster of small dwellings associated with shared facilities like kitchens, dining space and other facilities like washing and other utlities – plus shared outdoor places like gardens. There is an adequate intimacy gradient where people can retire to their own private space, a room of their own, but share with others as they wish. This is the model of co-housing.
Stabilising the lives of dislocated people
Consider the monasteries in which each monk or nun has their own small room or cell but shared cooking, eating and household duties and a daily routine. Such monasteries might also provide refuge and care of the sick and old. Its shared routine, necessary to the non chaotic management of large communities creates a mental routine to stabilise people whose dislocated lives had been of chaos and insecurity. It could be the centre of a variety of economic activities – a farm and/or brewing for example. Monasteries and nunneries also became centres that preserved books as well as becoming centres of knowledge and learning. Over time monasteries and nunneries often became wealthy institutions.
The point is that it is possible to make collective arrangements to absorb dislocated people, give them a place in a community and allow them to participate in meaningful activity. However, unfortunately not all “big house” communities are so benign. In a highly unequal society people with nowhere else to go can be absorbed also into domestic service. Large numbers in the past were sent to the workhouse and to insane asylums, to old peoples homes, or nowadays to prisons. If they were younger a proportion would be transported – dumped on another continent in some colonial venture.
In each case what you get is the build up of a vested interest that has a motive to protect and expand their employment, building programmes and a way of looking at their “client population” that is devaluing and degrading in a way that consolidates a mind set of exclusion-related recidivism amongst those unlucky enough to be in the “client group”. In fact this is a way of making a disaster of the transition – creating one of the worse possible outcomes.
Places of asylum – but asylum that does not devalue and degrade – that provides a new start
For a successful transition millions of people whose lives break down will need places of asylum: places that do not devalue them for the failings of the elite to understand and manage what will be an inevitable contraction, but, instead, provide retraining and new directions through learning skills for cultivation, for building with sustainable materials, understanding the intermediate technologies that will replace high tech, for caring in the world without technological medicine, understanding ecological design principles and so on. Just as the monasteries were places where dislocated people found security and became centres of development that helped usher in medieval times and then the Renaissance, so we need different kinds of institution for people to move through and help to create the skills for a localised, ecologically designed new type of economy.
To get a sense of the kind of place that would be helpful I think of somewhere like Schumacher College near Totnes in the UK. Its small permanent staff ensure that its activities not only educate a wide range of people about ecological transition but also integrate the college in the local economy, including local agriculture. At the same time students move through for short courses and are expected to participate in domestic tasks while they are there – cleaning, cooking, gardening. New organisations could be set up with similar features to help settle dislocated people and help them find new directions, skills and a valued social role.
Just as the monasteries were voluntary associations and not set up by the state the development of such institutions is probably best done by voluntary effort and not by government. At certain times it is possible to see officials who are trusted develop genuine innovation motivated by an ethic of public service – however the epoch which we have just been through has degraded that. The complexity of large bureaucracies has been degraded into low trust and high stress institutions supposedly motivated by performance targets and meaningless form filling and numbers. This culture of watching your back is the very worst as a starting point for real new beginnings. Thus when government develops institutions the means and ends that underpin the operation often get corrupted and turned around the wrong way. The supposed aims become PR to justify employment stability for cynical placeholders who have no real interest in the job that they are doing. In these circumstances new beginnings will often be best done outside the organisations of the state.
Reorganising the domestic and local economy around sharing
The point about groups of people sharing domestic and household arrangements and space is that it is a more economical use of resources and one response to the declining resource availability of contraction. It is unnecessary that everyone has their own laundry facilities, cooking, food store and transport. There is greater security in being part of a larger community too.
This principle of sharing facilities can be extended to neighbourhood and larger areas. A well managed contraction would share, repair and re-purpose many already existing infrastructures and resources.
Sharing as in the library principle can be extended to other kinds of resources than just books – DIY resource centres for machines and tools, equipped workshop space and domestic appliances, repair cafes are examples.
Shared transport – including public transport infrastructures. Shared cultivation space as in community gardens and community supported agriculture. This would involve re-thinking and adapting community educational, training and community leisure provision at a local level – particularly as what are needed are not just tools but instructions in how to use them.
In summary this is a project to re-organise the domestic and neighbourhood economy at a local level. It would also involve arrangements to share child care arrangements and support for the elderly and sick in a way that enables them to participate as far as possible in socially dignified and respected ways.
With the economy contracting there will be a lot to do. Instead of, as at present, persecuting unemployed people for not finding employed work, it will be important to support and encourage people to get active making the adaptations to their homes, neighbourboods and lifestyles.
Given the uncertainty and confused babble arising from media and mainstream politicians, no one can tell the future. The very last thing that we need is a new set of panaceas promising a comprehensive programme to resolve all wrongs. The future looks grim – and while there are things that can be done it does not look as if much can be expected from those in positions of government power or from the media – except misrepresentations, misinterpretations and policies that make the situation worse. This may lead, at worst, to comprehensive economic collapse and perhaps nuclear war. However, short of that, one may be able to still live meaningfully and ethically at the small scale and local level, for now at least.
Perhaps in the years and decades to come the meaning of what is happening will dawn on those whose world is collapsing and conditions will mature sufficiently for sweeping political changes. In the meantime permacultural designs of local cultivation space and residential areas, ways to create soils, grow trees that absorb carbon, re-discover new forms of living and organising may become possible providing an example to those who have otherwise lost just about everything and who are seeking to find a way to start again…..
2nd draft 11th February 2019
1. Nicholas Shaxon: The Finance Curse. How Global Finance is Making Us All Poorer Bodley Head 2018 and Moneyland: how the super-rich looted their own countries to create an elite global haven
2. See chapters 18 and 19 of my book “Credo” which are now available for free download from http://www.credoeconomics.com/chapter-18-concepts-for-a-fenced-off-world/ and http://www.credoeconomics.com/chapter-19-commoning/.
Teaser photo credit: By Rvongher – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0