Saturday, April 30, 2011

Can we survive our successes?

As advanced technological societies like ours fall apart with the accelerating decline in resource availability, I believe survivability is going to have to be accomplished at the community level, not as a scattering of rugged individualists living on their backwoods homesteads. We are still going to need some separation and specialization of skills and responsibilities and the optimum economies of scale that are afforded by the community that cannot be achieved by one individual. And, of course, from a natural selection point of view, we are going to need a broad, varied and healthy gene pool to avoid the problems of long term interbreeding.

Most importantly, however, if any significant portion of the current level of human population is to survive into the future, we are going to have to rely on agriculture. There simply are not enough resources, or wilderness left for those resources, to support any more than a very small human population well below one billion, probably closer to 100-200 million globally. Without the massive fossil fuel inputs on which modern agriculture critically relies, however, the new labor-intensive agriculture of the future is going to have to be community dependent and community supporting. It is going to have to become a key, even dominant part of the community's way of life.

I believe the appropriate size of community in a post-carbon world will be relatively small, with more than a few hundred but no more than perhaps ten thousand in total. That size allows for a diverse collection of specialized skills, helping to ensure the community's self-sufficiency and self-reliance. But I still see trade between neighboring communities for specialized goods and services (e.g. high education) that there is no justification or benefit in replicating in every community. That size is also still small enough to have and maintain a truly homogeneous sense of community and community spirit, a pulling together for the benefit of all. And yet large enough to allow, even encourage, friendly competition both within and between communities.

The first key to the community's self-sufficiency must be agriculture. The community has to be able to produce all of the food needed to sustain its whole population. This is one of the areas where the efficiencies of scale and specialization must come strongly into play.

Everybody needs potatoes, but not everyone is good at growing potatoes, and not everyone's soil is good for growing potatoes. But somewhere in the broader community is a patch of the ideal soil for growing potatoes and someone who grows potatoes better than anyone else. True community efficiency is achieved by bringing those two elements together, not just for the benefit of the best potato grower but for the benefit of the whole community. Each crop, be it potatoes, corn, pole beans, tomatoes or whatever, has its own specialists who produce enough for the whole community.

The same thing applies to animal husbandry. Someone in the community is probably best at raising chickens and getting optimum egg production and growing the best eating birds. Someone else is good at managing a dairy herd. Someone else is exceptional at raising rabbits, someone else sheep or goats. And someone is best at breeding and raising the all important horses, or even oxen, on which, over time, the community will become so dependent. With specialization optimum community efficiency will result.

That specialization would, of course, carry over into trades. Someone is excellent at making and repairing furniture. Another is an excellent potter. Someone else is a good sheet-metal worker, another a blacksmith, yet another is the best house-builder, or chimney builder, or barn builder or saddle and harness maker. Someone is best at making pants, or shirts, or sweaters, or mitts, or hats, or toques, or shoes, or underwear, or coats.

The key to all of this, however, is how to value the effort that everyone contributes to the welfare of the community. What is someone's time worth? Is the cabinet maker's time more valuable than the farmhand who milks the cows in the dairy? Is the dressmaker more valuable than the milliner? The blacksmith more valuable than the potter? In the truest sense of community the answer on all is; no. Everyone's contribution is of equal value. Were it otherwise then people naturally will want to specialize in those skills that are considered more valuable and the tasks considered to be of less value will always be short-staffed. And it is that artificial valuation of skills, based on their ability to make money for other people, that has been the underpinning of eco-destructive, resource-consuming, profit-driven capitalism. It is what has turned us all into wage slaves.

By now, of course, you are saying to yourself that this all sounds like communism and you will see it as good or bad depending on your gut reaction and view of communism. But that is just a word. We don't look at a herd of elephants and label them communists. Nor a herd of cows, a pack of wolves, a flock of geese, a pride of lions. If I had to put a label on it I would define it as tribalism.

The tribe appears to be the evolutionary ideal structure of human collective. Even within the larger social structures and communities of modern civilization, tribalism still prevails as a homogeneous unit within those larger communities. But too often the traditional tribe is plagued by the problems inherent in inbreeding in a small gene pool. Neo-tribalism would attempt to capitalize, through knowledge we have gained over milennia, on the benefits of the tribal model and community size without the downsides.

Tribalism, essentially, implies broad blood relationships. It is generally focused on the multiple generations of the extended family, strengthened and broadened by marriage between members of separate tribal units. And that blood relationship within the group is the commonality across a wide variety of animal species. It is common not only to humans but to all herding and group-based species, like elephants, lions, wolves, geese, buffalo, gnus, gazelles, lemurs, ants, bees, and many, many more. And it is the basis of a group dynamic that has remained remarkably and unshakably consistent through all of evolutionary history.

We are, after all, gene machines, each and every one of us. Our intellect cannot overcome that. And why would we want to? If it ain't broke, why fix it? Every other method of artificial social organization that we have tried to use as a motivational force to hold a group together has had a beginning, middle and end to its period in human history. Through all of those competing structures the one consistency has always been the tribal unit of the extended family. And as each of those social structures have fails it is the tribal extended family that becomes the glue that holds society together while we search for the next artificial, human-created social unit. When times get tough, it is the extended family that endures and sustains. When a community disintegrates it is not the community which moves out to start over again. It is the extended family.

Our modern societies have allowed, even encouraged us to pursue individualism, to move away from the nuclear family and seek our own individual destiny within the larger social unit of city or nation. And yet when those pursuits fail it is the welcoming bossom of the extended family that we return to. Very often those larger social units see the tribalism of the extended family as a threat, a competitor. They feel they must break up that blood-based unit in order for their own artificial unit to succeed. That has almost become human nature over these past several centuries. We believe that all things natural are to be overcome, defeated, rather than worked within. As a species we are so intent on proving that we are somehow separate and apart from and superior to the natural world that we leave ourselves no choice but to do battle with it.

This has been a very long way of saying that community in the post-carbon world, I believe, is going to have to be tribal in nature, based on the blood relationships of the extended family. It is the only truly enduring form of human collective that will see us through the extremely difficult adjustments that are going to be thrust upon us as the planet's varied energy resources are driven into terminal decline by our species-centric overuse of them. I say species-centric rather than human-centric because it is not just the human population that has exploded with our overuse of fossil fuels. There have been parallel explosions in cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, dogs, cats, a very narrow selection of plants, and selective others at the incredible expense of the other tens of thousands of species with whom we are supposed to be sharing this planet. We have chauvinistically embraced the belief that if it's of no apparent use to humans it has no place in the world and can be eliminated.

Forget the debate. Forget what economists keep saying. Forget the pandering of politicians and the ludicrous reassurances of professional, paid deniers. Take this to the bank. Things are going to get very tough in the balance of your lifetime! And no one will be immune. Not the rich, nor the powerful. Not those with the biggest armies or the fattest bank accounts. They are all critically dependent on the fossil fuel economy we have created over these past couple of centuries. Those fat bank accounts will be meaningless when all of our debt-based, fiat money becomes worthless in a sea of noncollectable debt. Those armies will go nowhere when their fossil-fuel driven machines run out of fuel for the last time. And the food and goods to sustain even the rich will no longer arrive when the heavily fossil-fuel dependent global food and goods distribution industry grinds to a halt for lack of fuel.

This won't happen tomorrow. It may not even be rapid, but if we continue to plan our future in an intentionally entrenched state of denial it may very well be. More likely it will unfold over the course of decades, perhaps even a century or longer. More important, however, is the fact that it has already begun. The stresses created by the early declines in availability of the preferred light, sweet crude oil are already taking their toll globally.

America, fifty years ago, was the prime exporter of oil to the world. It now relies on foreign imports for over seventy percent of its oil, much of it from very politically unstable parts of the world. And an endless stream of wars are being fought in an attempt to ensure continued access to those ever-shrinking reserves. The Gulf of Mexico has been turned into a cesspool by offshore drilling with greater risks being taken daily with drilling in methane-prone deep-water areas. Northern Alberta has been turned into a lifeless and life-threatening moonscape, clearly visible from space, by the tar sands industry. In our quest for feedstock for biofuels we have pushed food prices to the breaking point for over a billion of the planet's poor and starving, while destroying a full quarter of equatorial rain forests to replace them with oil palm plantations. Our pursuit of alternatives, in the form of nuclear energy, have turned vast tracts into radio-active wastelands from Chernobyl to Fukushima to Three Mile Island. And, after over half a century, no one has yet figured out a workable method for the safe long term storage of deadly, highly-radioactive nuclear waste. Saner heads are finally beginning to prevail with nation after nation deciding to decommission its nuclear power plants. Entire mountains in many areas have been scraped away strip mining for coal with several underground coal seam fires have been burning unchecked for decades. Every major river has been dammed up to provide hydro-electricity to offset our diminishing fossil-fuel resources, destroying the habitat for hundreds of unique species. Vast tracts of prime agricultural land and critical fresh water aquifers are being destroyed by fracking in pursuit of natural gas as our oil resources diminish. And there is nowhere left on this planet that has not already been touched and despoiled by our refuse.

Put simply, we are destroying this planet and its life-support capability in the pursuit of the energy resources critically needed to maintain our institutionally-imposed, highly-unsustainable human lifestyle. I believe strongly that the greatest contributor to that unsustainability and eco-destruction is the city, the mega-community that has become so prevalent over the past two centuries. Cities, at least as they exist today, are totally artificial constructs that cannot be readily made self-supporting and self-reliant. They are totally dependent on resources attainable only beyond their limits. To even become self-reliant and self-supporting in terms of food would require a massive restructuring of the urban environment.

The primary justification for the manic growth of cities, particularly in this past century, has been the achievement of economies of scale in the mass production of industrial, commercial and consumer goods. Small workshops and cottage industry simply could not achieve those types of economies. But the goods manufactured in those massive, mechano-efficient factories have not been for the satisfaction of basic needs, not life-supporting. They are targeted at wants, artificial needs often having to be created and maintained with massive advertising campaigns. The purpose is selling product. And the focus is on the producers and their products, not the customers and their needs. We have completely turned the law of supply and demand on its head. The producer needs to sell product and lots of it and we have all been turned into consumers, not users, not purchasers, not customers, but consumers with an assumed and accepted duty and responsibility to continue to be good consumers buying products we do not need. And that is exactly what we are doing, consuming, consuming the planets critical, finite, non-renewable resources for the sake of amassing profits for the producers and their shareholders.

Those cities, especially western cities as they have evolved over the past half century plus, with increasingly separated industrial, business, retail and residential zones, have become totally dependent on the automobile. Take it away and they simply cannot function. And possibly the first real casualty of the decline in oil availability will be the automobile, or at least the private, family automobile. No great loss from a planetary survival perspective. That one item has been responsible for the greatest consumption and misuse of this planet's resources in human history.

The small, agrarian community is the only realistic model for a post carbon society capable of supporting a reasonable percentage of our current, global population. But the vast majority of that population has no life experience of the small community, especially one devoid of the technology on which we have become so fixated and dependent. And the transition to that lifestyle will, for most, be very difficult. But consider the alternatives.

Whether you like it or not, believe it or not, accept it or not, the world, especially the highly urbanized world of cities, is not run by politicians and governments. It is run by global corporations and banks, each with more power than the government of any single nation within whose borders they operate. Probably the greatest social mistake made since the onset of the industrial revolution has been granting these soulless organizations the status of artificial people. Corporations have been granted all of the rights of an individual under the law, without the limitations that make life for real individuals a struggle. And the single most important difference between the corporation and you or I is longevity. We live an average of seventy years or so. A corporation, as they exist today, can go on, in theory, for hundreds or even thousands of years.

This was not always the case. When corporations were first created they were incorporated or set up to bring together the large amounts of capital needed to achieve a specific objective (e.g. the building of bridge, construction of a railway, the digging of a canal, establishment of a plantation in a far-flung corner of the world). They were chartered with a sunset clause, a time and a specific event that would initiate their unwinding. And they were limited to activities consistent with the satisfaction of the terms of their charter. Somehow, that simple, controllable, purpose-driven organization has been allowed to evolve into a cancerous blight that grows out of control destroying or devouring everything around it.

Was it ever possible to imbue the corporation with a soul, a conscience? Perhaps, perhaps not, but it is probably too late now. But, if we do not strip corporations of their unchecked power to gobble up this planets resources in the single-minded pursuit of profits they will collectively complete their assumed job of converting everything available into money, into profits. They will go on as long as there are resources available. They will ultimately destroy the planet, with no compunction, in that pursuit and leave the whole damned thing a barren wasteland just like any of the thousands of other abandoned, toxic factory and industrial sites they have already left behind.

I know I'm being melodramatic, totally impractical, polemic. But nothing else we try to do to save this planet as our home has any chance of working as long as corporations continue to be allowed the rights and powers they now enjoy and so vigorously abuse. We may as well stand before the factory doors, bend over and kiss our collective asses goodbye.

Embleton out!

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